The Prehistory of Survival Horror

My parents purchased a computer when I was 11 years old. It was our first computer, a Macintosh SE, and it came with an amazingly noisy ImageWriter II dot-matrix printer. The Mac SE had an 8-inch screen, 2 mb of RAM, and ran Mac OS System 6.0.8 at a blistering 8 mhz. Its crisp black and white display was easy to read, the operating system rarely crashed, and the hard drive was large enough to hold a lot of games (“Dad, 20 megabytes means the hard drive can hold 20 high density disks–it’s huge!“).

This was long enough ago that there was no such thing as home internet access. Web pages hadn’t been invented yet, and while most schools had internet access, the most exciting protocol was Gopher. If you were a kid at home who wanted access to software, your options were dial-up private networks like America Online or Prodigy (insert 2400 baud modem connect sound here), local dial-up bulletin board systems, or mail-in software clubs.

The only other way to get games was to go to the store and buy them, but I didn’t do this very often. The reason was two-fold: first, I was 11 years old and flat broke; second, the shareware and freeware games that I was able to get through software clubs were quite entertaining, so I didn’t see the need (those of you who played Wolves in the Woods and The Big One know what I am talking about). There were, however, a few games that I purchased that were seriously worth the cash. One of these titles was Infocom’s The Lurking Horror.

The Lurking Horror takes place in a MIT-like college campus and tells a Lovecraftian tale of evil thriving in the school’s depths. It was a text-adventure game, and nowadays you can play it online. As far as I can tell, it was one of the first games ever to mix horror themes with text-adventure game mechanics.

If you have never played a text adventure game, you are missing out. As an aside, you should all go play Adam Cadre’s games right now (especially Photopia and Shrapnel). Anyway, in a text adventure game you walk around the world by typing commands into a console and reading the results. Most text adventure games require you to pick up items, explore large areas, and speak to other characters that you meet. The extremely powerful aspect of text adventure games that no other format has yet been able to reproduce is the variety and depth of commands accepted. You can set the cowbell on top of the bookshelf (and ring it), ask the hacker about the master key, unplug the drain in the bathtub, or rap on the wall to see if it is hollow. Not only can each game have unique commands, each room and each item can all have context-appropriate commands, and figuring out what sorts of interactions are possible is one of the main forms of challenge in text adventure games.

When personal computers switched from text interfaces to graphical interfaces in the mid 1980s, text adventure games were replaced by graphical adventure games (what we think of today as just “adventure games”). These games were pretty much the same as their text-only predecessors except that they focused on pointing and clicking rather than typing. Still, the same basic tenants of text adventure game design applied: items were to be collected, exploration was encouraged, and the pace was defined by the user rather than the game. Without direct text input, graphical adventures were limited to a much smaller set of commands, but most of them got by with a palette of verbs that could be performed on any object in the game world (buttons like “examine,” “eat,” “open,” “hit,” etc that could be applied to objects). Graphical adventure games maintained an iron grip on the computer game industry until the mid 1990s (the industry peaked with games like Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island), when DOOM came a long and made everybody focus on first person shooters.

The first graphical adventure game I ever played was a game called Shadowgate. The game was great, and when I finished it I sought out others by the same developers, ICOM Simulations. The next game of theirs I played was Uninvited, which is not only the first horror-adventure title I ever saw, it might be the first horror-adventure title ever (it predates The Lurking Horror by a year).

Though it’s about 20 years old now, Uninvited is still a great game. The adventure opens with your character regaining consciousness in a wrecked car. It seems that while traveling with your kid brother at night, a shadowy figure appeared on the road in front of you, causing you to swerve off the highway and crash your car. With your brother missing, you have no choice but to explore the mansion next door to find him. If you think this intro sounds suspiciously familiar (the kid brother was even changed to a kid sister in future versions), get used to it: throughout this article you will notice common events and themes that repeat throughout the history of horror games.

