When Resident Evil 6 released in October of 2012, it was the final straw for me: I was certain gamers were never going to see another good horror game ever again. Looking back now, it had always been a tight market: Since horror games came into the mainstream with 1996’s Resident Evil, the bulk of the genre’s worthwhile offerings were installments in either the Resident Evil or Silent Hill series.

Silent Hill 2 still holds a special place in my heart and in the hearts of many gamers.

For years, all of my fondest memories of the genre — running from Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head, making desperate attempts to knife a zombie to death in Resident Evil — had been retro throwbacks, buried underneath the many action titles of the early 2000s. Sure, there had been a few gems along the way, with titles like Dead Space and Alan Wake giving me a shred of hope that, at some point, gamers would fall back in love with feeling frightened. But, deep down, a certain fear roamed the hallways of my heart like a big, hungry zombie dog: Horror games, and all of the subgenres that fit into that category, were going to vanish.

If it were any consolation (which it wasn’t), I hadn’t been alone in this fear. In fact, I had been a hold-out. The death of horror games had been a talking point in the gaming industry for some time, best embodied by Jim Sterling’s 2008 op-ed with Destructoid, “How survival horror evolved itself into extinction.” Sterling’s piece detailed how the quirks that defined the survival-horror genre — the wild camera angles, tricky controls and unwieldy weapons — had been polished out by a generation of developers obsessed with streamlining. If you ask me, this was true for the entire horror genre, and not just the survival-horror titles Sterling focused on. Sterling pegged 2005’s Resident Evil 4, a game exalted as one of the series’ best, as the harbinger of this trend:

“Resident Evil 4 set the stage for the death of survival horror, the tolling of the bell, so to speak. Following that, it was the hi-def generation and its focus on ‘innovation’ that truly begun to kill it. The problem with this generation of consoles is that, simply put, a game like the original Resident Evil simply would not be tolerated. Ever since Resident Evil 4, a true survival horror game is seen only as a step back and with every game desperately trying to reinvent the wheel, step back steps won’t thrive in retail.”
-Jim Sterling

Control is Key

What this ‘hi-def’ generation was giving gamers was control. They were nobly streamlining controls, perfecting the mechanics that would later grow into the cover-based systems of Gears of War, Deus Ex and Uncharted. However, control is the antithesis of fear. The Guardian’s Keith Stuart touched on this in his 2012 op-ed, “Is Resident Evil 6 the death of survival horror?”, where he criticized the gun-heavy title’s new control scheme, one that streamlined motion and combat. Stuart wrote:

“This totally alters the psychological standpoint from incapacity and evasion to strength and capability. It is the stuff of third-person action titles such as Gears of War. Horror works not only on fear but on weakness and empathy…”

Jamie Madigan, psychology Ph.D. and the mind behind The Psychology of Video Games, echoed Stuart’s commentary. Madigan said the draw of horror games is in allowing players to have needed brushes with fear. Give them too much power, and there’s not much fear to speak of.

“One of the big appeals of horror, of all kinds, across all media … is that it gives people an opportunity to practice dealing with their fears. You get to experience something that you hopefully would not experience in real life, and you get some mental practice in dealing with those anxieties. If you go into a game, or into a movie, and there’s really not any danger, or the danger is presented differently because you’re a big, buff military type, loaded with guns, and you’re just mowing things down, that’s no longer horror.”

Taking Control Away and Bringing in New Fear

Where mainstream developers were moving away from ‘clumsy’ horror and more toward ‘agile’ action-adventure, indie developers were quietly filling in the gaps.

Let’s jump back two years from the RE6 release to 2010, with Frictional Games’ debut of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which hit PCs to both widespread fear and acclaim. An indie, Lovecraftian nightmare, Amnesia placed players in maze-like catacombs, all while being stalked by a few vicious monsters. This time around, however, there are no guns, or grenades, or chainsaws — players are defenseless, meant only to run and hide for their survival.

It was also really, really scary.

This beautiful beast will be following you closely throughout Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And no, you don’t ever want to get this close to it.

