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Moral Kombat: A Brief History of Controversial Horror Games

Horror is synonymous with controversy no matter which medium it’s operating in. Some people consider the violent and disturbing content harmful and problematic, as history has shown time and time again with incidents like the ‘video nasty’ craze and the authorities mistaking Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985) for actual snuff movies. As such, the genre is often been deemed immoral and blamed for inspiring real-life atrocities, despite insubstantial evidence to prove such claims. But whenever there’s a tragedy and the perpetrators can be attached to a violent form of entertainment, fingers are pointed and scapegoats are born. Then again, even in less extreme cases, the general nature of art of this ilk simply doesn’t go down too well with some folks. In the case of horror video games, outrage and controversy can be traced back to their humble beginnings in arcades and beyond.

In 1976, Exidy’s arcade game Death Race was the first to be criticised by the media for its violent content, prompting the ongoing discourse pertaining to video games and violence. Inspired by the satirical 1971 cult film Death Race 2000, the aim of the game is to run down fleeing gremlins with a motor vehicle. Nowadays that’s quite tame, but back then the outcry was loud and perpetuated by the media and local authorities. It even appeared on the radar of the National Security Council following a New York Times article proposing that video games enabled players to become participatory in violence. The media attention triggered a widespread moral panic, but it also just so happened to boost sales and establish Exidy as a household name. This is when the correlation between violence and video games began, and throughout the coming decades, it would escalate even further. 10 years later, the same company released Chiller, which was rejected by arcade owners for the same reasons Death Race was maligned for.

Hack and slash games can be traced back to pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, but these beat-em-up and slice-and-dice adventures caught fire in the late ’80s with games like Pool of Radiance (1988) and Golden Axe (1989). It also didn’t take long for them to end up in court due to their bloodletting thrills.

Splatterhouse was one of the early hack and slashers to cause a mild shit storm, a game where the goal is to essentially butcher Hellspawn and demon hordes. Initially released as an arcade game in 1988, it would go on to spawn a series of sequels on home consoles and PC, the last of which appeared in 2010 on Xbox 360 and PS3. The series is heavily inspired by the gory horror films that were popular at the time of the inaugural game’s unholy conception, such as Friday the 13th franchise and Re-Animator (1985). The protagonist even wears a hockey mask as a direct nod to Jason Vorhees, and the mansion depicted in the story is named after Herbert West. But the game was released during the Satanic Panic hysteria when parents and moral authoritarians assumed Satan was hiding in the sleeve of every heavy metal album. You can imagine how a game that revolved around mindless butchering and creatures oozing of pure Luciferian corruption sat with people, then. Of course, the developers did issue a warning: “The horrifying themes of this game may be inappropriate for young children… and cowards.” It was the first video game to receive its own parental advisory disclaimer, but its graphic content was enough to warrant a swift banning in the majority of arcades across America.

In the early 1990s, the third instalment of the Splatterhouse franchise, released for the Sega Genesis, found itself at the centre of a congressional witch hunt spearheaded by Senator Joe Lieberman. Joined by its evil brethren Mortal Kombat (1992), Night Trap (1992) and Doom (1993), Lieberman – along with other notable political figures and fun-spoilers – argued that games of this ilk were harmful to children. Naturally, a widespread panic epidemic fuelled by the vultures in the media ensued, which ultimately paved the way for the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board in 1994. This was set up to assign age ratings to video games in the United States, Canada and Mexico, while also ensuring that guidelines were enforced in lieu with advertising and online privacy.

Doom is considered to be one of the most influential video games in history and a pioneer of the first-person shooter. Like the aforementioned hack and slash games, first-person shooters are some of the most mindlessly violent gaming out there. When the original Doom was released in 1993, the hysteria which had encapsulated America as a result of the Satanic Panic drama was still being felt. In a nutshell, the plot of a Doom saw players blasting their way through swarms of ghoulish demons. The game was deemed too hyper-violent and disturbingly satanic. (It is worth bearing in mind that the Dungeons & Dragons was once accused of warping adolescent minds and sealing their fates in Beelzebub’s eternal oven, so you can imagine the outrage engulfing Doom).

But the controversy didn’t subside with an age rating and a few disapproving headlines. When it was discovered that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris – the gunmen responsible for the Columbine High School massacre – were Doom fans, the game was blamed for inspiring the killers. In his journal, Harris said the killing of his classmates would be “like playing Doom.’’ This prompted fears that the game and others like it were providing people with a virtual reality training ground to commit mass murder. Though the cause of these massacres has since been linked directly to depression and mental illness more so than the influence of entertainment, Doom is a prime examples of entertainment being blamed for creating killers.

