haunted pixels

When Video Games Feel Haunted: Inside the Low-Res Horror Boom

Photo: Clockwise from top left: Steam, Puppet Combo, Haunted PS1, Steam

The Nintendo 64 had a weird quirk with its game cartridges. If you inserted one at the wrong angle — leaving it slightly tilted as it jutted out of the console — the software would boot up into a buggy, uncanny version of itself. Sound cues would go awry, characters would fold into abominable polygonal masses, and colors would bleed into one another, rendering the content totally unplayable. This was one of the primary reasons Nintendo lost ground to Sony’s PlayStation; CD-roms were more flexible and could store more data than those fabled gray tapes. But I didn’t know about any of those inefficiencies when I was 8 years old in 1999, deep into a summerlong love affair with Pokémon Snap. On one of those nights, I slapped the cartridge into the N64 and flipped on the power switch. The credits flickered onscreen, and suddenly a deep, demonic voice echoed from the forbidden pits of the sound card: “Pikachu.” I ran out of the room, terrified of whatever hell I’d just unleashed.

Looking back, it’s clear what went wrong. I simply didn’t attach the game to the console correctly, which corrupted the code and briefly gave the amiable Pikachu the voice of an eldritch divinity. The derangement never happened again (as far as I know, Pokémon Snap doesn’t contain any buried terrors), but I spent the rest of the year traumatized, bracing for impact every time I returned to the N64. The fear is hard to describe. I would proudly wander into media that aimed to scare me; I had battled countless zombies, ghouls, and vampires in games like Castlevania and Doom throughout my youth. But the idea of an unseen vindictive force preying on me at my most vulnerable — as I took pictures of Pokémon in a peaceful breeze — shook me to my core. It was as if a ghost had possessed the console, removing the guardrails that had until then pacified the AI.

I had forgotten all about that formative chill until I started playing Cruelty Squad. Released this year by Finnish studio Consumer Softproducts, the first-person shooter has an aesthetic that is almost impossible to describe. The title screen is bordered by gnarled pink flesh while the camera pans around a bland, untextured stretch of asphalt. A car — equally low res — looks as though it was brutally sculpted out of gummy brown 3-D-modeling presets. A body sits in the driver’s seat with half its head missing as the name “Cruelty Squad,” filtered through sickly Microsoft WordArt, floats in a starless sky.

Horror games typically aim to transport the player from their computer; Amnesia and Resident Evil succeed when you’re white-knuckling it right alongside the protagonist. But Cruelty Squad takes a different tack entirely. As you venture through its queasy, minimalist, polygonal universe — rooms composed of pixelated jpeg-y viscera or blurry Funko Pop dolls — there is never a moment when the graphical fidelity convinces you you’re doing anything other than clicking things on a screen. That’s where lead designer Ville Kallio thrives. Sure, he could render out a precise speckle of blood and guts, spending years polishing pockmarks on rotten flesh. Or he could take us back to the deliriousness of early 3-D when, with just a nudge of the cartridge, a console could turn evil.

“Mushy and weird graphics leave more blank space for the player to project their own ideas and fears on,” Kallio says in an interview with Vulture. “It makes the whole thing feel more unpredictable in a way that a $100 million, focus-tested product can never be.”

Kallio isn’t the only designer who has gotten that memo. We’re currently living through a golden age of indie-horror games that evoke the turgid late 1990s — the ugliest era in interactive media — when limited processing power squelched environmental scopes down to blocky primary colors, fingerless fists, and cityscapes drowned in fog to cut down the draw distance. Developers have spent the past few decades moving as far from those limitations as possible (just look at the work that went into The Last of Us, Part II’s Rat King), and yet the 64-bit void has grown ethereal and enchanted in our memories. Scroll through Itch.io’s “horror” tag and you’ll find hundreds of fuzzy nightmares begging for your attention.

Take Paratopic, a horrible Lynchian nightmare that unfurls a gothic American expanse through the blurry, static prism of Windows 98. Or Power Drill Massacre, a pure slasher pastiche that somehow manages to squeeze out the most intense jump scares on the market with about four different texture sets. But the best entry point into the niche is probably the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc project, which released a new edition this year and collects 25 different projects from designers eager to explore the eerie edges of the low-res frontier. As the name implies, Demo Disc is metatextual in its approach: We’re sitting in front of a TV, controller in hand, and something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. We’re not facing off against an evil genius; we’re at the mercy of a feral video game.

“The idea of a game being, well, haunted will change your perspective on anything created afterward. You know for a fact that this game may be watching you, may be finding out things about you that you may not even be aware of,” says Aidan Cushing, a game designer and the communication director for the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc collective. “Developers are no longer limited to the confines of a console; these programs live inside your computer now,” he adds. “The vagueness of anticipating that anything could happen, in combination with the player’s inability to interpret what anything is supposed to be with 100 percent certainty, opens the mind to some deeply unsettling experiences.”

Cushing believes the low-res horror scene has thrived thanks to an ascendent generation of 20-somethings who possess a proud fondness for those grotesque, proto-3-D environments. That makes sense when you consider the ebbs and flows of the indie-gaming contingent as a whole. In the mid-aughts, small studios cranked out countless side-scrolling 2-D platformers like Super Meat Boy and Braid, which fit perfectly within the Super Nintendo canon those designers grew up on. But as the age bracket has shifted, the N64 inherited that prime, wistful terrain. My childhood is rendered in bad 3-D — and there was never a time in my life when video games were more capable of scaring me.

The other reason for the boom is more practical. Cushing notes that 3-D game-making software has been democratized over the past decade. Today, he has at his fingertips free engines like Unreal, Unity, and Godot, which completely lap what used to be on the market. “I remember when the peak of hobbyist tech was something like GameMaker Studio, which only supported 2-D games at the time,” he says. Cushing has never needed to write a single line of code in Unreal, he says: The tools are just that streamlined. This is perfect for amateurs who want to make low-res horror because, well, it’s low res. A spartan haunted mansion — small enough to fit on a 64-megabyte cartridge — is much easier to create than, say, a battle-royal map.

“It might be hard to master, but it’s a pretty accessible style for game devs to get into. The models don’t need to be rendered with that many polygons, so you don’t have to have that high a skill level in 3-D modeling, especially when making environments,” says Salem Hughes, one of the designers featured on the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc compilation. “More people are learning how to make games and flocking to this particular aesthetic because the bar for entry is so low. I think part of what is so exciting about this scene is that we are getting so many newcomers.”

Hughes’s game is called Agony of a Dying MMO. Once again, the horror is self-contained within the context of a vengeful video game. Anyone who has wandered through the abandoned capital cities of World of Warcraft or EverQuest knows what it’s like to witness the gradual decay of a place where thousands of players used to congregate, now forsaken on unmanned servers and whirring away in perpetuity like a numbers station. Hughes took that feeling — an uncanny dread known only to a select group of gamers — and forged a short myth. Thematically, that narrative ties in with some of her own encounters with digital unease. When Hughes was 10 years old, she used to join empty Counter-Strike matches from the family computer. Her soldier would explore deserted maps, arming bombs and rescuing hostages with no threat of a firefight on the horizon.

“There was something about the combination of primitive 3-D and not experiencing that space with another person and being completely alone that felt very wrong,” she says. “It’s stuck with me ever since.”

Clearly, Hughes had a Pokémon Snap moment just like me, when the trip wire is snapped and we briefly sense an overwhelming menace emanating from the unknowable guts of the machine in front of us. We fear it, we run from it, yet we can’t help but return to touch it over and over again.

Inside the Low-Res Horror Boom