Eternal Darkness may not be the scariest game on the list, but what it lacks in downright terror it makes up for in its unique gameplay mechanics and Lovecraftian inspiration. But what stands out as the most unique feature in the game is that Eternal Darkness thrives on giving players a pervasive feeling of dread–exhibited here with a unique “Sanity Meter” that constantly drains with every enemy encounter.
In this game survival extends far beyond just maintaining health, as allowing the sanity meter to dip too low will cause the games signature sanity effects to occur. These effects take various shape within the game; from subtle changes in camera angle, to unexplained happenings on screen, even to moments when the game attempts to mess with the player directly (no spoilers here, but make sure you check your save files often!)
Eternal Darkness succeeds as a horror game because it tries to do something different. It isn’t looking for big scares (usually, anyway), but it tries to reach a deeper psychological horror that exists within all of us. There is nothing scarier than the idea of losing your sanity, and not only does Eternal Darkness explore that theme–it builds an entire game around it.
In Alien: Isolation all it takes is just one alien. Finding inspiration from the original 1979 Alien movie players find themselves stranded on a derelict space station–however it doesn’t take long to discover that you aren’t alone. In fact, you are being hunted.
Therein lies the best part of Alien: Isolation: you’re never really alone. At any point in the game–often with little to no warning–the titular alien can (and will) show up to ruin your day. This AI controlled menace can’t be killed and even your best weaponry will only serve to annoy it momentarily. Oftentimes just being spotted by the alien means you’re a goner. If you hope to escape your encounter with the alien alive you’ll have to rely on more than brute force. Quick thinking, moving quietly, and staying out of sight will usually be the only thing standing between you and the dripping maw of the perfect organism.
Make no bones about it, though. You will die, and often. This game is tough (hard mode is the recommended difficulty), and though the main campaign runs a little long, the constant threat of the alien will keep you on your toes every step of the way. If sci-fi horror is your thing or if you’re a fan of the movies, then Alien: Isolation is a must play.
Bioshock brings you beneath the sea to the city of Rapture. Here, the once great city has descended into a palpable madness. Everywhere you turn are the remnants of a society gone insane. Grotesque, once-human enemies prowl the deserted hallways, wearing strange masks and muttering incoherently. Little girls converse happily with their giant armored companions while stabbing dead bodies with giant syringes. Outside a vast underwater city can be viewed, haunting in its majesty and silence. Rapture is all at once haunting, frightening, and beautiful.
The beauty of Bioshock‘s underwater city was matched by its crazy citizens–whom have become twisted and deranged by the time you begin walking Rapture’s bloodstained halls. Half the fun of Bioshock is piecing together what exactly happened to bring about the terrors you experience first hand, the other half is the unique powers called plasmids. These powers essentially function as a form of magic and allows you to summon things like fire, or even bees! (BEES.)
Bioshock does an excellent job of making you feel empowered by its wide selection of weaponry and plasmids, while simultaneously terrifying you with its macabre setting and enemies. Combine these elements with a genuinely engaging story and a hell of a plot twist and you have the recipe for a genuine classic.
Silent Hill 2
“In my restless dreams, I see that town… Silent Hill.”
“Well goood luck with that.” Should have been James Sunderland’s response to the eerie note he receives from his wife, beckoning him to come to the fog covered nightmare village that is Silent Hill. Instead James grabs a two-by-four and embarks on what is probably the scariest journey in video games.
Grotesque doesn’t even begin to describe the nightmare inducing creatures that roam the deathly silent streets of Silent Hill, all of which want James dead. The impeccable music and sound design serve to compound the terror one experiences while playing. What’s worse is the very town itself seems to impose a feeling of dread on the player, as the setting corrupts and warps into a vision of hell as the game continues on. It is your unenviable job to march forward searching for answers to Jame’s note, and locate his missing wife–all the while avoiding the very large knife of perhaps the franchise’s most iconic foe: Pyramid Head.
As you’ll no doubt find out, some things are better left unanswered. Do you even need to ask why Silent Hill 2 belongs on this list?
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone, Alan Wake stars an unlikely hero who attempts to fight back an encroaching darkness that descends on a sleepy town–all the while trying to piece together a mystery involving a manuscript that Alan does not remember writing.
Oh, and his wife may or may not be dead.
Alan Wake is unique in that it feels equal parts spooky and pulpy, with Alan recounting his thoughts in an almost noir-ish way with gritty voice overs while he explores his surroundings. The town itself feels distinctly alive as well, as you listen to a late night radio program while huddled beneath a lone street light in the darkness. That’s another thing about Alan Wake that’s great: the enemies are literally living darkness. It often takes both Alan’s flashlight and a weapon to dispatch foes who are often made up of living shadow, and there’s an indescribable eeriness in having to hide in the light from the dark–especially once those lights start going out.
Alan Wake is essential in how it expertly weaves its gameplay elements with its gripping story–you run through the world fighting shadows while piecing together the darkness within Alan’s own mind. For this reason it is a must play horror game.
Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Call of Cthulhu, like Eternal Darkness, is heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. You know, the stories about the inhuman cannibalistic creatures that will drive you insane if you look at them? That’s the whole game. Call of Cthulhu reimagines the Lovecraft tale The Shadow over Innsmouth and puts you in the shoes of a mentally unstable private detective who is investigating a missing persons case in the creepy town–which clearly is the best location for someone verging on psychotic to visit. Furthermore the game is played entirely in first person, which ups the creepy factor considerably when you’re forced to confront the game’s twisted creatures.
