Feature

History Of Survival Horror Games: Charting All The Ups And Downs

history of horror games

The videogame horror genre has been around longer than the PlayStation brand itself, but its evolution has spanned across over two decades of Sony consoles to become a strange, new beast.

From exciting, schlocky beginnings, to the dilution of scares almost killing off the genre -and all the way to the rebirth of horror of recent years with various fresh and interesting takes on long-established ideas – horror games have played a huge part in PlayStation’s lifetime.

As such, we felt it only fair to document the highs and lows of horror games on PlayStation. Starting with the games that kick-started the popularity of horror in videogames and made for some of the most memorable experiences of the early life of Sony’s gaming brand: the rise of survival horror.

great horror games

The Start Of The Horror Genre On PlayStation

It was the 1992 PC game Alone in the Dark that provided the building blocks. The game would later become the progenitor of a smash hit horror series that would be a defining moment in the lifecycle of the original PlayStation.

The forefather of the genre that would become ‘Survival Horror’ introduced a new spin on the classic adventure game, using the backdrop of that genre’s use of puzzles and key-finding and putting it into a more action-orientated title with monsters to kill or evade. Camera’s were fixed, much like a point n’ click adventure title, but this created a tension, a fear of what you couldn’t see as the monsters could be lurking around that next corner.

Would you make it to your next objective or is there something lurking just off-camera that will see your ultimate demise? This was the magic formula that would be seen further as Human Entertainment’s Clock Tower series began on the SNES in 1995 -albeit in a more classical point n” click style- where monster’s had to be avoided rather than fought. Then the genre was truly refined when Capcom’s Resident Evil released the following year. This is where the PlayStation horror journey begins. On the road to Raccoon City.

Straight from the delightfully hammy FMV intro it was clear this was very much a game of its generation, one that had started to take small steps towards dealing with more adult themes whilst still revelling in its childlike glee at fart jokes, violence, gore and swearing.

The voice acting that followed was another sign of the infancy of the games market as a mainstream juggernaut. It was still so thrilling to have voice acting on a console that it was easily forgivable for that voice acting to be absolute dreck.

It added to Resident Evil’s B-Movie charm though and stood the test of time when you consider how easy it is to identify where the infamous “Jill Sandwich” line came from nearly twenty years later.

resident evil 1

Resident Evil – 1996

The undead were still a relatively fresh, and terrifying idea for a video game bad guy in 1996, and Resident Evil arguably brought the work of George Romero (Dawn of the Dead) et al to a new generation and -in part- sparked the revival of the zombie genre in all media.

Behind all the camp, wooden dialogue and a downright stupid (yet enjoyable) plot there was the setting of Spencer Mansion and its grounds. A place that seeped menace and brooding horror from its walls, as it tried its very best to kill each and every soul who dared step foot within them. A haunted house where the ghosts are flesh, and wanting to eat yours.

The mansion, with all its tricks and traps, is undoubtedly the star of Resident Evil, with the steady trickle of ever more horrifying monsters as a gruesomely perfect supporting cast. Alone in the Dark and Clock Tower may have been the start of this new blend of genres, but Resident Evil moved the goalposts significantly and, while none of these franchises are exactly in their pomp anymore, it’s Resi that remains the brand that transcends gaming because of that initial impact.

Capcom knew it’d struck gold from here and work began on a sequel soon after, though that first attempt -historically known as “Resident Evil 1.5”- was scrapped very late into development and redesigned to be a more “cinematic” experience. That game became Resident Evil 2.

Still set in Raccoon City, but taking place two months after the events of the first game. The main difference here was while there were still two protagonists like the first game, here the story for new characters Claire and Leon differed at certain points as both try to escape the city as the virus from the Spencer Mansion incident runs amok. Resident Evil 2 was released in 1998, less than two years after the original, and was a sprawling epic compared to the claustrophobic confines of the first game’s mansion.

The story begins on the streets, heads to the Raccoon City Police Department building for a sizeable chunk of the game before heading underground to the dark secrets of the city for the final hours of the game. Everything was ramped up to evoke a feeling of pure desperation as the duo of Claire and Leon juggle puzzle-solving, monster-killing/avoiding, and investigating a greater conspiracy with the rather more pressing need to get the hell out of town.

Needless to say the game was another hit and firmly established the survival horror genre as a force to be reckoned with. Even the combat light Clock Tower series was aping the success of its usurper with 1998’s Clock Tower II’s later hours relying more on weaponry than it’s trademark evasion tactics, even if it did maintain more of its adventure game roots than Resident Evil at this point.

resident evil 2

Resident Evil 2 – 1998

The following year would see Capcom branch out the fledgling genre with the dinosaur-themed survival horror Dino Crisis, but while it shared many of Resident Evil’s traits, it was far more action-orientated, setting up the groundwork for the 2000’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis; which became the first hints of the series moving much further from its beginnings.

