August marked 20 years since my first post to Chris’s Survival Horror Quest. For nearly half of my lifetime I have been writing, or trying to write, about horror games for this “blog,” a term that was not in wide circulation when I started. In the two decade lifespan of web site my children were born, I moved my family to Japan and back again, and flow of my career carried me from coding Game Boy Advance games to founding a startup to running a games publisher. As I run my fingers down the vertebrae that forms the arc of my life, the force that this project has exerted on its curvature is plain to see.
Chris’s Survival Horror Quest has changed a lot since my first post in 2003. What started as a grey-on-grey custom PHP3 database frontend eventually turned into a tan-on-tan custom web site (color is one of many topics that I am wholly incapable of understanding), which I finally replaced sometime in the pre-COVID haze that shimmers around 2015 or so with this spiffy Word Press system. The format of my writing changed too: the inverse relationship between the length of my posts and their frequency has only grown with age.
The degree of change that horror games have gone through in the twenty years I’ve been writing about them is shocking. In 2007 I lamented the dearth of horror game releases, complained that horror was too niche of a genre to warrant attention from publishers focused on the next generation of consoles, and worried that new titles were doomed to obscurity. 2007 me would not have believed in a future where fifteen years later horror has become a huge genre on Steam, and wouldn’t have known how to even process a world where MILK INSIDE A BAG OF MILK INSIDE A BAG OF MILK exists and is a universally praised video game. I would have been doubly flabbergasted to learn that the developer of CRASH BANDICOOT made a series of zombie titles that are amongst the highest-end video games ever produced and spawned a TV mini-series.
But the core thesis of this project, the idea that formed the basis for my interest in horror games, seems to have proven true. In the early 2000s I saw horror games as a genre principally focused on emotional manipulation, a category of video game that was rethinking core play mechanics in order to achieve a very specific emotional result. In an era when much of the game industry was focused on power fantasies, horror games were finding ways to make you feel something else. Horror relies on story exposition, on empathy for its characters, on mood and tension and cinematography–all things that video games at the turn of the century sucked at. It seemed reasonable to expect that the mechanisms discovered by this genre would be applicable to other types of emotions. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that the modern lexicon of action and adventure games is full of ideas pioneered by horror. I am so excited to see games like LIFE IS STRANGE, PARADISE KILLER, and WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH create drama and emotional weight using the language of horror games, with nary a zombie, ghost, or demon to be found. I can see the earmarks of horror innovation in everything from GEARS OF WAR to UNCHARTED to DANGANRONPA. And some of the most interesting (to me, anyway) game design work going on today is still happening in horror and adjacent categories.
I was entirely unprepared for the impact Chris’s Survival Horror Quest would have on my professional career. I have spoken at conferences, been cited in several books written by people much smarter than myself, profiled by Der Spiegel, interviewed by NPR, and have published articles in Edge, Game Developer Magazine, and a few others. I’ve written, directed, coded, and published two horror games and helped to produce the VR version of RESIDENT EVIL 4. For a few years Google decided that this site was the most important place to direct people who searched for “survival horror.” I have had the incredible fortune to meet many of the founders of this genre, and even work with a few of them (check out SWERY’s new VR game, DEATH GAME HOTEL). Writing for this web site forced me to learn how to critically analyze video games and that skill has translated into a massive career booster rocket (one that I am incredibly privileged, and more than a little lucky, to be able to ride).
But by far the most surprising byproduct of this blog about horror games has been the change it has wrought on me personally. Over the years this project has stealthily attached itself to my spinal column and directed my movements without any conscious awareness on my part. The motive of this parasite is apparently my own self-betterment, and thinking back over the last two decades I can clearly recognize the influence if its clandestine agenda. Last year I took my family to Japan, rented a car, and drove to Okunoin, a vast cemetery on Mt. Koya in Wakayama that has been the root of Japanese esoteric Buddhism for the past 1,200 years. There I was delighted to find a specific burial mound (a muenzuka) dedicated to those that have nobody to morn for them, built out of hundreds of small ojizo statues, which I had spent quite a bit of time reading about. The impetus for this trip, and my search for that specific burial mound, was spawned by a scene in FATAL FRAME 5: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER, which contains a similar location. I can trace my son’s collection of books on cryptids back to my own interest, which unfolded from learning about the tsuchinoko, which was itself a product of a minor side-story in SIREN. A similar interest in Japanese folktales, and their influence on modern horror stories, lead me to Lafcadio Hearn, which lead me to the story of The Snow Woman, which itself became a central theme a decade later in my own games. Years ago I visited the Capilano suspension bridge in Vancouver, Canada because I had read about psychological research performed there in the 1970s that, I think, is directly applicable to horror game design. Last week I went back and took my son with me, furthering the agenda of the spine parasite. The map of interests and learning and travels I have embarked on in the last twenty years is a dense spiderweb, and this site is the central nucleus holding much of it together. I don’t think that it is at all hyperbolic to say that trying to understand and write about horror games for twenty years has made me a better person.
So now what? What does one do upon learning that their nerd hobby has inextricably bound itself to their central nervous system, their career, even the way they raise their children, and is responsible for significant personal growth? Is it still interesting to plumb the depths of this genre when its central ideas have already changed the basic grammar of the medium? For many years I thought the purpose of this research was to prepare myself for the day when I would build my own scary games, but now I see it as an end unto itself. Though I may one day make more horror games, the purpose of the spine parasite, like all parasites, is to feed and grow, and any benefits it provides are symbiotic side-effects. It’s not all upside (I am a disaster at parties), but it is mostly upside, and mostly dramatic upside.
I think, therefore, the thing to do is continue to feed the interest. Though my posts here may remain few and far between, I think I will continue to document my (always improving, never sufficient) understanding of how this fascinating genre works. And if anybody cares to read this stuff, that’d be pretty gratifying. Maybe I can help feed your spine monster too.