Call of Cthulhu also heavy emphasizes sanity (or lack thereof), and utilizes it as a resource in ways similar to Eternal Darkness–looking at the various fucked up creatures in the game will drive you crazy–and if the meter gets too low your character straight up commits suicide. Hows that for a game over?
What sets Call of Cthulhu apart, however, is its choice to omit the presence of a HUD entirely from the game. Instead you’ll have to rely on various visual or sound cues to know how you’re doing in game–whether it be via heartbeat or breathing. This carries over into how the game itself plays: damage your leg and your character will limp, hurt your arm and your aiming will suffer. Call of Cthulhu‘s ability to juxtapose its realistic approach to damage and first person viewpoint against the horrific elements of the Lovecraft mythos in turn creates an effective and essential way to scare the hell out of yourself. Give this a play–so long as you don’t mind the occasional bug or steep difficulty.
Hooray, more space! Except this time its dead. In Dead Space, as engineer Issac Clarke, you’re tasked with investigating a derelict spaceship that has sent out a distress signal. Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror game unless things went to hell in record time. As such, soon you discover that the distress signal was sent because the entire space ship is filled with alien zombie parasite things! Fun! Seriously, though, these creatures are crazy and relentless–often pursuing you until you can put them down for good.
Perhaps the best part about Dead Space is that Issac comes equipped with non-standard weaponry. Being an engineer and not a soldier means that Issac must use the tools he is most comfortable with, meaning re-purposed plasma cutters, saws and torches instead of rifles and handguns. Taking this concept further the player as Issac must use these tools to dismember the horrific aliens to stop them, whether it be by chopping off their legs or arms–anything but the head. Seriously, this is probably the one game where aiming for the head is a bad idea.
Similar to Call of Cthulhu, Dead Space allows for a more immersive experience by minimizing the HUD considerably. Issac’s health is displayed by an indicator on his suit, and ammo counts are displayed on the weapons themselves. These design choices were deliberate to keep you in the game at all times for maximum scare potential. Despite being a little too reliant on jump scares at times, the original Dead Space remains to this day an essential classic for anyone looking to lose sleep over its pervasive scariness not to mention its just a damn fine game in general. Play this.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Is there anything spookier than ghosts? Don’t answer that, because whatever you’re notions are concerning ghosts expect them to be shattered when playing Fatal Frame II. Simply put, this game is fucking scary.
You play as a young girl named Mio Amakura who searches a haunted village looking for her sister. You have two things at your disposal: a camera and a flashlight. That’s it. This camera pulls double duty here as it works as both a method of documenting the spirits you encounter, as well as exorcising them. The concept is unsettling, as you’re completely alone to explore the game’s setting and having to use a camera to capture ghosts means that the game is actively preventing you from looking away from the scary thing. No, chief–in Fatal Frame II you need to look directly at the scary thing in order to survive! Make sure you get its good side.
Fatal Frame II deftly weaves an engaging story with ghosts that are, yes, 2Spooky and utilizes an ingenious camera-as-weapon idea that forces you to face your fears head on. Good luck.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia: The Dark Descent does things that have been done before: creepy castle–check, sanity meter–check, holy-shit-what-is-that-thing?! monsters–check check. What Amnesia does different though, is it robs you of any way to defend yourself. Yep, you don’t even get a lousy camera this time.
Amnesia sees you assume control of Daniel who awakens in a castle with, as you might have guessed, memory loss. All he knows is that something is hunting him, and he must explore the castle in order to find a man named Baron Alexander and kill him. He knows this because he’s left himself a note detailing this along with the fact that Daniel purposely erased his own memory. Swell.
Of course, this leads into the only obvious course of action: regain your memories. As you explore the castle you uncover pieces of the games backstory all the while dodging unspeakable monsters. The scariest part of the game is the fact that Daniel can’t defend himself. When faced with a monster all you can do is to run and hide and hope the thing stalking you leaves you alone. Stealth really is your only hope of surviving, which really nails the feeling of terror the game clearly excels at. That and the fucked up monster design. Playing Amnesia is like playing through the living embodiment of your worst nightmares, making it one of the essential horror games to lose sleep over.
Resident Evil Remake
There are few horror games more iconic than the original Resident Evil. The game, more than anything before it, brought survival horror to the forefront and it can be argued that it was because of the original Resident Evil that horror games are as popular as they are today. The Resident Evil Remake takes that essential horror classic and propels it to heights unmatched by the series more contemporary installments.
The REmake took what was great about the original–the Spencer Mansion, the iconic characters, the classic enemies and puzzles–and cranked the dial way up. The enemies were scarier and more aggressive, the mansion was bigger, the dialogue… was slightly improved. All in all the Resident Evil Remake brought players back to a familiar location with much more than a fresh coat of paint, it directly challenged the expectations of series veterans by changing events and adding brand new scares, while being a great jumping on point for new fans who may not have been able to experience the original game.
The recent HD release of the game further cements the Resident Evil Remake as king of the horror game hill, as it added further enhanced visuals and finally gives players the options of a more modern control scheme. Resident Evil Remake will always be the best place to start when looking for an essential horror game, and the new HD remake ensures an accessible way to experience the masterpiece–either once again, or for the first time. Also, Lisa Trevor? ‘Nuff said.
So what did you think of our list? Were there any glaring omissions you think we missed? Do you agree with the selections here? Did any of them keep you up at night? Let us know!
Enjoy the nightmares!