Uninvited. Note the verb palette at the top of the window.

Like all of ICOM’s MacVenture games, Uninvited uses a very Mac-friendly interface. All operations are performed by clicking and dragging, the contents of boxes and drawers are shown as new windows, and saves are managed as regular files through regular Open and Save dialogs. Objects in the game can be interacted with using the palette of commands at the top of the screen, and the results of each action are either graphically displayed or printed in the message box at the bottom of the screen. Like most adventure games, Uninvited has no qualms about killing you off: there are no life bars, no heath power ups, and no continues; one wrong move and you are forced to restart from a save. As you move through the mysterious mansion looking for your brother, you are required to solve item puzzles (figuring out which items are required to progress) and exploration puzzles (actually finding items hidden in each room).

One of the key innovations in the MacVenture series is that almost every distinct object in each room can be clicked on and interacted with. Remember that a big part of text adventure game design relied on the idea that anything in the world can be interacted with, even if most things were not useful for progression. The reason for this design rule is utilitarian: when a player gets stuck in a game, they tend to try to progress by using whatever items or world objects are available. It might not make sense to combine the pink ribbon with the steering wheel, the player thinks to himself, but on the other hand, maybe it will produce a result. When you get really stuck, it is often easier to force a solution by randomly trying every possible variable combination than it is to actually think the problem through. This is called “brute forcing” a puzzle, and most game designers strive to prevent it. Puzzles that can be brute forced allow the player to breeze through the game without actually thinking about the problems that the designer has put together. The solution in text adventure games was to simply increase the number of variables that would need testing, making brute forced solutions tedious and boring to find. If every game object in the world responds to input, the player cannot simply try to interact with everything until they get a valid response; they are forced to think the problem through and attempt interactions that make sense.

This level of interactivity is much more difficult for designers of graphical adventure games to achieve because interacting with an object in the world usually has a visible impact on the scene. Each visual change requires artwork, and art takes a lot longer to generate than text; if you move a chair, the chair must appear to be in a different place than it was before, whereas in a text adventure game, the text could simply indicate that the chair had moved. Time could be saved by decreasing the number of objects that can be interacted with, but this would make it easer for the player to just brute force their way through the game by trying every possible combination.

The NES version of Uninvited

The solution in Uninvited is elegant. First, each room in the game is a scene built from separate pieces of art. Each item in the scene can be clicked on and highlighted, and most items can be moved around. Sometimes moving an item is a required part of exploring the game, but since there are so many things that can move, the player can’t just go around shifting things around haphazardly. Since items can move, the player is able to pick almost anything in the game up and put it into his inventory, but since the inventory has limited space, the player is forced to think about which items he needs and which he does not. Finally, since the game allows each of the commands in the verb palette to be applied to any of the items in the game, the number of variables in each puzzle is huge, effectively removing brute force as a viable progression strategy. Beating Uninvited takes some degree of experimentation, but it also requires the player to solve problems in ways that make logical sense.

Uninvited was ported to just about every system known to man. The NES version came out in 1991, six years after the original Mac version. A Windows version followed that, and the game is still on the market for PocketPC and other handhelds (you can check it out at the official web site). Some of the versions (like the NES version) changed the interface to be more RPG-like, as that interface was simpler and easier to manage with a console pad.

But before Uninvited made it to the NES, Japanese gamers were playing a different horror game on that console: Sweet Home. Based on a horror movie of the same name, Sweet Home is a horror role playing game with clear ties to the adventure genre. In some respects it follows the Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy school of RPG design to the letter: you control a party of multiple characters, each character has a specific ‘class’, combat is turn-based and in a different view than regular game play, and building up stats is a requirement for progression. But at the same time, Sweet Home broke many RPG traditions and appropriated many ideas from adventure games. Characters who die in Sweet Home cannot be revived, and rather than telling the epic tale of globetrotting heros, the game takes place entirely within a single haunted mansion. The player must often examine objects to find hidden items and clues, and items must be used in particular situations to solve puzzles.

