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Learning About Japan Through Fear and Horror Games

Learning About Japan Through Fear and Horror Games
© Photograph by Eva Creel

Japan is extremely prolific when it comes to horror games. For more than a decade the country has dominated the horror game market, so much so that every single top-tier horror franchise has its roots in Japan. How did this come about?

When ‘Resident Evil’ (Capcom, 1996) was released for Sony Corporation’s PlayStation game console in 1996, it was one of a few key titles that caused a dramatic shift in the video game industry. A generation of children who had grown up playing ‘Super Mario Bros.’ (Nintendo, 1985) and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ (Sega, 1991) were quickly reaching adulthood, and the introduction of the PlayStation marked the moment at which the industry began to seriously consider teenage and adult audiences. Suddenly there was a platform for games that were not targeted at children: ‘Tomb Raider’ (Eidos, 1996), ‘Tenchu: Stealth Assassins’ (Acquire, 1998), and ‘Metal Gear Solid’ (Konami, 1998) created entirely new genres that employed mature themes and violent imagery. Only a few years earlier the two-dimensional, low-resolution comic violence in games like ‘Mortal Kombat’ (Midway, 1992) had caused such controversy that the United States of America Congress held hearings to explore the matter (Kent, 2001). But within the first few years of its release, Sony’s console was home to a large library of violent and complicated adult-oriented games that put earlier titles to shame. A shift had occurred, the core audience of video game players had expanded, and, thanks to a small number of ground-breaking games aimed at mature players, the industry had changed. ‘Resident Evil’ was one of those games.

‘Resident Evil’, known as “Biohazard” in its native Japan, created the horror game genre as we know it today. The term we now use to describe games that involve horrific themes, complex narratives, and puzzle-laden gameplay — survival horror — was coined by this seminal title. This is not to say that it was the first horror game; its design draws heavily from an earlier title, ‘Alone in the Dark’ (Interplay, 1992), which predates ‘Resident Evil’ by several years. There are many examples of even earlier games that explore horror themes, such as ‘The Lurking Horror’ (Infocom, 1987), ‘Sweet Home’ (Capcom, 1989), and ‘Splatterhouse’ (Namco, 1988). But it was ‘Resident Evil’ that brought horror video games to the masses, proving that players expecting action-heavy gameplay common to console games could be lured into more substantive and carefully-paced designs (see Pruett, 2007a, for more information about the history of the genre).

The game was a major success. Capcom, the development firm behind ‘Resident Evil’, reports that almost three million copies of the game were sold in North America alone. Its successor, ‘Resident Evil 2’ (Capcom, 1998), achieved sales of close to five million. At a time when the metric for financial success was only a few hundred thousand copies, the ‘Resident Evil’ series was a blockbuster. Capcom’s hit led others to follow suit, and within a few years, the survival horror genre was packed full of titles. While many of these were simply copycat games, a few key franchises emerged. Among them, Konami Corporation’s ‘Silent Hill’ (Konami, 1999), a game which eschewed explicit violence in favour of a psychological brand of horror, is now regarded as the most important.

Since the late 1990s, the game industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Subsequent game consoles are now home to a great number of horror titles. The juggernauts of the genre remain the ‘Resident Evil’ series and ‘Silent Hill’ series, but more recent games such as ‘Fatal Frame’ (Tecmo, 2001), ‘Siren’ (Sony, 2003), ‘Condemned’ (Monolith Productions, 2005), and ‘Dead Space’ (Electronic Arts, 2008) have helped to diversify the genre. Unlike most other video game genres, horror games are identified by theme, not by the style of play. Consequently, the survival horror genre is home to a wide range of styles, including first-person games, third-person games, action-oriented games, puzzle games, and even text-based games. Whatever the style of play, one fact cannot be ignored: the vast majority of horror video games come from Japan.

‘Resident Evil’, ‘Silent Hill’, ‘Fatal Frame’, ‘Siren’, ‘Echo Night’ (From Software, 1998), ‘Clock Tower’ (Human Entertainment, 1995), and ‘Dino Crisis’ (Capcom, 1999) are all horror franchises from Japan that have been successful enough to spawn at least three games apiece. The ‘Resident Evil’ series alone, including various spin-off titles such as ‘Resident Evil: Survivor’ (Capcom, 2000) and ‘Resident Evil Outbreak’ (Capcom, 2003), accounts for twenty separate games. By comparison, the only horror franchises from the West to account for three or more games are the ‘Alone in the Dark’ series (four games) and the ‘Evil Dead’ (THQ, 2000) series (three games). In fact, Japan has released more horror games than the West almost every single year since 1995. Clearly, the Japanese have a keen interest in horror games.

It might be interesting to perform a study of the Japanese culture to determine why it is home to such a high concentration of horror games. Instead, I would like to turn the question around and study the Japanese through the horror games that they have produced. What is it that we can learn about Japanese culture by examining the large number of horror games that country is responsible for? It is through the lens of horror games that I wish to study the Japanese.

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