The Haunted PS1 Aesthetic and Medium-Specific Noise

Ian here—

I’m making some plans for some all-new series of videos to start premiering in 2023. But since it’s been such a long gap, I wanted to make sure I posted at least one thing to YouTube in 2022, and Halloween gave me a nice external deadline.

The low-poly aesthetic in horror has been one I’ve been interested in for awhile, all the way back since Back in 1995 was released in 2016. 2022 was the year I devoted to finally diving into a scene that’s become quite deep and diverse in recent years, to coincide with the horror class I taught in the spring quarter, and am teaching again right at this moment.

Script below the jump.

Hello, everyone. Ian here.

I’ve had a long break between videos, and as I was trying to get back into the swing of things, I figured I would do another video about horror games, which is a subject I hit hard a few years back, and have only gotten back to intermittently since then.

When I was originally planning my suite of horror videos in 2018, I made a note to myself that it might be interesting to talk about a small trend I was noticing: games that had a PS1-inspired visual style, deliberately adopting the visual limitations of an earlier era of horror games. At the time, I was thinking of two potential case studies: Back in 1995 (which came out in 2016), and Paratopic (which came out in 2018). And with only two case studies, I couldn’t think of exactly what to do with the trend—it seemed to be too minor of a movement to be able to make a coherent argument about. So I shelved the idea.

But things have changed, quite a lot. We’re now at the point where there is a genuine scene of indie horror games adopting PS1 aesthetics, a veritable ecosystem of small developers trading ideas and assets and rendering pipelines to better capture the je ne sais quoi of the original PlayStation. I’m not personally a part of this scene, but the fruits of its labors are plain enough for anyone to see: there was the release of the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc in February 2020, the Haunted PS1 Madvent Calendar in December 2020, the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2 in March 2021, and the Haunted PS1 Madvent Calendar 2 in December 2021. And then just this past August, they release a third Haunted PS1 Demo Disc, subtitled “Spectral Mall,” so the scene is still going strong. Given all of this, Halloween 2022 seemed like a good time for me to take this video back off the shelf, so to speak.

The explosion of this scene over the past two and a half years answers question that’s been rattling around in my brain for awhile now. To a very large degree, indie game development—to whatever extent it can be considered as a coherent aesthetic pursuit, coalescing as a thing in the late 2000s—is made possible as a phenomenon by nostalgia. 

The standard received wisdom is that cycles of nostalgia operate in 30 years intervals: adults in their late 30s and early 40s, who now have comfortable amounts of disposable income, become targets for new manifestations of things they remember from their childhood. I don’t know how much that idea of a 30-year interval actually holds true—in gaming, in particular, these nostalgic cycles move quite a bit more quickly. But they are observable, and they have been a boon for independent game development. 

In the late 1980s, 2D games were dominant in the industry—in particular, genres such as the 2D platformer. And 20 years later, starting around 2008, you had the emergence of indie games that drew from the visual vocabulary of these 2D games, twisting it to their own ends. The mainstream game industry by and large wasn’t doing 2D game design anymore at this point, which allowed these indie creators to carve out a niche for themselves. And it worked out from a labor perspective, too: a 2D game with pixel art is something that can actually be created by a single developer, or small team of developers, so it scales well with the logistics of indie development in a way that 3D game design doesn’t.

And so, from 2008 onward, we saw an explosion of 2D indie games, often with pixel art approximating the art styles of games 20 years prior: starting with 2D platformers, but eventually expanding outward into other 2D genres: Metroidvanias, shmups, RPGs, and life simulation.

