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A Brief History of Groundbreaking Horror Video Games

Horror is a medium that permeates all forms of popular media. Luckily for us fans, that means we have a neverending supply of scares at the tips of our fingers — including novels, television shows, movies, comic books, haunted houses… and, of course, video games.

With the recent release (and return to form) of RESIDENT EVIL 7, it’s high time we take a look at some of the best and most important horror games ever released.

HAUNTED HOUSE (Atari 2600)

HAUNTED HOUSE was one of the very first video games to really incorporate a world firmly based in a horror setting. Players play as a pair of eyes, searching a dark house full of bats, spiders and the spirit of the former proprietor, Mr. Graves. It introduced the idea of spatial limitations, players could only carry one item at a time, and it has one of the coolest boxes of any Atari game ever.

ALONE IN THE DARK (3DO)

This is arguably the godfather of horror games: Trapped in the Dercato haunted mansion, players have to find their way out of the house by solving puzzles, while also fighting or avoiding supernatural enemies. The game set the standard for survival horror — introducing an inventory system and encouraging players to defeat creatures by solving puzzles, and to discover the history of the mansion via clues throughout the house.

PHANTASMAGORIA (PC/Sega Saturn)

This one was a doozy: Released in 1995 by PC game juggernaut Sierra On-Line, PHANTASMAGORIA was the first rated “M” game ever made. Based on a 550-page script, it took eight years to make and $4.5 million dollars to develop. It was that notoriety that led it to be one of the best-selling games of the era. Players take the role of mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney, having just purchased a mansion formerly owned by deceased magician Zoltan Carnovasch. He had five wives — who all died horribly — and it’s slowly revealed that Zoltan practiced dark magic, and a demon led him to murder his lovers. The game was one of the first to feature heavy violence and sexual content.

D (Sega Saturn, PS1)

D is not so much a game as it is an interactive horror movie. Created by twisted genius Kenji Eno, it puts the player in the role of Laura Harris, who is looking to find her father in a hospital where he has gone on a massive murder spree. Upon her arrival, it turns into a mansion where she discovers her true family ancestry. Featuring massive use of full-motion video, the game has intense scenes of cannibalism, and one of the best twist endings in horror survival history.

RESIDENT EVIL (PS1)

RESIDENT EVIL is easily the most successful and widely known horror video game franchise of all time. The game introduced a George-Romero influenced world in which a series of murders leads the Special Tactics and Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S.) to Racoon City, where they uncover the strange bio-medical experiments conducted by the Umbrella Corporation. Utilizing technological limitations to its advantage — the tank controls and frustrating camera angles create a sense of terror — RESIDENT EVIL perfected what ALONE IN THE DARK introduced by mixing a horror mystery with thought-provoking puzzles and third-person shooting to create a perennial classic.

SILENT HILL (PS1)

If RESIDENT EVIL is a nod to George Romero, SILENT HILL is likely channeling David Lynch. A world that shifts from creepy to life-threatening with the blare of a siren SILENT HILL calls on you to traverse a town that’s become home to legions of terrifying disfigured creatures such as Pyramid Head, and forces you to face your fears with limited ammo and psychological (or psychosexual) scares that strike chords never before touched by the world of video games.

FATAL FRAME (PS2)

FATAL FRAME is buried deep in Japanese mythology, and uses folklore to not only justify the weapon at hand (a camera), but to create one of the most terrifying experiences ever seen on a game console. Arriving just as J-horror blew up in cinemas stateside, FATAL FRAME forces players to search through a dilapidated mansion as Miku, looking for her brother who has gone missing during an expedition to capture supernatural occurrences on camera. Using the Camera Obscura and her preternatural ability to see the paranormal, players encounter every terrifying spirit ever seen in horror movies… and more.

ETERNAL DARKNESS: SANITY’S REQUIEM (Gamecube)

Steeped in Lovecraftian lore, ETERNAL DARKNESS stands as one of the most innovative horror games ever made. Skipping back and forth through time and location, the game centers mostly around Alexandra Roivas, as she investigates the murder of her grandfather and discovers a mysterious tome in his mansion. While reading the book and searching for more chapters around the house, players experience multiple characters crossing paths with ancient evils. The game is well remembered for its deep psychological horror and the introduction of “sanity effects” — a mechanic specifically designed to frazzle and confuse the player during gameplay.

BIOSHOCK (XBOX 360)

BIOSHOCK dropped in 2007 and completely revolutionized the genre. Taking place in the underwater city of Rapture, with a retro-themed backdrop, BIOSHOCK injected a heavy dose of THE SHINING into horror survival while creating a first-person experience that empowers the player, yet still creates a sense of terror and dread. Monsters, haunted mansions and jump scares are traded in for subliminal and subversive horror, under the sleek new sheen of a beautiful graphics engine. Wandering through the ruins of the once-prosperous Rapture, players are discovering what caused the downfall of the utopian city — the whole while feeling unnerved by skittering creatures on the edge of perception, and the creeping conspiracy of a society gone mad.

DEAD SPACE (PS3/XBOX 360)

A near perfect mesh of RESIDENT EVIL and ALIEN, DEAD SPACE took everything horror fans loved about RESIDENT EVIL and placed it where no one can hear you scream. Isaac Clarke is a ship engineer who has to fight with limited ammo and sharp wit to defeat the terrifying necromorphs — a group of disfigured, reanimated corpses. Using claustrophobic hallways, a visually dark setting and effective jump scares, DEAD SPACE created a tense and atmospheric horror experience.

UNTIL DAWN (PS4)

A love letter to the teen slasher genre with a mythological twist thrown in, UNTIL DAWN was a surprise hit. In the game, players make a number of choices that can ultimately change the course of play in dozens of different ways. Hitting all the notes of the classic slasher tropes (masked killers, teens with a mysterious past, a cabin in the woods), UNTIL DAWN is a smart and unique take on survival horror that proves the genre is still innovative.

RESIDENT EVIL 7 (PS4/XB1)

Foregoing the action-oriented gameplay that has been at the forefront of the RE franchise for the last few years, RESIDENT EVIL 7 is a true return to form. Although it’s switched to a first-person perspective, the inventory system, limited ammo, decrepit mansion and household puzzles are all back. This installment takes a heavy influence from EVIL DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and even SAW to create an experience that still rings true with nostalgic RESIDENT EVIL fans, but also creates a new experience that is visceral, brutal and shocking.

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