I have been a horror game enthusiast since the original Alone in the Dark came out. The fact that a game could evoke such emotion within me was a powerful force. It was a small step that began a journey to today, and many games have come and gone over the years. Some I remember fondly, despite their flaws, while others were not worthy to even remember their names. The lineup has changed with each successive year, and will continue to do so, as long as I keep gaming.
This list is compiled with the following caveats in mind: I wanted a list that is not only available, but could be played for the first time today, and doesn’t rely on gimmicky tech. I have no doubt that almost any first-person horror game would be absolutely terrifying in VR, but this list is meant to stand on its own merits.
10. Alan Wake
A game I will replay endlessly, despite it being linear, is Alan Wake. The story, atmosphere, characters, gameplay, and even music all fit in to create a fantastic journey. Playing through the game is like experiencing a Stephen King novel you never read. From small touches like the cheesy Night Springs TV episodes you can watch, to the deeper, philosophical meanings that many will miss, the developers have built something to stand the test of time.
More Silence of the Lambs than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Condemned is a title that holds up under the scrutiny of current games. The story arc, characters, and environments are enveloping as you progress through the game’s seedy world. While some over-the-top elements may be off-putting, seeing the game to the end will wrap the tale up nicely. Condemned is more combat heavy than most horror games, but it’s simple and easy to pick up – and overall, enjoyable to engage in.
A slow burn, Darkwood incorporates random elements and roguelike gameplay to create an interesting story that can be replayed indefinitely. The ambiance of the game, along with its unabashed attitude towards very dark themes, make Darkwood an experience unlike any other. Despite being played from an overhead perspective, the detailed artwork, and fluid animations make for engaging gameplay. The love and attention poured into this title is palpable, and it has secured it a place in the genre as a cult indie gem.
A game that is more scary than punishing, Narcosis is a horror game that casual players can enjoy. The atmosphere is top notch, wandering around at the bottom of the sea is dark and creepy. A survival element of gathering oxygen is incorporated, and by proxy, the need not to get too excited and burn through it quicker. Narcosis is a bit heavier on puzzling and platforming than anything else on this list, but they’re of a fair nature, and fit well within the theme of the game.
6. The Evil Within
A modern and creepy re-imagination of classics like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, The Evil Within manages to be both western and eastern at the same time. Gameplay is familiar, like a traditional western, third-person game, while containing the bizarre and twisted imagery of the classic eastern horror games. Moments of wondrous dread overcome you in increasing ferocity as you progress, culminating in a climax that would seem insane to anyone who hadn’t experienced what proceeded. It also gets brutally difficult, so beware!
5. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Frictional Games second franchise, and the game they will likely always be remembered for, Amnesia is Lovecraftian fan service of the highest order. This is the game that Alone in the Dark fans should be pushing on the horror game neophytes if they want to win them over. Amnesia has many of the popular tropes of modern horror games because it’s responsible for creating them. The Penumbra series may have been the predecessor to Amnesia’s spot in the horror game hall of fame, but it was made by Frictional as well.
The extension of an already fantastic recipe, Frictional Games continued its legacy with Soma; A creepy and horrifying underwater tale of existential proportions. I have an inherent fear of deep water, so I may be a little biased here, but when a giant squid swam just feet from my head, I needed a moment – and some new underwear. The diverse settings, interesting story, and truly creepy atmosphere is second to none, this game is a required experience.
Red Barrels took what Amnesia and Penumbra were doing, added a reality TV aspect, and built a company on it. Outlast is an indie success story, combining many tropes from horror games and popular movies to create a truly memorable experience. Before Alien Isolation, Outlast was the game that allowed hiding in lockers from an enemy who could pull you out on a moments notice. A dedicated button exists for you to look behind at your pursuers while you run for your life down a hallway, allowing you to scare yourself even further – brilliant. The Whistleblower DLC is a must as well, a prologue and epilogue to its fantastic tale, and one you shouldn’t miss.