An alternative was needed, and nobody was truly competing critically or commercially with the Capcom behemoth. Enter Konami; who introduced a far more cerebral take on the genre. One that was all about atmosphere and thoughtful tension over jump scares. It was time to welcome the fictional fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill to the horror party.

Silent Hill saw Harry Mason; a man looking for his lost daughter in said town, uncover the disturbing truths of the area and of his own daughter’s part in them. There were many differences on show in Silent Hill, enough for it to truly stand out and become the thinking man’s alternative to Resident Evil’s schlocky horror. The Wicker Man to Resi’s Zombie Flesh Eaters.

The game has no HUD, instead relaying Harry’s health through a separate menu or through the rumble of the DualShock controller. Also there was a greater focus on melee combat, with Harry using pipes and knives whenever combat was required. It also added a more dynamic camera system compared to Capcom’s use of fixed, dramatic camera angles.

There is a wonderfully unnerving feel to the town, the fog that envelops Silent Hill was a design decision that was meant to obscure areas that hadn’t fully loaded, but it ended up being a pillar of the Silent Hill mythos for years to come because of the way in which it invites that fear of the unknown, even in wide open spaces.

When combined with the crackle of your radio whenever an enemy drew near, it was enough to fill your heart with cold dread. That’s all before you get to the sinking feeling you get from the ominous howl of the siren that sees the town transition into a hellish mirror of itself.

silent hill original 1999

The original Silent Hill

The PlayStation was in the autumn of its lifespan by the time Silent Hill and Nemesis arrived. A sequel to Dino Crisis also managed to squeeze into the final months of the console’s reign, mere months before the PlayStation’s successor would take up the mantle. Now there had been five survival horror games from Capcom in four years with no signs of the company slowing up. So the question invariably turned to what the franchises and any potential rivals would do on the PlayStation 2.

Resident Evil branched away from Raccoon City for the first time as the new generation of consoles dawned. Code Veronica started life on Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast mere months after Nemesis came out on the PlayStation.

The jump in visual quality was immediately noticeable, but journalists and fans alike criticized the game for using the same structure, mechanics and camera angles of the older games. This was the first time the series had faced any real criticism from its fan base (well, outside the godawful Survivor).

There was some progression. The backgrounds were no longer pre-rendered, and the voice-acting was another step in the right direction (though still hammier than a pig rolled in salt), pus it was a nice change of scenery to be out of the Raccoon City loop and on the creepy Rockfort Island home of the criminally eccentric Alfred Ashford, but it also gave the world Steve Burnside; a mewling whingebag who only manages to garner sympathy when he dies near the game’s conclusion.

resident evil code veronica

Resident Evil Code Veronica – 2000

Meanwhile, Silent Hill was about to hit its peak with Silent Hill 2. Whereas Resi embraced it’s TV soap opera melodrama (with zombies, granted), Silent Hill 2 delivered a thought-provoking adult narrative and a well-constructed set up of characters and locations to create a truly unsettling and mystifying experience that showed other would-be horror titles that you didn’t have to follow the Capcom route to success.

At this junction in gaming history, you’d be forgiven for believing Silent Hill would become the new king of horror and Resident Evil would fade away. The direction of the next games in the series and the emergence of fresh alternatives would shape the genre of horror and survival horror for years to come.

New Blood Arrives On The Horror Scene

The early years of the new millennium saw horror games become more prevalent and varied as the rest of the industry started to cotton on to the lucrative nature of the burgeoning genre of shocks and scares. Other companies began to branch out from the established tropes and create new types of horror games to become the successors to the throne; a cycle that would crop up more than once in the years that followed.

At the time of the PlayStation 2 we saw a complete revision of a now classic series, a film director’s legacy used for the medium, controversial games and a title that was way ahead of its time.

best playstation horror games

Just months after the release of Silent Hill 2 in late 2001; Fatal Frame gave us an inventive spin on horror that proved it wasn’t to be just Konami and Capcom dictating the direction of all things gory and spooky going forward. Fatal Frame placed you in the shoes of Miku Hinasaki as she searched for her missing brother in the supposedly haunted Himuro Mansion he was last seen entering two weeks before.

So far, so similar, but the novel ideas of Fatal Frame were in how it played. Miku finds out the mansion is indeed haunted by spirits, and handily she has an antique camera known as the “Camera Obscura” that dispels the spirits by capturing them on film.

