The first time I was ever frightened by a video game, I was 5 years old at my cousin's house playing Doom. It seems especially tame today, even to me, but at the time the demonic imagery, horrific monsters jumping out of nowhere, and various sound effects - whether any monsters were nearby or not - scared the crap out of me.
Now, as a rule, I've never considered myself a fan of the horror genre in general. That was for sickos who got off on seeing the gore and whatnot. Also, I just didn't understand what entertainment value could really be gleaned from being frightened. It wasn't until much later that I came to the realization that, for some people at least, the scares aren't entertaining, but are a means to and end, the end being a heightened sense of identification with the player's avatar. Post-Doom, I never really played much in the way of horror games until recently, when a mostly disparate series of events and a strong helping of curiosity has lead me to go through a number of the classics of the genre. As a result, I now understand the genre much more, and would even consider myself somewhat of a fan. Go figure.
It started with the Mondo games (Mondo Medicals and Mondo Agency), a 'series' of two freeware games I found by accident one time. They're very short, and their intention is, essentially, to as realistically as possible portray a semi-lucid nightmare. One of those that makes sense for the most part while you're asleep, but when you wake up you have no idea what was going on, or why you were so frightened. After becoming subsequently involved with the community that had sprung up around the games, a friend I met through it recommended the Chzo Mythos games by Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame). This was really the turning point for me. These were brilliantly-written, wonderfully well thought-out adventure titles with a strong narrative pulling them all together and a fittingly ambiguous ending. Though my admiration for the series has lessened after playing many of the classics it borrows elements from, this was when I discovered that it really wasn't all about the gore. In fact, many times, disturbing imagery is the least disturbing part of a game of this ilk.
Shortly afterwards, I finally caved to a friend who'd been trying to convince me to give Resident Evil 4 a try. He kept telling me "no, its not like the others at all. No zombies or anything. Its great, you've got to give it a spin." So, eventually, I did, and I freaking loved it. Still one of my top 10, ever, and arguably the greatest horror game ever made. Not as scary as most, but so exceedingly well-made that it more than makes up for that. So, as I'm wont to do when I discover a new series, I thought to myself "well, I liked this one so much. Surely the other ones would at least be worth playing?" and I was right. While I still have yet to track down Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and have yet to get a system to play Resident Evil 5 on, I found Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 to be thoroughly rewarding experiences, although oddly enough I found I enjoyed the puzzle aspects of these games more than anything else.
Around this time I discovered a list of japanese-only SNES games that had received English fan translations. While I'm normally against emulation, I found this to be acceptable, and was soon enjoying Seiken Densetsu 3, Front Mission, and Front Mission: Gun Hazard immensely. But hidden amongst all that I downloaded was a little gem called Clock Tower. Now, I had vaguely heard of the series before, but I never paid it much mind. After all, I wasn't a horror fan. It took less than five minutes to hook me, and I played that game for hours and hours, because I knew that it would haunt me until I finally saw it through to the end and got one of the good endings. Never before or since has an 8-year-old with a pair of garden shears been so absolutely terrifying.
There was one last holdout. The Silent Hill series is, of course, legendary. If Resident Evil was the type of game George A. Romero and Wes Craven would have made together, then Silent Hill would have been the deranged and malformed brainchild of Alfred Hitchcock and Clive Barker. It just wasn't an experience I ever thought I could find so much as tolerable, much less fulfilling and rewarding. It started with a friend of mine who's also a writer. He was working on a novel that, when he outlined it to me, sounded much too close to what I knew of Silent Hill's plot for comfort. He, of course, had heard of Silent Hill, but really knew nothing about it, save that it was a horror video game, and, since he wasn't a gamer himself, I agreed to track it down and play it for him, to help him keep his novel away from everyone's favorite foggy ghost town. I'm fairly early into it, but...while I could see how it definitely wouldn't be an experience for everyone, for anyone with the stomach for it, Silent Hill is an absolute masterpiece. The fear of what's out there has never been so tangible, nor so much stronger than the fear of what you can actually see. Never before, also, have I been afraid of a game's music. Akira Yamaoka's score is not what everyone would even call music, per se. It mostly consists of low electronic and percussive sounds used in odd, grating, mostly non-rhythmic patterns to put the player constantly on-edge. Now, mind you, I'm familiar with Goldsmith's scores to Alien and The Omen. I'm familiar with the score to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the good 70s version). I'm familiar with Hermann's Psycho score. From what I understand, these are considered to be some of the most frightening music ever composed. None of them hold's a candle to Silent Hill's score. I have literally run blindly through areas, ignoring both monsters and useful items in an area, just to get away from the music that plays in the area, because it upsets me so.
Its been an interesting journey, learning about a genre I previously had no interest in. And, of course, its not over yet. There are a number of other excursions into Silent Hill, and untold other games worth checking out. I've heard good things about the early Alone in the Dark games, and just from a historian's standpoint, I intend to play through the English translation of Sweet Home at some point.
NOTE: I started this as a blog entry, then decided to put it here, to engender further discussion on the topic. Thus the rather singular perspective.