The lights are on
A few years ago, fear and uncertainty surrounded the future of horror games. Nonstop action had infiltrated a genre long defined by gradually exploring morbid environments, managing scarce resources, and evading monstrous creatures. Resident Evil jumped into the cooperative-shooter camp with its fifth installment. Dead Space's sequels skewed more toward action than frights. Newer games in the Silent Hill series were released to noticeably mixed opinions. The genre had evolved with the times, and while many appreciated the improved controls and suspenseful combat, hardcore fans of traditional horror saw a pivot toward weaponized thrills and telegraphed scares. Many wondered if survival horror could accommodate both crowds.
Then in 2010, little-known Swedish developer Frictional Games released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Here was a game that not only drove players to cower in the shadows from deformed monsters, but forced them to confront their fears through the immersive lens of a first-person perspective. Tasked with escaping a living shadow, they traversed Castle Brennenburg alone and unarmed. They collected lantern oil and tinderboxes to light their way, and slinked in the shadows to escape monsters. Lingering in darkness or catching sight of these roaming monstrosities drained an in-game Sanity meter, making visual disorientation a constant threat.
In the years since, developers have built a thriving first-person subgenre with games such as Outlast, Among the Sleep, and Alien: Isolation innovating horror gameplay to produce fresh scares. These mechanics – which expunged combat in favor of stealth – laid the subgenre’s foundations and pointed toward its promising (albeit challenging) future. Their origins, however, can be traced back long before players descended beneath the stone of Brennenburg.
Roots of FearYou’re trapped in a maze. A ravenous Tyrannosaurus rex stalks the blocky, black-and-white passages. To survive, you must locate the only exit. “REX LIES IN WAIT,” warns a line of text. With a cautious keyboard tap, you take your first step. “HE IS HUNTING YOU,” the text now reads. The monster could lurk anywhere. You round a corner and receive a sudden warning. “REX HAS SEEN YOU.” You sprint and take a sharp turn – straight into a dead-end. There’s no escape. “REX IS BEHIND YOU.”
Developed for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer and released in 1982, 3D Monster Maze could very well be the earliest title to terrorize helpless players from a first-person perspective. Its namesake maze is bleak and claustrophobic, its monster relentless. You can’t fight back against the roaming T-rex, only sprint away with quick, panicked keystrokes. And yet, it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct chronology that links the vintage game to the genre’s most famous icons.
Though first person dominates the survival horror landscape today, the fixed camera angles of Alone in the Dark in 1992 and Resident Evil in 1996 originally defined the term as a third-person nightmare. But beyond Resident Evil’s sphere of influence, PC developers were experimenting with letting players gape at horrifying sights directly. Doom pitted a lone marine against hellish demons in a first-person shooter that sparked controversy with its grotesque gore in 1993. The following year, PC gamers faced System Shock’s deranged A.I. SHODAN and a space station crawling with hostile cyborgs and mutants. System Shock 2 built upon its predecessor’s success with exhaustive RPG mechanics and open-ended spaceship levels drenched in disturbing imagery. Defined by a cautious pace and meticulous scavenging, the atmospheric shooter inspired dread with the unsettling abominations that prowled the Von Braun. Its influence persists to this day, with many horror developers taking a similar approach to fleshing out their unsettling worlds.
But to find a close analogue to the evasive horror titles of today, one must look to a Korean PC title released in 2001. The similarities White Day: A Labyrinth Named School shared with modern first-person horror games are as eerie as its myriad spirits. When trying to return a lost diary to a girl he fancies, an unlucky student ended up trapped inside a school after dark. A psychotic janitor armed with a baseball bat patrolled the hallways, and malevolent ghosts haunted various nooks and crannies. Utterly defenseless, the student lit his way with matches and solved exploration-based puzzles to progress deeper into the school. Between its unpredictable enemies and unrelenting spooky ambience, the game knew how to catch people off guard.
Upon its release, White Day failed to find a ready audience. Though the game never officially left Korea to haunt other shores, it began to gain cult-classic status among hardcore horror enthusiasts thanks to an English-translated fan patch. Lunar Software founder Aaron Foster cites it as an inspiration for his team’s upcoming sci-fi indie horror game Routine, alongside the Alien movies and System Shock 2. “You could hear [the janitor’s] keys outsider doors, and you couldn't see what was there because the lens flare of his flashlight was so bright,” he says. “It was a really surprisingly intense and scary game for how primitive a lot of the art was, by this time anyway – and I was just blown away by it.”
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