Design Space: 10 great innovations in horror gaming

It’s October, the season of spooks and scares, a perfect time to appreciate the great horror games of the past. We’ve come a long way since times of chasing pixelated zombies and running from black and white dinosaurs. To kick things off, let's look at 10 innovations that shaped our journey from 8-bit spooks to modern day horror, as well as 10 games that popularized them.

3D Monster Maze – The Concept

3D Monster Maze is largely considered to be the first horror video game ever created. Players were dropped in a maze with a dinosaur and were tasked with finding the exit before being eaten.

While games with horror elements (notably text based adventures) had existed prior to 3D Monster Maze, it is still largely credited as the first game designed with the central element of disempowering the player. You couldn’t fight the dinosaur. All you could do was run and hope that he wasn’t behind you, which was stressful because the game would constantly let you know that he was right behind you.

It’s also interesting to note that this was one of the first games to end by closing the program, a trope that has popped up in more recent days in the indie scene.

If you are interested in giving this classic horror game a try, you can play a re-creation here.

Sweet Home – Puzzles, Resource Scarcity, and Quicktime Events

Sweet Home is cited as a major inspiration for modern day horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. It was more a JRPG than a survival horror game, but arguably that’s what made it scary. Your party was locked in a dilapidated mansion and needed to solve puzzles to survive. So you can blame Sweet Home for every time Resident Evil makes you put two gems in a lion statue’s eyes to unlock a door.

Sweet Home also featured permadeath. This made recovery items incredibly important, but these items were hard to come by and seeking them out put you in extra danger. The lack of resources made the player constantly feel like they were at the edge of death. Resource scarcity is yet another design trope that has survived in modern horror games, limiting player access to first-aid kits and ammo.

Finally, Sweet Home was one of the first horror games to use quick-time events as a means of suddenly introducing a threat. Yes, quick-time events, on the NES. Nearly every modern genre has been invaded by the quick-time event, and horror games are no different. Again, we are looking at you Resident Evil.

Sweet Home was never released in the United States, but a group of fans have produced a patch for English speaking audiences. You can play it online here, and if you really want to add it to your collection, several online retailers will sell you English reproduction carts.

Clock Tower – Consequence Based Gameplay, Persistent Horror

Clock Tower was one of the first games to combine point and click adventure with survival horror. Once again, horror themed adventure games existed before Clock Tower, but it was one of the first to feature a persistent antagonist. No matter where you were or what you were doing, the Scissorman was not far behind. So all those times you were hunted by the Nemesis or Pyramid Head were inspired by Clock Tower.

Clock Tower was also innovative in that it allowed its story to branch into several different endings depending on what you did and who survived. In this way, it can be seen as a precursor to games like The Walking Dead and Until Dawn.

The original Clock Tower for the SNES was never released in America, but once again you can find English reproduction carts at several online retailers.

Alone in the Dark – The Modern 3D Survival Horror, Cosmic Horror

Many people would cite Resident Evil as the first modern day example of a survival horror game. But Alone in the Dark basically did everything Resident Evil did but earlier. It locked it’s protagonist in a mansion. It asked its players to solve puzzles. It allowed you to fight monsters, but it wasn’t recommended. Heck, it even had polygonal characters and environments. This is the game that every modern survival horror is modeled after. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records awarded it the record of “First Ever 3D Survival Horror Game.”

Alone in the Dark was also one of the first Horror games to feature more Lovecraftian antagonists. Future horror games like Silent Hill and Amnesia: The Dark Descent would combine monster-movie style jumpscares and gore with cosmic horror and oppressive environments to create the standard for horror game themes. Even games like Until Dawn, which start out focusing on a serial killer or some other mundane threat, eventually find themselves falling back on deep and mysterious supernatural activity as a center point of their conflict.

Resident Evil – Jumpscares

While enemies would suddenly appear in games well before Resident Evil existed, the classic survival horror title is largely credited for being the first to create jumpscares that mimic modern day horror cinema. The game’s environments were specifically designed for it. Players would wander down hallways with no background music playing, and when they came to something like, say, a window, an enemy would jump through and the music would swell.

It’s hard to pin down whether or not Resident Evil actually was the first game to utilize jumpscares. In fact, 3D Monster Maze could kind of be considered to have jumpscares, if turning around and seeing the monster counts. But Resident Evil certainly created a formula that many modern day games were influenced by. We wouldn’t see a major overhaul of how jumpscares are implemented until Five Nights at Freddy’s, where they would be retooled to present a specific danger to the player, not the player’s character.