The nostalgia for 2D games and pixel art was a huge boon for indie game developers. It basically allowed it to become a thing: small teams were able to put out polished products that scratched a certain itch that at that very historical moment wasn’t being serviced by the mainstream industry. And one might assume that, at a certain point, the cycle of nostalgia would turn onward, and you’d start getting a large number of low-poly 3D games made by indie developers, made to scratch a nostalgic itch for the mid-1990s. In 2011, Minecraft seemed to be the harbinger for just such a development. But then it sort of just … didn’t fully materialize. Sure, you can pick out a few indie developers that worked in the low-poly 3D mode in the early-to-mid 2010s, but even those developers—such as Arcane Kids— didn’t seem to be motivated by straightforward nostalgia so much as a morbid ironic fascination with how ugly and weird 90s detritus was. Pixel art had been a mature art form at the time it died its first death, prematurely in the mid-1990s. Early 3D was more of a transitional style: a glimpse of what was to come, but one that depended a lot on the generosity of players to imagine the future potential of the tech. Standouts like Super Mario 64 aside, first years of 3D development were an awkward time for the games industry, with many companies trying and decidedly failing to make the leap into a new dimension. Maybe this was just an era that almost no one was unironically nostalgic for—maybe that explained the lack of indie developers working in this space, even in the wake of Minecraft’s astronomical popularity.

Or so I thought—until the horror games started showing up. First as a slow drip: Back in 1995 in 2016, Paratopic in 2018, and Puppet Combo’s earliest games first showed up on Itch around this same time. 

I wasn’t sure what to do with these games at first, but it was clear to me that there was something new going on. There had been cheaply-made indie 3D horror games before. I had played horror games—sometimes quite effective horror games—cobbled together from the roughest and/or cheapest assets their creators could manage. I had been hunted by chunky, low-poly mobs before. But these games didn’t deliberately embrace low-poly art as an aesthetic choice: these were stepping-stone games, and their creators often went on to make subsequent efforts where they could afford more polygons. Developers like Puppet Combo and Arbitrary Metric, on the other hand, were much more clearly making a aesthetic choice to retreat back into the specific visual limitations of survival horror games on the first PlayStation, transforming what might be otherwise seen as an apparent weakness into something deliberate. And by this point in 2022, this deliberate aesthetic choice has clearly caught on. 

The draw of low-poly 3D game development is clear—as I’ve been saying this whole time, it’s an obvious choice if your resources are constrained. Finally, indie developers were doing the thing that I’d thought had been the obvious choice for them for years. But why was horror the genre that was successfully resurrected, in its original low-poly glory, rather than, say, 90s-style 3D platformers? It’s true—we have seen a few 90s-style 3D platformers from indie developers, like A Hat in Time for instance, but A Hat in Time is a mechanical throwback only—not a visual one. Why was it the horror genre that finally broke this particular barrier, becoming the epicenter for low-poly 3D art in contemporary indie game development?

As I was asking this question to myself, I realized that the answer had already been given—by me, in the first videos in this very series. The first Silent Hill game is fondly remembered to this day because it took the fog and the darkness that were necessitated by the PlayStation’s short draw distance, and built a deliberate aesthetic around them. It took the limitations that every other designer was working with on the system, and it turned them into a creative asset, ramping up players’ fear of the unknown. So if you’re going to deliberately adopt the limitations of an earlier era, as a stylistic affectation, of course it makes sense that the types of games you would want to reproduce were those games that made use of those limitations in the most artistically satisfying way. It had to be horror! In hindsight, it was always going to be horror. Platformers, racing games, fighting games—those all worked despite the limitations of early 3D hardware. Horror games worked because of them. 

One concept that’s been useful to me as I’ve thought my way through the Haunted PS1 scene has been the film scholar Arild Fetveit’s concept of medium-specific noise (which he sometimes also refers to as the precarious aesthetic). Fetveit’s first essay on the subject appeared in 2013, and, notably, that year was a real turning point for digital cinematography. In theaters, digital projection had just supplanted 35mm prints. HDTVs had completely overtaken their cathode-ray forebears. And at the time, companies were already coming to consensus on the specifications for 4K. Whether theatrically or in home viewing, everything was being shot digitally, and shown digitally, in crisp high definition. 

And yet Fetveit noticed that, in the midst of this quest for greater digital fidelity, you had a countervailing current: more and more you were seeing image-makers embrace the specific noise associated with analog media, and activity employ this noise as an expressive device. The sheen of crisp digital cinematography had created new opportunities for nostalgia. Previously, artifacts like dirt, scratches, faded color, light leak streaks, or thick grain had been seen solely as deficiencies, interfering with the dream of a perfect visual signal. But now those same artifacts were being embraced as a marker of authenticity. A digital file is just a series of 0s and 1s that can be copied endlessly, and altered easily. A canister of 16mm film is, like, a thing. It decays over time, so it has a limited lifespan—and if it has a “lifespan,” doesn’t that mean that it is in some way “alive”? 