Characters explore a room in Sweet Home

One of the main innovations of Sweet Home is that item space is severally limited. Each character can only carry one or two items, and since items must be used in puzzles to progress, managing items becomes a big part of the strategy. As in Uninvited, items can be dropped anywhere and picked up again later. The severe limit on inventory space, combined with the danger of back tracking in a game that has random monster encounters, creates an experience that forces the player to think carefully about which items to take, which to leave, and where best to leave them. The item management scheme is another way to prevent brute forcing of the game’s puzzles; rather than make the world highly interactive, the developers of Sweet Home have increased the importance of every item decision to encourage critical thought.

I never got to play Sweet Home when it first came out. The game was only released in Japan (it was far too violent for United States consideration), and at that time I was busy trying to figure out how to survive left turns in Apache Strike, aim rocks in Dark Castle, and kill my evil twin in Prince of Persia. A year later I had discovered HyperCard and thereby bound myself to a future in computer science. By 1992 Alone in the Dark had been released, arguably laying the foundation for contemporary survival horror. But before we get to Alone in the Dark, there is another game that must be discussed, as it represents an alternate branch of the horror family tree.

Clock Tower was released in Japan in 1995 for the Super Nintendo, right as that platform’s reign was coming to a close. The game is a side-scrolling adventure game produced by Human Entertainment. Though Clock Tower is a console game, it relies on a point-and-click interface taken directly from the PC adventure game mold. The game contains item puzzles, has a significant amount of text, and requires the player to progress by solving problems rather than fighting enemies. But despite being in many ways a classic PC adventure game, Clock Tower also introduced several ideas that persist today.

Clock Tower takes place it yet another giant Victorian mansion. The protagonist, Jennifer, is an orphan who goes to the mansion along with several other girls to be adopted by the owner, Mr. Barrows. But within minutes of their arrival one of her friends is dead and the others are missing, and a crazy kid with a giant pair of scissors is chasing Jennifer all over the house. After this introduction, the game branches and changes depending on how it is played. With nine separate endings, Clock Tower is one of the first games to offer the player multiple paths. Each branch of the story is similar, but puzzles change slightly and plot events unfold in different ways depending on which path is taken.

The key innovation in Clock Tower is also its main game mechanic: hiding. Throughout the game, Jennifer is pursued by Bobby the Scissorman, a maniacal child with huge shears. Since she cannot fight, her only recourse is to look for hiding places all around the mansion. When Jennifer runs from Bobby and hides, the player must wait while Bobby slowly inspects the area. If he finds her, Bobby can kill Jennifer easily, and the game is over. If Jennifer is able to successfully hide from Bobby, her hiding spot will not be safe to use again in the future. This mechanic is extremely effective at creating tension, and it makes Clock Tower one of the first truly frightening horror-adventure games ever made.

Jennifer in Clock Tower

I wanted to cover Clock Tower before discussing Alone in the Dark because it represents a significant change in direction from earlier horror games. Like Uninvited and Sweet Home, Clock Tower is designed to prevent the player from brute forcing its puzzles, but unlike those other games its design also serves to dramatically increase the game’s fear factor. Instead of supplying a lot of interactive items or limiting inventory space, Clock Tower prevents the player from screwing around by employing unpredictability. The game keeps the player guessing at every turn: it is impossible to predict when Bobby will appear, if he will be able to find you when you hide, or even how the game might change depending on your actions. Many actions have unintended consequences that can change the course of the game, so the player must be careful with how they play. Again, the result is that brute forcing puzzles in the game is not a viable strategy because lingering in a single area is dangerous and because the puzzles themselves can change from play session to play session.

This approach makes the player feel like they are not in control, which is one if the first (and most important) steps to making a game scary. Clock Tower is the first horror game to get this right, and it has been emulated in much more well-known games since. I will return to this point at the end of the article.

