Yeah, I know, doing a list like this is terribly cliché… but it’s Halloween, and everyone’s in the mood for horror games, so why not?
Now, this is by no means a definitive list. There’s a lot of great horror-themed games out there, and because I decided to limit myself to just five games, that meant that a lot of worthwhile titles had to be left out, so allow me to at least give them a quick mention here before I get started on the list proper: first is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, the Gamecube cult-classic that uses “Sanity Effects,” fourth wall-breaking special effects, like turning the screen upside down or splashing a fake error screen across your TV that makes it look like your memory card was erased, to mess with players and simulate the feeling of their characters going slowly insane as they battle an ancient Cthulhu-esque evil. The second notable mention goes to an Cthulu game, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, an Xbox 1/PC FPS/adventure hybrid from a few years back that manages to nail the unsettling atmosphere of the Cthulhu mythos perfectly.
But while both of these games are pretty great, they weren’t scary enough to make it on this list. No, to make it onto this list, a game had to meet two different criteria: One, they needed to be good games, first and foremost, and two, they needed to make me scream like a terrified woman who just woke up in bed next to Mickey Rourke. Only five games have done that to me, and while it’s embarrassing to admit that a video game elicited that kind of reaction from me, I’m sure anyone who has played these games probably had a similar response.
(games presented in no particular order)
Might as well get the obvious picks out of the way first, and there’s no more obvious choice when discussing scary games than the original Resident Evil. While I personally feel that RE2 and 4 were better games in terms of game play, no other game in the series has been able to top the original Resident Evil in terms of mood and number of jump-out-of-your-seat scares.
Anyone who played the original game back on the PS1 or Saturn surely remembers the “dog hallway,” a seemingly quiet, innocuous looking hallway that you travel through as you first begin to explore the game’s iconic mansion. Nothing happens at first, but as you run through the seemingly safe passage towards the next room, a pair of zombified dobermans leap through the windows and give chase. It happens fairly early in the game, likely when most gamers are still getting accustomed to the game’s infamous “tank controls,” and I know more than one veteran gamer who completely panicked the moment those dogs burst into the room, fumbled with the controls as a result, and end up getting eaten. The sudden noise, and the sudden destruction of your sense of safety all went a long way in setting the tone for all “survival horror” (a term coined within this game,) games to come.
The original 32-bit version of Resident Evil, with it’s now clunky graphics and awkward voice acting, is likely to generate more laughs than scares with contemporary audiences, but thankfully, Capcom remade the game for the Gamecube a few years back, and the new “RE”make will likely terrify modern, jaded gamers just as much as the original version did almost a decade prior. Not only does the remake re-do the entire original game in brand new, nigh-photo realistic graphics (which are still impressive today,) but it adds a host of new elements, most terrifying of which are the new “Crimson Head” zombies. Now, even when you manage to defeat a zombie, it doesn’t stay dead permanently — in time, the zombie will reanimate as even more powerful, faster zombie, so you never feel completely safe.
Starting with Resident Evil 2, each game in the series would grow more and more focused on action, culminating in the great (but very different) Resident Evil 4. But while other entries the series may have more polished gameplay or more exciting combat, nothing quite matches the atmosphere and mood of the original Resident Evil.
Silent Hill 2
While Resident Evil scared audiences with monsters popping out of windows or closets (and eventually, stoves,) Silent Hill has always taken a more subtle approach to horror: like the David Lynch films or Jacob’s Ladder that inspired it, Silent Hill skips the canned scares and instead slowly fills you with a growing sense of dread and anxiety that stay with you long after you’ve stopped playing. Through creative sound work by acclaimed composer/sound engineer Akira Yamaoka and surreal, gritty visuals, Silent Hill takes a distinctly psychological approach to horror that, for reasons you can’t explain, will leave you feeling unnerved and anxious. Resident Evil was scary when a monster burst through a wall; Silent Hill was scary even when I was standing in an empty room, simply because it caused my imagination to run wild with what terrors could be awaiting me beyond the next door.
The series hit its peak with Silent Hill 2, which forgoes the convoluted cult-based plot line of the original game and it’s later sequels for a more personal, character focused story. Seemingly regular everyman James Sunderland receives a letter one day from his wife, inviting him to come join her in the secluded town of Silent Hill. This doesn’t sound too out of the ordinary, until James reveals that his wife died years ago. So he goes to the town only to find it mostly deserted, with the exception of a few, apparently mentally damaged people who are all searching through the town for reasons as mysterious as James’s, and a cast of bizarre, twisted monsters, who hound James at every step.
Obviously, nothing is what it seems, and the game has an excellent twist that challenges your entire perception of James and of the world of Silent Hill. Despite some awkward voice acting, the game simply has one of the best narratives to ever appear in a game, and people are still having discussions to this day about the possible meanings and interpretations of the game’s dark fable.
Fatal Frame 2
All of the games on this list feature horrible, macabre monsters that, more often than not, players have to run away from in order to survive. The next game on this list, Fatal Frame 2, forces you to stand and come face to face with these monsters if you want to live.