And so you have this re-casting: all that noise that used to just be considered interference, something that got in the way of you seeing what was depicted, is now something that makes us feel closer to an image, in its material reality. 

Ironically, this sense of authenticity was often being activated through inauthentic means: filmmakers were artificially inducing analog noise into projects shot on digital cameras. Robert Rodriquez shot Planet Terror on HD digital cameras, and then he used digital filters to fade the color, add film grain, scratches, and dirt particles, simulate film registration problems, a projector jam, and subsequent melting of the film. All artificial effects, all added to achieve a sort of warm nostalgia for a youth spent watching terrible prints circulating in grindhouse theaters.

Fetveidt uses Planet Terror as one of his major case studies, and what’s interesting to me is that the horror genre continues to be a major epicenter of what he calls the precarious aesthetic. We’ve had horror films that are based around collections of Super 8 home movies, thrillers that try to imitate the specific color of Italian films stocks of the 1970s, and genre pastiches that have so many types of visual and auditory distortion layered on them that they resemble something dragged up out of a lake. Hell, we have a whole found footage anthology franchise that’s named after an analog video format! Now, I have to say the various filmmakers making segments in the V/H/S franchise have been inconsistent at best when it comes to imitating the specific noise of VHS. But sometimes they do go all-in on a specifically analog video aesthetic.

Admittedly, it’s a little hazardous trying to adapt Fetveit’s concept of medium-specific noise to videogames in a 1:1 way. Fetveit is talking about, well, noise. Noise is something that affects a recording medium. Fetveit’s examples are all artifacts of the processes of photochemistry that interfere with our perception of the thing being photographed, adding a layer of mediation between us and it. When we’re looking at the assets of a low-poly videogame … there’s no “original thing” that’s being mediated. It’s just a low-poly asset. We are seeing the thing, in all of its distinct low-poly-ness. The “PS1 style” isn’t a matter of recording, so much as it’s a matter of modeling and animation.

CRT filters get us closer to the sorts of things Fetveit is talking about in cinema. Several of these games have an option in their menus that allows you to add a filter that makes it look like you’re viewing the game through the scan lines of a cathode ray tube display. The limited resolution these games often employ is also arguably a form of digital noise—although I have to it’s very rare for one of these games actually limit itself to the 640×480 resolution of the original PlayStation. Anyway, although the low-poly models might be quite different from what Fetveit had in mind, once you factor in these display options, I think it’s fair to say that there are definitely some broad family resemblances at play between what Fetveit is talking about in cinema and what we’re talking about in games.

What really brings these family resemblances out is the fact that so many of these contemporary games made in the PS1 style display a wide interest in even more categories of noise. It’s not just about low-poly assets, or chunky resolutions, or CRT filters. You also have the aggressive dithering of the PS1, simulation of its “wobble” effect, and its notoriously queasy affine texture-mapping. And then you have noise that doesn’t even refer back to games at all. VHS, for example, looms large as a format in these games. The chunky black bricks of the tapes themselves feature prominently as objects that you collect and use, in several games using this art style. And beyond using the tapes themselves as props, some of these games actively employ VHS-style static lines or tracking wobble, adding a supplemental bit of found-footage flavoring to the low-poly proceedings. The Blair Witch Project is a frequent point of reference—not just in the vague sense of lonely walks through creepy forests, but at times some quite specific visual homages.

For the record, The Blair Witch Project wasn’t actually shot on VHS—it was shot on a mixture of 16mm and Hi8 video, which was a much more common format for handheld camcorders in the ‘90s. I wouldn’t blame anyone for mis-remembering the format of the film, however, because The Blair Witch Project was released at a time where a lot of horror films were exploring the aesthetic possibilities of VHS. You had things like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, where black-and-white VHS footage becomes a portal into repressed memories. And, of course, both the original Japanese Ring and its American remake, where a mysterious unmarked VHS tape becomes a conduit for a haunting. These films, in particular, also strike me as being visual reference points for several of these games.

