Fear is one of the first emotions we experience as humans. “What is this? What is that? Why am I upside-down?! What is upside-down, even?!” It is a vital reaction, pure survival instinct. So why then do some people find such glorious delight in putting themselves in perceived or, at times, actual danger? When base jumping, extreme skiing, and designer kidnapping are a little too extreme, the rest of us play horror games.
The intrepid horror gamer has over thirty years of video games to play through, depending on what they’re looking for. Hundreds of these titles have achieved awards and recognition for storytelling, mechanics, art assets, score composition, and more. The games themselves are more varied than the awards, providing anything the player is looking for: manipulated dreamscapes, blood and guts, seemingly inescapable enemies, supernatural abilities, chainsaws and shotguns (or no weapons at all), space, the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, brutal zombie slaying, grotesque body horror, Cthulhuian mythos, and the list goes on and on.
The question then becomes: where to start? Or better yet, where to go when you think you’ve seen it all?
This list showcases five horror games that bear important weight for the gamer and the genre itself. They might not be the best of the best, but they each bring innovation and a deeper understanding to horror gaming as a whole. This isn’t meant to be any sort of in-depth look at horror gaming, nor is this an attempt to dig out hidden video game arcana. These games aren’t rated in any sort of better or worse order.
TL;DR List (a.k.a., “Stop Me If You’ve Already Played These” List)
- Silent Hill 2
- Dead Space
- Resident Evil 4
- Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
- Fatal Frame
Silent Hill 2 (with a nod to Silent Hill 3)
PlayStation 2 (2001)
Director’s Cut: PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC (2001/2)
HD Collection: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (2012)
Protagonist: James Sunderland
What Is It? Psychological Survival Horror
Premise: What one would call a “classic” Silent Hill game, the protagonist is led to the titular town by a letter from his deceased wife. He is not the only one wandering the fog-choked streets. You encounter not only creatures born from the protagonist’s guilt-burdened past, but also others who have found themselves consumed by their own hellish condemnations.
Innovation: Pure mind-fuckery through atmosphere and storytelling.
Why You Should Play This Game: Silent Hill 2 is extremely atmospheric, convoluted, and psychologically terrifying. Drawing inspirations from Jacob’s Ladder and the Jack the Ripper murders, Team Silent crafted what became one of the industry’s baselines for what psychological horror could be. The environments tend towards cool (blues, greys, etc.) and ethereal. The player faces themes of a primarily sexual nature: repression, frustration, and assault. Suicide plays a prominent role. All in all, Silent Hill 2 is an all-encompassing package of torment ushered in by the arguably most recognizable antagonist in Playstation 2 history: Pyramid Head.
The close alternative would be Silent Hill 3, which is more challenging gameplay-wise and overflows with rusty, industrial, gritty environments in the dark red, orange, and sickly yellow ranges. The main character is Heather Mason, and the strongest themes she faces are aspects of pregnancy and birth, invasion of sanctuary, and hope. Where Silent Hill 2 as is introspective, Silent Hill 3 is less about guilt and more about why this cult is intent on punishing Heather.
Both were crafted by Team Silent and are extremely rewarding to play. You can fight and, in some cases, must fight in order to progress and survive. Immersion and the suspension of disbelief are integral to allowing these two games to really drive their respective points home, and each game takes a largely different approach in order to do so.
PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (2008)
Protagonist: Isaac Clarke
What Is It? Action Survival Horror
Premise: Originally sent to investigate a distress signal from a planet-cracker (on which the protagonist’s love interest just happens to be serving), Isaac Clarke must battle his way through a spaceship packed full of grotesque creatures in order to survive, much less save his girlfriend. Flickering lights and shrieking wails challenge one’s nerves from the word “go.”
Innovation: Rigorous adherence to a fully-immersive UI.
Why You Should Play This Game, Extended: I won’t lie to you. The jump scares will get tiresome after a while. The necromorphs are so eager to rip Isaac into little bloody ribbons that they’re practically fighting each other for screen time. That said, the game itself is very well crafted on the creepy front. Watching a survivor beat himself to death by ramming his head against a wall, standing over a blinded woman as she cradles a maggot-infested torso, and helplessly watching other hapless survivors slain in brutal ways will have a lovely effect on Isaac’s poor psyche. These experiences set the stage for his character growth over the rest of the series. It’s gruesome. Some sites reported that EA Redwood had their designers study car accident victims to get the details right.
What really serves as Dead Space‘s most central strength is, you guessed it, immersion. The user interface (UI) is integrated fully into the world itself: your health bar is located on Isaac’s spine and inventory and communication projections pop up from his suit (to the point where you can see people looking at you through their own screen). Isaac’s face is almost always covered by a helmet and he has almost little dialogue. The majority of what you’ll get from him is a whole bucket load of grunts, cries, and curses.
The later installments in the series continue this immersive UI, though it breaks slightly in Dead Space 3 where one would assume both Isaac Clarke and Sergeant John Carver would be able to see one another’s projections. This can be explained by individuals seeing only what their own suits project and is a minor gripe.
Resident Evil 4
GameCube, PlayStation 2 (2005)
Microsoft Windows, Wii (2007)
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (2011)
HD Remake: PlayStation 4, Xbox One (2016)
Really, you have no excuse to not get this game.
