The old parental and Congressional outrage about video games was always pretty stupid. The belief that video games represented some phantasmagoric nadir for youth culture, the idea that you could encrypt Satanism into a Super Nintendo, none of that held up.
Night Trap was a blasé Scream send-up with worse politics, Splatterhouse never rendered anything more gristly than what you’d find in a mainstream comic book. Anyone who actually played Leisure Suit Larry understood exactly who the butt of those jokes were supposed to be.
Still, these were the topics and controversies of the games industry’s moral panic period. In 2018 they’ve evolved into a goofy historical footnote; akin to the comics code or Reefer Madness. They were the rite of passage taken by any young, rowdy artform finding its footing in the world.
But then there’s Chiller, a light-gun arcade game released by Exidy in 1986, that has lost none of its ability to horrify all these years later.
Warning: The game is very grisly. Images of it appear below.
Chiller begins with a level entitled “Torture Chamber,” where the player is presented with several unlucky prisoners. Each of them is strung up in Medieval-era misery apparatus: an iron maiden, a guillotine, a set of shackles fixed to the stone walls. You shoot at them with your light gun and you discover two things.
First, the gore is finely detailed, so you can take your time blasting off limbs, faces, and abdomens in any order you like.
Second, the people strapped to these devices are immobile, non-confrontational, and serve no harm to the player. They moan and they wallow, but they do not attack or intimidate, which contradicts the established spirit of the light-gun genre. Chiller isn’t House of the Dead or Virtua Cop masquerading as a macabre torture game. No, it simply is a macabre torture game, and perhaps the only one of its kind ever released in a commercial capacity.
The second level, after “Torture Chamber,” is called “Rack Room,” where you’ll find more bondaged prisoners, this time stretched out on wooden torture racks. After that, Chiller shifts into a traditional shooting gallery, where you fend off groups of unambiguous antagonists—ghosts, ghouls, and zombies—in a haunted house and its corresponding graveyard. This is a strange transition. At no point do the game’s developers at Exidy offer a canonical justification for your actions. The player character isn’t presented as an assassin or a exorcist, and their victims aren’t identified as anything other than innocent.
When you play Chiller today, with seasoned eyes, the game still manages to come off both unapologetically bold, heinously offensive, and about a million degrees more twisted than the precious few games that captured the mainstream media’s attention during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Perhaps that makes sense. Night Trap was steeped with clear ovations to slasher-loving teens, but there was never anything remotely campy about Chiller’s sadism.
Chiller earned some controversy upon release, but it was also built into an arcade cabinet at a time when that business model was decaying. Because of that, the game never received the full-blown scrutiny you’d expect from Tipper Gore-types. Exidy itself dissolved by the ‘90s, and today Chiller’s legacy lives on as a curio that amateur archivists reference to epitomize how strange and radical the gaming industry was in its wildest days, before the formalization of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
I’ve been fascinated with the Chiller for months, but after doing my research, I found that there wasn’t a concrete explanation for why Exidy indulged in so much brutality in such a short burst. If that story was ever told, it never migrated to the internet.
That wasn’t good enough for me. Chiller was too radical, too intentionally ugly and oppressive, for there to not be some sort of creation myth. Nobody designs a torture chamber by accident, right? So after weeks of clicking through old company credits, I found a North Carolina phone number belonging to Vic Tolomei, one of the three people who programmed Chiller. I called him up, and after some convincing, he agreed to an interview. I’m glad he did. For about 80 minutes Tolomei, who is now 65 and retired, told me about some of the best years of his life.
Tolomei, like most people who came up during the jurassic era of game development, fell into the business by accident. He told me he had a degree in mathematics and computer programming from the University of Los Angeles and landed a cushy job as a systems programmer for his alma mater’s campus network. He earned his spot at Exidy after falling in love with the company’s flagship personal computer, the 1978 Sorcerer. “I had reverse-engineered the insides of the Sorcerer and wrote a book about it, and Paul Terrell [who was then the head of sales at Exidy] contacted me and asked who leaked all that information to me,” remembered Tolomei. “I said, ‘Well, nobody,’ and he said, ‘Hm, do you want a job?’”
Tolomei accepted the offer, packed his bags, and was immediately injected into the middle of one of the most transformative moments in the history of American innovation. He relocated to Sunnyvale, long before it was subsumed by Silicon Valley, and he rubbed shoulders with a generation of amateur programmers who were about to become rich. Exidy was staffed by only five people, Tolomei said. Most of them went on to become major powerbrokers in the games business. Howell Ivy was a former military technician who designed Exidy’s hardware and later served as the president, vice president, and COO of Sega USA for nearly 20 years. Larry Hutcherson worked at Tecmo, Acclaim, and EA before entering the real estate business. Paul Terrell had previously made a fortune by selling personal computers to everyday citizens with his groundbreaking retail chain, The Byte Shop.
