Point-and-click adventure games were a staple of the early-to-mid 90s PC gaming scene, with some of the more memorable ones being in the horror genre. Obviously, adventure game glory days are long gone, but there have been games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead series and THE BROTHERHOOD’s Stasis that have introduced a whole new generation to the genre.
Still, if you’re like me, there’s nothing that can really replace the classics. So, in the spirit of taking a trip down memory lane (and the fact that one of LucasArts’ classics, Grim Fandango, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month), here are a couple of selections from the genre that for the most part still hold up as being creepy as hell, and (again, for the most part) still fun to play.
Sanitarium – 1998
DreamForge Intertainment created one of the more atmospheric psychological horror adventures during the genre’s heyday in Sanitarium. While not necessarily gory, the descent into the main protagonist’s mind is still unnerving in its own right.
After a car accident, a man wakes from a coma inside a dilapidated sanitarium with no memory of who he is, or how he got there. Eventually, the man discovers his name is Max, though he still struggles with finding out why he’s in the sanitarium. As Max searches the grounds, he finds himself transported to various locales as different people. Of course, this is all just the manifestations of an amnesiac, right? But as Max uncovers more of his past memories, so is more of the truth.
Divided into nine chapters, the various worlds Max travels to are rich with bizarre detail and atmosphere. Everyone you interact with is fully fleshed out and just as odd as the rest of the world they inhabit. The atmospheric music just adds to the whole creepy nature of the game. About the only thing that isn’t outright weird are the puzzles, which are pretty standard logic or inventory-based. The only thing that really holds Sanitarium back is its interface, which eschews the traditional point-and-click scheme for a more clunky form. Ultimately, that’s not much of a reason to avoid playing one of the more psychologically disturbing classic adventure games.
Dark Seed – 1992
It’s a wonder that more developers never took advantage of HR Giger’s art. Obviously, Giger’s had a hand in creating some otherworldly moments in film, but for video games, we just have Cyberdreams’ Dark Seed and its sequel.
Dark Seed tells the story of Mike Dawson, an author who has just bought a spacious mansion in Woodland Hills. On the first night in the house, Mike has a nightmare where a machine shoots an alien embryo into his forehead. Upon waking up, Mike discovers that within the mansion are portals to what’s called the Dark World. The Dark World is being taken over by aliens calling themselves the Ancients. The Ancients are looking to get into our world, and Mike is the key. As a result, Mike must now find a way to stop the Ancients.
Now while this all sounds pretty clear to the player, there’s the obvious thread of “is this real, or is Mike hallucinating” going on, which just adds to the unsettling nature of the game. Despite the cool premise, Dark Seed doesn’t have much to back up the nightmarish visuals provided by Giger. Outside of a few expository scenes, there’s not much in the storytelling department. There aren’t many characters to interact with in town, and those that you do talk to only say a few lines. The dialogue isn’t all that great, either. Really, the bizarre nature of Giger’s art is the real attraction here.
I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream – 1995
The late Harlan Ellison was a jerk, but the man knew how to write. His short story, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, seemed perfect to adapt into a video game. Ellison even went so far as to expand the story for the game, despite his hatred of computers. The result was a game that disturbs with its subject matter and morality.
Following the same lines as the original story, at the height of the Cold War, America, Europe, and China each create their own supercomputer beneath the Earth’s surface. Each computer refers to itself as AM (short for “Allied Mastercomputer”). However, when one of the computers becomes self-aware, it absorbs the other two, and proceeds to kill everyone on earth, save for five select humans. These people are essentially made immortal and kept underground within AM as he tortures them eternally, solely for his own pleasure. AM constructs metaphorical adventures for each of the five that preys upon their respective weakness to crush their spirit. To “win”, the player must make choices to prove that humans are better than machines because they have the ability to redeem themselves.
While the game is touted for its morality choices, they really aren’t implemented as well as they could be. There are certain instances during each character’s story that you would think you should have a choice to “do the right thing”, but the game restricts you by not presenting you with that obvious choice. The “Spiritual Barometer” mechanic isn’t even fully explained. Sure, if it drops too low, you die. But as the game doesn’t fully present all of the choices for the player, it’s wasted. Luckily, the writing more than makes up for the gameplay shortcomings. There are some truly dark moments and topics (Nimdok being a doctor in WWII Nazi Germany, for example), and the characters are really well-developed. Definitely one to check out.
Phantasmagoria – 1995
Known for her work on the legendary King’s Quest series, game designer Roberta Williams turned more than a few heads with Phantasmagoria. Not only was the game a financial gamble for Sierra, but it was also controversial at the time due to its violence and gore. With a script weighing in at over four times an average Hollywood screenplay, Phantasmagoria had a lot riding on it. Several sales records and awards later, and Phantasmagoria proved Williams right.
Taking more than a few inspirations from Stephen King’s The Shining, Donald Gordon and Adrienne Delaney are a young married couple from Boston who score a deal on a spacious mansion on the outskirts of town. Unbeknownst to them, the mansion’s former owner, a magician named Zoltan, murdered each of his successive wives. As Adrienne explores the house, she uncovers the horrifying truth about the mansion. Meanwhile, Don begins to act increasingly strange and hostile towards Adrienne, as if he’s been possessed…
Truthfully, Phantasmagoria‘s gameplay has not aged well. Released just after the classic Myst, Phantasmagoria spends a lot of time ogling CG-rendered pictures with not much to do. Coupled with the fact that the game’s plot is so easily predictable, and some of the acting being downright cheesy, there’s not much to be scared about. This of course was all acceptable way back when. The only thing that really holds up are the live-action gore effects, which are still quite effective. At this point, Phantasmagoria is more or less a B-movie affair than a timeless classic.