Your ammo was rolls of film that came in a variety of flavours to tackle the various apparitions that roamed the mansion and limited so that you’d have to pick your moments to go in certain areas. If ghosts were near any of the save points in the game you were unable to save, a panic-inducing jolt to the system after the blessed comfort of Resi’s save rooms.

After the blood and gore that permeated horror on PlayStation in the years leading up to this, it was commendable to see a game that relied on trying to unsettle you without brutal violence. Horror was evolving, even if some games would stick closer to the original formula than others.

Fatal Frame – 2001

John Carpenter’s filmic legacy had already been quietly referenced in Capcom’s Resident Evil series with relentless killers chasing you (Halloween) and being in a police station that’s been under siege from invaders (Assault on Precinct 13). More than anything, some of the monstrosities that appeared in the second and third game bore more than a passing resemblance to the body-stealing alien menace seen in Carpenter’s Sci-Fi Horror The Thing. That film seemed like a good fit for a horror game.

Bleak setting, tight corridors, an unseen threat that could be anywhere. Developer’s Computer Artworks thought so, and in September of 2002 it brought us just that.

Seen as a direct sequel to the 1982 film, in The Thing you play as Blake; a Special Forces agent investigating US Outpost 31 in Antarctica after the events of the film, with the help of an AI squad who possess various skills needed to help you traverse the base and uncover what happened; you soon find that there’s something very wrong going on, namely a shapeshifting alien who can take human form.

The game’s hook was in its ‘Trust Meter’, a system that saw your actions (and others) scrutinised by the AI squad members if anything about you seemed a bit suspicious.

The Thing – 2002

There’s plenty of combat against horrific-looking alien creatures in The Thing, but the true horror angle comes from paranoia. You didn’t see where that squad member went for a bit, could he be infected? Do you trust him? Would you risk the group’s safety by not eliminating him now?

The tension builds and sometimes your hunch is wrong and you forgot that the other guy also left your sight briefly and he is indeed a monstrous hulk of tendrils underneath his human face. Or they both could be, or all three. It’s a neat system that captures the atmosphere of the film brilliantly by asking you to trust people while never being sure if they are what they seem.

The game itself was a standard third person shooter otherwise, but the trust system was a pretty unique selling point and its legacy continues to be seen today, with games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead using a version of it to test your resolve and morality when interacting with other people.

There was another game with a strong Carpenter influence in terms of atmosphere and concept and it came from an unlikely source. Rockstar Games were currently riding the wave of money, acclaim and controversy that had been generated by the explosive rise of the Grand Theft Auto series, so naturally the next step after the sun-drenched murderthon that was Vice City was to make a game where you literally have no choice but to murder anyone in your way, or never see the light of day again.

Manhunt combined the grungy future low-fi feel of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York witht the mean-spirited game show idea of The Running Man. You play as James Earl Cash; a convicted murderer who finds himself thrust into the abandoned ruins of Carcer City to star in the snuff film of the vile director Lionel Starkweather instead of Death Row. Starkweather goads Cash into killing various gang members that roam the set in the most brutal fashion imaginable, promising he’ll be a free man if he cooperates and survives till the end. Manhunt sees Cash skulking in the shadows quite often, waiting for the optimum time to choke the life out of a lunatic. The kills are pretty graphic and get worse the longer you build up to them.

Manhunt – 2003

From plastic bag suffocations to slicing jugulars with shards of glass and beyond, Manhunt looks every bit the video nasty. Of course, this meant the game attracted a lot of controversy over its content. While the subject matter and its visual depiction certainly baited the hook, Manhunt did give good reasons for Cash’s murder-spree.

He’s pitted into a situation where it’s kill or be killed, and just when it looks like that may not be enough motivation for him, Starkweather throws in a curveball to keep him on track. Interestingly, Cash is effectively you playing as the silent killer in the shadows from any slasher flick in the 80’s, that includes Carpenter’s Halloween, but at the same time he is a victim.

The game does a fine commentary of the necessity and futility of violence without ever outright saying ‘’this is right/wrong”, something that would fail to be translated for the under-par sequel a few years later and rightfully saw it banned because it was violence for the sake of violence.

In the middle of all that, Silent Hill was starting to lose its identity. When Capcom made Resident Evil 3: Nemesis a quicker-paced, more action-orientated iteration of a series that had been plodding, methodical and deliberately awkward beforehand, it showed signs of a series trying to become more accessible to a wider range of gamers (a trend that is still worryingly commonplace in the industry), but it worked a little better there because gunplay was already a big part of Resident Evil.

