This is the first part of a series on the history of horror games, so check back at PC Games Week 2022 for the rest of the origin story of horror games on PC.
PC games offer people a great way to immerse themselves in different realities. What game genre creates an alternate reality stronger than horror?
PC gaming and the horror genre have always been destined for each other. From artificial intelligence to virtual reality, all the latest technology works beautifully with the latest horror games, and from twitch streams to reaction channels, horror games are more popular than ever.
The history of PC horror games is a story of inspiration and risk. The current state of gaming rests heavily on the influence of many gaming visionaries and several home computing systems that have had a lasting cultural impact.
So, let’s take a look back at the important historical milestones in the PC gaming industry that paved the way for some of our favorite scary titles like Dead Space, Outlast, and Visage.
Birth of industry
There’s no better place to look back at PC horror games than 1972. During these early years, gaming was more of a social activity as the arcade became a popular hangout his spot for games like Killer Shark and Speed Race.
Meanwhile, the early home computer industry was trying to convince the general public of the effectiveness of computers as a solution for increasing productivity at work and school.
Gaming never seemed to be a priority for computer companies, but an unpretentious innovator saw the potential to bring the fun of gaming into someone’s living room.
This visionary was Ralph Baer, an American engineer and inventor who later became known as the “Father of Video Games.” As an engineer working for Sanders Associates, a US-based defense contractor, Baer developed home video game systems as a side project.
When Baer pitched his “video game system” prototype to American electronics company Magnavox, few expected them to be witnessing the birth of the home video game industry. This side his project became the Magnavox Odyssey, the first personal gaming system for the home.
The Magnavox Odyssey bears little resemblance to the PCs we know today, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that home PCs became widely available.
The Magnavox Odyssey game system broke new ground and is generally considered a commercial success. Marketing didn’t work because no one really knew how to promote the new technology to the public, but the public was intrigued by the system and intrigued by the concept of a home game.
horror games are back home
The first recognized horror video game marketed for home computing systems was Magnavox Odyssey’s Haunted House.
Released in 1972, Haunted House required players to utilize a decal overlay on the monitor screen and use the accompanying physical playing cards to play. If you want a glimpse of the game in action, the OdysseyNow project, which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, has several demos of the game in action. (opens in new tab).
Interesting in and of itself, there’s no question that Haunted House looks childish by today’s standards. Haunted House was technically the first horror title on a home video game system, but no one claims it created real horror. Still, this was the beginning of the gaming industry and a very important milestone.
Avid critics will point out that Magnavox Odyssey is more of a game console than a PC, and that’s not entirely wrong.
It’s a pity that programmer Gregory Yob is a name you don’t hear very often. His brainchild, Hunt the Wumpus, is often referred to as one of the earliest horror/adventure games made for the PC. The release date is somewhat vague as it was not given a major corporate release, but the release year is generally given as his 1973.
Yob was inspired to create Hunt the Wumpus when he visited the People’s Computer Center (PCC) in Menlo Park, California. Back then, home he computers (such as the Xerox Alto) were still very rare. However, there were many commercial facilities displaying curious computers.
PCC provided numerous computer terminals for the public to use and enjoy. His PCC, the predecessor of Cybercafe, was popular with people curious about what was special about these early computers.
Unsurprisingly, the game was so popular that when visiting PCC, Yob felt he could play the game himself and create something better. So Job went to work and made history.
Hunt the Wumpus was a turn-based game with a simple text interface. Players hunt the eponymous creature Wumpus through a series of dark interconnected caverns arranged as the vertices of a dodecahedron.
Entering the cave will tell you if a wumpus is present and the three caves that are connected to the cave you are currently in. Avoid deadly pits and other entities such as bats.
The player is armed with several arrows, and these are the player’s only weapons for dispatching wumpus. there’s a good chance you will.
As daunting as it sounds to follow, this early horror game was a real test of logical thinking and application. I had to plan my moves and think to survive.
Hunt the Wumpus made its own debut on PCC and proved so popular with the masses that it went on sale and was ported to multiple computer systems over the next few years. There were no commercial game stores at the time, so interested buyers had to obtain the game by mail, using order forms from the various computer magazines available.
laying the groundwork for a horror game
The enthusiasm surrounding Hunt the Wumpus will eventually subside as new games enter the market.
Hunt the Wumpus and other early PC games laid the groundwork for convincing investors and computer companies that PC horror games were a lucrative industry. Still, it will take years and some groundbreaking games to be released for the industry to truly flourish.
It’s pretty incredible to imagine that the multi-billion dollar PC gaming market started with people selling games through advertisements in computer magazines. However, many early computer companies started out as cottage industries. This was the beginning of PC gaming, and horror games have been there since the beginning.