Harvester – 1996
Originally announced in 1994, DigiFX’s Harvester was meant to provoke and capitalize on the moral panic at the time regarding video games and the rise of “mature” content. Unfortunately, the game didn’t actually hit shelves until 1996, and by then, the moral panic had largely subsided. That being said, Harvester is still one of the most absurd, non-politically correct games you’ll find even today.
Steve Mason wakes up one day with no recollection of who he is, but finds himself in the middle of 50s suburban America, in the small town of Harvest. His brother is watching Cowboys and Indians on a black-and-white TV, while his mom is constantly baking. Wandering around town, Steve eventually meets up with Stephanie Pottsdam, who like Steve, can’t remember who she is. The only thing she knows is that she’s set to marry Steve. The town is also obsessed with what’s called the Lodge, which Steve is repeatedly urged to join. To find the truth, Steve agrees to begin his application…
Truthfully, Harvester is more of an experience in black humor mixed with the typical frustrations found in many adventure games. Puzzles aren’t very creative, and often the solutions are variations on a theme. Conversations tend to be tedious, with the rarely-used option to type in keywords not adding much in variation. The game ultimately forces you to indulge in your darker side for much of the game (the reasons behind this are revealed later), with the third act dropping the adventure-style gaming in favor of action. The game’s cast of over-the-top characters and gory moments still raise eyebrows even today, although the social commentary is kind of lost amongst it all. It’s still worth it to play, although more for laughs than actual scares.
D – 1995
Before SWERY and Suda51, there was Kenji Eno and his company, WARP. Eno had a knack for the outright weird in many of his games, and D was no exception. Granted, like many FMV-heavy games today, D is horribly dated. But there’s still some unsettling feeling attached to it all.
Laura Harris is contacted by the LA police stating that her father, Dr. Richter Harris, has gone on a murderous rampage and barricaded himself in a local hospital. Laura rushes to the scene, trying to find her father and an explanation. Upon entering the hospital, Laura is mysteriously warped to a medieval castle in some alternate reality. She must now navigate the castle, find her father, and get back to reality.
So yes, the game is essentially two hours of boring. Dated CG, no music, asinine puzzles, and a disjointed story largely told via flashbacks. It turns out that Eno never had created a story, and so one was clumsily added in once the game was nearly complete. The topics of cannibalism and vampirism were thrown in to get some controversy going, but largely, the game is just you controlling Laura as she slowly plods around the environment in silence, save for some musical cues whenever you grab an item or find something shocking. The silence and surroundings do give off an uncomfortable feeling, but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to the laboriousness of the game, or if it’s actually scary. It’s a curiosity, but best reserved for watching playthroughs on YouTube.
Silverload – 1995
A horror game with a Western setting? Sounds badass! Millennium Interactive’s Silverload is pretty nuts on its own, and is an example of an original game being somewhat improved upon by its port.
The story for Silverload is a mish-mash of werewolves, vampires and shamanism. When a deed to mine silver in the mountains is granted, local men set up the town called Silverload, and wipe out the wolves, and subsequently the Native tribe that used the wolves for hunting. The sole survivor, the tribe’s shaman, places a curse on the entire town, turning the populace into either vampires or werewolves. When a wagon caravan is attacked by werewolves, who make off with a man’s only son, you, the Gunslinger, are sent to get him back.
When initially released for the PC, the game was panned for its jerky animation, lame voice-acting, frustrating interface, and incoherent puzzles. The following year, Sony released the game on the PS1 with redone graphics and voice acting, as well as included new 3D shooting sections. Unfortunately, the comic book-style opening on the PC with voiceover was changed to a lame FMV with a buzzard flying around. While the lack of clarity with the puzzles and clunky interface remained, the voicework toned down the unintended cheesiness, and gave a boost to the game’s unsettling atmosphere. Both versions of the game are rare nowadays, and while the story is probably the best part of the game, it’s probably not worth it to shell out eBay prices for a copy.
Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet – 1993
HP Lovecraft’s stories have always been ripe for adaptation, and have resulted in many video game adaptations, either directly inspired by, or lifting bits and pieces. Infogrames’ Call of Cthulhu series is no exception.
While not based explicitly on any one Cthulhu story, fans will immediately recognize certain elements. Shadow of the Comet focuses on British journalist John Parker, who after hearing of a Lord Boleskine that had traveled to New England town of Illsmouth to get a better glimpse of Haley’s comet (and subsequently mad afterward), travels to Illsmouth to find out more information.
What follows is a disturbing adventure filled with creepy atmosphere and gorgeous pixel art. Many of the townsfolk’s appearances are based on various actors and actresses (including one of Lovecraft himself). Despite the clunky and sometimes frustrating interface (and some headache-inducing issues from trying to get the game to run on more modern machines), the story both intrigues and unsettles. Snag the CD-ROM version off of GOG.com to get mouse control and voices, which despite being delivered in a monotone fashion, up the creepiness.