A new wave of lo-fi games are reshaping horror

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Something is writhing in the dark underbelly of video game horror; he’s been doing it for years.

But lately the convulsions have become violent and the hideous mass threatens to spread into the general public where more respectable nightmares reign. The tastes of resident Evil and Alan wake now adhere to the same show rules as the last FIFA Where Call of Duty installment, terrifying you at pristine 4K resolutions. This is the ninth generation of consoles that is shaping our entertainment landscape right now, after all, and there are certain expectations when it comes to visual fidelity. Have you seen how the sun’s rays reflect off the marble floors of the Dimitrescu Castle?

The new retro horror pokes fun at such notions of verisimilitude. It will draw the curtains to prevent volumetric lighting and puke all over the exquisite tile floor so you won’t be distracted by its intricate patterns. A constant procession of bold alternatives to the handful of dominant franchises (as well as mid-budget knockoffs) has made its presence felt recently. These games are inspired by long-obsolete genres involving unconventional mechanics and evoking memories of the medium’s rich past. Widely divergent, this new generation of lo-fi horror games are united by a common philosophy: to treat earlier and era-specific styles, from the raw polygons of the original PlayStation to monochrome 1-bit palettes, not as intermediate failures. on the way to some doubtful. ideal of “realism”, but adopting them as valid aesthetic springboards in their own right.

And people were careful. Over the past two years, the scene has exploded. Puppet Combo – which has been turning its childhood favorite VHS slashers into low-poly gore-fest for about a decade – has just launched its own production company, Torture Star Video, harnessing its popularity to showcase the talents of other creators. of the niche. Two series of anthologies in progress, The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc and Dread X Collection, have revitalized a format strangely neglected in the medium. And themed game jams have imposed time and theme constraints on developers consistently producing some of the most imaginative work in the field, exemplified by Teebowah’s spooky Game Boy-inspired excursion into Fishing vacation and the enigma of the Ben Jelter trailer park Opossum land. But what caused the sudden rise in popularity of such an archaic iconography? And why the disproportionate focus of such efforts on horror?

Illusion of dread.

A partial answer to the first question is obvious. Nostalgia has become a pervasive cultural force over the past decade, from YouTube synthwave playlists to Strange things. Why should the game be free from his influence? Under the pseudonym -IZMA-, Adam Birch released Morteus for the Game Boy in 2019, a small town Lovecraftian mystery in the vein of classic JRPGs. He admits that nostalgia is part of what drives him. “When I was a kid I had a Game Boy and had friends with Mega Drives and SNES. That era is etched in my brain because of [these consoles]. It stands to reason that when people finally reach this ability, they try to make games similar to the ones that made them fall in love with it all in the first place.

The generational angle is certainly consistent with the chronology of the phenomenon. About a decade separates the establishment of pixel art as a viable aesthetic even for mainstream games (like the 2011 iOS hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP which has sold over a million copies) from the raw polygons and grainy video that is now booming. The time frame fits perfectly with the gap between the heyday of the 8-bit platforms referenced by the first and the release of Sony’s groundbreaking PS1 console that inspires the second – or the period in which a new generation of developers independent could have become an adult. .

James Wragg, creator of standout Haunted PS1 Demo Disc Entrance Illusion of dread, corroborates, but with an important caveat. “It’s a lot of nostalgia, of course – PlayStation’s boot music will forever stimulate a bunch of neurons in my head. [But] there is also something about the tactility of physical media that is rewarding; just as book lovers will savor the smell of a new book, flipping through a manual before inserting a disc into a PS1 drive is a more engaging ritual than clicking a “download” button. Nostalgia may be a universal impulse, but its siren call is most effective when it responds to a certain lack.

Birch thinks the lack is not so much about the paraphernalia that came with a game’s packaging (although he addressed that need by also releasing Morteus as a physical cartridge) but from a sufficiently diverse range of stories and experiences in the realm of blockbusters. “It has almost become a cliché that there will be a bloated world map with 1,000 similar tasks and a watchtower to climb. This, plus a steep price tag and an almost ‘safe’ approach. subject, paves the way for completely offbeat and cheaper indie games to take dark story paths and fill the void.