The original Fatal Frame introduced the concept of the “Camera Obscura,” an old-timey styled camera that possessed the ability to drain the essences of ghosts by capturing them on film. Set in a haunted, Japanese style mansion, the game tasked with you escaping from the dilapidated, ghost-filled building armed only with said camera, and with the enemies being ghosts instead of zombies or corporeal monsters, they could literally pop out anywhere. Adding the tension was the Camera Obscura itself, which in forced you into a claustrophobic first person perspective every time you needed to deal with a ghost, which left you even more unsure of what was behind you.
The sequel took everything about the original and improved on it drastically. Instead of one haunted house to deal with you now had a whole town full of them, and it’s cast of ghosts, inspired both by traditional Japanese folklore and modern horror movies, provided a unique (and grotesque) reprieve from the legions of zombies and mutated animals that usually populate survival horror games. All these elements, plus the game’s unique, selectively colored presentation, and somber, ultimately depressing story, made for one of the best survival horror games ever made. Other survival horror games compensated for their clunky gameplay mechanics with strong atmospheric work and stories, but Fatal Frame 2 was one of the rare horror games that managed to play well as well as provide some legitimate scares.
The ghosts in Fatal Frame slowly drain your life force. The monsters in Silent Hill brutally beat you to death. The zombies in Resident Evil eat you alive. What do the enemies in Haunting Ground do? They rape you. Rape you to death.
Released in Japan under the title “Demento,” Haunting Ground certainly lives up to it’s original title. Players are put in the demure shoes of Fiona, who, after getting in a violent car accident, awakes to find herself trapped inside a European castle. As she explores the castle, she befriends a large dog named Hewie, who quickly becomes your best (and for most of the game, only) means of defending yourself from the other inhabitants of the castle, all of whom are bizarre, twisted, maniacs who, if you don’t play very well, will hunt down Fiona and, well, violently force themselves on her in a way which ultimately results in her death.
Now before you go and make some justifiably negative assumptions about the portrayal of rape in Japanese media, keep in mind the rapists are bad-guys and are generally portrayed as pretty horrible people, and the game doesn’t show anything explicit, nor does it glorify the act; everything is implied and nothing happens on screen.
While the game isn’t the most polished or friendly of the games on this list, it’s unique play mechanics and setting set it apart from other survival horror games. As stated earlier, Hewie the dog is your only means of defending yourself, as he’s big enough to attack your would-be rapists, but you have to play a careful balancing game of using him to keep you alive, as well as trying to keep him out of harm’s way, since you’ll need to keep him healthy so he can keep you alive. In addition to that, as your pursuers get closer, Fiona starts to panic, which actually causes her to ignore or misinterpret your controller inputs– making escaping from your enemies (which, by the way, cannot be defeated outside of certain pre-scripted events,).
I don’t want to give too much away, since the game’s unique, surprising qualities are its best features, but one of the enemies you’ll face is a reanimated, flaming corpse of your grandfather. If there’s anything that’ll inspire terror in the hearts of most gamers, it’s the threat of forced, necrophiliac incest. Haunting Ground isn’t a perfect game by any means, but its unique gameplay and terrifiying, albeit admittedly weird premise are enough to warrant a play through.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
All of the previous games on this list share two things in common (well, other than being horror themed games,): one, they are all last-gen games and two, they all came from big publishers. The reason there aren’t more contemporary games on this list is that most “horror” games by the big publishers nowadays are done in the vein of Resident Evil 4, which sacrificed scares in favor of unrelenting action. While I love games like RE4 and Dead Space, they’re more based around the sense of tension and stress that comes from being surrounded, rather than the traditional scares of the original Resident Evil or the psychological horror of Silent Hill. I love the newer horror games because they’re so much fun to play, but at the same time, I can’t help but miss the traditional horror of older survival-horror games.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, by small Swedish developer Frictional Games, proves that modern games can be just as scary as their classic counterparts. Basically an adventure game, Amnesia casts you as (surprise) an amnesiac British man who wakes up in a castle in the 1800’s and has to get out by solving a series of environmental and physics-based puzzles… but as you navigate through the castle’s darkened corridors, you’re stalked monsters, and you’re given no weapons to defend yourself. Basically, the only option you have if you want to stay alive is to run and hide, but even if you manage to elude the monsters, hiding in the shadows for too long will slowly cause you to go insane, resulting in a game over.
The game is the ultimate test of wits, as you not only have to be clever to solve the castle’s various puzzles, but you need to maintain a careful balance of evading monsters to protect your health, while at the same time spending enough time out in the open to preserve your sanity. Amnesia is a mostly quiet game that always somehow manages to find the right moment, just when you think you’re safe and you’re starting to feel comfortable, to spring a monster on you, and unlike other horror games where the game stops being scary as soon you become comfortable with the combat, Amnesia stays scary throughout. Amnesia is, at the time of the writing of this article, currently on sale for Steam for $4, which is a steal for a game of this caliber. It’s probably the only modern game that will one day be remembered along with the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill as the definitive horror games.