The Pillars of Horror: Splatterhouse
The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
Splatterhouse could have just been an excellent brawler if not for those words. Sure, it had horrific elements in its oozing, seeping enemy design and in its creepy atmosphere, but I wouldn’t have called it a horror game until I heard that sentence. I’ve never been scared while playing the game, but I have had the rug pulled right out from under me during one sequence near the end of the game. That moment took this game from an action game with horror elements and made it into something that left me unsettled and shaken until the game had ended.
Despite its focus on action, there aren’t many horror games in existence that don’t owe a little something to Splatterhouse‘s enemy design. Slimy, grotesque, and bloated don’t even begin to describe the disgusting array of monsters that wander these levels. Each of these shambling creatures looks like it’s rotting or half torn apart to begin with, and many of them burst with sickening fluid when they’re hit. Just as many of them have exposed bones and muscle tissue sticking out from shredded skin or are visibly in agony as they head toward you. It’s really gross, and will instantly trigger feelings of revulsion for anyone playing it. You might not feel physically ill, but your natural instinct will be to get rid of these creatures as fast as you can.
The monsters are all huge on the screen, too, so you’ll get a nice, close look at the sores and wounds on their bodies. Instead of pulling far back, the game takes place on a single plane that takes up a lot of the screen. While the background takes up some of the space, for the most part it’s just you and the monsters, letting you draw in every detail about them. I felt uncomfortably close to the creatures while fighting them, feeling like I was was always right on the verge of having one of these things touch me. Given the array of fluids and wounds on each of them, that was something I instinctively didn’t want to happen. It was a neat effect, forcing me to approach these things while simultaneously making me want to get as far away from them as possible. I’ve been forced close to monsters in many games before, but this game made me really feel my proximity to these things.
The combat has other ways to keep players uncomfortable. The huge enemies on the screen also meant that my character was a big target, too, so things could get bad in a hurry no matter how well I’d been doing. These hulking things quickly get close to you as they don’t have to close much distance, so even though they move slowly they can still be on you in seconds. Neither you nor the enemies have much in the way of health, either, so most fights feel like you’ve only just crept by. Once you get good at the game that nervousness goes away, but you’re still only one slip-up away from dying at the hands of a headless, shambling mob.
I’ve said that many of them burst open when they’re hit, but that barely describes the smeared mess many of these things leave behind when you kill them. There’s no blinking and disappearing here; only bleeding stumps and gore-filled stains. The game really cranks up the discomfort with the remains of these monsters, making each and every kill into a visual event. It drowns your eyes in gory details, constantly reminding you how unnatural and sickening your enemies are. Killing these creatures only seems to make them more horrifying, and due to the game’s viewpoint you get to see every smear up close.
That’s not taking weapons into account, either. As big of a mess as most things make, it’s nothing compared to what the weapons can do. Given the array of machetes, shotguns, and 2X4s, you will almost always have a weapon in your hand, and each one does something new and terrible to enemies. The game’s name has clearly come from the mess you leave behind once you hit something with these weapons, as it’s always explosive and disgusting. Hitting one of the swamp creatures in any of the watery areas just sprays their bodies against the wall, and it’s extremely satisfying—while also off-putting. It’s the sort of stuff that keeps you playing the game while it slowly creeps into your nightmares that night.
The sound of those remains hitting the wall really drive everything home, though. The sound effects in this game are excellent, and give every movement a weight and heft that I’ve rarely seen in games beyond Gears of War and Doom. Each weapon impact rings out with a wet crack, every body hitting the wall with the rotten crunch of flesh and bone. The sound gives the fighting a presence, the sound adding another layer of disgust in your mind. You can hear how gross these creatures are when you hit them, and it just makes everything that much more real. I don’t think I even want to know what the sound designers had to study to get this stuff down right. Special mention goes to the 2X4, which sounds so painful and bone-shattering that I think I’d rather get hit with a chainsaw. If the fact that Splatterhouse displaced horror’s iconic chainsaw with a length of wood doesn’t interest you, then I really don’t know what to tell you.
They’ve done some great work with the music as well. There are reams of creepy music in this game, all of them menacing the player in different ways. There are some tracks that drone on with quickly repeating patterns that have a strong base to them, creating a sensation of creeping dread and discomfort. There are some that are higher pitched (without being shrill) that build up slowly, gaining speed to match the dangers in the room. Your own heartbeat is probably keeping pace with it too, as it is with the rest of the game’s fantastic music. There are many things that you could argue were the same between the TurboGrafix-16 and the original arcade version, but there’s no comparison in the music and sound. There are just many different layers to the creeping, eerie music that either drive up tension or make you want to hide from what’s coming next, and you don’t hear as much of that in the TurboGrafix port. Given that the arcade version is easier to find since it’s on the Splatterhouse rerelease for the 360 and PS3, you’re definitely better off with the easier-to-locate version. Crank the sound up when you play it.