About the same time that Clock Tower was hitting the shelves in Japan, my family decided to purchase a new computer. This time it was a Mac Centris 660av, an absolute powerhouse compared to the SE. Not only did it support a color monitor, it came with a 15″, 640×480 display and ran System 7. The Centris also came with an FPU (floating point unit), and while I didn’t know what that was at the time, I knew that it meant that I could play Alone in the Dark.

In many ways, Alone in the Dark was an experimental twist on a tried-and-true format for adventure games. Like most adventure games at the time, it relied on hand-drawn backgrounds upon which character and item graphics were overlaid. The player could interact with items using a small palette of verb actions (search, push, close, etc), and the game play revolved around solving puzzles and finding clues. But the developers at Atari Europe also made key changes to the formula that caused Alone in the Dark to be quite different from other adventure games.

Alone in the Dark‘s first major innovation was the application of 3D graphics. Up until that point, adventure games used hand-drawn sprites to represent the characters in the game world, and often adjusted the size of each sprite to simulate a 3D plane. But Alone in the Dark rendered its characters in real time, allowing them to pivot and move at any angle. This was not just a technical innovation: the change allowed the development team to get away from the flat 2D perspective commonly employed by games and instead set up shots with dramatic angles. This gave the game a much more cinematic feel than previous adventure titles, which helped the developers convey the game’s horror premise.

Horror goes 3D in Alone in the Dark

Another huge change to the genre introduced by Alone in the Dark is direct control over the character. Rather than clicking on points in the world and watching the character move, this game allowed you to drive the protagonist around using the arrow keys. This made the game faster-paced than previous adventure titles (though it was still quite slow by today’s standards), and allowed the developers to inject much more action into the experience (shooting now required aiming, etc). Since movement was based on the arrow keys on the keyboard, the protagonist moved like a tank: left and right would rotate the character, while up and down would move forward or backward in the direction the character was facing. This approach would prove to be incredibly influential throughout the 1990s.

Like every other game discussed so far, Alone in the Dark takes place in a haunted mansion. Though there are items to collect and rooms to search and Cthulhu’s minions waiting in the wings, the game took a new approach to preventing the player from forcing his way through the game’s puzzles. Rather than limiting inventory, providing a huge number of interactive objects, or adding unpredictability to the game, the developers chose to handicap the player. The player moves very slowly, much slower than characters in other adventure games at the time, probably to keep game play methodical and prevent the player from running away from enemies. Another major handicap that the game uses is the way it rations ammunition and health to the player. Fighting is quite difficult, and since your character cannot run away from fights, every shot begins to count. There is no way to breeze through this game because you simply cannot move very quickly, and even at max speed the chance that you will be killed is very high. The designers wanted the player to take their time and explore, and they force this play style on the player by limiting movement, ammunition, and health. This approach also helped raise tension in Alone in the Dark, as the player understood that the only way to progress is to face the monsters and puzzles head-on.

My Centris was indeed able to run Alone in the Dark as well as games like Marathon and Out of this World, some of my all-time favorites. But by 1996 I had purchased a PlayStation and a popular horror game called Resident Evil, and my computer use became limited to writing games rather than playing them.

Resident Evil introduced horror games to the mass market, effectively creating the survival horror genre as we know it today. But looking back at the titles that pre-dated it, we can see that the development team at Capcom was directly influenced by earlier horror games. Alone in the Dark in particular seems to be the direct parent of the Resident Evil game design: fixed cameras, static backgrounds, a character-centric control scheme, pivot-in-place combat mechanics, Victorian mansions, rationing of ammunition and health, and two playable characters (one male, one female), just to name a few obvious similarities. The direct line of influence on Resident Evil from Sweet Home is also clear: both Capcom games take a hard line approach to item management (though the blow was slightly softened in Resident Evil, as the player was granted more inventory space and inter-connected item boxes). Even Uninvited seems to have left its mark in the way that every area in Resident Evil must be throughly ransacked for items, clues, and notebooks. Both Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 employed a constantly re-appearing antagonist that can not be killed and may surprise the player at any time, much in the same way that Clock Tower used Bobby the Scissorman to induce fear. Resident Evil even has a version of the verb palette used by the first graphical adventure games, though it has been streamlined dramatically over the years (the player can shoot, examine, use items, and combine items).

