The first Haunted PS1 Demo Disc launched back in February 2020. It’s been followed by a 2021 Demo Disc, and two Madvent calendars, which include small horror games for every December date leading to Christmas. The conglomerate has also put out some side projects, such as C.H.A.I.N. and EKK3. To be clear, there has never been a literal demo disc. The PS1 in the name is more explicitly about atmosphere than hardware. The games are designed for contemporary PCs with modern tools. They do, though, embrace the limitations and restrictions of the PlayStation. Famously, the fog in Silent Hill was used to mask pop in or loading textures. The fixed camera angles of Resident Evil allowed developers to pre-render a single image, rather than having to present an entire 3D landscape. These choices came, at least in part, out of hardware restrictions, but also created a still beguiling aesthetic. As hardware has accelerated, fixed camera angles and distant fog have vanished from mainstream games. Despite the developmental tools, the now dozens of games on the two haunted demo discs embrace those kinds of limitations, artificiality setting boundaries because they are more interesting than realism.
The collections also draw on the logic of creepypasta like Ben Drowned. A PlayStation 5 cannot be haunted. An original PlayStation can be. Being haunted requires time, the ability to have witnessed terror. In the grand scheme of things, an original PlayStation is not that old, but it’s old enough to have a history, which is all that a good haunting requires. The 2021 demo disc even has a little meta-game museum, as well as a little backstory implying you have come across a haunted object. Fittingly, the collection is broadly nostalgic for a long dead era of gaming, one where demo discs, and demos from publishers outside of the indie space, were plentiful. When one could conceivably be aware of most games coming out, particularly in a sub-genre like horror. In some sense the demo disc combats how modern game marketing works, forgoing the anonymity of store algorithms and Steam sales for something contained, personal, and tactile.
This is distinct from other indie conglomerates like Wholesome Games, which mimic the contemporary marketing tactics of major publishers and studios. In videos like the Wholesome Direct, highlight reels gloss over various games of similar tone. Even specific trailers can get drowned out in the noise of a presentation. Nintendo Directs work largely because the audience is broadly familiar with the games advertised. It is unfortunately hard to get invested in a new title, if all you see of it is a couple minutes of a trailer or, worse, scant seconds in a highlight reel. Most of the games in a Wholesome Direct do have demos, but there is no way to access them all at once. You’ll have to seek them out individually on Steam.
The annual Haunted PlayStation Demo Disc, and the spin off Madvent collections, offer fewer games, less frequently. In exchange, they get a specificity, weight, and tactile difference. Many of the games in the 2021 Demo Disc are first person, exploration horror games. In a highlight reel, it might be difficult to really sort through what each of these games do differently. When you can play each of them, it is far easier to weigh their differences in your mind. It is, of course, unfair to pit these kinds of projects against each other. Cute and horrific games are not mutually exclusive (there are plenty of projects that are both). However, in terms of method, Haunted PS1 is far more effective than its colleagues. I should note that there are other collections that operate on similar terms. For example, Indiepocalypse is a monthly games zine, highlighting DIY Indie titles.
This might just be because the aesthetic playground of videogame horror is immediately interesting to me. In many of the Haunted PS1 demos, videogames are fundamentally disturbing objects. In Protagoras Bleeds, zombies with the heads of CRT TVs reach out to bite and claw, leaving one to wonder how such a thing has a mouth. In [ECHOSTATIS], the player must interface with the videogame in the dreamworld of another person, drawing in questions of reality and control. The horror of these games relies on the fuzziness of the barrier between the digital and the real. Even games like The Heilwald Loophole, whose demo has no meta theming, lean on particular videogame terrors like the uncanny valley, compressed voiceover work, as well as limited sight or sound. As someone who frequently finds videogames to be depressing objects, reflective of a broken world, it always tickles my brain and chills my heart to find games that incorporate that brokenness into their design.
I’ve focused a lot on nostalgia, but these demo discs emphasize a possible future for games too. These games have small teams, often just one or two people. They are made with recognizable tools, even those of hobbyists rather than professionals. These demos are small objects, made with the recognizable hand of an artist, with an aesthetic sensibility that stretches beyond the context in which they were made. Putting them together like this, each given weight as its own object, makes a statement beyond mere marketing. Games media is awash with responses to marketing, with news of what massive corporations are up to. It is thereby so refreshing to play something that rejects the noise, that takes its time with its games, and with you.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.