When it comes to conjuring up scares the cosmic horror genre is typically ignored due to its vast complexities and a greater focus on unseen terror. While there have been a few titles that attempted to explore this sub-genre, it wasn’t until From Software’s masterpiece Bloodborne that this style of storytelling reached its peak. Set in the city of Yharnam, the player assumes the role of a Hunter who has visited this fabled city to receive blood medication for an unknown illness. In exchange for this medicine, the player is roped into an event known only as The Hunt which sees numerous skilled warriors roam the streets in order to slay various warped monsters known as Beasts. Despite appearing normal at first, players learn in time that these events are all due to the Yharnamites attempting to contact cosmic beings known as The Old Ones.
However, as players continue on their hunt more of the world is revealed including various, complex relationships between a college, church, and fanatics who all seek to increase their knowledge of these otherworldly beings. While Bloodborne isn’t traditional in its horror design or gameplay, it always keeps a heavy emphasis on tension, dread, and helplessness. You’re playing a character who has very little chance to actually deal with these creatures and one of the main ideas running throughout is that the player is nothing more than a blip on a very large radar. You’re not a hero or the chosen one, just a very unlucky visitor who happened upon Yharnam right on the brink of chaos. This concept is enhanced beautifully by the gameplay and characters, each with interesting personalities that both help deepen the world and the player’s place within it.
Dead Space 2
From the subtle to the visceral, Dead Space 2 is a horror game that has no problem discussing concepts such as religion, the afterlife, and evolution. While the original title talked about many of the same issues, it’s the sequel that cranked everything to 11 all while offering a more in-depth character exploration of our hero Isaac Clarke. Set on a space station dubbed the Sprawl the hero from the original game, Isaac Clarke, has been admitted due to extreme PTSD caused by the events of the last game. One thing leads to another and eventually the reanimating monsters known as the Necromorphs return and lay bloody siege to the floating city. Players then go on a tour of various gruesome locations in order to not only survive, but discover the truth of what happened.
What makes Dead Space 2’s story so memorable is how it understands and leans into the haunted house tropes that make up the majority of its scares. There are a lot of horror games that approach their gameplay and narrative in this manner, with scares coming from monsters jumping out of nowhere, moving shadows, and flickering lights. Yet, Dead Space 2 masterfully molds them around an interesting story, letting the various set pieces such as a hospital, school, and shopping area simply serve as a backdrop. Not only does this give the story room to breathe, but it also offers a solid amount of visual storytelling that allows players to understand who the people were on the Sprawl. Dead Space 2 may not be full of nuanced discussions, but it embraces the summer horror movie aesthetic and owns every aspect of it.
Resident Evil VII Biohazard
There was a lot of deliberation over which of the Resident Evil games had the best story as titles like Code Veronica arguably had the best villains, while the original Resident Evil did a fantastic job embracing the B-movie idea. However, we settled on the gruesome and dirty world of Resident Evil VII which had some of the most intimate and frightening moments in the entire franchise. Set in the deep south, players assume the role of a young man named Ethan who is searching for his missing wife, Mia. Turns out she has been kidnapped by the worst family in existence, the Bakers, who are made up by father Jack, mother Marguerite, and their son Lucas.
Resident Evil VII is clearly pulling inspiration from grindhouse-esque films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, it’s the characters that really make this title so memorable. Unlike antagonists from previous games in this series, the Bakers are full of personality, layered with an interesting amount of depth that makes them more than just your average, angry stalkers. Their relationships not only with the player, but between each other are complex and unique. There’s a lot of time spent giving them proper backstories to those willing to read everything they come across, which gives the Bakers a tragedy to them.
On top of this is a fantastic story that doesn’t overdo it with the typical Resident Evil campy moments and aims to tell a darker story. Scares are paced nicely throughout and there is never a moment when the game feels like it’s betraying the iconic source material it draws from.
While not solely a horror game, BioShock’s disturbing and dark world can produce more than enough chills to even terrify horror veterans. Set in the failed utopian city of Rapture, this underwater paradise is full of psychopaths that are hopped up on a powerful chemical dubbed ADAM that infuses them with incredible powers. You control Jack, a seemingly normal person who crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean only to discover the hidden city and get wrapped up in huge civil war. What follows is a master class on character development, pacing, twists, and unique ideas that all culminate in one of the best video game narratives ever told.
Yet, the way it uses fear and the dark themes of the world truly allows BioShock to standout among its peers. As if you are walking through mini-horror vignettes, users will come across a sociopathic artist, insane doctor, and other denizens that have given into the chaos. This is supplemented by beautifully written and performed Audio Diaries that focus on the average citizens right before the collapse of the city. You may very well stumble upon a corpse, with the victim’s last words left on a tape recorder which is more than haunting.
Much of this is supplemented by haunting visuals that tell just as much about the characters and city as the people within it. BioShock manages to bring together almost every type of storytelling together in a neatly constructed package that can’t and should never be forgotten.
Silent Hill 2
When it comes to horror, however, the undisputed king of horror games both mechanically and narratively has to be 2001’s Silent Hill 2. This terrifyingly well-crafted title not only offers a scary rendition of the famed foggy town, but an interesting and deeply twisted story. Following the story of James Sunderland, you stumble upon his nightmarish village after receiving a letter from your dead wife. What follows is a journey not only through the monster filled buildings that dot this rural town, but interactions with the various characters that still inhabit it. Where Silent Hill 2 truly succeeds is how it manages to give players a sense of paranoia right from the start.
Despite knowing James’ wife is dead, players are introduced to a character named Angela who looks shockingly like her. As the tale unravels you learn that the world is a manifestation of his own sins, which not only makes for interesting encounters, but a wonderful exploration of the human condition. Your relationship to James is an intimate one that is built up from the very start, allowing each moment to weigh heavy on the plauer as the delve further into the madness of this town. All of this culminates in a masterful twist ending that we won’t spoil here, but will mention it does a fantastic job at giving the player one last gut punch.
Even though there are a lot of fantastic horror stories out there, none have ever truly come together like Silent Hill 2. There’s both a familiarity and other-worldliness to its design and pacing, which never lets players truly settle into a routine. There are imitators, but when it comes to truly great scary stories in video games, Silent Hill 2 is the originator.