The Terrifying Evolution of Horror Games

The Terrifying Evolution of Horror Games

And how it's only getting worse.

LizardRock by LizardRock on Apr 30, 2018 @ 09:02 PM (Staff Bios)
It's 2:43 AM, Tuesday morning. You were woken up to have a look at a drug-fueled murder in a part of the city you'd rather not be caught in when it's dark. You're a criminal investigator with nothing else going on in your life, so you agree to the call in. You open the door to the victim's bedroom, only to be greeted by a figure. Rotten and disfigured, the treacherous image of a woman floating in the air stares at you with wide, observing eyes. In the half-second it takes to process what you just saw, the door slams shut in front of you. After a frightened shout, you open the door again, only to discover that there's nothing there.

This small written snippet is mildly spooky at best. Had it been a mini-movie, it'd be a touch more startling. Had it been a video game, it might even be called scary. But what if it could be even more terrifying? As video games continue to develop and advance technologically, new levels of horror will open up to us. And in a way, that new level is already here.


Where did horror games start? If you wanted the "first" horror game, you might be led to Haunted House, the 1972 game on the Magnavox Odyssey. This two-player chase game had a detective running around a haunted house setting, collecting card and avoiding ghosts. If you couldn't tell by the screenshot, a great deal is left to the player's imagination, visually speaking. You even had a physical overlay you applied to your TV to improve the "graphics." Even so, the idea of a spooky specter chasing you about can be frightening, even within such graphical limitations.

As years passed, and technology was able to generate 3D models and recorded audio, the true genre of "horror" was born. Games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil had taken off, and they were quickly making a name for themselves for being a frightening experience. Digital renditions of classic stories, such as the Call of Cthulhu, were being developed expeditiously. But the game genre was young, and still variants of the RPG or action-adventure game.


There's security to find in games full of items and weapons. Frictional games realized this when they developed the 2010 horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In this game, you had no gun, no armor, no means of defending yourself. When the big bad monster came for you, your only option was to run away and hide, hoping they would never find you. This newfound level of helplessness would exponentially amplify the fear one would feel when playing. Combine this with monsters that you're actively punished for actually looking at, which plays on the fear of the unknown, and you'd have a best-of-all-time horror game. Similar games would appear in the coming years, such as Outlast and SOMA.

So where can we go from here? We've reached the point that graphical quality is often indistinguishable from modern movies, or even real life. The only way it could be any more frightening, is if you were actually there. So that's where it went.


I'm talking about virtual reality (VR). This technology has opened up the doors for a more immersive gameplay experience, which means horror is even more horrible. The previously thought mundane are given new life, and the already spectacular are downright overwhelming.

The video below is the first example of this magnification. Here we see a woman playing an arcade shooter game called The Brookhaven Experiment. The goal of this game is simple, shoot the zombie-esque monsters that slowly approach you from all directions. From an outsiders perspective, this seems like a relatively simple game. I've seen more in-depth games on Newgrounds back in 2008. And yet, the woman playing is absolutely terrified. By the end of the first wave, her hands were shaking so visibly, that it could be seen in-game. Because no longer is she looking at a screen, pressing A to shoot. She was standing there, seeing the monsters with her own eyes, or at least that's how it seemed to her.

Of course, this was the workings of a small studio making a simple game. It doesn't compare to the efforts of a large, well-funded AAA studio. In this case, I'm referring to Capcom and their 2017 title, Resident Evil 7. While the Resident Evil games fell in the direction of action adventure more than horror towards the later iteration, Resident Evil 7 push the series back to more of the horror theming it had originated with. At the time, the PlayStation VR was fairly fresh and the new game would be getting a new engine to run it. It was the perfect opportunity to add full VR support. In doing so, they managed to create arguably the best VR title of all time. At least, for now.

Capcom wasn't the only one to jump onto the virtual reality wagon. Supermassive games, the developers of the critically acclaimed PS4 title Until Dawn, developed their own spin-off game exclusively for VR called Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. The studio stated that virtual reality was the ideal medium for what they wanted to create. Granted, the game at its core is an arcade rail shooter. They still managed to create both an incredibly fun, and downright terrifying, experience. Had this game been a regular console game, the impact would have been drastically diminished. Below is another video, this time of an elderly woman playing Rush of Blood, during an intentionally scary moment.

I wouldn't normally recommend that someone read the comment section of a YouTube video, but there was something to glean from that one in particular. Nearly every comment was something to the nature of "this game is going to give that woman a heart attack." While many are presumably in jest, others feel it is a more legitimate concern. Could a game become so scary that it legitimately frightens someone to death? What about the elderly, who often have weaker bodies, hearts included? Content creator Lyle Rath spoke about his thoughts on this in an episode of a Resident Evil 2 let's play by OneyPlays, where he was a guest.

"Ya know, with fuckin' VR, I honestly think that they might end up legislating that. Because it's only a matter of time before someone makes like a really fuckin' scary game in VR and it actually kills someone."

The government has only intervened with a game with it is of a questionable morality. When Night Trap released in 1992, it sparked newfound regulations that would lead to the creation of the ESRB. Mortal Kombat was a hot topic when it came to acts of violence. Grand Theft Auto was another under the legality scope for its use of drugs, violence, and prostitution. Being scared by something isn't a test of morals. So far, scary games haven't needed any sense of legislation, outside of when it pertains to the previously mentioned issues. Should this change, it is because VR makes a game that much different.

Virtual reality is a different medium than what we've grown accustomed to. Now that technology is beginning to catch up with the idea, we're seeing what it can be capable of. Even so, many suspect that we haven't seen the worst of it yet. And that when we do, it will be so severe to merit government interference. The horror genre is evolving, are we ready for it?


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