Verb palettes in Uninvited, Alone in the Dark, and Resident Evil 2. It’s also interesting to compare the inventory screens of these three games (one, two, and three).

Of course, this sort of influence was not limited to Resident Evil. Silent Hill also draws from lessons and themes from Uninvited, Alone in the Dark, and Clock Tower. Perhaps most importantly, Silent Hill shunned the approach taken by Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil to item rationing and management. Instead, it focused on narrative and puzzles, and relied on unpredictability and exploration to prevent the player from for breezing through the game. Like Clock Tower, Silent Hill also provides multiple endings to encourage the player to think about how they play. The Pyramid Head character in Silent Hill 2 is another version of Clock Tower’s Bobby. Even more recent games like Siren and Fatal Frame have drawn heavily on mechanics defined a decade earlier (consider Siren’s approach to sneaking, hiding, and combat as compared to Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark).

All modern video game genres are the result of years of evolution and iteration. You can look at any modern platformer, first person shooter, racing game, or horror game and follow a direct line of influence back to the very earliest video games. Looking back at earlier games to witness the gestation of now-common mechanics is interesting because it allows us to dissect and understand modern games more throughly. Though I did not realize it until many years later, my enthusiasm and enjoyment for games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill had a lot to do with those games providing mechanics that were comfortable and familiar. In fact, they fit me like a glove because they were modern incarnations of games that I had been playing for years. The developers of those titles clearly understood the genre that they were working in, and were able to innovate without abandoning tried-and-true mechanics.
Contemporary game developers would do well to study up on the history of their medium; with so much history to draw from, many of the mistakes that commonly plague video games today could be avoided. I suspect that the best game designers are those that are extremely well-played, and have a solid understanding of the games that have come before them.

24 thoughts on “The Prehistory of Survival Horror

  1. A much-welcome history lesson about my favorite genre, I really enjoyed reading this 🙂

    “But by 1996 I had purchased a PlayStation and a popular horror game called Resident Evil, and my computer use became limited to writing games rather than playing them. ”
    Could I possibly see any of your homemade games ?

  2. It’s neat how a game like Fatal Frame came about because of a game like Monkey Island. It kinda reminds of how gospel and the blues gave birth to heavy metal.

  3. Brilliant stuff dude, love your website. Possibly the best source for survival horror genre i’ve seen on the web…

    Thanks mate and keep it up!

  4. I greatly enjoyed your article. And I found it quite useful, in fact. I’ll find a way to play Uninvited and Adam Cadre’s games, and I’ll pay more attention to how they work for my future designs.

    Thank you very much!

  5. Excelent as usual, thanks alot for providing sucha varied and interesting resource for games and their cultural history.

  6. Thank you for this very indepth and informative article. I have developed a love for survival horror since the original resident evil. And I am interested in how this genre was created.

  7. Though I don’t believe that Silent Hill is precisely “Survival Horror”, (as there are endings for each installment in which the protagonist doesn’t “survive” at all) this article nonetheless takes a wonderful look at the history of horror gaming.

  8. I just recently heard about the game “Sweet Home” about 6 months ago. I have been collecting SNES & NES games for decades now, for my own enjoyment and also so I can introduce video games at a much simpler and classic starting point for my children once they are old enough to understand. The thing is; that game Sweet Home looks and sounds awesome and I’d love to own it. I’ve read on blogs and other posts about it but have run into a wall on trying to obtain it. Any suggestions? I hope you can help.