Naturally the stories Tolomei can summon from those years are magical and rife with missed connections. For instance, he said that someone he shared offices with back at UCLA built one of the very first File Transfer Protocols. a technology that altered information science forever. Tolomei initially regarded the breakthrough with a bemused indifference.
“At the time you don’t know the impact of what you’re in the middle of,” said Tolomei. “When your office mate shows you the FTP he built, you’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, you can move a file.’ You just don’t know this stuff.”
Exidy, like many of the game companies during the industry’s first boom, was a fairly isolated operation. As Tolomei told it, the four people on the development staff would dream up a concept for a game, and together, in one room, they’d work to implement that idea the best they could onto a primitive mid-70s 8-bit microprocessor. Tolomei started working for the company in 1979, not long after Exidy established its brand with arcade games like Destruction Derby, Circus, and most infamously, 1976's Death Race, which has the distinction of being the first truly controversial video game ever released.
Death Race, unlike Chiller, looks downright wholesome by today’s standards. A player drives a blocky, black-and-white car, and runs down equally blocky “gremlins” in their path. The premise sounds harmless enough, but it still earned a concerned scolding from the Associated Press. The controversy was also picked up by 60 Minutes and the New York Times, who both signal-boosted the hysteria across the nation, prompting a windfall of arcade owners to buy up Death Race cabinets at lightning speed to cash in on some of America’s first degenerate gamers. It’s a story as old as time. Or perhaps more specifically, it’s a story as old as Death Race.
By the early ‘80s Exidy found itself in a predicament. The company’s hardware was aging, and the market for video games was getting increasingly sophisticated. Other institutions like Atari and Sega were taking the world by storm, and Exidy didn’t have an easy way to catch up. According to Tolomei, the company considered starting from scratch and building a brand new motherboard, but that would take a lot of time, effort, and money. The other option was to retrofit the old motherboard by adding a light sensor, rather than a joystick, and pivot the development team to the light-gun shooting galleries that were sweeping the nation. That gamble worked gorgeously. With just a little bit of creative engineering, Exidy expanded its capital with a suite of fresh, cosmopolitan arcade games that were surreptitiously working off of ancient circuits.
There are some real classics in that late-period catalog, too. The 1983 game Crossbow is probably the best known of the bunch. You take your stance behind a plastic mold of the titular weapon and assassinate a variety of monsters in a cave, a village, and a windblown desert. (According to Tolomei, it was also the first game to feature fully digitized voices, which means you can hear him screaming a grainy, lo-fi death on the rudimentary soundchip.) The 1984 game Cheyenne did more of the same in an Old West setting, and Catch-22 resembled an ersatz Rambo, full of brainless shocktroopers ripe for the picking. All in all, the pedigree is pretty wholesome, which makes the viscera in Chiller look even more like an outlier. Why did Exidy suddenly revel in the darkness? How did they go from cops ‘n robbers to torture racks? Were they intentionally trying to push the envelope?
“Oh hell yeah,” Tolemei said.
“We were given marching orders to be absolutely crazy,” Tolomei explained. He added that the company bosses said, “’For this one guys, no-holds-barred. Go for it.’ So we made it as horrific as possible from a blood and guts perspective. It was an experiment. It was never done again by Exidy. It was a one-shot thing. … During development we would sit around and say, ‘How can we make this disgusting? How can we do the graphics so it’s not just blood on the wall, but you actually see body parts and tissue? How do we really gross people out?’ It’s the same thing that horror movies do. ‘How do we scare people who think they’re immune?’ We got into the zone.”
That mandate, Tolomei said, was handed down by Howell Ivy and founder Pete Kauffman (who died in 2015.) The way Tolomei described it, the company’s brass was looking to rattle the cage and generate some press and controversy for the ailing company. Those were the same tactics they employed in the ‘70s with Death Race, and it’s something that Larry Hutcherson expanded on, when I reached him over email and asked some more questions about Chiller’s origins. He remembered working on a finely detailed nude male model, inspired by the heavenly high art of the Renaissance, except this model happened to be hanging from a set of torture shackles in an aggrieved, Christ-like pose. “I was testing and improving the new art tools by developing the scene. I had not intended for that scene to be used in a game. It was simply an art piece,” wrote Hutcherson. “Kauffman walked by one day, saw the scene and said, ‘That’s our next game,’ and with that we began developing Chiller.”