In Silent Hill 3, the original mission statement was being rewritten to include a wider audience too. There was still some cracking psychological horror moments to rival the best of the series, and the story was still miles above nearly any games of that era, but by upping gun combat and giving you the option of easy puzzles, it was the first steps down a slippery slope that would see Silent Hill become an aimless property to this day, with different developers confusing what made the first two games so effective.

Its old rival Resident Evil would also undergo further changes a couple of years later that despite good intentions and a great reception from pundits and players alike, spelled the decline of it as a horror series, but we’ll come back to that later. Because the classic Resident Evil did get a new spin that the world probably wasn’t ready for.

Resident Evil: Outbreak was Resident Evil as we knew it at first glance, but the hook was this had co-op. You and other survivors needed to work together to solve puzzles, access rooms and put down enemies as you all try to escape the doomed Raccoon City during the events of Resident Evil 2 and 3. The main game was split into five scenarios set at different points during the events of the Raccoon City disaster. In co-op you could create your own lobbies and customise your own scenarios to play with others over the internet. Outbreak suffered for two reasons.

Resident Evil Outbreak – 2004

The first being that Capcom later confessed the game wasn’t as scary with other people, the second being an online console game in 2003/4 was on a hiding to nothing. The online gaming explosion was a few years off at this stage meaning the potential audience for Outbreak was miniscule and sealed its fate as a forgotten gem out of time.

The argument that Outbreak was less scary had less concrete fact behind it than the internet issue. Sure, some things that would have players panicking in a regular Resi were diluted somewhat when you had back up, but not knowing if a stranger would actually help you out or screw you over when it came to a life or death situation – that was Outbreak’s solution to the supposed missing fear factor, and it largely worked.

Again, like The Thing, paranoia was used in addition to the regular scares to produce a more well-rounded horror experience. An expansion/sequel refined a lot of the quirks in the original and saw a PAL release this time, but again, the audience just wasn’t there for it yet and both Outbreak’s were filed away and replaced by later attempts that really failed to get the point (Operation Raccoon City, I judge thee).

As the PlayStation 2 entered the second half of its prime, horror was changing, but it seemed like the bubble had burst. The directions the genre was going in didn’t appear to be of enough consequence as other genres began to prevail and new hybrids emerged. It didn’t stop there being more though, and it definitely didn’t stop there being controversy.

Obscure was another survival horror in a long line of them, and the genre had grown tired by this point so critical response to it was muted and negative, but it wasn’t without significance. The item combo system (where simple items like a torch and gun could be crudely combined) was an evolution of the very specific inventory system found in previous survival horror games and the angle of teenagers in a high school full of strange goings on was at least a modern take on it.

Interestingly, while characters had set special abilities for different situations, you could still perform the same skills with other characters, just slower. This played a part in making sure that the death of any playable characters could remain permanent and allow you to continue the game without them. A tactic used to some degree very recently by a certain teen horror game.

Obscure – 2004

A pair of games came out afterwards that shared some key details. Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose were both survival horror titles in the mould of Silent Hill’s brand of psychological horror. Both featured young female protagonists, accompanied by a dog. The differences came in the tone of their stories and the way combat was handled.

Haunting Ground was more about our heroine Fiona evading her relentless pursuers, whereas Rule of Rose did occasionally let its protagonist Jennifer get a few blows in. Haunting Ground’s plot is an ever-escalating series of pursuers attempting to do terrible things to Fiona, but it’s nothing quite as disturbing as any of Silent Hill’s better moments.

Rule of Rose went the creepy schoolkid route, and for the most part was incredibly daft tonally, but it was the allusion of sexual activity in underage girls that saw the banhammer being lifted and driven down upon the game’s head. More is remembered about the controversy surrounding the game’s release (Sony were publishing initially, but backed out for overseas releases) than the game itself, which is not all that surprising considering it wasn’t all that great a game to begin with.

Rule of Rose – 2006

Jumping back in time a little from the fuss about Rule of Rose, we find part of the reason it didn’t have quite the gameplay impact it may have hoped for. One of the oldest players in the videogame horror world had been revolutionised. Resident Evil 4 changed survival horror, seemingly for the better, but it would be, in part, to blame as the horror genre began to wither and die. The darkest time in the genre’s history was looming, but there would be new saviours on the far off horizon as one generation ended and the next began on very shaky ground.

Horror’s Death And Resurrection

The immensely successful PlayStation 2 was coming into the Autumn of its glory days, and the flagging horror genre was given a major kick up the jacksy when Capcom moved the gory goalposts once again with the release of Resident Evil 4. Yet it would mark the biggest decline in the series to date as overblown action nonsense stripped away the horror roots with each new iteration.