2. Alien Isolation
This is the Alien game that we’ve always wanted, not the Aliens game that we’ve always wanted – there is a difference. The first Alien film was a proper horror movie, and a great one at that. Isolation captures that horror perfectly, complete with the retro 70’s dressing. You spend half the game in awe of how faithfully they captured the setting, and the other half fleeing for your life from the unstoppable menace. The game can be punishing, and the Alien AI can feel unfair early in the game, but once you get the flame thrower, that eases up. You’ll still sweat profusely while your character holds their breath inside a locker when the Alien gets too close, but the game wouldn’t be doing its job if you weren’t.
1. Resident Evil 7
While not necessarily the scariest game on this list, it belongs at the #1 spot for a few reasons. First, It’s accessible – anyone can pick up any play this game. There are no unfair puzzles to solve, or gameplay secrets required in order to survive and beat the game. Second, it’s diverse. The setting is always changing in increasingly creepy ways, and the boss fights are some of the most intense moments in the game – for gameplay reasons instead of unfair advantages. Lastly, RE7’s story is interesting. Beyond the main story thread, there are great subplots and secondary characters within that make lasting impressions on players.
In short, it’s the best that the horror genre has to offer – at this moment. There is always room for improvement, and something will eventually come along to take the crown.
From the developers of Pathologic, The Void is a tough-to-quantify game of disturbing proportions. The gameplay is nearly impenetrable, and surrounded by a wall of convolution that only the devout will overcome, but making that journey will unwrap a twisted flower of a game. The environments, bosses, and dialogue are brimming with dark and disturbing concepts that take more than a moment to parse. It’s uniquely vivid, and hard to understand world will entrap those who dare earn the right of passage.
A fantastic deep-space horror game that steals from some of the greats, Dead Space is the Event Horizon of the genre. From the dark environments, to the twisted monsters who prowl them, Dead Space promised much but became too arcadey before the end to be a true contender. Action fans will find much to enjoy, but horror fans will find it wanting.
There are plenty of old-school horror games that were absolutely the best of their era, but they just don’t hold up today. Games have just gotten so much better at scaring the crap out of us that it’s foolish to believe the classics are anything more than nostalgia. If you didn’t play it the first time it came around, you won’t get it. Notwithstanding this argument, here are my top two horror games from once upon a time.
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is probably my all time, top horror game ever. Even if it was re-released (crosses fingers), to play it for the first time today in its original low-res glory would require a lot of imagination. As much as I love the game, it has some serious flaws. Puzzles can be obtuse, much of the story relies on you creating tenuous connections, and the ending is a bit of a letdown. It will forever live as a favorite for me, but I know sentimentality when I see it.
System Shock 2
For its time, System Shock 2 was a deeply disturbing game. From the blood-soaked, dilapidated halls, to the cries of Cyborg Midwives declaring that ‘little ones need lots of meat’, you knew you were in for a ride. Scripted sequences, and brooding set pieces created a fantastic feeling of dread as you crept slowly through the scenery reading every log you could find. Mods have tried to resurrect this classic with new textures and models, but the dated fundamental difficulty and overall jankiness of the game make it a hard sell to new players.
What Lies Ahead?
Everything progresses, and the only constant is change. What you hold dear is exclusive to you; Your mindset, your life, and who you were are the deciding factors on what you choose to remember as the best moments. Looking ahead is the only progressive thing you can do, and looking back is merely a tool to attain wisdom for the future.
Games have a shorter lifespan than literature due to the extra dimensions that are intrinsically involved. Beyond fiction, there are visuals, audio, and input – all of which age differently. The downfall of one is the downfall of all, and the game suffers for it. The longest lifespans come from the simplest of games that do one thing great; Mario will be fun to play forever, or until something comes along to do it better.
So looking forward to this H.R. Giger-inspired insanity. With all of the bioweapons on display, I have my doubts on the horror factor of the game, but the artwork is so impressive that I just don’t care. I’ll let the trailer speak for itself:
I was sprinting onto the field with the first shots of Agony but after playing the demo, my anticipation has cooled somewhat. Despite being a short look into the completed product, gameplay felt more like a stealthy, walking simulator in a Hell environment than a proper horror game. It’s only from the beginning though, and much could change before the end, so I’ll hold on before passing judgment.