But, first – a brief history of horror games. The games that are largely regarded to have put the genre on the map were Resident Evil (1996), Silent Hill (1999), and Fatal Frame (2001). These titles were released shortly after the PlayStation landed on store shelves in 1994 and were largely responsible for the success of the game machine. Though each series had their differences they had two distinctive qualities. First, were the design. Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander writes:
“[t]itles like these all have distinct differences… but they all tend to have a few traits in common. First, they largely de-prioritize combat mechanics, favoring challenging the player through elements like on-location puzzles, mazelike game areas, using the environment itself against enemies, and even fleeing and hiding instead of direct combat.”
Though this quality is partly due to cultural beliefs/approaches to horror (see below), it is important to note the technology for these games were not sophisticated enough for complex interaction between the player character and “enemies” on screen. In other words, due to technological limitations the developers had to find more creative ways to scare the person playing the game. They had to focus more on intellectual and emotional engagement as opposed to the visceral feel you get when you’re playing, say, a Super Mario Brothers. The result, in addition to what is mentioned above, was slow and often clunky character movement, limited weapons and/or ammunition, and a third person perspective where the character is onscreen at all times.
The second quality comes from a Japanese cultural perspective on horror. This quality not only influenced the design of these games but also their narrative. Unlike western horror, Japanese horror focus less attention on explanation. Chris of Chris’ Survival Horror Quest site provides a nice analysis of eastern vs. western approaches to horror.
“Reconciling both Buddhism and Shinto within the culture requires the Japanese to accept a level of ambiguity about how the universe works. This is almost diametrically opposed to the classic Christian perspective, which tends to break the world down into “good” and “evil” categories.”
A column in National Geographic News (of all places) also provides some insight into Japanese horror. Columnist Stefen Lovgren compliments their horror film directors, praising them for their ability to use silence and empty spaces to create a sense of “impending doom.” Also, he goes on to quote supernatural screenwriter Lucas Sussman (also quoted by Chris) who say’s “Japanese horror operates on a much more dreamlike level … this actually works well for horror, because horror is about not being in control.”
One of the scariest memories I have of playing Silent Hill (the game is about a man looking for his daughter in a strange town by the same name) some years back was being in an abandoned elementary school (that looked like it was designed by a butcher) with nothing more than a pipe and a weak flashlight. I spent maybe 40 minutes walking around this school trying to figure out what to do. Nothing happened. It was quiet and creepy but nothing. Then, I walk into a room and a phone rings! I jumped clean off the couch. When I picked the phone up, if I remember correctly, it was the voice of my daughter pleading for me to help her. Then, the line went dead.
Although, technology had an influence in the way early horror games were created, it’s clear that Japanese developers had a unique outlook on horror as a genre, one that has been shaped by its culture and religion. They value ambiguity and discomfort, mood and head games. The origin of the horror game, created by Japanese developers had a game design and game narrative philosophy akin to Stephen King’s idea of good horror. Remember, King also favored low budget affairs and movies that didn’t overly concern themselves with explanation.
[Check out Alan Wake Lost in Limbo; Part 3: Wake and Limbo here]