The horror genre thrives on the most primordial fears of humankind. In this sense, it relies on themes of ancestry more than others. While comedy does evolve over time with things that are not deemed “acceptable” anymore, horror seems more stable. If anything, our fears are always the same: pain, death, the unknown. No surprise, then, that horror in gaming has often gone back to the drawing board and bathed into this primordial ooze. Naturally, horror games need extra detail over movies and books, that tiny bit that makes them… well, games.
But what are the most common themes, characters and stylistic features of horror gaming? From Ants to Zombies, the latest release from Bitmap Books aims to take a full dive into them, taking the reader along on the ride. With the subtitle “six decades of video game horror”, it is abundantly clear that we are going on a slipstream ride from the past to the present, starting from the early computer game experiences down to the latest scary titles.
But the approach that author Alexander Chatziioannou takes is different from the usual - and often superfluous - “listicles” of games. He makes it clear right from the beginning, saying: “I firmly believe that highlighting an obscure gem is a nobler endeavour than checklisting the same handful of already ubiquitous classics”. Thus, the author came up with the self-imposed rule of not repeating games from the same franchises, not even in different chapters.
One might think this would seriously limit the number of games being examined, but From Ants to Zombies goes above and beyond the call of duty. Weighing in at 664 pages and 2.5kg, this is not a book to quickly read in an evening, but rather to taste with time. The physical copy is not only of the classic quality we’ve come to expect from Bitmap Books, but also quite the bundle of joy, or rather, horror.
The author’s refreshing approach guarantees that the writing is kept interesting throughout, being more than a simple list of 130 different games. For example, right there from the title, we can expect a dive into Ant Attack, an early 1983 classic where we control a boy and a girl, exploring a maze in search of our partner, while huge ants are on our trail. The creator is also interviewed by the author as, he recalls, “a rainy Scottish afternoon turned an art project into a gothic-horror survival game”.
Rather than debate what a title included in the book does to warrant the “horror” etiquette or not, the approach is instead on the atmosphere of each game. Grounded, the 2022 Obsidian survival game, might not really fit the category for scary games, right? At least, not from the look or the marketing, but considering the terror of finding oneself in a new environment, with huge creatures after us and limited resources to survive on, well, then the objective of the experience becomes pretty clear.
But it’s not all scary sprites and 3D monsters, as text adventures are also part of the experience in the book. Among the oldest titles in From Ants to Zombies, Greg Hassett’s The House of Seven Gables also gets examined. Even more, Chatziioannou looks at the entire category of text adventures, going from early classic games such as those developed by Rod Pike (Dracula) to more recent entries, such as 2017 Stories Untold. Le Pacte also gets an honourable mention, a quite obscure French horror semi-textual adventure which was Eric Chahi’s first game in 1986, before his classic Another World.
There are some interesting conceptual choices. For example, inside the “interactive movies” category, the first game we found is It Came From the Desert. Of course, movies do not equal FMVs, or rather, real actors performing in front of a green screen as was common in the mid-90s. It Came from the Desert fits perfectly in the category as it aims to evoke a specific 50s pulp cinema atmosphere, nailing it perfectly as well. The author explains it was “a last minute choice”, as that game works “as an abandoned early blueprint for the medium’s cinematic ambitions”. It would have been interesting to also look at the FMV version of the same game, which came out on the TurboGrafx CD, but I cannot really argue with the book glossing over it completely. It was definitely one of the worst FMV experiences released back then, indeed a pretty tall order.
But, more importantly, the author dwells on the survival horror forefathers significantly. Alone in the Dark naturally gets mentioned, especially regarding Resident Evil designer Shinji Mikami “taking twenty years to admit his debt” to Infogrames’ classic 3D game. Resident Evil is the book’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (great nod to Sergio Leone), as the designer moulded and twisted influences such as Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark “into something singularly potent”. The author praises the use of ink ribbons, as those “change the entire complexion of the game in a single stroke.” While I agree with him on that point, I would say that they did have diminishing returns in subsequent entries in the series. By Resident Evil 0, with the series having jumped exploration for action, the use of ribbons seemed more a “convention” than anything else.
On Silent Hill, director Keeichiro Toiyama gets interviewed on how, even though getting late into the genre, Konami managed to revolutionize the survival horror genre. “I realized I could express my emotions and tastes through this genre”, says Toiyama as he also mentions how light and darkness were the basic elements that birthed the game. The designer explains how the fear of the unknown, being attacked by the creature that you weren’t seeing just a few seconds before. Toiyama concludes his quote with a very important design tip: “Horror is a genre that looks into the human psyche”, thus making it clear how Silent Hill differentiated itself from Resident Evil and the rest of the survival horror genre.
Chatziioannou did deep and serious research work, bringing the audience a work that not just lazily lists games you already know, comforting you that everything is fine, but leads you down the path of obscure and strange. If you want real horror, if you want to know how it evolved through the decades, then let curiosity be your guide as you are led down mazes filled with huge ants and a strange pixelated spaceship on the Apple II.
Being a huge, almost 3 kg beast, this is a book that looks great on any library of self-respecting gamers. Especially for those looking to deep-dive into some of the obscure games that they may have never played. Even myself, a purveyor of obscurities, I haven’t played many of the games mentioned here. With high quality paper and a glow-in-the-dark effect on the cover as well, this is a lovely gift for any lovers of horror, not just retro fans. From Ants to Zombies is one of the best horror game anthologies that money can buy, this is one that you won’t one to miss out on.