It goes without saying that programming Chiller was an aesthetic departure for Tolomei and Hutcherson, who at this point had been coding clay pigeons and cartoony black-hatted cowboys. Tolomei talked about it with a sense of proletariat duty, (“I had a young family, you had to put bread on the table, you do what your boss tells you to do,”) but he also told me he never felt pressured by his superiors to create something he opposed on a fundamental ideological level. Instead, the team resolved to have as much fun as possible while making Chiller; to embrace depravity; to provoke, to welcome the bloodlust. In his interpretation, Chiller taps into the dark passenger that exists within all of us when we pick up a plastic gun. It’s hard to call him wrong, when you consider all the sins we’ve committed in video games since.
“It was the only time I had been exposed to that kind of an approach,” said Tolomei. “Before it was just, ‘Let’s come up with a game that blows people’s socks off from a game design perspective and a graphics perspective.’”
As for the most vicious aspect of Chiller, how the first two levels allow you to systematically dismember innocents before it morphs into a traditional shooter for its back half, Tolomei told me it was a simple game design principle, taken to its grisliest extremes.
“If you don’t hook the audience in the first 15 seconds or 30 seconds, it doesn’t matter what’s going in the rest of the thing,” he said. “We knew most people like blood and guts, especially if they’re in an arcade full of wacko teenagers. We knew if we could just hook them with some gore—which itself isn’t much of a game other than how accurate you are, and not shooting the same body part over and over again—if you could get past that they’d be in.”
“If the game was just a shoot ‘em up, blood and guts, people chained to the wall, it would’ve died a horrible death, no pun intended,” added Tolomei with a laugh.
Hutcherson said that one of the reasons why the torture chamber shipped in such a barbarous state is because initially it was a static piece of graphic art—the nude model in medieval bondage, that he mentioned earlier. “A great deal of time was put into the scene from a purely artistic perspective,” he said. That left little room for interactive doodads or, well, gameplay. Since the other levels were built from the ground up, they resembled more traditional lightgun corridors. Hutcherson also said that he thinks the amount of time he spent staring at the carnage on-screen desensitized him, and it wasn’t until he played the game to completion, with the blood splatters added in, that it came off truly repulsive. “Of course, by then it was too late to change much of anything,” he added.
Chiller was a mild success in arcades, and it later received an unlicensed port to the Nintendo Entertainment System by American Game Cartridges in 1990. That version actually added a scant bit of worldbuilding to the title screen, telling us that the people we’re slaughtering in these halls are evil spirits who deserve their condemnation. The last game Exidy released came out in 1989, and the company slowly went kaputt like the many other arcade developers of the era.
Tolomei exited Exidy in 1987 and moved over to Sun Microsystems, where he spent another seven years on the bleeding edge of the tech boom. By the early ‘90s, he was sick of Silicon Valley, and Sun gave him the option to relocate to any of their offices in the country. Tolomei chose Raleigh, where he’s lived ever since. In 1994 he left Sun, and spent the intermittent years working a number of jobs in software development, before finally hanging up his keyboard last November. However, he still takes a day every week to run operations for a “small IT service company.” He regards his time at Exidy as his golden age—ground zero for all his later successes—and after 48 years, the business still fascinates him. “I am lucky enough to have had a career, where on my last day, I still went to work and learned something new,” reflected Tolomei. “Every day was the opposite of boring. And you can’t beat that with a stick.”
Tolomei, of course, is fully aware of the grotesque legacy Chiller has mustered in the decades since Exidy folded. He said he’s not necessarily proud of the game’s content, but he is happy that he and the team managed to squeeze a little more life out of archaic hardware to keep the company afloat. We shouldn’t be too surprised, really. The arcade paradigm, especially in the ‘80s, represented interactive media at its most charmingly hucksterish, and a torture-porn module is obviously an effective way to separate kids from their hard-earned quarters. But that doesn’t totally explain Chiller’s perverse mystique.
How does this game, in the grand tapestry of violent entertainment, still manage to stand out? How has its brutality lost none of its ability to perturb as the decades pile on? How can I, a card-carrying member of the Grand Theft Auto generation, still be shocked by its coldness, like a troubled parent standing awestruck in a Gamestop? I thought I was too jaded. Hell, I thought I was too jaded a decade ago, and yet this 30-year old tech can shake me to my core. Tolomei, of course, had his theories.
“We as humans are so used to UHD, and 4K graphics, and OLED pixels, we’ve become numb. It’s gorgeous,” he said. “Chiller did not need to be gorgeous. If we were showing landscapes with little fawns running across the screen, that would need to be gorgeous. The beauty of Chiller is that we were squeezing as much blood as possible out of that motherboard. The graphics didn’t need to be pixel-perfect. ... All of those elements came together. It was about tapping into the primal disgustingness that we all have buried deep inside of us. And splatters of blood don’t take a lot of resolution.”
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.