Think back to a simpler time. The year was 1993. The pilot episode of The X-Files had just gone on air (in the US). You couldn’t tweet or ‘like’ posts on social media yet. And the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were the most hi-tech thing on the big screen; in glorious 2D.
It was also the year when the sci-fi-horror, first-person shooter game Doom launched. It took a while for the landmark game to arrive on Indian gaming devices (by the late ’90s), but when it did – with all its blood, gore and violence – it was a gamer’s dream come true, and a parent’s nightmare. Featuring elaborately crafted levels, the player – a space marine – fought hordes of demons and the undead to survive. Even after all these years, Doom (which turned 22 this year) remains one of the most fascinating games in the genre, with the latest version likely to release next year.
A few other horror games, however, paved the way for Doom. The first wave of interest in horror games began in the early ’80s, with titles such as Haunted House (1981), The Evil Dead (1984) and Alien (1985). Titles like Chiller (1986), Alone In The Dark (1992) and Phantasmagoria (1995) were worthy successors, but it was another mid ’90s game – Resident Evil (1996) – that had gamers staying up all night, killing zombies by the thousands. As of 2015, 61 million units of the video game series have been sold worldwide, and the franchise has spawned multiple sequels, comic books, and even a major Hollywood movie series (starring Mila Jovovich as Alice).
Dead or dormant?
The success of Resident Evil ensured a steady supply of ‘survival horror’ games for the next decade. It was followed by titles like Silent Hill (1999), American McGee’s Alice (2000), Clive Barker’s Undying (2001), and the now-cult game, BioShock (2007).
Slowly, though, the genre lost out to first-person shooter games and action titles. Experts and critics blamed poor storylines, but mostly graphics that failed to send a shiver down one’s spine. A genre-wise breakdown of sales by statistic portals, Statista, revealed that, in 2013, for instance, action and shooter games had 31.9% and 20% of the market share respectively. Horror did not make it as a standalone genre.
Back from hell
It took the reinvention of the survival-horror genre, and then the popularity of sub-genres, like zombies, point-and-click and psychological horror to bring back audiences in the late noughties. At the same time, developers began to focus on making games more personal, moving beyond violence and gore. So, “today, there are games with human-interest stories, some that help you come to terms with concepts like death, life after death, and fighting your inner demons… It isn’t just about shooting the undead anymore,” says Shivani Thakkar, a horror game buff who was hooked on the genre after playing The Evil Within.
Some attribute the genre’s second coming to the episodic horror game, The Walking Dead, in 2012. It is estimated that more than one million players purchased at least one episode from the series, with over 8.5 million individual units sold by the end of the year.
“It was a breakthrough title. Its commercial and critical success meant that other developers wanted to invest in the genre again,” says Akshat Rathee, managing director of NODWIN Cyber Games Merchandising in India, adding that the big releases lined up this year are a direct result of it.
The rising interest of indie developers across platforms also ensured that games began releasing more consistently. This happened because development tools became easily accessible and crowdfunding platforms mushroomed, helping them finish what could be promising games.
Thrills and chills
Modern technology is aiding the genre too. The 2014 indie point-and-click survival horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s is the perfect example of a game that opted for the less-is-more strategy. A player has to survive a night shift at a pizza joint while fighting malfunctioning animatronic characters. Its simplistic design, gameplay mechanics and aesthetics help create a feeling of paranoia. Heralded by critics and gamers as “horror done right”, the title already has two sequels and a movie adaptation in the works.
It is the success of this game, besides a few others last year that perhaps make 2015 the year of horror in gaming. It’s 1996 all over again as a massive list of titles are slated to release this year, including The Evil Within: The Assignment, Dead Island 2, H1Z1, Resident Evil and Resident Evil Revelations 2, SOMA, and Until Dawn.
And with technological advancements in gaming devices and graphic processing, the experience can be quite immersive.
“The graphic detailing within games has gone up, so has the quality of audio. This helps developers create the right mood within the game. Thus, it’s easier to provide a ‘scare’ moment. Virtual reality adds another dimension, where the player gets a first-hand experience via a headset and not a screen. The immersion of the player is maximal without the interference of the outside world,” says Saptesh Chaubal, game designer and co-founder of One Eyed Octopus Studios. Combine that with better storylines and bigger budgets, and this genre could indeed be brought back from the dead (pun intended).
Landmark moments in the genre
1980s: Horror games, like Haunted House, hit the market on the Atari 2600. They are mostly based on TV shows aired during that time.
1992: The first hit survival horror title, Alone in the Dark, releases. Fighting the undead becomes the thing to do.
1996: Resident Evil releases. Though it was not a pioneer when it comes to survival horror, it turned out to be a commercial hit.
2004-08: Multiplayer horror survival games gain popularity with releases like Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor.
2012: The Walking Dead makes the genre more interactive and personal with episodic gameplay.
2013: Virtual Reality (VR) headsets make the games more real than ever before.
(With inputs from Vivek Vasudevan, game designer and co-founder of One Eyed Octopus Studios)
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Devil May Cry (2001)
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series (2012)
(Source: Metacritic.com, a website that aggregates music, game, TV, and movie reviews from leading critics)
TOP RELEASES OF 2015
Bloodborne: Hidetaka Miyazaki, the man behind Demon's Souls, has returned with a game that takes players into a diseased land. Released on PlayStation 4.
Resident Evil Revelations 2: You played the game in 1996. Now, revisit Spencer Mansion in this remake. Released on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
SOMA: This game deals with concepts like edge of consciousness and mind-body divide. The game will release this year on PC, Linux and PlayStation 4.
Until Dawn: Eight friends go to a retreat to have fun. The only problem is that they aren’t the only ones there. The game will release in August as a PS4 exclusive.
Slasher Vol. 1: summer camp: This cooperative multiplayer title allows gamers to play as iconic villain Jason Voorhees or band together and plan his/her escape. Released on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.
Outlast 2: The sequel to the acclaimed Outlast has gamers excited already. The game releases in September on PS4, Xbox and PC.
H1Z1: A zombie apocalypse has wiped out America. Now, you must scavenge, co-exist with survivors and avoid the undead. To release on PS4 and Microsoft Windows later this year.