Until now, all of the games we’ve looked at caused a stir after they were released. The same cannot be said about 1998’s Thrill Kill, however, which didn’t even hit shelves. Prior to the game’s release, EA pulled the plug on it because they didn’t want to be associated with “such a senselessly violent game” as they feared it would harm their image. Originally, Thrill Kill was supposed to have been published by Virgin Interactive, but the company was bought out by EA, forever damning it – much like the fates of its protagonists. The plot centres around 10 souls trapped in the bowels of Hell who must battle it out in a fighting tournament, with the winner being granted reincarnation by Marukka, the Goddess of Secrets. For its time, the game was a breakthrough as it was able to pit four players against each other in the same room, and this was being pushed as a major selling point. However, scenes portraying disturbing sexual fetishes and extreme gore detracted from its groundbreaking elements and the game was exiled to the publisher purgatory.

But Thrill Kill’s cancellation didn’t banish it from existence once and for all like the moralists at EA had hoped. The forces of darkness were too strong and the game would experience its own reincarnation through subsequent beta versions and bootlegs, which ultimately garnered the game a cult fan base in the process. If you fancy yourself a purveyor of forbidden fruits – or maybe you’re just keen to see what all the fuss is about – then the game is easy to obtain online via Playstation emulators, though I wouldn’t get my hopes up and expect anything close to resembling a quality gaming experience.

The controversy surrounding Thrill Kill elevated its notoriety, making it somewhat of the gaming equivalent of a video nasty (though the reviews were less than favourable despite its legacy). In addition, the engine for the game was used for subsequent combat actioners WU-Tang: Shaolin Style (1999), X-Men: Mutant Academy (2000), and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots Arena (2000).  Still, the charming cult appeal of Thrill Kill exists to this day because it managed to carve its own tiny niche in the canon of controversial video game history, and that’s pretty cool.

Of course, when it comes to video games that corrupt impressionable minds and fuel outrage, Rockstar sit atop a pedestal that cannot be reached by their peers in the world of mainstream video game manufacturing. Controversy is imbued in their very lifeblood; so much so that when they released their Table Tennis game in 2006, players were shocked to find that you couldn’t beat your opponent to death with the paddle. However, three years previously, they released what is arguably their most controversial game to-date: Manhunt.

Manhunt is a hybrid of survival horror and snuff, where the player’s sole purpose is to embark on a murder crusade. You must evade hired goons out to claim your head by snuffing them them out; the killing methods range from suffocating enemies with plastic bags, stabbing their necks repeatedly with glass shards, smashing their skulls to smithereens with hammers, mutilating the bastards with chainsaws, and shooting them down like feral mutts. The game is both morally reprehensible and endlessly replayable, but it’s certainly not for those with a weak stomach. Manhunt pulls you into a seedy, grimy underbelly and never ceases tormenting you with violent obstacles until it’s over.

The hysteria surrounding Manhunt reached its apex when the game was linked to the murder of teenager Stefan Pakeerah by his friend Warren Leblanc in Leicestershire, England in July, 2004. According to Leblanc’s friends and family, he was obsessed with the game and the method in which he murdered his friend was inspired by it. However, it was later discovered that the game was in fact found in Pakeerah’s room and that the motivation behind his murder was drug-related. But that didn’t stop the case from being used against Rockstar when they unveiled a sequel for the game in 2007.

The timing of Manhunt 2 couldn’t have been more tone-deaf, but it did garner huge publicity. Pakeerah’s parents, who still maintained that the first game was responsible for their son’s death, were appalled to discover that the sequel was being released on the anniversary month of his passing. This led to attorney – and campaigner against violent video games – Jack Thompson trying to get the game banned in the UK. His attempts were unsuccessful, but Rockstar did have to make some modifications before Manhunt 2 was approved by the BBFC due to its excessively violent content.

Both Manhunt games were banned in various other countries and gave those who believe that there is a link between violence and video games a cause for concern. However, when compared to the 2006 Japanese shocker RapeLay, it’s as light and breezy as Candy Crush. In fact, it’s disturbing to even think that someone conjured up this idea for a RapeLay in the first place, let alone think that a company would release it – but Illusion did. The developer has a policy which means their titles can only be purchased in their native homeland, but it didn’t stop other countries from banning its distribution there all the same.