Elsewhere, video game horror was in a mess as big names continued to either fail at reinvention or get it completely wrong. There was hope though, as a new generation of PlayStation brought with it a new generation of horror.

Resident Evil 4 is a landmark title. It’s easily one of the best games of its generation,there is no doubting that. It gave the flagging Resi series a big shot in the arm and popularised the over-the-shoulder third-person camera for boatloads of games to come. There are plenty of memorable moments too, from the sights (and sounds) of your first encounter with the chainsaw-wielding Ganado, to the heart-stopping meeting with the Regenerators, it remains a tour-de-force of tense action.

As a horror though? Well, it had its moments as I’ve mentioned, but the tone changed dramatically enough that it was now as much an action title as a horror one. This really wouldn’t have been a problem if Capcom had taken the right message from it going forward. Instead, it would fall into the same trap as other horror franchises, missing the core point of what made it so popular to begin with, and it wasn’t because Leon could do a spin kick.

Before we get there though, we’ll look at where other horror games were getting it wrong, while other games were embracing it into their design.

In an earlier part of this feature, I touched upon the controversy surrounding the sequel to Rockstar Games’ Manhunt, also reflecting briefly on how it strayed too far from the original’s theme. You see, in the original Manhunt there was graphic violence, sure, but Rockstar built a situation around the murdering that at least gave protagonist James Earl Cash a reason for participating in it. Manhunt 2 did not.

The new protagonist was Danny Lamb, and he begins the game escaping from a psychiatric facility and goes on a killing spree due to voices in his head. Done right it could have been an interesting, if controversial take on mental health. What we got however, was a shallow, uninspired procession of needless, meaningless violence.

The wonderfully dark and ominous mood of the original was missing too, and the game’s troubled development cycle undeniably couldn’t have helped matters. Rather than feeling like a Rockstar game, it felt more like one of the cheap knock-offs that follow a successful game’s release. A rare misstep, but one that seems to happen whenever Rockstar has publicized development issues.

The generation’s horror scene had ended on a sour note. Silent Hill was also struggling to remember what once made it great. Silent Hill’s fourth installment; The Room, changed up the concept and moved the action to a new setting. Not exactly crimes, but the gameplay wasn’t updated to match, with some critics noting the game design felt backwards compared to the concept.

PlayStation Portable got the fifth installment first with the traditional but aimless Origins (a prequel to the original game) before it released on PlayStation 2 well into the PS3’s cycle. The first PS3 installment (Homecoming) wouldn’t do the series any favours either, as the Silent Hill brand sank into mediocrity as the generation went on. In the meantime, the lack of decent all out horror stuck out in the early days of the PS3.

The closest thing to it was a selection of first person titles that may not have been full on horror, but contained enough of it to be of note. Take the setting of BioShock. The underwater city of Rapture held the same air of menace as the Spencer Mansion once did, telling its own story through the way it had been left.

Being full of insane folk hopped up on drugs helped capture the gloomy oppression surrounding the place too. Similarly SEGA’s Condemned 2: Bloodshot presented horror elements from a first-person view, with its protagonist suffering hallucinations. It was almost like the spiritual successor to Manhunt, with the same use of contextual kills, brutal violence and in its grimy, dark visual style. Then there were two PC ports that arrived late in the day on PS3, both using creeping dread to great effect.

One was F.E.A.R; a traditional shooter in many ways, but your squadron of military special ops men had the job of containing a supernatural phenomena. What followed was a brave, if haphazard, blend of intense shooting, ghost story and gory violence.

The series became something of a cult hit over the years, and the Big Bad of the game, a little girl called Alma, entered the lexicon of terrifying video game characters.

The other PC port was contained in Valve’s compilation pack The Orange Box. A little game called Half-Life 2 had one of gaming’s most memorable horror sections when mute hero Gordon Freeman enters Ravenholm, a dark, creepy town that features an unsettling amount of headcrab zombies and a handy collection of saw blades.

These first-person titles likely served as the basis for the new influx of indie horror titles many years later. Even as early as Doom there was mileage in first-person viewing making for a more personal brand of scares.

Through all this chaos in the horror game realm, Alone in the Dark was making a comeback. Sadly, like the other elder statesmen of terror, it did so while forgetting its origins completely. That the most memorable parts of the game years later are its fire physics and novel inventory system (you looked down at your body to open it). The clunky episodic-style mess peaked early on and faded in banality swiftly.

