Do you remember a horror game called The Suffering? A lot of you won’t, which is weird when you consider it sold 1.5 million copies after it launched on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2004. It was a different world at the turn of the millennium. So many games were being released at such a head-spinning rate—especially on the world-conquering PS2—that million sellers would come and go like city buses. The Suffering feels like a cult game, a lost gem from yesteryear, but it was a certified smash hit for publisher Midway in its day.
It was developed by Washington-based Surreal Software, a studio that only made a handful of games before it was permanently shuttered in 2010. One of these was open world GTA-alike This Is Vegas, which famously had a huge marketing push behind it ( I once interviewed the lead designer in a stretch limo) before it was unceremoniously cancelled. A sad way to go out, but Surreal did at least get to enjoy a whirlwind period of unit-shifting success when it unleashed The Suffering on the world—with a little help from a bona fide horror legend.
In the early 2000s, celebrities and respected creatives from other mediums being involved in video games was still very much a novelty. These days Hollywood actors will show up in indie games, but in 2004 it was a colossal deal that Stan Winston—the Oscar-winning special effects wizard behind The Thing, Predator, Aliens, and countless other classic horror movies—was lending his considerable talents to The Suffering. Winston and his studio were involved in the design of the game’s monsters, which were as gross as you’d expect.
The Suffering is set in a maximum security prison, where hardened death row inmate Torque (that’s you) is forced to battle not only his personal demons, but actual demons as well. Reflecting the bleak penitentiary setting, the enemy designs are based on various forms of capital punishment. Mainliners are scuttering creatures with syringes sticking out of their skin, like some twisted hedgehog. Noosemen are severed torsos dangling by their necks. Marksmen are hulking blindfolded behemoths riddled with oozing bullet holes.
These creatures are supposed to be supernatural manifestations of the prison’s dark past, and they’re all absolutely hideous to look at. The Suffering tries a little too hard to be edgy at times (which was something of an epidemic in games in the early 2000s), but the sheer gruesomeness of the enemies you encounter is quite striking. The team at Surreal would come up with the basic idea for each enemy, then Stan Winston Studios would give them a pass, making them scarier, visually imaginative, and most important of all, more disgusting.
In an interview, Winston says he jumped at the chance to work on a horror game. “The important thing for me is that the game is scary and that the creatures are unsettling. The Suffering is a brilliantly simple concept. A man is on death row and creatures are unleashed in a prison environment. It’s a great concept for a game, and for a movie too.” SWS character artist Terry Wolfinger was the creative lead on the project, with input from the man himself, and the result is one of the most distinctive collections of enemies in horror game history.
I’m sure Midway had to spend a small fortune to get Stan Winston and his crew on board for The Suffering, but it was worth it. These creatures are brilliantly, memorably disturbing, and although not as subtly horrifying or artistically interesting as Silent Hill’s monster designs, are up there with some of the best examples of the genre. It makes me wish more video game developers would collaborate with established artists, designers, and special effects people from Hollywood. As for there ever being another Suffering, well, don’t hold your breath.
Next: The Fourth Wall-Shattering Genius Of Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis Battle