Faith.

Faith.

As for the developers, another kind of lack may explain the allure of the new retro horror: the ability to compete with the big-budget show. “Using low-poly models or creating 1-bit visuals is a much smarter option for most independent developers who might be more interested in telling a story or inducing specific feelings than in realistic graphics,” explains Laura Hunt, co-creator. decidedly unrealistic yet visually stunning cosmic horror adventure If on a winter night, four travelers. While she worked on Adventure Game Studio, her perennial favorite, a wider range of accessible specialist tools made it increasingly easier to create perfect mocks of a Commodore 64 or SNES title. Birch even recognizes that the genre and vibe of Morteus were shaped by the limitations of GB Studio, the engine he experimented with while developing it.

While arguments based on generational nostalgia also apply to most retro-style games, the growing availability of intuitive middleware points to an aspect of the phenomenon more specific to horror. Ted Hentschke, the spirit behind the Dread X Collection project, believes that, as with the flow of films of images found that followed Paranormal activityReleased on a large scale in 2009, “The current popularity of retro-style horror games has less to do with nostalgia than with the idea that any of us can do it. When you look at Airdorf FAITH, that little pixel guy walking around, it doesn’t seem impossible that I could do that.

There is a reason for this. Faith is perhaps one of the most famous titles on the scene, an exorcism simulator that puts an end to all the silly notions that pixel art can’t scare you, but it looks like it can work on a Atari console from 1982. Mason Smith, better known as Airdorf, has an explanation of the destabilizing capacity of these unorthodox visuals which boils down to the blockbuster fatigue argument. “Since the retro-style graphics have that innocent lo-fi quality, I think they can cause the player’s mind to be surprised and scared when the game attacks the player himself, more than your 3D graphics.” advances. While the homogeneity of renowned franchises will put off a segment of the public in any genre, it is horror that by its very nature thrives on the unexpected.

This framing also serves to illuminate a deeper connection between new retro horror and cursed media fashion manifesting in the form of Ringu-inspired films, explicitly metagames (like that of Ivan Zanotti I am scared), and countless creepypasta threads. As Faith oscillates between pixel-art gameplay and incredibly incongruous rotoscopes, the latter are so much more clearly advanced that they generate an impression of the game climbing the ontological ladder and coming to life. Airdorf concedes that “although it was never meant to be a ‘cursed’ metagame, I still admired the lasting effects these had on players. There are a few details that come from the “cursed” game phenomenon, like the chromatic aberration effect that slides a bit across the screen when something scary happens. Paradoxically, the flexibility of retro visuals allows for an arsenal of fears larger than the mandates of realism dictating the direction of big-budget horror.

At the same time, the question arises as to whether, with an expanding fan base and the arrival of the PS1 as a fashionable benchmark, the scene is heading towards a dead end. The long-standing appeal of pixel art has already led to its assimilation into the mainstream and, to some extent, its power to surprise. Could this be the future for other strains of the new retro horror? More fundamentally, while people will always feel a personal sense of nostalgia for the console they grew up with, the PS1 was arguably the last piece of hardware to effect a profound cultural shift while also introducing immediately recognizable iconography. It’s not that it’s too early to embrace, say, an Xbox 360 aesthetic; is that the very notion of it seems inconceivable. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that we run out of distinct visual styles to salvage from the history of the medium, but it remains to be seen if that signals the death knell for movement as a creative endeavor.

Wragg offers a thoughtful rebuttal. “Like impressionism in painting, the PS1 style portrays reality through the subjective vision of an artist. With smaller budgets and fewer stakes, these artists are free to create surreal, eerie, or uniquely beautiful worlds in ways you might not see in the mainstream industry. The intentional madness of the scene is like when punk music incorporates noise and reverberation, a postmodern acceptance of the seams and imperfections within the art that becomes part of the work itself.

From this perspective, it is not the penchant for the visuals of a particular era that defines this random movement whose instruments of revolution are made up of blocky pixels, garish colors and a lot of visual statics. Instead, it is the impetus to seek a language of creative expression outside of accepted conventions. The new retro horror is just the latest iteration of this never-ending quest.


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