The next time the franchise would resurface, it would be seven years later and receive an absolute critical kicking for being a rather rubbish game. A once respected series that has now likely fallen too far into the abyss to be saved.

Out and out horror games started to creep back into the public eye as 2008 went on. Forbidden Siren had been a fairly routine Japanese horror game series the previous generation, but during the summer of 2008, Sony and developer Project Siren released an interesting horror experiment. Siren: Blood Curse was split into episodic form and basically rejigged the original game to suit the new format.

Each episode saw you dealing with the perils of the chosen character as they evaded strange, brutal zombies brought about by an ancient curse. The unique selling point was each character’s ability to jack into the sight of the zombies. This made for some terrifying moments as you watched through your enemy’s eyes as they zeroed in on your hiding spot. It was a brave attempt at something different in the genre, and the episodic legacy of Siren would end up being the basic formula for the current crop of episodic games.

The standout moment for horror that year. The moment where video game horror was truly revitalized once again, came from an internal studio at EA. Visceral Games married filmic influences such as Alien and Even Horizon to the core survival horror experience of Resident Evil to create something of a sleeper hit with Dead Space, a gory sci-fi horror.

Following the story of Engineer Isaac Clarke as he becomes trapped in a nightmarish situation aboard the spaceship Ishimura thanks to a strange beacon that is bringing the dead back to life as grotesque abominations known as necromorphs; creatures that are all spindly limbs and razor sharp blades. Luckily for Isaac, he has his trusty Plasma Cutter handy.

With it, he is able to take out individual limbs in order to slow down the scarily quick necromorphs before finishing them off with the sole of his very heavy space boots. Visceral’s use of sound made for some effective tension-building and jump scares as well.

That sound design would be Dead Space’s largest and most influential contribution to video game horror’s legacy. A natural evolution of the “what you can’t see is scarier” tactic employed from the earliest days of all forms of horror.

A sequel would arrive just over two years later, and while it began to lean more towards action, it kept up the creepy, oppressive dread vibe of the first game. If the original was the film Alien; a haunted house in space, then Dead Space 2 was clearly James Cameron’s gung ho Aliens, a sequel that moves at a quicker pace and throws more unpleasant creatures at you when you least expect it.

Dead Space 2 remained in touch with its scary side while escalating the action ( the game’s finale was a massive misstep though). It certainly showed up Resident Evil 5.

Arriving the year after the original Dead Space showed us you could do action horror and still retain the scares, Resident Evil 5 was almost devoid of any real terror, favoring intense gunplay against revamped versions of Resi 4’s Las Plagas victims.

Resident Evil 5 was a competent third-person shooter with a fantastic co-op that shared traces of the Outbreak series’ ethos, but didn’t include its paranoia-inducing moments. Unlike its predecessor—and many of the genre-mashing games of the time—Resi 5 further tipped the balance towards the shooter genre that had gained such popularity thanks to the boon created by Modern Warfare.

It wouldn’t be the first game to awkwardly embrace the evolving shooter market in such a desperate and hamfisted manner, nor would it be the only horror series to fall into this trap and damage its reputation for the sake of a wider audience. Big companies would continue to struggle with the idea of producing a straight horror game as PS3’s time came to a close.

Yet the end of that generation and the beginning of the next would see a fresh influx of horror, not just from big name companies either. The indie scene would begin to set the new standard, influenced by the very games that kickstarted the genre and adding new ways to terrify gamers.

Horror Reanimates Once More for PS3 and PS4

Let’s switch focus to the last few years of the PS3, and the beginning of the current generation.

The PlayStation 3’s richest years were now upon it. The initial slow start had become a procession of quality games as videogame’s mainstream appeal went supernova. Horror games, as they once were, seemingly had no place in the current market thanks to publisher’s obsession with climbing aboard the Call of Duty money train, even if it meant sacrificing the principles of a game’s heritage to do so.

Just when horror seemed to be crawling away from its grave, it was once again cut down. As before though, there were still some out there willing to keep horror undead, and not just in the AAA market. Indie developers were on the rise, and there were some who would bring traditional horror back to the forefront successfully enough that other, bigger companies took note. But before the newest rise, horror would have to fall again.

We begin with the story of the two most prominent players in gaming horror’s history; namely Resident Evil and Silent Hill. They both had stumbled and fumbled their way through recent years and 2012 was a strange year for both. Resident Evil 6 was on the way, with Capcom promising more of a compromise between older Resi and the new, action-led version.

