Today is Video Games Day (or a Wednesday as I call it) and given our focus here at Bloody Disgusting, it’d be rude not to mark a significant point in horror video game history.
So I thought perhaps the best way would be to look back at a game that is arguably one of the first proper examples of horror (and survival horror) in the digital realm. The 1982 title, 3D Monster Maze.
This Sinclair ZX81 game created by Malcolm Evans tasked you with escaping a 3D maze (one of only a handful of games to use 3D space since 1973 when Maze War was created). Oh, and it happened to feature a Tyrannosaurus Rex that would hunt you down and eat you if you failed to escape its chompy jaws, so you can see where the horror element comes in. This is perhaps the first of many memorable player-hunting AI beasts, and that’s a pretty interesting club.
Evans had previously been working on satellite technology and computer control systems in aviation before he found gaming stardom with 3D Monster Maze. While today a hit game is usually borne of passion and a dedicated team, Evans, on his own, had simply made this game to test out what the Sinclair ZX81 was able to pull off.
Considering the limitations of the machine, Evans truly did push the underpowered home computer to new heights. Despite its simplistic black and white visuals, 3D Monster Maze required a 16K RAM pack just to play it (the standard ZX81 had just 1K), and for the time, it made for an incredibly effective experience. The maze was procedurally-generated, and the dinosaur itself had various states depending on how close or far you were to it.
The T-Rex hunts you from the second you move and only gets less aggressive in its search the further you got from it. Given the limitations on sound (the silence is almost deafening) and visuals, you’d be at a major disadvantage here, but handily there’s a status bar that keeps you informed of the slavering prehistoric carnivore’s proximity to you.
I say handily, but in truth, it just made things more stressful. The set phrases did a fine job of escalating panic as the game coldly informs you that a hulking meat eater has seen you, and soon after gives you a nudge to say ‘hey, that T-Rex is practically breathing down your neck now’ (signified by the alarming phrase ‘RUN HE IS BEHIND/BESIDE YOU’). You can outrun the T-Rex of course, but you do then risk losing your bearings turning down a dead end and offering yourself up as a light lunch for your toothy nemesis.
Failure was greeted with a withering statement on your performance. A bit of humor to prod you into entering the dino’s lair once more. If you want to see a typical round of 3D Monster Maze in action, there’s a nice, brief run here.
I first played 3D Monster Maze in the late 80’s while games were relatively new to me. The fumbled panic caused by seeing the T-Rex in the distance or having the status bar warn you of its impending approach has stuck with me for many years and looking back, it, alongside catching the last twenty minutes of The Terminator after sneaking downstairs late one night, were key building blocks for my love of horror and the sweat-inducing thrill of being chased in video games.
The likes of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Alien Isolation to me, feel like natural progressions of what 3D Monster Maze pulled off, and while the teeth have been taken out of that game thanks to the passage of time, the memory of reading ‘REX HAS SEEN YOU’ still elicits a small shiver.