I may play a lot of platformers and shooters, but horror games are definitely up there for some of my favorite gaming experiences. With Halloween right around the corner, I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about something I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to do: scary video games.
The horror genre is special because it can implement something that games do better than any other medium, and that’s immersive horror. The genre is so underutilized in gaming but offers some of the most memorable scenes and gameplay mechanics. Though new entries in the genre are more scarce than I would like, there have been some amazing standouts over the years.
A great horror game is one that will have you hesitating to go into the next room or leaving a lasting impression on you long after it has been switched off. If there is one thing that good horror game can do, it’s creating a setting that will have you seeing shadows in the real world.
I still give Chuck E. and his crew a once over whenever my cousin has a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. There are some legendary horror franchises, but there can only be one representative from each one, so with that, let’s unmask the first entry on the list.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
Though the direction of the series has somehow been both turbulent and vanilla, the original Five Nights at Freddy’s was a watershed moment in the gaming industry. It was a massively streamed game since it made its players jump out of their seats as an anemometric Fox runs down a hallway. The jump scares are predictable while remaining terrifying, but this is also some people’s criticism of the franchise as a whole. Those people aren’t wrong but Five Nights at Freddy’s is able to do a lot more than most people think all from the comfort of an office.
Despite the character not being able to move, there is still a sense that there is a world outside the office doors. The sounds and mind manipulation with camera malfunctions all lend a hand in making the jump scares feel more frightening. It truly feels like those machines are alive and waiting for you to drop your guard for just a moment. I just wish that the series had continued innovating in scaring the player rather than creating encyclopedias worth of lore.
Bioshock was originally known for two things: one of the biggest twists in gaming and for being terrifying. The franchise began to steer away from the horror aspects as each new entry came out, but the original has some excellent examples of horror — for instance, the grotesque setting of Dr. Steinman’s OR and the preceding halls where splicers would turn out lights and surprise you.
Sander Cohan’s house of horrors where splicers would pretend to be frozen statues only to knock you out. Everything from the main antagonists to the everyday enemies had a disturbing factor to them that made you want to both avoid and know more about them. There were never moments where I felt that I was too scared to move on but there were definitely moments that both disturbed and frightened me after they occurred.
Outlast surprised me when I first played it. I knew that it was scary and that it had been well received, but I didn’t know that I was a pacifist cameraman. There are few things as freighting as taking away a person’s control, and Outlast does that by giving you no way of defending yourself against its horrific creatures. The camera helps to emphasize a sense of looking which means that you are more likely to focus on scenes and characters and take in their entirely creepy representation.
Running through the asylum halls was stressful as it felt that psychopaths were always at my heels. Not to mention that the light in your camera can go out if you do not have sufficient batteries on you, and let me tell you, there is only one thing scarier than playing Outlast, it’s playing Outlast blind.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Resident Evil has seen quite a bit of an evolution since its original game’s release. Now the series is a first-person explorative survival game that has some of the design elements from popular releases like Outlast, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Resident Evil has proven that it can stand with other modern horror giants. Biohazard uses a first-person perspective to put the player right in the action.
The elements are as far removed from traditional resident Evil gameplay as you might expect, but the horror elements have come back with a vengeance. Watch first hand as a family succumbs to cannibal tendencies, all while having you at their dinner table. It also has some of the best-looking graphics of the last generation, which only helps to give off a more haunting experience as the player explores the moist caves and back butcher rooms of the property. It’s a game that needs to be played first hand, and the game offers VR support which helps to take the horror to the next level.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia was one of the big innovators of the early 2010s. A scary haunted house that inspired many of the horror games that would release later in the decade (maybe even a few on this list). Amnesia’s biggest draw is how immersive it can be with its first-person perspective, lack of ways to defend oneself, and the creepy setting.
It uses lighting and sound to great effect to inspire fear in the player. You may be thinking that those things are just for the psychological element of the player, but the really great part about Amnesia is that you are also monitoring your character’s sanity, which would, in turn, make the game more difficult depending on how long you look at terrifying things or spend time in darkness. It’s a game that inspires fear through every channel, whether it’s the player, character, or a combination of the two.
Isolation is a powerful generator of fear, and Alien Isolation uses every ounce of that fear to great effect. There is only one main enemy who is prowling around while the player, in the shoes of Amanda Ripley, must find a way to escape being hunted by the Alien that stalks her every move. Amanda must use all the tools at her disposal to avoid being discovered because fighting the Alien is incredibly difficult.
There is no help. The player must rely on themselves to survive and do their best to complete objectives. It seems like a simple premise, but it’s the enemy AI that makes the horror game all the more terrifying. The Alien seems like it comes at precisely the worst opportunities where you have to duck for cover, and while holding your breath in real life, wait for the overgrown beast to skulk off to another part of the ship. It’s a heart-pounding experience that few games instill in me.
The Evil Within
The Evil Within has two terrifying conditions. First, the horrific characters that populate every level of this game and the frightening difficulty. The Evil Within doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to its difficulty, and that makes enemy encounters all the more scary. A great horror game will make the player feel powerless, or that combat isn’t preferable if they can avoid it. If I’m not scared to confront the enemy, am I scared of anything in the game?
The most striking part of The Evil Within is its various settings that are both terrifyingly bleak while at the same time maintaining a certain potential for beauty. If it weren’t for the chainsaw-wielding maniac and over-encompassing darkness, some of the places could clean up quite nicely. The true horror here is the evil that corrupts these locations.
Fatal Frame was one of the first horror games that I ever tried to play as a kid. You play a young girl who is, for the most part, confined to one mansion and must fend off haunting spirits. However, as the name might suggest, the only way to fend off these spirits is by using a camera and taking pictures of them. Imagine Pokemon Snap meets Resident Evil.
The idea of using pictures to fend off the ghosts is brilliant because that allowed the developers to incorporate some of the creepiest ghost imagery I have ever seen. I’m not talking gory 13 Ghosts stuff here but something closer to The Ring. Fatal Frame is slow and methodical, which is how I like my horror games. Plus, I like the idea that I am a ghost hunter who is liberating these locations with my artistic skills with a camera.
Silent Hill 3
I’ve talked a lot about isolation, but the other element that can make a huge impact on horror is confusion. Confusion makes the player second guess their actions and whether they are on the right path at all, which can lead to mistakes and other problematic situations. Silent Hill 3 instills confusion into its players through simple audio cues like mutant dogs howling somewhere beyond the player’s field of view.
Playing with the player’s psychology is what Silent Hill 3 excels in. The horror set pieces like the bloody mirror room have left deep scars in some of our earliest childhood memories, while fake doors have created trust issues with Emergency Exit signs. Few games use darkness to such a great effect. The dark can truly hide some horrific enemies you won’t see until they are almost within arm’s length. If you are scared of the dark in your adult age, it may be because of Silent Hill 3.
My most played game on this list and you would hope that I wouldn’t be scared when I replay it now, but I still get creeped out on several occasions in the game. Dead Space is truly one of the best-designed horror games and is modern enough that the scares hold up even a decade after release. The combat is similar to traditional Resident Evil, while the soundtrack and art direction are works of horrific art.
The two combine harmoniously to send the player into fits of paranoia about when the next necromorph is going to jump out of a vent. The number of times that I have shut myself into a small room to catch my breath because of reanimated tendrils that had been clutching my skull were still wiggling outside. Dead Space took a simple concept and design and perfected it. Kind of explains why the sequels didn’t try to outdo their original philosophy but tried to evolve in other ways.