Silent Hill – Hiding the Environment

The PS1 wasn’t a very powerful console, so when Konami decided to make Silent Hill fully polygonal, they ran into some graphical problems. Very little of the environment could be drawn without the game breaking down. As a solution, they decided to coat everything that couldn’t be drawn in darkness or fog.

This small fix became an incredible horror innovation. By controlling how much of the environment the player saw, the game built tension and preyed on the player’s fear of the unknown. Only being able to see a few feet in front of you meant you were only a few steps away from a monster encounter.

This fog slowly evolved into the flashlight mechanic that we see so often in modern horror games. Here, you can only see the environment in a narrow beam of light while the rest is shrouded in darkness. While you do get to see further in front of you than you did in Silent Hill, you can’t see through the darkness that surrounds you, which is arguably much scarier because an enemy can always come at you from behind.

Fatal Frame – Controlling Perspective

Fatal Frame put you in control of a schoolgirl being haunted by ghosts. The only way to damage or at times even see these ghosts was to look at them through the lens of your camera and take their picture. This was terrifying because the player always had to be staring directly at what was trying to kill them.

This is called a controlled perspective. At most points in the game, the developers knew exactly where the player would be looking, and could design the game around that. This allowed them to create cinematic set pieces where ghosts would show up directly in the player’s field of view.

Nearly every modern day horror game uses controlled perspective. Alien: Isolation, for example, has several points where you need to be looking at a computer screen, and the game uses these points to play sounds of movement and put you on edge. Five Nights at Freddy’s integrates controlled perspective into its death mechanic. Jumpscares only occur when you change your perspective. Since looking at cameras takes up your whole field of view, the player is startled when a killer animatronic is suddenly there when they look away.

Eternal Darkness – Breaking the 4th Wall, Directing from the Player’s Perspective

In most horror games, frightening events happen to the character, but Eternal Darkness shook things up by attempting to scare the player directly. The game would stutter, stop, warp its graphics, and even cut to a blue screen of death.

Many indie horror games love to break the 4th wall these days. Pony Island is a notable recent example, which directly treats the player as a character in its narrative.

Even games that aren’t written around the player being an in-game entity now alter their camera angles such that the player is always the one being threatened by in-game horrors. For example, the cutscenes in Dead Space, which have monsters rushing toward the camera instead of Isaac Clarke’s position. In earlier games, like the original Resident Evil, the camera would be shifted to the side so that you can see the enemy approach your character, not your face.

Slender – Scenario-Based Design

When the indie market got big, horror design changed significantly. Instead of walking the player through a 30-hour-long narrative, they put the player in short but scary circumstances that focus on one particular gameplay element. Five Nights at Freddy’s fans would be quick to say that their game of choice was the first to do this, forcing their character to do nothing but sit in a chair and check cameras. But the first recognizable instance of short scenario based design is probably Slender.

In this game, you would be tasked with finding notes in the darkness. That’s all you had to do, find notes. The catch was that the Slenderman was after you, and at any point you might turn around to see him standing over you ready to… do whatever The Slenderman does to his victims. It’s never been very clear.

The entire game was focused on learning how to recognize that the Slenderman was around and avoid looking at him or running into him. In any other game, this would be considered a mini-game. If it lasted much longer than its short 20 minute running time, players would become exhausted from the constant tension and repeated deaths. But as a game designed around one specific scenario, Slender managed to immerse its audience and scare them with phenomenal intensity.

This short scenario based design would influence many modern day indie horror games. In fact, few are designed to be more than an hour or so long, if only because this way the experience is cut off before audiences become desensitized to their horror scenario.

Five Nights at Freddy’s – Tangential Narrative

I’ve already mentioned Five Nights at Freddy’s several times on this list, but the things that it’s praised for have been done before. It wasn’t the first game to remove player control, screw with perspective, limit your field of view, or jumpscare you.

However, it was a pioneer in tangential storytelling. In most horror games, the story is front and center. In Silent Hill 2, you know you are going to Silent Hill to search for your dead wife. In Resident Evil, you know why you are searching a spooky old mansion filled with zombies.

In Five Nights at Freddy’s, however, you can get through the entire game without ever encountering the story. Instead, the story is hidden away in mini-games and augmented reality games. In fact, if you really want to dive into FNAF lore, you’ll have to look at the source code of Scott Cawthon’s website.

Tangential Narratives are powerful because they present the player with a game within a game. If you were to complete FNAF just by avoiding death by animatronic, you’d probably come away from it dissatisfied. But trying to discover the rest of the game’s lore, while simultaneously avoiding death by animatronic, not only makes the experience more intense, but also more immersive.


For more Halloween season scary game topics and coverage, keep an eye on our Spookytacular page