  9. Thanks for writing this article. I found it very educational. I’m on my way to discover the uninvited which is something absolutely new for me.
    I’m also a true CT fan and I’m gonna be the man that adapts the first CT game to the big screen. I know it sounds stupid but I’m on my way to do it and I think that I can manage to do it within the next 6 or 7 years.

    Great work on the article.

  10. Chris, many, many thanks for this article and the rest of your in-depth Survival Horror work.
    Again – you made my day and gave some amazingly interesting old-new bits of information.

    So, Im on my way to the roots – looking for Uninvited and Sweet Home.
    I am a fan of classic games, so, this definately could be my cup of tea, unless I wasn’t such a RPGvirgin, hehe.

    Anyway – Im going to play these influential goodies on NES. And again – thanks for information.

    Silent Hill is my favorite for years and years. Haunting love, I should say.

  11. I’ve been playing Survival horrors since i could do so, but i’ve always wantad to know where tje stuff came from! Very helpful your guide indeed, check about the resident evil made 4 NES! Port? Or beggining?

  12. Does anyone know if I can play the original Uninvited/Shadowgate/Deja Vu titles on OS X? I had these games for my Mac FDHD back in the late 80s and would love to be able to find OS X compatible versions.

    If you know, please post your reply here!


    -Nick S.

  13. Another huge change to the genre introduced by Alone in the Dark is direct control over the character. Rather than clicking on points in the world and watching the character move, this game allowed you to drive the protagonist around using the arrow keys. This made the game faster-paced than previous adventure titles …

    Faster-paced? I would say the opposite is true. In a game like Uninvited, every command is executed virtually without delay, since you don’t need to concern yourself with physical positioning – just click verb, click item, possibly click a second item, and you’re done. Takes a second at most. AitD’s control scheme slowed things down considerably, forcing you to travel to the object to pick up, then to the target to use it on, inch by inch.

    (Incidentally, my main beef with modern 3D games is how much time is wasted on pointless travel. Moving from place to place doesn’t count as gameplay in my opinion.)

  14. Thanks for this excellent article. I’ve always wondered how Clock Tower fit into the history of SH. One thing I’m trying to discover is how the PS1 port differs from the SNES one, and whether there was a Western release?

    I’m a writer of freeware, 2D survival horror titles such as ‘Soundless Mountain II’, a NES-style ‘demake’ of Silent Hill 2 (
    I’m also working on a new title called Amnesia which is remarkably similar in concept to Clock Tower, blending 2D, point’n’click mechanics with ‘being chased by an unkillable enemy’. I was really shocked to discover this little gem recently, and how close it was to my idea!

  15. I remember the Mac Se it sucked compared to the Apple II I used.
    Which country was The Lurking Horror released?
    I dont recall ever seeing it in pawn shops or stores. If you want original survival horror you should play original pacman.
    It was/is impossible to beat.

  16. Loved your article, ive played alot of different games ranging from old 2D Warcraft 2 to far newer Crysis 2.

    Your article was very educational and most likely will prove useful later on, im into modding and making games, and you explain everything in a good way too.

    Anyhow, thanks for this post and stuff;)

  17. Very interesting article! I’m too young to know the era pre 1988 of videogames, and I have started with the NES. but, i have played almost all the game you presented here. Even Uninvited and Shadowgate (but NES version). That remember me why when I was young I want to become a programmer… And, I’m a programmer now! But I don’t write/make any game, i prefer play it. Instead, I make intro/demo 🙂

    Maybe you will remember the era of cracktro, wich is become the demoscene now 🙂
    bye, and good luck.
    Romain (from France, ans I am sorry for my poor english).

  18. Dude, great article!

    I recently commented on your Recursive Unlocking article as well, and just to re-iterate, you write really well and explain things in a way that I can’t, even though I FELT what you explained for many years.

    Great history lesson, I wish I could have followed the course of Survival Horror the way you have!



    Peace out!

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