An exploration of the history of horror-themed roleplaying games and video games, as well as a lively romp through why so many people love these games.
Twenty years ago or so, I participated in my first scary tabletop roleplaying game. It was a modern-age adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, and it managed to scare its players silly. I’m not a fan of horror movies at all, but horror games can sometimes hit me just right as a tabletop player. Nowadays, players can find all manner of horror games in both tabletop and video-game forms. If you count horror themes that aren’t actually seeking to scare, we can add card and board games to that mix as well. Over and over again, players have demonstrated a keen interest in horror games.
And I can see why. Fear is part of the human condition. Horror games speak to that part of us and allow us to take a little control over it.
A voice in the darkness: Hello? Is anyone out there? Can you help me?
Just a few years after that Call of Cthulhu game, I led a tabletop roleplaying game set in an analogue of the European Renaissance/Baroque period. The players had entered a haunted forest to get to a castle at its center.
As the gamemaster, or GM, I described the creepy mist that seemed to thickly envelop everything. The absolutely necessary path that the players absolutely had to strictly follow that twisted and turned in illogical ways. The blackened, charred trees and sickly shrubs that overhung the path. A terrifying, moonless night, weird rustlings, and who-even-knew-what that lurked at the outer edges of their perception.
And then, I told them they heard a voice far away from the path, at the limit of hearing. Affecting a child’s high-pitched, distressed, thin little voice, I called out:
Hello? Is anyone out there? Can you help me?
Oh, it was so rewarding for me to see my players shudder in horror.
Alas! They were smart enough not to fall for my bait. But forever after I could just call out “Hello?” like that to my husband, who was one of the players, and watch him shiver all over again—in fear and delight.
The delicious early history of horror games
Way back in 1971, Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren published Chainmail. This granddaddy of all tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) wasn’t about roleplay at all. Rather, it provided rules for fantasy wargaming using 40mm miniatures. Players created armies following this game’s rules. Then, the armies fought to see who’d win.
Chainmail proved to be wildly popular, eventually becoming Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Instead of armies, players now controlled just one character (a player character, or PC; non-player-controlled characters were, accordingly, NPCs). D&D (or DnD) became wildly popular, quickly sprouting all kinds of competitors.
In 1981, Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu (CoC). It was the very first horror-themed TTRPG. Very quickly, the TTRPG world caught on to the potential here. Competitors jostled their way onto shop shelves: Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic (1983), Chill: Adventures Into the Unknown (1984), Ghostbusters (yes! in 1986), and a horror module for GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System in 1987.
In my opinion, the oldest of these, CoC, was hands down the best, but Ravenloft (1990) runs a very close second.
At the same time, video game developers sought to capture the trend
Video games also sought to capitalize on the horror genre, of course. When I was just a wee little kid, I played Haunted House (1982) on my Atari 2600. As was normal for Atari games, the cover art was completely unrelated to the actual graphics of the game:
Haunted House was not the very first horror-themed video game. That honor may belong to the Japanese game AX-2, published in 1981. But it was the first one that achieved widespread popularity in America. Many more would follow, though: 3D Monster Maze (1982) for the Sinclair ZX81, Terror House (also 1982) for Bandai’s handheld line of games, and Castlevania in 1986. These were relatively primitive affairs.
In 1989, though, Nintendo’s Sweet Home changed the game for horror enthusiasts. It combined puzzle minigames with supernatural enemies to fight within a haunted house setting. Its storyline even changed depending on the players’ choices, which could lead to five different endings for the game. Sweet Home would eventually inspire 1996’s Resident Evil. By then, video gamers enjoyed many choices in this genre, including Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Alone in the Dark (also 1992).
Of all of these early entries to the genre, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1995), based on the absolutely incredible 1967 short story of the same name by Harlan Ellison, stands out as the best.
Horror game developers continued to refine their craft. By the end of the 90s, friends were telling me about the eerie power of Silent Hill (1999). This game was so disturbing that nobody in my gaming group could play it late at night if they were alone. It just creeped them out too much! And the series managed to one-up themselves, even then. One gaming site, Den of Geek, ranks Silent Hill 3 (2003) as “the absolute scariest Silent Hill game ever made.” That’s got to be saying something! (Incidentally, they remained really impressed despite its age with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.)
Call of Cthulhu and the evergreen appeal of Lovecraftian horror games
That OG horror TTRPG, Call of Cthulhu, has remained popular ever since its first publication. It’s now well into its seventh edition. I strongly suspect that a few factors contributed to its status as an evergreen game:
First, it’s based upon H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. Lovecraft’s work has been popular for decades, and there’s no sign of that popularity waning.