What got delivered was a bloated mess that possessed an incredibly erratic tone. There were more traditional Resi moments during Leon’s campaign, and a game consisting entirely of those would have been something of a return to form, but the other sections were baffling, laughable and downright stupid. Critically and commercially it did well, but a backlash against its direction brewed as angry fans began to feel it was a step too far beyond the series’ roots.

resident evil 6

Meanwhile, the good ship Silent Hill had been scuttled on the rocks of mismanagement, as developer after developer was allowed to steer it into the shallow, rocky outcrop of obscurity. So by the time Silent Hill Downpour arrived in 2012, a lot of faith and love had been lost. Downpour was probably the closest the series had come remotely close to a true Silent Hill in years, as escaped prisoner Murphy Pendleton winds up in a new area of the creepy town.

A lot of classic Silent Hill callbacks were present, but Downpour still fell short of properly recapturing that nightmarish magic. The wreck was leaking its cargo and fast becoming a history lesson rather than a continuing legacy.

After a brief surge in popularity, horror was clearly on the wane once more, even Dead Space; the newest king of survival horror had fallen from grace thanks to a shift into a more action-orientated third entry that tore apart its formula to accommodate microtransactions. It didn’t make Dead Space 3 a bad game by any stretch, but it did feel further removed from the claustrophobic confines of a ship by making it mostly occur on an icy planet’s research outpost (the series’ biggest nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing yet).

That we are nearly three years on from its release and have yet to hear anything about another installment suggests EA felt the game didn’t match sales expectations soand put the series on the backburner. And so another horror series was diminished in swift time. Luckily, a brand new, big budget horror-themed game was on the way that would gain widespread critical acclaim and carry the torch for narrative-driven terror. And it was from the creators of Crash Bandicoot.

silent hill

Dead Space 3

The Last of Us wasn’t just a horror game because of its frightful monstrosities caused by a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus, it was a horror because it showed the ugly side to humanity. The apocalypse is a currently a tired subject matter thanks to the amount of variations on it we’ve seen in past five or six years, but it is a rare game that deals with the impact it has on people, how it wears them down, makes husks of them.

Taking inspiration from the bleak Cormac McCarthy novel ‘The Road’, The Last of Us took us to an America long since overrun by the infected and nature, where survival is the ultimate privilege that nobody can really appreciate. Fleeting moments of beauty are cherished, but the knowledge that something awful is just around the next corner constantly invades those moments.

Naughty Dog surely reached its zenith with The Last of Us, a game that was truly as much a psychological horror as Silent Hill, and a survival horror to rival the very best of that sub-genre. It stands as a landmark moment in gaming for its storytelling prowess (albeit in a medium that doesn’t have the greatest track record) and for many other factors, but it almost gets overlooked as a horror title.

Yet it is one, and certainly one of the most involving on multiple levels. A fitting swansong then, to horror on the PS3, closing that book’s final chapter, leaving us ready to start the next volume.

The Era of PS4 Horror Games

The PlayStation 4 launched with a focus on indie titles being one of its key strategies. This proved limited as far as horror was concerned. Despite the PC was becoming an increasingly rich source of independent horror games, with the likes of Slenderman and Amnesia leading the way, few made it to consoles until Redbarrels’ Outlast; a first person title that saw you as a reporter uncovering the secrets of a psychiatric hospital’s depraved experiments.

Like Slenderman and Amnesia, you are pretty defenseless against the horrors that awaited you, meaning the best option is to run and hide. Outlast created nerve-wracking terror every time an enemy would appear thanks to that feeling of helplessness. The only problem with this style of horror is that it gets a little one note after a while.

Outlast kept it brief to try and avoid such problems, but suffered slightly from it all the same. Still, it was an interesting take on a genre that isn’t exactly a breeding ground for change. The other games of note during this time were Lone Survivor; which managed to pull off the oppressive, unsettling atmosphere of Silent Hill in a 2D 16 bit style quite impressively, and Daylight; which, despite a good premise based on not looking/looking at things, was a lot less enjoyable to play than the aforementioned games.

best horror games on ps4

Outlast

The first year of PS4’s life turned out to be a rather fruitful one for new horror titles. In addition to the indie games already mentioned we saw Creative Assembly make impressive use of the Alien license as Alien Isolation saw Ripley’s daughter stalked aboard a space station by the titular xenomorph.

It ended up being well received, and showed that modern horror by big companies didn’t have to be weighted down with excessive guns and explosions. Elsewhere Shinji Mikami, a figurehead of the original Resident Evil, returned to survival horror with The Evil Within.

Mikami’s newest echoed much of Resi’s history, whilst throwing in a touch of psychological horror to boot. It made some attempt to modernise the formula, but mostly it served as a warm, frustrating reminder of past glories. These bigger budget horror games saw the genre building up a head of steam once more and that’s not even counting the year’s biggest, and most important horror title, which wasn’t even a full game.

