Something writhes in video game horror’s dark underbelly; it has been doing so for years.
But lately, convulsions have grown violent and the hideous mass threatens to spill over into the mainstream where more respectable nightmares reign. The likes of Resident Evil and Alan Wake are now adhering to the same rules governing spectacle as the latest FIFA or Call of Duty installment, terrifying you at pristine 4K resolutions. This is the ninth console generation currently shaping our entertainment landscape, after all, and there are certain expectations as regards visual fidelity. Have you seen how the sun’s rays reflect on Castle Dimitrescu’s marble floors?
New retro horror scoffs at such notions of verisimilitude. It will draw the curtains to keep volumetric lighting out and puke all over the exquisite tiling so you’re not distracted by its intricate patterns. A steady procession of brash alternatives to the handful of dominating franchises (as well as the mid-budget imitations) has been making its presence felt recently. These games are inspired by long-obsolete genres implementing unconventional mechanics and evoking memories from the medium’s rich past. Wildly divergent, this new generation of lo-fi horror games is united by a shared philosophy: treating earlier, era-specific styles from the crude polygons of the original PlayStation to 1-bit monochrome palettes not as intermediary failures on the path to some dubious ideal of “realism,” but embracing them as valid aesthetic springboards in their own right.
And people have been paying attention. In the last couple of years, the scene has exploded. Puppet Combo — who has been turning his favorite childhood VHS slashers into low-poly gore-fests for about a decade — has just started his own production company, Torture Star Video, mobilizing his popularity to highlight the talents of other creators in the niche. Two ongoing anthology series, The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc and Dread X Collection, have revitalized a format oddly neglected in the medium. And themed game jams have imposed time and theme constraints on developers consistently producing some of the most imaginative work in the field, exemplified by Teebowah’s Game Boy-inspired creepy excursion in Fishing Vacation and Ben Jelter’s trailer-park enigma of Opossum Country. But what has prompted the sudden surge of popularity for such archaic iconography? And why the disproportionate focus of such efforts on horror?
A partial answer to the first question is glaringly obvious. Nostalgia has emerged as a pervasive cultural force in the last decade, from synthwave YouTube playlists to Stranger Things. Why should gaming be exempt from its influence? Under the alias -IZMA-, Adam Birch released Deadeus for the Game Boy in 2019, a Lovecraftian small-town mystery in the vein of classic JRPGs. He admits nostalgia is part of what motivates him. “When I was a kid growing up, I had a Game Boy and had friends with Mega Drives and SNES. That era is seared into my brain because of [these consoles]. It stands to reason that, when people finally achieve the ability, they’d