The handsomely-illustrated new book From Ants To Zombies covers 60 years of horror videogames, from the blocky 1970s to the blood-soaked present.
(Full disclosure: Ryan Lambie, one of this site’s editors, contributed to an earlier Bitmap Books project, The Art Of The Box, which is otherwise unconnected to the book written about here.)
There have been countless books written about horror cinema, whether it’s academic dissections of The Exorcist or lighter fare, like Abbie Bernstein’s Halloween, which explores the making of the three most recent entries in that storied slasher series. But what about videogames? The medium stretches back decades, yet the number of books that have provided an in-depth look at interactive horror are comparatively few.
Step forward From Ants To Zombies, the latest publication from Bitmap Books. Like its earlier works, it’s a lavishly-illustrated and lovingly-produced volume with its 664 colour pages sandwiched between reassuringly thick hardback covers. Written by Alexander Chatziioannou and with a wealth of contributions from other developers and authors, its survey of horror videogames stretches from the present all the way back to the medium’s early days in the 70s.
Rather than provide a dry chronology of horror games from the distant past to the 21st century, though, Chatzioannou cunningly splits the book into subgenres, with the first chapter taking in space horror (1981’s Alien-inspired The Wreck Of The BSM Pandora, Dead Space), the second exploring haunted mansions (think: Sweet Home, Resident Evil) and so forth.
Interestingly, Chatzioannou’s book expands its scope to look at games that are more tangentially associated with horror – which is where those ants in the title come in. Sandy White’s pioneering isometric opus Ant Attack, first released for the ZX Spectrum in 1983, may not have been billed as a horror game as such, but it undoubtedly contained plenty of the trappings that we’d later associate with survival horror – a paucity of ammo, a constant sense of threat from those titular giant bugs, and a walled city setting whose eerie lack of human life made it feel faintly surreal.
Indeed, the most interesting portions of the book deal with the ways game developers managed to conjure an air of menace from meagre hardware. Whether it was the leering skull and digitised speech of Sinistar, or the evocative prose found in text adventures like CRL’s controversial Dracula, artists, writers and designers have long strained at the edges of what has been technically possible in order to raise players’ hackles.
And while From Ants To Zombies also covers the most modern, cutting-edge horror games – such as the teeming hordes of rats seen in the flesh-crawling A Plague Tale: Innocence or Supermassive Games’ cycle of benighted adventures – it’s fascinating to see how developers have begun to look back to videogaming’s 80s and 90s roots to generate fear and suspense.
No Code’s terrific Stories Untold anthology introduced a new, eerily meta twist on the traditional text adventure, for example; Playdead’s Limbo and Inside brought unprecedented unease to the 2D platformer; then there’s the growing community of indie developers making horror experiences designed to look like old, low-poly PlayStation 1 titles.
Put it all together, and you have an absorbing overview of a subject that is even more vast than some might realise. By the time you’ve factored in ultra-violent rail shooters (a subgenre that also gets its own chapter), gleefully nasty 80s brawlers like Splatterhouse, and modern adventures like Oxenfree, which weaves a more thoughtful, coming-of-age supernatural tale, it’s clear that horror takes many forms in videogames.
From Ants To Zombies therefore provides a detailed, lively and thoughtful guide to the varying ways that developers have sought to shock, scare and unnerve us over the decades.
From Ants To Zombies: Six Decades Of Video Game Horror is available to pre-order now for £32.49 from Bitmap Books.