During E3 2014, Sony casually dropped in a mention of a previously unknown game called P.T. that had a demo waiting on the store, ready to be downloaded right now. The demo consisted of walking around a corridor on a loop, solving obscure puzzles to make the next loop change somehow. While this is happening, some seriously disturbing things are occurring.

It was a truly unsettling, scary slice of terror, with a constant sense of dread accompanying every step through that maddening corridor. A few hours after the demo released, a Twitch streamer finished the demo’s hellish puzzle, and she and her audience were treated to a cutscene that panned out to reveal The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as the previously unseen protagonist, and then the music kicked in, followed by the titles.

P.T. demo, no longer available

This demo, which that arrived out of nowhere, was merely a teaser for a new Silent Hill game; Silent Hills, and would be overseen by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and Metal Gear Solid mastermind Hideo Kojima. Suddenly Silent Hill was relevant again, and excitement grew for the possibilities this dream team could create.

Then of course, 2015 happened. Kojima’s place at Konami suddenly became threatened, the project was cancelled and the rest is now a sad history. It doesn’t stop P.T. being an important step in video game horror’s legacy, as well as a warning about the fragility of digital gaming thanks to Konami pulling the demo off stores, seemingly for good.

Horror continues to thrive in recent years, and looks to have a solid future too. Resident Evil returned to its roots with a long-awaited port of the GameCube remake of the original game making it’s way to modern consoles, and complemented by the release of the decent spin off series, Revelations 2. Until Dawn; a slasher horror game where nobody in the young adult cast is safe from death, looks to be a sleeper hit, while indie titles SOMA and the Vanishing of Ethan Carter provide a more thought-provoking forms of horror thrills.

The Evil Within

Of course, 2014 also saw the debut of The Evil Within. A return to the Survival Horror genre for Shinji Mikami, it saw a blend of both western horror mixed with eastern horror.

The Evil Within did a great job of making you feel hopeless in a terrifying situation by severely limiting your options to defend yourself and that added to the tension of being chased down by the titles various monstrosities.

Though the title garnered some backlash for its outlandish story and some infuriating one hit kill enemies, it also brought out some of the best work Mikami had done since departing Capcom and the Resident Evil franchise.

In the past couple of years, games that have embraced horror at their root have continued to trickle out. Friday The 13th: The Game, despite licensing issues that surfaced post-launch, gained a cult following from fans who found themselves enraptured by Jason Voorhees’ grisly executions, or the thrill of being one of the camp counselors attempting to flee from his clutches.

Though it was Resident Evil 4 that revitalized the genre back in 2005, Capcom would return most recently with Resident Evil 7 – a transformative effort that would bring a new level of realism to horror games by leveraging the power of the PS4. Despite almost losing its grip as the daddy of survival horror games with the last two and relatively safe core entries in the series, Capcom arguably made the perfect move in switching the action to the first-person perspective in Resident Evil 7.

Simply, this put players right in the thick of a incredible-looking game, where being stalked by the impossibly scary and fearsome Jack Baker felt tangibly real and filled you with a sense of paranoia and fear. It made the nightmarish scenario that the series has always strived for feel that much more intimate, and ultimately, that much more real.

best ps4 horror games

Of course, during the PS4 era we’ve also been introduced to PlayStation VR, and PS VR horror experiences have been growing from strength to strength. Alongside the innovative likes of The Persistence, the brilliant VR version of Resident Evil 7 and the deliciously disturbing Home Sweet Home, as recently as October 2018 we’ve hit the pinnacle of virtual-reality horror with the terrifying The Exorcist: Legion VR; a truly pant-filling affair that doesn’t soon leave your thoughts once finished.

PSVR is a platform that shows great promise for the genre, with the ability to really draw players into a nuanced, 360 degree game world and provide up close frights that can traumatize you in a myriad of ways. More than that, it’s encouraging developers to experiment with the horror that they inflict on players – with the random generation of enemies and levels in The Persistence proving to be one such example of how the innovations provided by PSVR can benefit the genre as a whole.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for horror games over the past 20 years or so, but like Voorhees himself, every time it seems to be on the brink of death, it rises once again to terrify a new audience. It’s difficult to comprehend what radical changes could occur to the genre in the next twenty years beyond VR. Will Resident Evil remain a big player for many years to come? Is Silent Hill truly done for? Which new horror franchises will become the icons of a new era? For now, these questions lurk in darkness, ready to strike out with answers when you least expect them.

Love survival horror games? Check out our scariest moments in videogames.