Book review: From Ants to Zombies: Six Decades of Video Game Horror
Yikes! A g-g-g-great book!
How did it take so long for a book like this to be written? Sure, there are examinations of horror games out there, but they're mostly quite academic. The genre is so prominent in gaming throughout history, so often residing at the higher end of both critical acclaim and sales, that it frankly boggles my mind that it's only just now - as far as I know - that a lavish, heavily visual compendium of gaming's foremost (and lesser-known) erstwhile spooks and frighteners, has finally made an appearance. From Ants to Zombies: Six Decades of Video Game Horror sets out an ambitious timeframe in that title, before going on to provide something simultaneously exhaustive, entertaining and surprisingly bold in what it doesn't cover. The necessarily lengthy introduction sets out the book's stall with a knowing "Why isn't Silent Hill 2 in this book", informing the reader of its subgenre-led approach to the subject, tackling various distinct horror archetypes from Space Horror (yer Dead Spaces and the like), all the the way through to Nature Unleashed (Terror-Daktil 4D! Deadly Creatures!) before examining various forms in Text Adventures, Rail Shooters, Survival Horror et al. It's a refreshing approach to the subject that cares not for any of the sacred cows; this isn't a history of horror games, it's video game horror, and there's a meaningful distinction there.
Each subgenre and form is approached chronologically, and author Alexander Chatziioannou hasn't been afraid to make use of all six of those decades. I had to crack a smile when I reached the first game covered in the book; The Wreck of the B.S.M Pandora, an Apple II adaptation of a popular 1980 tabletop board game. I say this as vulnerably as I can; I'd never heard of this game, and that excited me. I'm not a walking encyclopedia of the hobby but I have spent my entire life reading everything I can about games and when I encounter as many titles that are completely new to me as I found in From Ants to Zombies, I get excited. There's an enormous spread of platforms covered - well over 50 - making for quite the diverse collection that represents many more facets of horror gaming than even the broad nature of the headline subjects would suggest.
Besides all the fresh-to-me video games (and believe me, I have a list now), I was particularly grateful for the chapter on "New Retro", covering the likes of Airdorf's Faith: The Unholy Trinity and the gruesome work of Puppet Combo (Murder House), which I was pleased to see also incorporated homebrew software such as Deadeus - this is a movement which has let to see a proper examination, and while there's much more out there than even this mighty tome could fit within its pages, this is a very good precis of one of indie gaming's most exciting avenues in many years.
Being a Bitmap Books joint, the damn thing is bloody gorgeous throughout, obviously. While it's a big chonker of a tome, it's small enough in overall size to read comfortably without worrying about damaging the spine, and the layouts are easy to read and rich in text as well as being delightfully illustrated in vivid, roaring colour. There's even a glow in the dark cover, which is the perfect kind of gimmicky; fun but in no way intrusive. Unless you set it somewhere visible while you're trying to sleep, I suppose.
With a whole host of contributors and gorgeous spreads of artwork and in-game visuals, From Ants to Zombies isn't exhaustive, but it isn't trying to be. Rather than covering everything, horror in games has been examined in an involved, entertaining and page-turningly breezy way. It's another winner for Bitmap Books and possibly their best title yet. There's even plenty of scope for a follow-up, with many titles still not examined, but it would be more of an academic process than this eye-opening synopsis of gaming's grandest genre.
(You can buy From Ants to Zombies from Bitmap Books here - while a review copy was provided, no commission or referral is received for copies sold through the above link.