The History & Evolution of Console Horror Video Games


whoever could handle THIS in 1978 was a hero in my book!

First and foremost, I'd like to get one important disclaimer out of the way: horror is subjective. What scares one person may not even cause another to bat an eyelash. Whether your most terrifying scenario is finding yourself trapped in a wax museum or swimming in the middle of the ocean, it doesn't matter if it seems real to anyone else, because it sure as hell means something to us in the moment!

In 1978, the movie Halloween was released after being shot on a limited budget and a shotgunned script that was written in only 10 days. Trumping any doubts that may have been present, John Carpenter's tale of undying evil went forth into the pop culture lexicon as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. And its success wasn't achieved through buckets of blood and a waxed Burt Reynolds starring as Laurie Strode, but rather the prospect of what could happen and what couldn't be seen until it was way too late.

Sorry, Dr. Loomis, but the show MUST go on!

Through the clever use of shading, ambient music and even the clothes off his casts' backs, John Carpenter created an environment that people could easily relate to and get absolutely terrified in!

Now, take that same level of horrifying magnetism and put it into a video game, where every mistake you make is yours and yours alone, while the killer silently stalks in the shadows....sounds terrifying, huh?

Since the birth of home video game consoles, some beautifully twisted developers tried to find a way to pull as many scares out of the player as they could within the confines of the target console. Though many of these earlier titles may seem laughable now, we all had to start somewhere and many of them served as important stepping stones in the evolution of the video game horror genre.

Take for example...

Haunted House (1982)

Sure, there there may have been another Haunted House released 10 years earlier for the Magnavox Odyssey, but it was Atari's Haunted House in 1982 that truly got the human head-shaped ball rolling. Designed by James Andreason, the player (represented by a pair of disembodied eyes, no joke) is tasked with finding the scattered pieces of an urn in a dark, creepy mansion.

All your character has at their disposal are some matches, which predictably don't stay lit forever, and did I mention the various baddies scattered throughout the level? A bat, a spider and a ghost all want a piece of your disembodied ass, and even if you do manage to get the urn put together, you still have to find your way out.

Lauded as one of the earliest entries into the survival horror genre, Haunted House was successfully able to convey terror through the use of flashing, poor lighting, and sound. In fact, being trapped in a spooky mansion with little to no resources wasn't exactly unheard of in other parts of the world, such as...

Sweet Home (1989)

Ah, 1989...While North American NES owners were being treated(?) to Friday the 13th, Japanese players were given something much more engaging: Haunted House by Capcom.

Directed by the same guy who designed Ghosts 'n Goblins, Sweet Home takes your party on a top-down, labyrinthine RPG adventure, where one false move can spell perma-death for any of the game's five characters. That's right: once they're dead, they're dead.

Throw in a few darkened passages, some early Metroidvania-style item finding/progression as well as some moody music, and you have a game that would easily scare the socks off of anyone unfortunate(again, ?) enough to play it. 

Sweet Home also utilized many RPG elements seen today, such as random encounters, in-game items and special skills.  Further, it also set the tone for later survival horror franchises, notably Resident Evil, with its character development, multiple endings and use of jumpscares.

So what happens when developers decide to start forgoing traditional control schemes for something like point-and-click? Surely something like that wouldn't work in an enclosed area with real-time threats randomly barreling at you from any direction, right? Well...

Clock Tower (1995)

Developed and published by Human Entertainment, this Japan-exclusive title took it to the next level when it introduced a point-and-click control scheme.

The main protagonist, Jennifer Simpson, finds herself trapped in a mysterious mansion (yeah, "trope"...I know), and her friends slowly being picked off one by one by a murderous child wielding a pair of gigantic scissors. 

Of course, item finding is required in order to escape the mysterious Scissorman, but what makes Clock Tower unique is its distinct lack of music, for the most part. Only the sounds of the player's terrified footsteps meet the player's ears, that is until either Scissorman decides to make an appearance or a mirror decides to sprout hands and attempt to strangle the life out of you!

Multiple endings? Check. Murderous devil spawn? Check? Instilling a sense of dread regarding every decision or turn taken? Check. Is it just me, or are many of these traits still appearing today?

Why These Games are Significant

Even though I happen to be a huge fan of early survival horror games such as these, I can understand why someone who didn't grow up during their heyday wouldn't appreciate them the same way I do. In fact, I can admit that some of their features and delivery didn't age well, like Scissorman's now whimsical chase theme and its sequel's blocky polygons and cheesy voiceovers.

However, if it weren't for these games, would we have digital masterpieces like the moody, backtrack-heavy Amnesia: Dark Descent, or the atmospheric Bloodborne as we know them? Yeah, the evolution may be downright predictable at times, but in the end, it's how the scares are delivered that allowed horror games to endure and improve.

Indeed, these and others like them set the precedent for what factors resonate with horror fans and over time, developers began to grow along with technology and fine-tune the perfect atmosphere that'll take the player to the very edges of their sanity.

Now imagine playing that on an Oculus Rift. I'll give you a moment now to change your soiled drawers. My only question: where will it go from here?