Now, if you don’t want a key moment in the game spoiled for you, you should go try the game now. It isn’t that long, and you should be able to get to what I’m talking about with a little bit of practice. Either way, leave now if you don’t want to have the game’s definitive moment spoiled for you.
Like I said, Splatterhouse‘s sound design is incredible, but it’s the one track that is completely different that really stands out. When you make it to the end of level 5, you’ll finally come across the reason you’ve been working your way through the house. It’s at this point when a beautiful, sad song begins to play. Before you’ve even made it to the other side of the screen, you instantly know what’s wrong. What’s more important is that you feel it, though. This song, amidst all of the other creepy music, just stands out and carries a power that’s rare in game soundtracks. Yes, it sounds primitive by today’s standards, but the people who wrote this song managed to pour their life and soul into the music. It’s that music that’s stayed with me ever since I played it, and is always the first thing I remember when I think about the game.
While this music plays, you are brought to one of the more heart-rending scenes in any game. You find your girlfriend lying on a couch, a horde of monsters running away as you approach. She stands up and looks at you, calling out with the words that, while a little unclear due to hardware limitations, carry a narrative power that video games rarely pull off.
It’s the last thing she shouts before turning into a clawed beast (Skip to 4:10 in the video at the bottom of this article to watch the Turbographx version. In the arcade she says “Help, I’m dying!” instead, but both are pretty unsettling), bits of her original flesh still hanging from its twisted body. The transformation looks horribly painful, pulsing against her skin until it eventually rips out of it. This happens a few times during the fight as the monster grows weaker, each time pulling back within the woman’s body long enough for her to beg for your help again. Each time she reverts back you get a little twinge of hope that you’re doing the right thing, that this is how you help save your girlfriend.
But you can’t. She’s already been destroyed by the forces in the house, and the only help you can give her is in freeing her from the thing inside of her. You can only help her by killing her.
The horror in Splatterhouse may partially come from gore and scary music, but the main reason why it is so important is in the moments when it’s the most human. Its awful message is that the most terrible thing you may have to do is wish death to a loved one in order to help them. The fear is in a loved one being in danger but arriving too late to save them. It’s in knowing that nothing you do from that point on can fix what’s already happened. The time when Splatterhouse is at its most effective is when the main character’s pain is something the player can imagine and even identify with. It’s in the terrible possibility that one day, a loved one might ask you to help them by ending their lives as well.
You could argue that I’m reading a bit much into a gory video game, but I really don’t think so. The developers went out of their way to make you hear the girl cry out for help. In a time when getting voice in games was troublesome and expensive (Just saying the word Sega out loud in Sonic the Hedgehog took up an eighth of the game’s storage space),they made sure that her cries for help were there and audible. It’s not something you read, but something you got to hear and endure. They also made sure you witnessed her transformation, watching how helpless she was against the thing that had ruined her body. It drives the terrible situation home, over and over again. This is what they want you to take away from the game. This is what these things want to do to people. This is why you should hate them.
There are two more levels in the game, but you may find yourself floating through them in a daze. To me, everything ended right there when my girlfriend thanked me for killing her and turned into dust on the wind. Splatterhouse is a fun, great game filled with some sickening gore, but it’s the points that fly in the face of the rest of the game that made it stick with me. It’s the point when you realize it’s just two humans trying to escape this terrible place that the game really finds its staying power. Yes, it is mostly an action game with horrific elements, but it was that one point when it showed its human side that it gained a spot with the horror greats.
Its contribution, as amazing as it sounds, is to being emotionally horrified, something I didn’t really expect when I played it a few years ago. I also didn’t expect me to hit me as hard as it did the second time, either, but the game hasn’t lost any of its power with the age of its graphics and hardware. Yes, at its core it’s an absurd situation, but what story doesn’t use strange plot lines to explore complex human emotions? Despite being buried in a bloody brawler, Splatterhouse‘s emotional payload isn’t any less significant. It stands out all the more due to being the one moment of touching humanity in this twisted world.
I was horrified at the events of this game, shaken to the point where I will always remember that one helpless scream. If that isn’t effective horror, then I don’t know what is.
Images courtesy of splatterhouse.kontek.net (Literally THE source for everything Splatterhouse. Definitely check these guys out), swankworld.com, greygelgoog.livejournal.com