For many gamers, it felt like a return to form. Not having a fighting chance was something that defined the great horror games of the past, and this indie venture felt like a remnant of a genre long forgotten. In their article “Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Return to Scary Games,” VentureBeat praised the game’s no-weapons-for-you approach and wrote:

“Not only is [Amnesia: The Dark Descent] one of my favorite games of the year, it’s a shining light for a genre that doesn’t get the attention from developers that it once did.”

Amnesia was the start of development trend. I was oblivious to what was happening at the time, but looking back now, it’s pretty clear to see: With major studios obviously disinterested, indie developers were quietly nurturing the horror genre.

Indie Gets Spooky

To say that the indie community took the horror wheel from AAA developers would be a fair assertion, and there are two reasons for this. What Sterling wrote back in 2008 remains true here: AAA studios were not willing to take the risk of catering to horror audiences. The stakes were too high, and the player base was too small. Call of Duty and other blockbuster titles were much safer bets, even if their development costs were massive. But indie developers could take those risks. They were low budget, small batch, and offered a kind of flexibility that big-name developers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, match.

Slender: The Eight Pages was just one indie horror title that quickly went viral.

The other a big part of this equation, I believe, were streamers and YouTubers. It feels like ‘Let’s Plays’ and Twitch streams have been part of the gaming community for ages, but in reality, they’re still new in the scheme of things. In 2010? Well, they were practically green behind the ears, their meteoric rise still forthcoming.

Whether they knew it or not, indie developers suddenly had a burgeoning community of web personalities looking for material. A symbiotic relationship was born: Popular Youtubers, like PewDePie and TobyGames, stood to reap millions of views from being spooked on camera. Similarly, young developers stood to reap thousands of new customers from having their games featured on these channels. And it was all pro bono.

This worked especially well with horror games, because, let’s face it, watching people get frightened is both viscerally exciting and often hilarious. When it comes to being scared, we can be pretty social creatures, Madigan explains.

“The rise of Youtube and Twitch, and being able to stream these experiences, has made some games successful where they probably wouldn’t have been before. I think part of that is that we like to have a social experience with these horror movies and games. … We like to look tough, and we like to look like we’ve mastered our fears.” 

By 2011, ‘Let’s Plays’ were thriving, and Twitch was fresh, still earning itself an audience since its June release. As an indie developer, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better few years to develop a horror game.

And develop, they did. In 2012, while I was still blubbering over RE6, gamers saw indie hits like Slender: The Eight Pages, along with other low-budget offerings like SCP: Containment Breach and The Cat Lady. 2013 saw the release of Outlast, Slender: The Arrival, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. 2014 gave us The Forest, Among the Sleep and Neverending Nightmares. There are several more that I have not mentioned. Suddenly, it wasn’t hard to be scared by video games — it was almost likely.

PT Comes and Goes

I believe it was here, in 2014, that the larger gaming community woke up to horror games, and I don’t believe they did it without help. In fact, I’d pin the responsibility on one strange little title: PT.

Now, PT really deserves its own article. PT might even deserve a book. It definitely at least deserves a game, Konami. Short for “playable trailer,” PT was video games icon Hideo Kojima’s way of revealing Silent Hills, the next installment of the Silent Hill series, which he would be producing with Guillermo Del Toro. PT hit PS4s with little warning and delivered perhaps the most insidious gaming experience I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

This game was the distillation of horror best practices, new and old. Forced to walk in circles through a steadily decaying house, players were defenseless and told nothing. All that was certain was that something was terribly wrong and that nothing was safe. All of this was done in a hyper-realistic first-person perspective, and the results were nothing short of horrifying.

Things got seriously spooky in the dark hallways of PT.

PT went viral in a big way, and then it vanished. After a falling out with Kojima, Konami canceled the entire Silent Hills project, this crazy little demo a tragic casualty of the split. However, PT lived on, in both AAA and indie forms, and within this legacy, we get a very special look at the horror market today.

A post-PT world

Seeing one of the best horror titles in recent memory vanish, small studios were, again, quick to fill in the gaps. Indie titles Allison Road and Visage announced their development shortly after the Konami-Kojima split, both to serve as spiritual successors to PT, and both to universal excitement.

