Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Horror video games are like horror movies: They must be innovative to give their audiences new and memorable experiences that stand out from the crowd. With so many great video game titles out there, it was a difficult endeavor to choose five titles that we felt had the most influence on the horror video game industry. These five titles were chosen for their memorable and innovative gameplay mechanics along with their story line and overall gaming experience. Even from today’s standpoint, these games still hold up to their name.
5. Fatal Frame
Original Release Year: 2001
Platform: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Fatal Frame is a series of horror games that challenge players to use cameras to dispel evil spirits. Like the first Resident Evil game, the first Fatal Frame follows a girl attempting to find her sister who disappeared in an abandoned, haunted mansion.
Capturing the ghosts on film is the only way to pacify them—unlike most other horror games, guns and traditional weapons are not available around the Himuro mansion. Rather than thinking about success and power in terms of types of guns or bullets, a player has to think about things like camera focus, proximity to a ghost, and even different types of film in the camera. The ghosts also have different weak spots such as the “fatal frames” as the title suggest. As you progress in the game, the “fatal frames” are explained to you. Other forms of defending yourself include taking headshots of the ghosts, though of course headshots work a little differently in Fatal Frame! The games force you to plan and use your resources carefully even as you’ve got something ghastly reaching out for your very soul.
Fatal Frame had developers thinking about different ways to approach horror games and how they could experiment with nontraditional gameplay and combat elements in their games. Although the camera aspect was used only minorly in video game series outside of Fatal Frame, the Fatal Frame series remained strong for quite a few years and found ways to keep their patented “combat” system feeling fresh and new. Nintendo 3DS and mobile spin-offs even toyed with proto-AR and AR setups! Even though Fatal Frame hasn’t had a new game since 2014, Nintendo tipped its hat to the series in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, where a character from a later Fatal Frame game can take pictures of players to momentarily stun them.
4. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Original Release Year: 2009
Platforms: Nintendo Wii, PSP
Developer: Climax Studios
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was Konami’s answer to fan requests to remake the first Silent Hill game. This game re-imagined the events of the first game, sending Harry after his daughter in a different Silent Hill that has frozen over, with familiar characters who are slightly different themselves.
This game featured many innovations including the “decide your adventure” style story line. That is, every decision the player makes, from how the player responds to questions to how the player physically moves the character and explores their environments, affected how the game progressed. For example, in one section of the game, a character is asked to color in a picture. The way in which the player colored the image, changed how the “real-life” version in the game looked. These actions and behaviors ultimately will lead the player to a specific ending. The story, endings, and even game environments adapt to players’ actions to create a tailor-made fear fest.
It is not unusual for a horror game to have branching endings that are affected by in-game behavior. Earlier games in the Silent Hill series would base their endings based on certain factors such as what kinds of weapons were used, how often they were used, how often you are were hurt and how long it took you to heal, to name a few. However, nothing to this scale had ever before been attempted within the series. The level of variability and specificity in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is, oddly enough, something I’ve seen echoed and attempted more in non-genre games rather than genre games. Games like the Mass Effect series come to mind, or a game like Catherine where questions between stages determined the end the player ultimately obtained. It should be noted that modern horror video games have since tried to mimic this style of gameplay such as Until Dawn (2015) which was more of a cinema-style game.
3. Silent Hill
Original Release Year: 1999
Platform: PlayStation 1 (later adapted as a visual novel-style game for the Gameboy Advance)
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
In the very first Silent Hill game, players found themselves wandering the mysterious titular town looking for main character, Harry’s missing daughter. Not only does it change appearance, monsters like skinless dogs and mutated pterodactyls emerge from the fog to attack Harry on his quest.
One thing that plagued the Silent Hill team was the load times for the town. It was an open world as a console game could be in 1999, and PlayStation One’s engine simply couldn’t keep up. To solve this issue, Team Silent programmed a dense fog that let the game load outdoor environments gradually without lag as Harry moved forward. It also upped the horror factor by hiding enemies. Another interesting component of the game is that towards the beginning of the game, Harry picks up a radio. The radio acts as a warning system for Harry by making crackling, hissing and static sound when enemies are near, even when they cannot be seen. However, it doesn’t give any strong indicators of where enemies are in the fog in relation to Harry. Players are kept on edge whenever this static sound increases building the suspense for the player.
