Herpes simplex virus infection of the eye is the leading cause of blindness due to infection in the US despite the availability of several antiviral drugs. Studies with animal models have shown that three factors, innate host resistance, the host adaptive immune response, and the strain of virus interact to determine whether an infection is asymptomatic or proceeds to the development of blinding keratitis (HSK). Of these, the role of adaptive immunity has received the most attention. This work has clearly shown that stromal keratitis is an immunopathological disease, most likely due to the induction of a delayed type hypersensitivity response. Substantially less is known about the role of specific host genes in resistance to HSK. The fact that different strains of virus display different disease phenotypes indicates that viral 'virulence' genes are critical. Of the 80 plus HSV genes, few have been formally tested for their role in HSV keratitis. Most studies of virulence genes to date have focused on a single gene or protein and large changes in disease phenotypes are usually measured. Large changes in the ability to cause disease are likely to reduce the fitness of the virus, thus such studies, although useful, do not mimic the natural situation. Viral gene products are known to interact with each other, and with host proteins and these interactions are critical in determining the outcome of infection. In reality, the 'constellation' of genes encoded by each particular strain is critical, and how this constellation of genes works together and with host proteins determines the outcome of an infection. The goal of this review is to discuss the current state of knowledge regarding the role of host and viral genes in HSV keratitis. The roles of specific genes that have been shown to influence keratitis are discussed. Recent data showing that different viral genes cooperate to influence disease severity and confirming that the constellation of genes within a particular strain determines the disease phenotype are also discussed, as are the methods used to test the role of viral genes in virulence. It will become apparent that there is a paucity of information regarding the function of many viral genes in keratitis. Improving our knowledge of the role of viral genes is critical for devising more effective treatments for this disease.