The “scary” video game genre has only recently wandered out of the shadows into the harsh light of the mainstream. Prior to the Playstation generation, it was simply hard to be scared by the formless blobs or indistinct sprites that were considered “cutting edge”. Sure, that may have been a zombie in Alone in the Dark, but it also could’ve been Green Man from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even modern classics such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil were sometimes hard to take seriously because of their low quality textures and simplistic models.
The one thing that they did have was music. Most classic horror themes are known for their simplicity, such as the classic theme for Halloween which is little more than a basic melody set to a persistent but unassuming beat. This tradition led into early video game horror music perfectly, as the sound chips for early systems like the NES and SNES placed strict limitations on the numbers of “instruments” that could be used at one time. Haunting and basic were guidelines for the first generation of horror game music.
Games still managed to scare us though. Most of us have a memory of a totally unintentionally terrifying moment in a video game, something that caught us off guard and sent us scurrying for the light switch. Nestled in a blanket of security, sure that we were in control, it was easy to get taken advantage of, but it was rare for a game to actually TRY and scare you. When they did though, it was often the music that did it. Here are just a few examples, starting at the NES and going on, of times when scary games pulled it off thanks to creative music.
Friday the 13th – NES
Friday the 13th wasn’t exactly a scary game. Your greatest foe was evil birds, the song that played while outdoors was comical at best, and you spent most of your time trying to cobble together random bits and pieces that somehow would defeat Jason. Poor design decisions drive the majority of the terror in this game. Then you went into your first cabin at night, Alone, in the “dark”, and unsure of where the masked madman might be, you were forced to explore a hopefully empty cabin set to the above song. Methodical and plodding, it’s almost comforting until you turn a corner and find the big guy himself, machete leveled at your face. When you’re 7 years old and sitting in the dark, there isn’t much that’s scarier.
Phantasy Star 1 – SMS
This song isn’t scary as much as it is tense. A little background is required for those who didn’t play Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System during its hayday. This music plays during the final boss fight against the oft-repeated Dark Force (DarkFalz thanks to name character limits). After defeating what you think is the final boss, you find yourself thrust back into the dungeon, a final door in your way. Once you open that door, the music kicks in and this guy appears.
His red eyes burrow into your soul, destroying any hope of sleep you may have had for the rest of your youth. If you were anything like me, you had been playing long enough that you had neglected to turn the lights on as the sun set, so you sat in the dark, your only salvation a desperate run to the far side of the room.
Stuff like that stays with you.
Clock Tower – SNES
For those of us lucky enough to get into the emulation scene early, the SNES classic Clock Tower was our first foray into real horror gaming. Sure, the real scares came from trying to get a translation patch working, but once you got into the game you were treated to a game whose deliberately snail-like pace and practically worthless protagonist captured the essence of what it meant to be hunted. The music, despite having access to a far wider range of higher quality samples, tended towards mimicking the simple melodies of the great horror movie themes, ending up sounding a lot like the themes to films like Hellraiser or Halloween. What was especially interesting about Clock Tower was actually the lack of music, the silence being almost overwhelming at times.
X-com UFO Defense – PC
For a game that had nothing to do with horror, X-com: UFO Defense was one of the scariest games of its time. One of the earliest squad-level turn-based games, X-com tasked you with maintaining a secret military force designed to prevent aliens from taking over the Earth. Fights were often set at night, with your men slowly investigating farmhouses or small towns that were the site of alien crash landings or “terror” attacks. With this subtle theme playing you’d spend 15-20 minutes desperately organizing your men, the aggressive fog of war preventing you from seeing much beyond your limited scope, just waiting for the tell-tale hiss of a plasma rifle being fired from the darkness. The music was barely there, tirelessly pressing forward, that subtle beat fading into the background until you hit that “End Turn” button. Then the waiting began, with only the sound effects to keep you company. If you were anything like me and found yourself playing this game late into the night, hunched over your tiny CRT monitor in a pitch black room, there was nothing more terrifying than the moment you heard the chittering of a Chryssalid or sound of a door opening and closing cast against that terrible static image of “Unknown Movement”.
Silent Hill – PSX
Silent Hill revolutionized horror gaming in a lot of ways, but some of the largest strides were in the soundtrack department. Crafted by Akira Yamaoka, the music of Silent Hill broke free of the tropes that dominated the horror scene…namely haunting pianos and shrieking violins. Much like the game itself, the terror came not understanding the music. We knew that the subtle tinkle of a piano meant something scary, but the ethereal gongs of the Church song or the otherworldly warping melodies of the Antique Shop put us off guard. Everything seemed otherworldly and difficult to understand, just like the town itself.
And then, suddenly, everything comes crashing down into a manic industrial beat. Still unable to categorize our experience, we resort to pure chaos. The cacophony of the different combat themes in the game mirror that sense of desperation, that feeling that to stop long enough to actually try to understand what was chasing us would spell immediate doom. Many people complain that the fixed camera in Silent Hill made combat unnecessarily difficult, but I find that the fact that your pursuer was almost always just off screen added something intangible to the tension. Just like in the film Alien, something is only scary when you never quite get a look at it.
This song is a great example of what the enhanced technology of the Playstation allowed Akira Yamaoka to do with the music. Notice that there’s never a dominant sound or melody, instead just a bunch of warbling metallic sounds fading in and out. Like a dream, no single note holds steady, instead barely penetrating the surface before fading back away. Much like Harry’s experience in the town, to actually try and think about the song leads you into a state of confusion. Does it loop? Is the piano still there? It unsettles you, barely there and yet always there.
Resident Evil – PSX
How can you talk about horror gaming and not mention the grand-daddy, Resident Evil. Despite being much more traditional than Silent Hill, the music of the Umbrella mansion still serves to instill a sense of both awe and unease, especially in the early moments of the game, before you know what’s going on. Empty and desolate, it harkens back to introduction of the only real haunted house theme.
Interestingly enough, if you listen to the Mansion theme from the Gamecube remake, which came out long after Silent Hill, you can hear how the ideas introduced there influenced the music. The driving instruments are gone, replaced with otherworldly noises and echoes, adding to the sense of discordance that Yamaoka established.
Of course, this is just a brief sampling of horror music. Since Silent Hill, the genre has expanded to include more action (Dead Space), more impotence (Amnesia), and significantly more text (Corpse Party), but the basic ideas haven’t changed. Whether it’s sudden drums or subtle pianos, horror games are still best played in the dark, a good pair of headphones in your ears. You wouldn’t want to be able to hear the closet door open, would you?