The fog became an iconic part of the Silent Hill games for a while, though later games that made use of the fog didn’t necessarily need it to mask technical limitations the way the first game had. This let the developers be more creative with how they used it and how it affected gameplay. This also led to an increase in other developers experimenting with means to obscure game environments to increase the tension, sometimes relying on different weather conditions or environmental factors like steam or smoke.
Another influential element was Harry’s everyman nature. Prior to this game, horror video games often were shooters or relied heavily on combat with established combat systems. Although combat is a part of Silent Hill, there’s no targeting system like you might see in a game like Resident Evil. Harry—and most Silent Hill protagonists—simply don’t have the training with a gun, they’re just somebody who has picked up the best weapon they’ve got that they need in an out-of-control situation. Every shot or melee attack has to be done precisely with player’s guidance. Whether these poor controls were made intentional or not, it gave the players the feeling of always feeling out of control of the situation.
The game controls did receive some negative responses from players and critics alike. However, modern games on next-generation consoles made smoother controls giving players less of a struggle.Nevertheless, the idea of having characters with sub-par combat skills made a tremendous impact on later games. The idea of placing a person with limited combat capabilities into a frightening universes and fighting horrors to survive is a concept we are seeing from even the most modern horror video games today.
2. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Original Release Year: 2002
Developer: Silicon Knights
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was a Resident Evil-style game that had players controlling different characters from different eras in history from ancient Rome to present-day Rhode Island. A girl named Alex wanders through her late grandfather’s mansion and players relive certain character’s stories through a mysterious tome she finds in his library. Alex and most of the characters whose lives she learns about through the tome attempt to thwart an evil entity who would like to enslave or destroy humanity.
Its most innovative mechanic, that was really the first of its kind, was the “sanity meter”. The more a character is pursued or injured by enemies, the more the meter drops. As the meter drops, the game environment changes, subtly at first, and then not quite so. For example, a benign sanity effect might have a statue turning their head to watch a player move around the room, or a character may find themselves sinking as they walk through a room, as if they’re walking through water. However, the scariest sanity effects are fake error messages that inform the player that their game data has been randomly erased or that the GameCube itself has broken! There is even an effect that makes the players game controls backwards or unusable. It was as if the developers intentional wanted to mess with the players. Needless to say, the true horror was having to buy a new GameCube or copy of Eternal Darkness!
The sanity meter is an often imitated but never duplicated element of the game. Many other horror video games have characters affected by the world around them that influences what players see and how controls work. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Layers of Fear, and Silent Hill 4: The Room are just three of many that come to mind. However, none seem to go as far as Eternal Darkness did. Many games with their own sanity effects focus on obfuscating controls or the environment. Not many change the world as dramatically as Eternal Darkness did, and very few attack the player directly, creating a much more real sense of terror, with fake error messages.
1. Resident Evil
Original Release Year: 1996
Platform: PlayStation 1 (later released on multiple gaming platforms and remastered)
The first Resident Evil game featured cops, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine investigating a zombie- and monster-infested mansion after much of their team disappears mysteriously. It was a hit from the start, both with fans and in terms of gameplay.
The game had players using traditional survival horror (the term coined for this game) weapons like guns and grenades to defeat or distract enemies as the player is immersed deeper and deeper into the mansion’s mystery. One unique game mechanic that was introduced was the games’ iconic inventory system. This system gave players a limited amount of space to store items in. Items would have to literally fit into a grid-like box that looked like something out Tetris. The grid inventory system also often left players making tough decisions about what they should have on their person and what would be okay to leave behind.
This inventory system has remained intact pretty much throughout the series, challenging players from game to game even as the series became more advanced over the years. Although many video games before (and since) Resident Evil offer unlimited inventory systems, the creative change had other horror developers thinking about how they could give their players additional challenges similar to the limited-space inventory system.
Resident Evil’s greatest influence may not have been on other video games; however, but on pop culture in general. It is often credited with bringing back the zombie genre in a big way. George Romero credits Resident Evil as one of the games that brought zombies to the forefront of pop culture at the turn of the century, as do actors, Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead).
All of these games changed the landscape of horror games for good. Other later video games may have expanded and improved on these mechanics—but without these benchmark games, it’s hard to say when and how these mechanics would have played out. There are even many cases where the innovations that originated in these games haven’t been replicated nearly as well, though other developers have continued to try to replicate what made these game features work so effectively.
Did we miss any horror video games with innovative mechanics that changed the landscape for good? Let us know in the comments below!
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