This all came to a head at E3 2016, when Resident Evil 7 — which, interestingly enough, looked a whole lot like PT — was announced. The response was huge, and it was overwhelmingly positive. Murmurs of RE7 being the next PT were plentiful. I looked on Ebay: PS4 consoles lucky enough to still have PT downloaded to it — the only way you can play it anymore — were selling for upwards of $800. They still are, if you’re interested.

What Hideo Kojima’s strange little teaser had done was re-whet the mainstream appetite for the sort of horror that used to thrive so enthusiastically a decade ago. Suddenly, gamers wanted to roam a house, shaking in their boots as they tried to solve a mystery and, ultimately, escape. That’s Silent Hill. That’s Resident Evil. That’s Alone in the Dark. Hell, that’s 1995’s Clocktower. Historically, that is the root of video game horror.

Shambling into the Future

Resident Evil 7 released on Jan. 24, 2017 to universal critical acclaim. It has been called all sorts of things, from the “return to true horror,” to “survival horror reborn.” If you ask me, that’s a bit of editorial hyperbole. For long-time fans, it wasn’t a rebirth of survival horror. Rebirth, for better or worse, happened years ago, with Resident Evil 5 and 6. Rather, this was a resurrection of the old Resident Evil, and it was beautiful to see.

Resident Evil 7 brought the classic horror franchise back to its roots, and it was all the better for it.

Horror right now is still actively changing, though on a constant come-up. For one, indie jump-scare factory Five Nights at Freddy’s has bloomed into an inconceivable cultural phenomenon. What began as a point-and-click adventure about evil animatronic animals is now a toy-store staple, with everything from stuffed animals to keychains making it to stores nationwide. Outlast 2, the follow-up to 2013’s indie horror gem, saw a physical release on PS4, Xbox One and PC. It’s a far cry from its humble roots.

Perhaps most telling of this trend is Poland-based production and publishing house, Feardemic. Coming into the scene earlier this year, Feardemic describes itself as a team “focused on story-driven games that are designed to make you feel, either by playing with your fears, or simply pulling on your heartstrings.” With a name like Feardemic, you can bet scaring gamers is in their repertoire.

This boutique approach to publishing stands out: Publishers are often seen only in scale. You have your indie, your mid-size, and your major publishers. To distinguish by genre is a different approach altogether, and it speaks to a healthy appetite for horror in the market right now.

Feardemic’s website is quick to note that, while they are specialized in psychological horror, that’s not the whole story. Marketing Manager Marta Matyjewicz said in an email that the team’s priority is delivering intense experiences. It just happens that fear is a good tool for doing just that:

“Gaming is all about an experience. Interaction, merging with a story, being a part of it, is something that no other medium can provide to us. Horror as a genre is promising very intense experiences. People want to be scared, feel this particular thrill. They crave for catharsis afterward. That’s why horror games are so popular and players are looking for more horror titles.”

Feardemic’s first offering, Perception, released earlier this month. Developed by The Deep End Games, players take the role of a Cassie, a deaf woman who must use echolocation to navigate a home haunted by a roaming evil. In so many ways, it seems like an homage to horror old and new: A little bit Clocktower, a little bit Amnesia.

Players experience Perception through Cassie, a blind woman, as she uses sound to dodge a prowling evil.

I am glad that my worries over Resident Evil 6 were just that — worries. I have the indie community to thank for that. With their help, horror games seem to be rising once more from what was a shallow grave. Surely, “the new horror” is going to come in its own shapes and sizes, and whether we’ll ever get the magic of Silent Hill 2 again is anyone’s guess. I’m going to bet not. However, horror will survive, and it will change. It already has.

Stubbornly, I will maintain that these horror games are an important part of this ecosystem. They are the contrast we need against beat-em-ups and action titles. Even more importantly, they seem more and more to be a valuable window into the indie gaming community. At the very least, they keep us humble, reminding us of just how uncomfortable we can feel, even from the comfort of our own couches.