And I get it: VHS is a creepy format. The images it creates are so indistinct so as to appear ghostly, making it the perfect visual medium to be haunted. It’s also a medium that keeps secrets. On consumer grade VCRs, you’d get a severe warble effect whenever you tried to pause. So going into a professional video editor’s suite and finding out that a flying-erase head VCR could actually arrest individual frames in front of you for your close inspection felt like some sort of arcane wizardry. The scenes in both the Japanese and American Rings where they use professional-grade equipment to play back the tape itself work as well as they do because you could pull hidden images and sounds out of VHS tapes if you worked with them enough. And that process always felt vaguely like dark magic, chanting the inscription on those black magnetic scrolls to summon something unstable up from the depths, if only for a moment.

The developer Puppet Combo deserves special mention in the context of this discussion. The menus for his games include a downright embarrassing array of various post-processing filters, each designed to evoke a different brand of medium-specific noise. You not only get multiple different cathode-ray tube monitor filters, you can also stack those filters with at least one—and sometimes more that one—VHS-styled visual filters.

The VHS filter is a little odd if you think about it—what, are we watching a recording of a PS1 game on a VHS? Did we go over to a friends’ house in the 90s and they were like, “yeah sorry I returned the Silent Hill disc back to Blockbuster, but I passed my PS1 through our VCR and was recording the whole time I played, so we can just sit around and watch my playthrough!” God, what a shitty weekend at my friend’s house. But, well, here I am on YouTube, talking to you over footage I recorded myself playing, so how am I any better? I can’t even offer you a tub of cheese balls and a can of Josta.

Anyway, the VHS filter is a bit silly when you think about it, but you know what’s even sillier? The 16mm filter. Now it’s like: “oh, sorry, I returned the Resident Evil disc, but I filmed the whole game with my Arriflex.” What? No one did this! These technologies don’t have anything to do with each other! 

But that’s not the point. The point is the free intermixing of different forms of nostalgia, particularly for horror fans who remember the 80s and 90s. Puppet Combo’s games are a pastiche: not just of different sub-genres of horror—80s American slasher films meet 70s Italian Giallo—but also of different forms of medium-specific noise. There are the specific forms of noise associated with survival horror games played on suboptimal CRT TVs … but there’s also the forms of noise associated with paying a six quarters to rent a well-worn VHS copy of Evil Dead from your locally-owned video store with the clerk who didn’t care enough to card for R-rated rentals. And also the forms of noise associated with heading to a grindhouse theater downtown showing a faded and unspeakably dirty copy of The Town that Dreaded Sundown

When it comes down to it, this is why I think medium-specific noise, as a general aesthetic, has attached itself so successfully to the horror genre—across both cinema and games. We have here an unique intersection between nostalgia and abjection. Horror, as a genre, is filled with awful, degrading images, and these images have historically often been circulated in awful, degraded copies. A generalized scuzziness hangs over the memories of many a horror aficionado, as they recall viewing this or that favorite in whatever compromised terms were most prevalent in the decade of their youth. It is an ugly genre that makes people nostalgic for the specific ugliness they associate with the “good old days.” Some cinematic images are so disreputable that they just call out to be viewed on a disreputable viewing format like VHS—just as some horrific videogame geographies are so resolutely non-Euclidean that they deserve to have affine texture mapping.

OK—I want to add one more twist to all of this.

We can subdivide the PS1-style games that have come out in the past few years into different categories. On the one hand, there are things like Paratopic, Harmful, The House in the Woods, and Ode to a Moon. These games are basically walking simulators. They borrow certain visual aesthetics of PS1-era horror games, but the affinity ends there. They don’t have tank controls. You don’t have to collect key items and solve puzzles to pass through gating to reach the next area. These games have modern mouse-and-keyboard first-person controls—more in the lineage of Quake than Alone in the Dark. And even thought it’s not always clear where you have to walk next—it’s true, the geographies of House in the Woods and Ode to a Moon are both particularly difficult to conceptualize and navigate—still, progressing in the game is ultimately a matter of walking to the next prescribed point.