The specific story that inspired the game was a 1926 short story of his, also called “The Call of Cthulhu.”
A number of contemporary cultural influences fed into that short story, all of which grabbed people’s attention at the time: the idea of massive, godlike deep-sea entities and domination-focused extraterrestrials, gods that must be appeased or lulled to sleep, high-level collusion with dark forces, and all of it a secret kept from normies until our brave heroes start piecing everything together.
(If you’ve ever gotten annoyed at those research scenes in horror and thriller movies where the protagonists trundle off to the bookshelves to figure out what their enemy is and how to defeat it (or to learn that it cannot be defeated at all), chances are good that the inspiration for such scenes initially came from that period. Feel free to blame them. Except for Lord Dunsany. He’s a literary treasure.)
Next, CoC games often revolve around extensive conspiracy theories. Players must uncover and investigate obscure clues to gain information, then assemble their findings into usable plans to combat (or escape, or placate) their enemy. In the real world, conspiracy theories are almost never a reflection of reality. But it’s not paranoia if you really are being followed and they really are out to get you.
Last, CoC themes never go out of style.
The fear at the heart of horror games’ appeal…
Like most horror games, Call of Cthulhu deals significantly in our fear of the unknown, which is a nearly-universal fear for humans. Not all of us are scared of spiders. (Or only scared if they’re lurking in our trousers or scuttling along our bedroom ceilings, and with that, I will just shut up about spiders now, okay?) Most people don’t start sweating and shaking at the sight of clowns. But just about everybody fears and gets stressed out about the unknown.
In the real world, we know there are no unearthly fish-people living in coastal Massachusetts. Nobody’s ever found their city under the water, nor spotted them or their bones or their artifacts anywhere. They’re as fictional as Bigfoot. But in the altered context of a game’s setting, players can suspend their disbelief and enter a world that contains all of these markers of the Deep Ones’ existence—and more besides.
Similarly, in horror games like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, players contend with a future controlled by an unimaginably-evil and malevolent artificial intelligence (AI). They have little idea of just how powerful the AI is, nor how far it will go to control their lives and alter their circumstances. The more they find out, the more horrifying the game becomes.
When we know we don’t know something, we get really stressed out. The more important that thing is, the more life-or-death the stakes it represents, the more stress we tend to feel.
…And the universal hope and catharsis they offer
Often, horror games present scenarios to players that seem hopeless. Sometimes they actually are, but often players can make choices to affirm their humanity and compassion—and these choices improve their chances of success. In Bioshock (2007), players can choose to spare the little girls gathering resources for the villain, or players can kill them for their resources. If the player spares all of these girls, even though that means going without their resources, then the game ends on a much more hopeful note than it does if the player kills even one of them.
But for horror fans, before hope can dawn, despair and fear must run roughshod for a time. That’s where the best horror games, be they TTRPG or video games, can shine. Good storytelling, be it a human GM at a table or a game designer using million-dollar graphics and pro-written dialogue, can thrill players, terrify them, then send them soaring into the clouds of catharsis. With its dark themes, horror games can dive more deeply into the negative side of emotion, which makes its positive upswing all the more dramatic.
After all, this chasing of catharsis is why thrill-seekers love wild roller coaster rides. The faster the ride gets, the higher it drops riders from, the more extreme its twists and turns get, the more exciting it feels. That same principle applies to horror games: it’s always darkest before dawn, as the saying goes.
Sometimes, horror games even inspire players to think about what makes villains what they are. My Life With Master (2003) takes a more active hand here than most games do. Players not only design their minion PC but also their minion’s master, then try to free their PC from the master’s control. The game rises to the level of interactive art, not just storytelling, for what it says about abusive relationships and the power of human connection.
Horror games exploit “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind”
H.P. Lovecraft himself famously wrote, “Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind.” Other experts, like early psychologist Edmund Burke, thought that self-preservation might be stronger than any fear. Even before that, Aristotle noted in Poetics that horror-themed art delighted its viewers. Horror writer Alex de Borba notes:
Scholarly and readerly interest in horror has not decreased despite the fact that it has been contemplated for millennia, which exemplifies the continuous relevance of horror. To illustrate, Ken Gelder makes it clear that horror is an integral part of the very fabric of our society: “the socio-political system needs these rhetorics, narratives and so on — that is, it needs horror itself — in order to be what it is and do what it does.”At Most Fear
Indeed, I’ve seen some interesting links between people’s anxieties-of-the-moment and the kind of horror they most often create and enjoy. If that’s true in the world of horror movies, imagine how much more so it must be in the world of collaborative storytelling—or, as people commonly call them, roleplaying games.