A new wave of lo-fi games is reshaping horror

It has been doing this for many years.
Convulsions are becoming more violent lately and this hideous mass could spill over into mainstream nightmares. Resident Evil and Alan Wake now follow the same rules as Call of Duty or FIFA, terrifying you in stunning 4K resolutions. As this is the ninth generation of consoles, there are some expectations regarding visual fidelity. You have seen the sun's rays reflect off Castle Dimitrescus marble floors.

Retro horror is a mockery of such notions. It will pull the curtains to block out the bright, illuminating light and then puke on the tiling to distract from the intricate patterns. There has been a steady stream of bold alternatives to the few dominant franchises, as well as mid-budget imitations. These games were inspired by long-obsolete styles that use unconventional mechanics and invoke memories from the past. This new generation of lo-fi horror video games is wildly diverse. They share a common philosophy: they treat older, era-specific styles, from the crude polygons that were the original PlayStation to 1-bit monochrome pallets, not as failures along the way to some dubious ideals of realism but as valid aesthetic springboards.

People have been paying close attention. The scene has seen a lot of growth in the past few years. Puppet Combo, who for over a decade has made his childhood VHS slashers into low quality gore-fests, has just launched Torture Star Video. This allows him to leverage his popularity and highlight other creators in this niche. The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc (continuing anthology series) and Dread X Collection (continuing anthology series) have revived a format that was often neglected in the medium. Theme-based game jams have made it possible for developers to produce some of the most original work in the field. Teebowah's Game Boy-inspired creepy excursion into Fishing Vacation and Ben Jelters trailer park enigma of Opossum Country are two examples. What is the reason for this sudden popularity of archaic iconography in gaming? Why is it that so much attention is given to horror?

The answer to the first question can only be partially given. In the past decade, nostalgia has been a dominant cultural force. It can be found in everything from Stranger Things to YouTube playlists of synthwave music. Gaming should not be excluded from this influence. Adam Birch, aka -IZMA - released Deadeus for Game Boy in 2019. It is a Lovecraftian small town mystery in the style of classic JRPGs. He says nostalgia is part of his motivation. Growing up, I had a Game Boy as a child and was close to Mega Drives and SNES friends. Because of these consoles, that era is etched in my brain. It is only natural that people will try to create games that are similar to the ones that first made them fall in love.

This generational angle is consistent with the timeframe of the phenomenon. From the current era of crudely rendered polygons and grainy videos, roughly a decade has passed between the introduction of pixel art as a viable artistic form for mainstream games (such the 2011 iOS hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP that sold over a million copies), and the establishment it as a viable option. This time span corresponds to the period between the glory days of 8-bit platforms and the launch of Sony's revolutionary PS1 console, or the period when a new generation of indie developers could have emerged.

It is also satisfying to be able to feel the tactile nature of physical media.

James Wragg (creator of the standout Haunted PS1 Demo Disc entry Dread Delusion), confirms these findings, but with a caveat. It's nostalgia. I am certain that the PlayStation start-up music will always stimulate a group of neurons in my brain. It's also gratifying to be able to touch physical media. Just as book lovers love the smell of new books, so is nostalgia. But it is best when it responds only to a specific lack.

Birch believes that the problem isn't so much about the paraphernalia used in games packaging (even though he also released Deadeus as an actual cartridge), but rather the lack of enough stories and experiences within blockbuster sphere. It is almost a cliché that an overworld map will have 1,000 tasks and a watchtower to climb. These, along with a high climbing price tag and a safe approach to subject matter, make it possible for indie games that are completely off-the-wall to fill the void.

Developers may be attracted to retro horrors because they are able to compete with large-budget productions. For most indie developers, creating 1-bit visuals or low-poly models is a more sensible choice. They might be more interested telling stories or inducing certain feelings than in making realistic graphics. Laura Hunt, co-creator and creator of the visually stunning, but incredibly unrealistic, cosmic-horror adventure "If On A Winters Night," is one example. She has been involved in the popular Adventure Game Studio. However, a greater number of specialist tools allow for perfect simulacra of a Commodore 64 title or SNES title. Birch acknowledges that Deadeus' genre and mood were shaped by GB Studio, an engine he used while creating it.

Arguments based on nostalgia are valid for most retro-styled video games. However, there is a horror-specific aspect to the phenomenon. The increasing availability of intuitive middleware suggests that this argument can be applied to any game. Ted Hentschke is the brain behind the Dread X Collection project. He believes that the current popularity in retro-styled horror video games has less to do nostalgia than with the belief that anyone can do it. It doesn't seem impossible to do this if you take a look at Airdorfs FAITH.

These can cause players to be surprised or creeped out.

There's a reason. It's a famous title, Faith, which is an exorcism simulation that dispels any notion that pixel art can't make you shiver. However, it appears that it could be run on an Atari 1982 console. Mason Smith, also known as Airdorf has an explanation for why such unconventional visuals can be so disturbing. This goes back to the blockbuster fatigue argument. Retro-styled graphics are characterized by a simple, innocent, and lo-fi quality. This makes them more appealing to players than any other type of graphics.

This framing also helps to highlight a deeper connection between retro horror and the cursed media fad manifesting itself in the form Ringu-inspired movies and explicitly meta games (such Ivan Zanottis Isscared), as well as umpteen creepypasta threads. Faith alternates between pixel-art gameplay, and jarringly bizarre rotoscoped cutscenes. The latter are so clearly advanced that it gives the impression that the game is climbing up the ontological ladder. Airdorf admits that the game was not meant to be a cursed metagame. However, I still loved the lasting effects they had on players. Airdorf admits that the cursed meta-game was never intended to be that. However, there are some details, such as the chromatic aberration effect, which glitches the screen when something spooky occurs.

The question is also whether the scene is heading towards an impasse, given the growing fan base and the introduction of the PS1 to be a fashionable reference point, or if it is just settling into an impasse. Pixel art's long-standing appeal has led to its acceptance into mainstream culture and, in some cases, its ability to surprise. This could be the future of other retro horror genres. Fundamentally, although people will always feel nostalgia for the consoles they grew up playing, the PS1 was undoubtedly the last piece to bring about deep cultural change and introduce a recognizable iconography. It's not that it is too soon to adopt an Xbox 360 aesthetic. While it is reasonable to suspect we are running out visual styles from the mediums' history, it remains to be seen if that means the end of the movement as an artistic endeavor.

Wragg provides a thoughtful response. The PS1 style, which is akin to impressionism in painting and depicts reality through an artist's subjective vision, is similar to impressionism. These artists have a greater freedom to create worlds that are unique, surreal, and beautiful than what you would see in the mainstream. This scene's intentional jankiness is similar to punk music incorporating noise and reverb. It is a postmodern acceptance and inclusion of imperfections and seams within art that becomes part and parcel of the artwork.

This is because it's not a fondness for particular eras visuals, but the impetus to seek a language of creative expression that transcends these haphazard movements whose instruments are made up of blotchy pixels, garish colors and a lot of visual static. It is the drive to find a language for creative expression that transcends accepted conventions. Retro horror is the latest example of this never-ending quest.