On the other hand, there are games that much more closely mechanically resemble survival horror games of the 1990s. They have tank controls, their gameplay is organized around key collection and puzzle-solving, and they have third-person camera schemes that are decidedly un-modern. Sometimes “un-modern” means completely static, fixed camera perspectives, in the lineage of Alone in the Dark and the first three Resident Evil games—you see this for instance in The Glass Staircase and The Petrified King. Other times, as in Back in 1995 and Heartworm, you have a camera that is somewhat mobile but governed by its own internal rules rather than strictly following the player-character, similar to Silent Hill or Resident Evil: Code Veronica.

Then there are, admittedly, some  hybrids. A Place, Forbidden, Hafermann, I Spoke to God, and Fear the Spotlight are based around puzzles and key collection, and have some PS1-like UI and menu elements, but otherwise control in a much more modern way. Murder House can be played in 3rd person, with tank controls and regularly switching between different camera angles, or it can be played in 1st person with much more standard controls, either mouse-and-keyboard or dual analog.

So: out of curiosity, I had my students play a selection of these games. And what I found was that they liked the walking-simulator-style games. They thought The House in the Woods was scary. They recognized and appreciated its references to The Blair Witch Project. They got a bit lost in Ode to a Moon, but they found it to be appropriately trippy. They were unnerved and intrigued by Paratopic.

On the other hand, they hated the more traditionalist examples. I had them play Back in 1995 and The Glass Staircase, and their reception couldn’t have been colder. While they could accept the idea that videogame visual aesthetics don’t progress in a teleological way, and that we can resurrect and deliberately play with older visual styles, they could not accept the same of control schemes, camera setups, and mechanics. They considered it to be a deliberate affront that a contemporary developer might adopt tank controls, or a slow pace based around gradually finding and using various keys. Why on earth would someone design something so clunky, when there were—in their minds—just objectively better options available? These games, they declared, were designed to appeal to a certain small subset of nostalgic millennials, and had absolutely no value to anyone outside of that narrow target demographic.

Which got me thinking: are control schemes (like tank controls) and mechanics (such as slowly puzzling your way through locked doors) themselves a form of noise? Fetveit describes medium-specific noise as a type of interference that gets between our eyes and what we’re trying to perceive—interference that can sometimes result in our perception being intensified, with image seeming to be charged with a certain sense of authenticity. What are tank controls, but a form of interference that gets between our thumbs and the character we’re trying to control? What are fixed camera angles, but a form of interference that gets between our brains and the combat situation we’re trying to make sense of? Is a lack of lock-on while wielding a weapon noise? Is having to search for a locker that you found a key for, but that is completely visually unmarked—is that noise? Am I, as a player of these games who operates with the memory of the early Alone in the Darks, Resident Evils, and Silent Hills, susceptible to nostalgia for a specific variety of medium-specific noise—not visual noise, or auditory noise, but mechanical noise—that my students are immune to?

Maybe. That’s all I’m willing to say for now—maybe. But it has given me something to think about.

And it does point to a basic critical question:

Are these games any good?

Well … there’s a lot of them, so no, they’re not all good. I have played a lot of bad-to-mediocre short indie games while researching this video. I won’t go into too much detail here, but one thing I will say is that developers who adopt the fixed or partially-fixed camera style often struggle with it. They approach it first and foremost as a quirky way to program a game’s camera angles, without fully considering all of the visual language involved. In my first video in this series, I mentioned that camera angles in the early Resident Evil games would occasionally “cross the line,” swapping the screen direction of player actions. After playing these games, I longed for how relatively rare that problem would crop up in Resident Evil—it’s much, much more common in these indie-developed games, to the point where it’s clear to me in hindsight that Capcom did keep some people on-staff who really did know what they were doing in regards to live virtual continuity editing.

I have also played some games that I can straightforwardly recommend, as enjoyable play experiences.

The House in the Woods is an astonishingly well-constructed horror walking simulator that uses sound-based herding and obscure geography in wonderful ways. It also stages its action terrifically once things ramp up, genuinely reminding me of Valve’s polished artistry at times. 

