The Pixelated Ghosts of Horror Games Past Are Haunting Us This Year

Crude polygonal models, pixelated blood, and eerily uncanny lighting and fog provide a rich palette for terror.

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Dec 18 2018, 7:00pm

'Paratopic' screenshot courtesy of Arbitrary Metric

After years of admiring it from a distance, I recently began my very first playthrough of Silent Hill 2. To say it shows its age would be an understatement; spoiled by such modern accoutrements as free camera control and single dedicated attack buttons, I often found myself struggling against the game. But as I got a handle on the clunky controls, I became enmeshed in its fearsome world.

The awkwardness quickly became part of the game’s horror. Silent Hill 2 turns its weaknesses into strengths. The all-encompassing fog that makes navigation difficult, the tank controls, the dreadful combat—it makes the player feel one with protagonist James Sunderland, who stumbles through a world he can’t comprehend. It’s a visceral kind of fear, one that Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy’s eschew in favor of jump scares, a horror almost entirely unique to the earliest attempts at 3D.

A screenshot from Binding of Isaac showing a small, pixelated character in a dark brown room standing in a pool of dark red blood.

Video games fire on all senses, making them prime objects for reminiscing. Nostalgia as both a marketing tool and design focal point is a powerful thing, a large reason why so many games from outside the AAA ecosystem make appeals to it. Some of the most beloved titles of the last decade draw easy comparisons to the classics, whether The Binding of Isaac’s 2D Zelda-like dungeons or the propulsive run-’n’-gun action of Cuphead. When we boot up Axiom: Verge or Braid, we see the pixelated graphics and familiar controls and recapture Saturdays spent in front of a CRT and a SNES. Modern embellishments and quality of life improvements make for games which succeed by playing on our memories.

A newer school of indie horror developers, though, aim to root around in the games of yore for something darker, to take elements from the past and repurpose them as something with sharper teeth. This isn’t merely sprucing up out-of-date mechanics or building games in more efficient engines. It’s a burgeoning trend that celebrates the unfiltered textures, uncanny models and pixel-ridden maps of the not-too-distant past. Rather than buff out the flaws of the old guard, these designers are capitalizing on their inherent otherworldliness to tell deeply unsettling stories.

Some stay truer to their origins. Plenty of fans will tell you without hesitation that the first person shooters of the 1990s and early 2000s are among the best and most streamlined games, period. With so few modern options to choose from, projects like New Blood’s Dusk and Amid Evil are vital for fans of twitch gunplay, (or, in the latter’s case, trident-play). These are ludicrously precise experiences, with carefully designed levels and gorgeous Quake-esque visuals. Perhaps light on substance, but who needs that when rocket jumping to the balcony of an occult military facility?

In crude polygons and pixels, a giant, ornate double-headed battle-axe is brandished from a first-person perspective while a shattered armored torso crumbles to the ground in a pool of blood.
'Amid Evil' screenshot courtesy of New Blood Interactive.

Horror fans will have likely noticed a recent, steady trickle of games aesthetically taking after less frantic fifth generation titles—games with the grit of Resident Evil and the surrealism of Silent Hill 4: The Room. These bear a visual resemblance to Playstation 1 classics, but succeed beyond recalling their predecessors. This year’s Paratopic, for one, has all the blocky, low-poly textures familiar to retro gamers of a certain age. But rather than merely recalling its influences, Paratopic amplifies the uncanny character and environment design into frightening new territories.

For Paratopic designer Jessica Harvey, it’s not about capturing an audience of PSX-philes; it’s about exploring the low-poly aesthetic’s “hauntological potentials.” Hauntology, a term coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida and further popularized by British cultural theorist Mark Fisher, describes both culture's cyclical relationship with past aesthetic modes and also the effort to explain why such recycling happens in the first place. It is an exploration of the promised futures that never arrived: In late September of 2001, a player of Silent Hill 2 would have had good reason to imagine that the future of horror games would be something like Paratopic's moral ambiguity, low-poly grime, and sudden violence. Instead, we got everything from Resident Evil 4 to Outlast to Until Dawn. Which is why Paratopic, and games with similar intent, play like possessed updates on games from two or three generations past. The graphics, controls and stories are now clarified with intent, rather than limited by hardware restrictions. Harvey aims to wrest the "wrongness" from this era—clunky controls, unfiltered polygons‚—and channel it into something designed for new audiences.

“With the 16-bit era, when those types of games were pretty large within the indie scene ... that was a massive alienation for me,” Harvey said in an interview. “I didn’t think that any of these games were particularly being made or presented to people who didn’t have [an] emotional connection.”

A driving scene from Paratopic
'Paratopic' screenshot courtesy of Arbitrary Metric

Paratopic bears superficial similarity to Thirty Flights of Loving. The game follows an unnamed protagonist as she smuggles mysterious, contraband VHS tapes across the border. It takes a disordered approach to time, jumping through locations and events that are never fully explained. What’s on the tapes is only hinted at, though it’s clearly tantalizing enough for a nosy neighbor to demand copies early in the game.

The tantalizing story is made deeply unsettling by clever sound and visual design. NPCs’ faces contort and twist in disturbed fashion as they speak. All dialogue audio is scrambled and rendered unintelligible, complementing the fuzzed-out, grainy environment. It’s first-person, too, eschewing the third-person tank controls so familiar to those of us who were deeply offended by the Playstation Classic.

Harvey says with Paratopic, the goal was to mine classic horror games for ideas with “the clarity of today’s lens.” And while her design philosophy is perhaps more outwardly inspired by critical theory, that statement of purpose is shared by other developers who create games with more salacious ends.

Puppet Combo, a one-person studio run by Ben Cocuza with a love for VHS grain and slasher flicks, creates deeply unsettling games that focus on largely non-supernatural horrors. With titles like Night of the Nun, Buzz-Saw Blood House and SPIDERS!, Puppet Combo batters the player with violent visuals and grungy aesthetics. These games recall everything from Redneck Rampage to Thief, but with a much nastier spirit. Inspired equally by exploitation films and true crime, these are games with goofy titles that manage to genuinely unnerve. Cocuza’s games are typically released through Itch.io and Patreon.

One of the latest is the brief Feed me, BILLY!, which sets the player on a disturbed quest to find corpses to satiate the hungry, demonic hole living in the closet. The gameplay is simple and repetitive, but the basic mechanics belie a dreary and upsetting world. While trashy cinema can be a lot of fun, Cocuza’s games are almost something of a bait-and-switch; fun, gory titles give way to psychologically tormented gameplay. The slasher genre has always been ripe for thoughtful provocation, but Cocuza is ultimately more Thomas Ligotti than New French Extremity. The act of murder here is rote; from stalking victims to fumbling your way back to your car with a body, the violence on display does not make the player powerful, but powerless.

What Puppet Combo, the Paratopic team and others have done is rehabilitated a sorely underappreciated style and given it all-new potential. While there is certainly a nostalgic appeal, these games are ultimately geared toward creating something new from what once felt like limitations. These aren’t visuals that evoke a bygone era; they’re intentional artistic choices that mine the familiar for unconventional new horrors.

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