The game is centred on a male character who stalks and rapes a mother and her two daughters. As if that storyline isn’t chilling enough, the game is played from the perspective of the offender, and player’s are able to make the character commit several despicable acts ranging from forced fellatio to impregnation. Should the player choose to stick with the game, their character can keep the women as sex slaves and rape them at will. Yes, this is an actual video game and, unsurprisingly, it caused international outrage. In 2009, British politician Keith Vaz played an integral part in having the game removed from Amazon (even though it couldn’t be distributed outside of Japan, the internet still found a way). Nowadays it’s difficult to obtain a copy as nowhere in their right mind will stock it. Still, there are defenders of the game who argue that rape is a lesser crime than murder; therefore, RapePlay should be legal if the abundance of games where the objective is to commit are allowed.

Rule of Rose, released for the Playstation 2 in 2006, caused ire when it came to the attention of then-European Union justice minister Franco Frattini. The game contains sexual undertones and features a cast of characters who are minors, so you can understand why that rubbed people the wrong way. Set in 1930 England, the story centres around girl named Jennifer who becomes trapped in a world ruled by young girls who have established their own social order. Despite the criticisms, however, response to the Rule of Rose was mostly positively and the game was compared to the acclaimed Silent Hill saga.

That said, calls for the game to be banned in France were issued as they believed allowing it would inspire future video games to cross inappropriate lines. In the UK, the game was hammered by the press, which led to publisher 505 Games cancelling its release in some markets. Out of all of the games mentioned in this article, it’s the least violent; but the suggestion of sexuality among children was enough to unnerve people, even though it’s only subtly insinuated.

Another game containing themes of underage sex made headlines in 2015, after surfacing on the dark web seemingly out of nowhere. Sad Satan is a game shrouded in mystery, as nobody knows who created it and, according to some players, attached to it are files containing inappropriate pornography and malware. In the game, the protagonist walks through a house that’s haunted by the screams of children. As the game progresses, disturbing images sex offenders appear on the screen, suggesting that the children we hear wailing are the ghosts of sexual assault victims.

Despite the mystery surrounding the game, it is in fact real. If you want to see it for yourself without venturing into the forbidden web, you can find clips from it on Youtube. Judging it solely as a video game, it doesn’t look very interesting; not much happens at all in the way of narrative storytelling, but it boasts and unsettling aura nonetheless. Where the game does excel is through its nightmarish, ambiguous qualities – and for all we know it was developed by a potential sex offender. The storyline has been interpreted as a creep’s endless afterlife torment, and there are several essays and video analyses to be found online dedicated to deciphering its potential meaning.

The versions on Youtube are said to be censored, but some online commentators have reported that there is an explicit version out there which contains images depicting actual sexual abuse towards minors. That alone should deter you from seeking it out; even if it is bullshit it just isn’t worth the risk. That being said, it does add to the game’s mystique in pop culture folklore, and whoever created the game certainly got people talking.

From arcade floors to the forbidden corridors of the internet – and an assortment of home consoles providing the bedrock in between – video games have supplied the world with controversy since their inception. The horror genre has never been shy to go the extra mile when it comes to shattering the parameters of good taste and upstanding morals – but that’s what makes it so appealing at the end of the day (unless it’s games like RapePlay, which don’t sound appealing at all). We spend our day-to-day lives rooted in normalcy, and sometimes we just want to see blood spray and guts spill in our entertainment. And contrary to the propaganda naysayers try to promote, violent video games don’t turn us into serial murderers.

About Kieran Fisher

Kieran is the Managing Editor of this website you're reading. He's a big fan of action movies, schlock horror, giant monsters stomping through cities and crime sagas. In addition to Diabolique, he also writes for Arrow Video and Film School Rejects.

2 comments

  1. Ah used tae play Splatterhoose in the arcade in Fawkirk. Guid laugh, splatsmashing the big mad fuckoff demon beasties off the waw wi a meat cleaver. Thir wis certainly nae controversy aboot it on this side ay the Atlantic.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xss7N6ELobU

    Anither fun supernatural-themed yin, though no sae gorily violent, wis Ghosts and Goblins. Great laugh.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIhyjrXVhzg

  2. This Sad Satan game sounds like the video game equivalent of a snuff film!

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