Once Upon a Time
It was 2005, about half a decade before Amnesia: The Dark Descent would update the Clocktower formula and spark ten years of stealth horror. The era of the “old-school” survival horror games was effectively over. Resident Evil’s fourth installment had just introduced a fresh approach with a new emphasis on buttery smooth third-person shooting, and with the Dark Ages of Adventure Gaming in full swing, horror gaming was drifting into the action genre.
This was not an entirely comfortable marriage of genres. The classic Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill franchises would spend the rest of the oughties releasing their weakest entries. New IPs like The Darkness would find an identity more as action games with horror aesthetics than proper horror. Even Dead Space, probably the best mainstream survival horror series of the period, demonstrated the tension between horror and action with divisive design choices that careened the third installment into Cover-Based Shooterville. Horror gaming was adrift in troubled water.
There were, however, a handful of exceptions. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth hearkened back to Clive Barker’s Undying, while Monolith Productions released two titles in the same year, each representing a different response to the state of the horror genre. The first was F.E.A.R., which planted its flag firmly on the action side of things, but kept it fresh with the inventive choice of marrying Hong Kong-style gun-fu with elements of J-Horror. F.E.A.R. would go on to be a successful franchise, spawning a few mediocre triple-A FPS sequels.
2005’s second Monolith game was Condemned: Criminal Origins. It, too, got a mediocre sequel, though ultimately the IP has faded into relative obscurity. It comes up in discussions of underrated horror games of yesteryear, but has yet to receive any manner of proper remaster. Its modding community is nonexistent, it’s available only on Steam, and it requires a fair amount of elbow grease to get it running right on modern machines. Its style remains largely unimitated or riffed-upon, and there’s not been anything quite like it since (including its own gallivanting, crossbow-brandishing sequel).
This is strange to me, because Condemned is, to my mind, one of the finest horror games ever made.
The creation of atmosphere is central to horror. The right context with the right feel can make even innocuous things buzz with foreboding. Condemned’s mastery of set and setting creates a relentless, oppressive atmosphere that gives the entire experience a crushing weight. Protagonist Ethan is an FBI agent who’s been framed for the murder of two city cops, meaning he spends the overwhelming majority of the game on the lam. He stays off the beaten path, so the entirety of the game’s action takes place in the lonely places, derelict buildings, subways, and sewers. These desolate urban labyrinths ensure you never feel the comfort of civilization. These are condemned spaces, quite literally.
What little you hear about the inhabited world beyond these abandoned places indicates that the city is embrangled in a Dionysian miasma of havoc and ruin, and in the apocalyptic halls of each level, you encounter the people who have succumbed. The city’s homeless stalk these chambers, frenzied from poverty, drug addiction, and the supernatural influence of some Lovecraftian god of crime. They attack anyone who bothers them, including each other. Enemy infighting is common, and lends to the feeling of a world truly cursed by chaos and psychosis.
Sticks and Stones
Condemned’s combat may be its standout feature. With a focus on improvised melee, the combat design revolves around a loop of striking and blocking with blunt and sharp instruments yanked from the environment. The enemy AI, powered by the same groundbreaking GOAP system developed by Monolith’s Jeff Orkin for F.E.A.R., is scrappy, smart, and vicious. Defensive play is encouraged, and the blocking mechanics prohibit turtling by design, meaning you have to stay on your toes to survive.
As with any good survival horror game, the player is fragile, and every single hit hurts. Ethan himself is not as nimble as a typical FPS action hero. He moves fairly slowly, can only run for so long before becoming winded, and he can’t jump. He is, however, capable of delivering a solid kick, useful for make space when in a brawl. It’s an approach that makes you incredibly aware of your virtual body in a deeply immersive way. It makes combat feel truly messy, just like a real hand-to-hand fight.
The sound design supports the combat beautifully. The tormented souls you have to fight wail in fury and agony, and Ethan grunts and swears as he struggles. It’s the sort of thing that would be easy to overdo, and it constantly threatens to veer into self indulgence, but it never does. It simply compounds the desperation of the experience. Monolith described the combat as “visceral.” I’d call it utterly brutal.
But the true brilliance of Condemned’s horror comes in a moment that isn’t explicitly in the game. It’s the kind of thing that you feel on a gut level, even if you don’t specifically think it during play. It’s a moment that only occurs in the form of an epiphany when you take the time to reflect on everything you’re experiencing.
The remote corners of the city are teeming with cursed vagrants, wielding pipes and conduits as weapons and attacking each other. And as Ethan crawls around these lonely zones, he too wields these pipes and conduits to defend himself against the homeless. Flung far into these condemned spaces, on the run from his own agency, Ethan is just like the vagrants. He’s just a madman brandishing a bloodied piece of rebar, fighting the other cursed souls in the city’s underside.
This is why Condemned’s horror is so effective. The game, through design and aesthetic, places you in a headspace of nihilism and fury, an attempt to give the player a glimpse at the bubbling chaos swirling beneath the thin membrane of civilization. It’s the horror of alienation from society, of being cast out and alone, confronting the raw brutality of the world. These places are condemned. These people are condemned. And you are condemned.
When you finally meet the being at the heart of things, a demonic avatar of the game loop you’ve been indulging in for the past 8 hours, it registers in your gut—if not in your mind—that you’ve been playing by his rules the entire time. He’s been in your head as much as he’s been in your enemies’.
And that makes it personal.
15 Years Later
In the years after Condemned, horror gaming floundered in its uncertain identity. Resident Evil’s atrocious fifth and sixth entries turned the series into shallow, formulaic shooters, and Silent Hill was handed over to American developers who struggled to offer anything but an unconvincing impersonation of Team Silent’s brilliance. Condemned 2: Bloodshot failed to capture the urgency and desolation of the first title, trading in its predecessor’s grit for more typical pulp power fantasies. In 2010, Amnesia came along and made combat in horror unfashionable.
And yet Condemned still channels a raw, filthy terror, a grungy approach to horror that has barely been emulated since. Condemned demonstrated that combat-heavy survival horror was possible while maintaining the vulnerability and brutality that lies at the heart of the genre. To me, it feels like an entire pathway of survival horror design left untraveled. But it’s never too late to start.