Protagonist: Leon S. Kennedy
What Is It? Action Survival Horror
Premise: Leon is sent to rescue the President’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult. Simple enough to start, things devolve quickly when he runs into Las Plagas, zombies animated by parasites rather than a virus. Still combating the machinations of Umbrella, Leon has to move fast and move often if he’s going to survive, and maybe complete his mission if he’s lucky.
Innovation: First use of third-person over-the-shoulder camera in a AAA horror game.
Why You Should Play This Game: The game itself is the first in the series to take a very large step away from where the Resident Evil franchise had started. It was the first triple-A survival horror game to take the over-the-shoulder third-person view and redefines the necessity for precision aiming and reaction time. Many future titles took quite a few pages from the Resident Evil 4 playbook, including the camera, the quick time events, and exploration. These action game elements married well into the gritty, bloody, and well-established franchise.
If Resident Evil spawned the modern interpretation of the genre, then Resident Evil 4 is what happened when action shooter elements were grafted into the survival horror branch. Love or hate the story, this game is essential to understanding the evolution of horror game design.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Protagonist: Alexandra Roivas
What Is It? Psychological Survival Horror
Premise: After the violent murder of the protagonist’s grandfather, you take the role of multiple characters over the course of the game to prevent the conjuration of the Ancients into our reality. Failure means the world will forever be plunged into an eternal darkness as the Ancients consume the souls and bodies of all living things. No pressure.
Innovation: Sanity manipulation of the player as well as the character.
Why You Should Play This Game: The Gamecube’s Eternal Darkness breaks the fourth wall immediately and completely. This game plays you as much as you play it. Twisted and unprecedented, some of the effects are in the world while others mimic technical errors on the part of your TV or system. The innovation regarding these sanity effects alone earned this game a spot on this list.
The story is award-winning, and over time, it has become a cult classic. This doesn’t mean Eternal Darkness is without flaws by any stretch of the imagination. It’s slow-paced at times and there is some heavy tedium in a few of the puzzles that have caused grizzled gaming veterans to toss in the towel. If you are willing to give it your time, the payoff is wonderfully rewarding.
The biggest downside to this game is that it is very hard to find, but if you can, sometimes it is still reasonably priced (if they don’t know what they have, that is). It’s also not available on PC, as most of the others on this list are. If you have a Gamecube and you’re a horror fan, there’s no ready excuse to pass this by.
PlayStation 2, Xbox (2002)
Protagonist: Miku Hinasaki
What Is It? Psychological Survival Horror
Premise: Set in 1986, Miku Hinasaki enters the Himuro mansion after her brother, Mafuyu, goes missing while searching for his tutor. Inside, she finds a barely contained nightmare spawned from a failed ritual that resulted in a violent death for everyone inside and everyone that enters. With only the Camera Obscura to fight off the violent spirits, she has to fight or she will join the nightmare herself.
Innovation: A weapon you’d almost rather not use.
Why You Should Play This Game: This Japanese game uses not only unfamiliar myth and urban legend to unnerve and disgust the player, but goes above and beyond when it comes to redefining what combat can be. Miku’s only weapon against the spirits inhabiting the Himuro mansion is an old camera. When exploring the mansion, the player is able to peer, sneak, and run (albeit slowly) in a third-person view. However, when forced into combat against enemies that can fade in and out of view, translocate, and walk through walls, the player is pushed into a first-person mode, going face-to-face with sometimes very morbid ghosts in order to defend oneself against them.
The design of the spirits themselves vary: some appear intact, while others have a broken neck, elongated limbs, or their eyes cruelly gouged out. They float, lurch, or drag themselves towards Miku, lunging forward to trap their prey. The opportunity for the best shot, causing the most damage and utility, typically happens right in the middle of the lunge, forcing the player to endure every grasp and flail until the perfect moment. Usually, the ghost’s face is front and center and RAWRGH!
Fatal Frame has a unique flavor of atmosphere that the later installments in the series don’t seem to be able to effectively recreate. The only weak point I can think of is the idle screen animation, which the second and third games pull off a bit more effectively. Do I have to choose between bloody handprints or a creepy, grinning face? No thanks. Neither. Nope.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
PC, Android, iOS (2014-2015)
One of the most surprising games to come out of horror gaming in the past few years is the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. Love or hate it, the plate-spinning jump-scare fiasco has opened the doors to a whole new line of thinking. A surprising amount of clones have spawned, over three thousand of them, according to Rock Paper Shotgun. A handful of these clones have continued to innovate on the playstyle and are making highly rated waves of their own (Five Nights at Candy’s series, One Night at Flumpty’s series).
It’s a game of jump scares and plate-spinning, mingled with extreme vulnerability not only to the animatronics who want to murder your face off, but also to the RNG that can destroy an otherwise perfect run. You have to learn the patterns, logic, sounds, and get damned lucky if you want to reach the Sixth Night.
Why is it only an Honorable Mention? Because, frankly, it’s not that enjoyable to actually play (in my opinion). Its re-playability, or even its continued playability, is entirely dependent on the player’s persistence and resistance to the jump scares. Yes, it is uniquely challenging, but the horror aspect isn’t what makes it difficult. Trying to keep track of all the sounds and managing your limited resources is where the game truly lies, and if you cannot accomplish that, you aren’t going to beat it. FNaF has a limited range of players, mostly because the challenge level is so high and incredibly frustrating. It’s far more fun to watch someone else spin the plates, which makes it uniquely suited for Youtubers.