Everything has to start somewhere. The horror genre, this blog, video games in general. Haunted House, a game developed by Atari for the 2600 in 1982, is (close to) the beginning of all three. It’s an incredibly difficult game to write about, since there’s so little to it. Like a cobweb, it’s mostly empty space. But what’s there might be sticky, and it connects to a couple of key structural points.
Old Man Graves has passed on, but he’s far from gone. The people of Spirit Bay give tell of strange occurrences at his house, a mansion that is said to have belonged to the first family to settle the town. He’d walk around its halls with a scepter, which he claimed kept the spirits away. He also claimed that he knew of a magic urn which belonged to the forefathers of Spirit Bay, but it was shattered to pieces in a great earthquake. Known for his eccentricity and mean-spiritedness, Zachary Graves wasn’t mourned when he passed… But boy howdy, do people have their eye on that mansion… and that urn.
Consisting twenty four rooms spread out over 4 floors, the mansion contains three fragments of the urn, which you must seek out and reassemble. You play as a man (or maybe a pair of eyes) armed only with a box of matches. The fewer matches you light, the higher your score.
Your mission is complicated by spiders, bats, and the ghost of Mr. Graves himself. Whenever an enemy appears, it creates a spooky draft of wind that snuffs out the flame of your match, leaving you blind and groping for pickups. Also, if these baddies touch you, you’ll be scared to death.
Given that you have nine lives, it can only be assumed that the player character is a cat. Felines have always been associated with the otherworld, which makes your whiskered friend fit for the task. However, cats are also known to be both “scaredy” and “fraidy”, which makes them ill-suited for expeditions into especially spooky territory. What we have here is a paradox.
At the 2600’s resolution it’s impossible to tell if they eyes are slitted, as a cat’s would be. Until an HD remake is released, I must insist that my reading of the situation is correct.
You cannot fight back, except to pick up Old Man Graves’s scepter, which makes you invisible to all manner of spooky creatures…
Hallways and Doorways
You know what? This is hard. I feel like I’m only regurgitating mechanical facts about the game. A bare-bones plot and the rudiments of how you move around and deal with threats. That’s hardly interesting, but I don’t know what else to do here.
The primary reason that I’m experiencing some difficulty in writing about Haunted House is because when I play any game, I focus on narrative and experience. Future games on our collective hit list, the ones that I’m most looking forward to, are steeped in story and atmosphere. Haunted House has little of either.
I can’t be too angry at it, since the game’s doing the best it can. 1982 was millennia ago. Like, at least 10,000 years. I’m shocked that people were able to bang two rocks together to make “sparklies”, let alone scrawl the title on the cartridge in English.
Instead of grousing that there’s no tree, let me dig for a seed. I cannot claim that there’s any direct throughline from Haunted House to Amnesia, but I can look for nascent thoughts expressed through necessarily clumsy technology.
When I think of survival horror games, I fixate on the notion of disempowerment. Where mainstream games give you a Howitzer and say “give ’em hell”, horror games are content to give you jack shit and say “deal with it”. It’s been like this all along, and Haunted House is no exception. The Atari shipped with “Combat”, but you’ll find no combat here.
You’ve got a match. You know, those wooden things you keep in your kitchen because you don’t want you mom to think that you’re a smoker when she comes over and wants to light a candle? Your match illuminates a puny radius around your character for a short amount of time, revealing whatever pickups might be nearby.
Your matches burn out after a very short time, meaning you will tear through them like crazy (thus lowering your score). Because none of the game modes limit the matches at your disposal, you can light as many as you’d like. This makes your pride your only limitation. Are you willing to exchange a better score for a decreased chance to find vital pickups?
Don’t be mistaken, either. Matches can’t do shit to enemies. A ghost, a tarantula, and a bat won’t be fazed by your blazing twig. In fact, they’ll blow it out (one can only imagine the great hiss emanated from the tarantula’s book lung). At no point can you initiate combat to eliminate these threats. Even the fabled scepter only gives you stealth-mode. If you come into contact with a bad guy, you’ll still do the old spinny-eyes routine.
Nevermind how difficult it might be for a cat to light a match without opposable thumbs.
What we’re left with is “pursuit as a mechanic”, one of my favorite things. There’s permanence in placement. Enemies can show up in a room without any notice, and they’ll still be there when you return (unless they chase you). When an enemy’s around, well, tough shit. All you can do is vacate the premises. Any notion of thoroughly searching the darkness for an urn piece are summarily dismissed as you try and avoid taking damage.
This is exacerbated in tougher difficulty modes, where the walls aren’t illuminated for you in a Tron-esque fashion. Without a match, your cat will be banging against the walls in a decidedly undignified fashion. This compromises your ability to flee, and further complicates the choice between score, survivability, and progress.
It’s not so much of a thing nowadays, but limited inventory space is a huge part of survival horror as a whole. Item pickups in most games are a universal boon. Always grab them, because they will always help. However, a limited inventory turns a gleeful Roomba into an anxious fretter. Picking this item up now means I won’t be able to grab something later. And on and on, down the line.
Haunted House pulls this off pretty well. The scepter is a sweet deal, but holding it means you can’t grab the urn pieces… which you need in order to finish the game.
What this means is you need to whip out the pad of paper and start making charts. If you can grab the scepter, you’re able to scout about for urn pieces with impunity, marking them down (or, if you’re smarter than me, just memorizing their locations). Once you’ve found them all, you can make a bee line to pick them up without the scepter’s protection. This alters the rhythm of the game into two distinct phases: discovery and action.
This is complicated by tougher difficulty modes where you need to find keys to open doors. While not as granular or inscrutable as Heart Keys or Club Keys, the keys in Haunted House leave you vulnerable to attack. This makes certain stretches of the game kind of intense, since you’re rushing from goal to protection, and back again.
This tension makes Haunted House slightly spookier than its pitiful menagerie would suggest. A ghost, a spider, and a bat are the bad joke version of horror. It’s the plastic fright you can get with $0.75 from the bubble machines at the front of a Wal-Mart. If you’re able to figure out how to crank up the difficulty on your emulator, then you can be rewarded with a fairly competent risk-reward system.
Because you’re dealing with four identical floors of a featureless mansion, it can be difficult to navigate your way around. Atari worked hard to counteract this disorientation with sound design. If you’re ascending some stairs, the game plays an ascending scale. If you’re descending, well, duh.
The sound also becomes a factor if you’re playing on a mode where the walls aren’t visible. Your cat’s nose makes a very annoying sound when you’re bumping up against walls, searching for doors. This can heighten some of the tension when a bat is coming after you because oh god it’s going to get in my hair dear christ stop it (also, rabies is a terrifying disease).
Looking Out My Back Door
Once you assemble the urn, you can leave (should you be able to discern which door is the exit). Who knows what your cat goes on to accomplish? I can’t imagine Mr. Graves is put to rest. That urn shattered long ago, scattering its bounty into the cracks and crevasses of 19th century floorboards. There’s little resolution, since a hastily superglued vessel won’t fetch squat on the Roadshow.
What we’re left with is a humble beginning. A tight loop of gameplay to be repeated over and over until you’ve achieved some passable modicum of perfection. Haunted House dropped a mere year before the Great Crash of ’83. I can’t say if this is them at their prime, right before their fall, but Atari unintentionally laid out the foundations of a new genre with Haunted House. I can’t say I regret dipping back to spend some time with it.
After all, I had to start somewhere.