Puppet Combo has been working in this space longer than just about everyone else, gradually refining his aesthetic over a series of similar games. The payoff to all of this is Murder House, a game that wields its influences well, while also being only a couple of hours long. This means it crucially doesn’t outstay its welcome—you explore the house, you gradually unlock every door in the house, and you escape without ever having to infiltrate a secret laboratory or fight a giant tree in the underground caverns.

I like the two games I just mentioned, but I also have to acknowledge that their successes remain on the level of pastiche. 

Judged as a walking simulator, House in the Woods mixes the endless forest of The Path with the follow-the-sound guidance system of Heartwood. It’s scarier than either of those games, but a lot of that scariness comes from ripping imagery wholesale from the Blair Witch Project. It’s very well-made, but it’s undeniably derivative.

Murder House features an implacable enemy that shows up unexpectedly to stymie your plans, straight out of Resident Evil 3. It has a nice sense of time passing and things getting gradually more dire—just like Silent Hill. Its puzzles hit all the right notes to give millennials who are heading rapidly into middle age a nice hazy reminder of their misspent youths. Sure, it does have a hiding mechanic, which none of the PS1-era survival horror games did, but that’s just borrowed from more recent horror games like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation.

Of course, as I said upfront, indie games at this point have a long history of trafficking in nostalgia—nostalgia for Harvest Moon, or Earthbound, or LucasArts point-and-click games. And it would be absurd to say that none of those games have any merit. What matters is whether they manage to feel like something new, like a distinct improvement on the sum of their parts.

And there are some games within the Haunted PS1 aesthetic that I think are managing to feel like something new, are managing to achieve escape velocity out of the orbit of 90s survival horror. 

The Heilwald Loophole has enough problems that I can’t recommend it unreservedly. It’s poorly paced, and it needs a better tutorial. It’s difficult at first to understand how you should approach playing the game, and then once you do understand it it’s by its very nature rather repetitive. Its AI is extremely unforgiving of small variances in player behavior, which is fun at first because it makes the characters feel tetchy and unstable in a genuinely unnerving way … but becomes annoying later on when you need the AI to behave in a more predictable way so that you can trigger a specific series of events and progress forward. The game also loses all sense of rising momentum and just basic structure by the end. But, all of those complaints aside, The Heilwald Loophole has some wonderful ideas about how to approach death in a horror game, and some intriguing ideas about how one might progress through a map in a game. It also has an astonishingly large cast of characters for a game developed by one person. It’s a great showcase for exactly how ambitious you can be as an indie developer when you choose a low-poly art style for yourself. If anything, the game has too many ideas, which is always preferable to a game that has too few.

Another game with some pretty damn exciting ideas is MOTHERED: A ROLE-PLAYING HORROR GAME. More than just about any game I’ve mentioned here, MOTHERED mines creepiness out of its own low-poly assets and limited animations. The mother that the game revolves around is a horrible mannequin, barely animated, who never walks around the house but instead has an unnerving ability to be multiple places at once. It’s suitably uncanny, but if the game stopped there, it would be sort of cheap. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there. MOTHERED goes on to mine horror from some pretty unexpected places, including boredom. The game plays the unusual trick of making boredom scary: giving us menial tasks to do, which we then do, because we want to have something to do in the game, some means to progress and advance the story, but then stepping back and commenting on our desire to take on that next stupid little task, our desire to keep going in the game, our desire to keep existing in this pathetic little simulacrum of a world. The relationship between the player of the game and the player-character of the game keeps getting more explicit and more overtly antagonistic as the game continues, and if you’ve seen my treatment of Benjamin Rivers’ game Home earlier in this series, you know I absolutely have a soft spot for games that do this sort of thing well. MOTHERED is more overt about its themes than Home was, but the themes gel so well with the uniquely pathetic visual style that I think it pulls it off.

Both The Heilwald Loophole and MOTHERED do more than just look back, through a haze of noise, into a fondly-remembered past. They also feel like precursors to something new, some exciting future possibility of 3D game development done with absolutely no budget, just a single developer with a headful of ideas.

And my head’s … out of ideas. So, that’s it for now. As always, thanks for watching, even after a dry spell on my part. Until next time!

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