The first real horror game I ever played was Silent Hill 2. I was just starting to really get into video games and I had recently purchased an Xbox. I enjoyed horror literature and movies so I was looking for something special to get my fright on with my new console. All the game had to do was entice me with its cover art (the Xbox Platinum Hits edition). I knew nothing about horror video games; nothing about Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, or Alone in the Dark. Absolutely nothing. With nothing to go on except the surreal images plastered onto the game case I entered the world of horror games.
Since that time I have more than enjoyed my time with horror video games, playing and studying them. This article is meant to provide a brief history of horror video games and a breakdown of its sub-genres, one of which I will concentrate on in future articles.
Back in the earliest days games were text games. These were games where the game provided you with text explaining what was happening in the setting and you choose what to do by typing it. The game then provided you with result of your typed action. What we know of as adventure games evolved out of these text based games 1,2.
Adventure games (think Myst) are games where the narrative is advanced through puzzle solving. There is little to no action and failure or death is the result of a deliberate choice, rather than failing to hold off a horde of enemies because you ran out of ammo. Because of this adventure game design has to rely heavily on world building, strong characters, and compelling narrative to pull the player in.
When graphics started to get thrown into horror games the games were still mostly adventure games. But then Resident Evil and Silent Hill came along adding a bit of action to the games along with popularizing the term survival horror. Survival horror games are simply action adventure horror games with a different label.
Action adventure games still retain the puzzle solving aspect of adventure games but inject some action into the gameplay allowing the player to combat the monsters around him/her. The action is restricted either through the scarcity of combat supplies or frequency of combat. While the player can fail the game by being killed by a monster it is not the utter destruction of the enemy that advances the narrative. Puzzles still have to be solved. In fact one could go through the early Silent Hill games without killing much and still beat the game but if you couldn’t figure out a puzzle you were screwed (thank god for online guides).
For years action adventure horror or survival horror games dominated the horror game genre but then things started to change as horror games moved towards pure action horror. Action games are characterized by the need for combat to advance the narrative and finish the game. The Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises both started producing entries that were action horror compared to the earlier entries that were action adventure. New video game series, such as F.E.A.R, Dead Space, and Condemned, came along leaving their mark on the horror video game scene.
Until recently action horror games are what dominated. In the last couple of years a new sub-genre of horror games has risen. Another shoot off like survival horror I will simply call escape horror. It is a return to action adventure style games but instead of combat the player has to run and hide. Games like Outlast and Amnesia fall into this category. Puzzles still have to be solved to advance the narrative but the player has to learn how to indirectly face his/her enemies unable to confront them directly. Survival horror games have you directly face the enemy while escape horror has you indirectly face them.
My preference out of all of these is survival horror. That doesn’t mean I won’t dabble in the others. The only one I don’t have much experience in is escape horror which really isn’t my cup of tea. If I’m forced to face my enemies I would rather face them head on than run and hide. The different sub-genres have different methodologies when comes to trying to scare the player. The games that lean toward the adventure side tend to rely more on a slow burn that subtly creeps into your mind, eating away at your sanity while the games that lean towards action rely on jump scares and keeping you in a constant state of adrenaline fueled panic.
The sub-genres tend to shift around in terms of what is popular at any given moment but you should always be able to find something that suits your taste. Below is a list of some recommended games to play based on sub-genre. These are only games I have had experience with. There are a ton more out there I haven’t had a chance to play yet.
- Pure Adventure Horror: Sanitarium, Scratches, I Have No Mouth and Must Scream, Doorways
- Survival Horror: Silent Hill 1-3, Resident Evil 1-3, Fatal Frame Series
- Action Horror: Alan Wake, Silent Hill 4-5, Resident Evil 4-6, F.E.A.R Series, Condemned Series, The Suffering
- Escape Horror: Amnesia and Outlast
1. There weren’t just text adventure games. There were other types as well like text RPGs but today’s adventure games still carry a lot more of the design philosophy of the text days compared to other genres.
2. If you want a more detailed and personal history of the early days of horror video games check out this article.
Finally here is my favorite song from the Silent Hill franchise: