The new horror

October 25, 2009

Over the years, there have been many video games that fit under the category of “horror.” Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact start of the survival horror genre, there are a few key games we have to thank for its success over the years. Despite the evolution the genre has gone through, we can still appreciate where it has come from, and what the future brings us for this ever-changing game genre.

Horror games have a way of scaring people unlike any other medium, as the medium involves an interactive element you do not get anywhere else. You are inside of this world, you are this character, and you must do what it takes to survive. Many games have captured this sense of fear; some use cheap scares, while others rely on psychological horror. Either way, while the genre is much different now, the basics are still the same: the player wants to be scared.

Many consider Alone in the Dark to be the first real horror game, or at least the first one to gain popularity. It followed a basic formula: a character is investigating or is trapped in a strange place, and they must survive or escape as they are being pursued by plenty of strange creatures. While it has not aged well, the game was a true horror hit back when it was first released, evoking a sense of fear you rarely get from playing a game at the time. It was from here that many developed began to develop more of these kinds of games, including a Japanese company we all are familiar with.

BioHazard, or Resident Evil as it is known in the States, was the first real horror franchise to gain a following and become one of the most successful video game franchises to date. The original, released on the PlayStation back in 1996, did not give the player as much control over the character or the camera as they would have liked. The characters controlled awkwardly, and the camera was fixed and would change angles when you would least expect it. This was done to create a true sense of terror, and it has been used in many horror games since.

Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, two other Japanese horror franchises, use some of the same basics as Resident Evil in terms of controls, but they go for an entirely different kind of horror. While Resident Evil relies on cheap scare tactics, those two franchises tend to focus more on the psychological aspect of horror. Silent Hill is especially well-known for this, giving us a foggy, abandoned town to explore, and a lead character that always has some kind of psychological issue they are dealing with. The monsters you see are meant to reflect on what the character is thinking or going through, as if they are figments of the character’s own imagination. They were meant to inspire fear, not simply “scare” you by the most rudimentary means, and they succeeded at doing so.

These games all are considered “old-school” survival-horror titles, since the genre has evolved much since then. It was not until Resident Evil 4 where the series, and the entire genre itself, was changed forever. This game completely disregarded almost everything about the previous entries in the main series and made it less about scares and more about intense fights and action sequences. The controls remained the same, but with a new over-the-shoulder camera perspective and much smarter (and faster) enemies, RE4 marked the beginning of a new era.

Since then, we’ve seen a few horror games that have continued to stick with the more traditional or old school formula, but the popularity of the genre rests with the new fast-paced, action style. Games like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space continue to prove that horror can be successful, but like any other genre, changes are necessary to maintain the growth and popularity of it.