Why we (s)care: Why horror games are scary is a really subjective thing. What is boring for one player might have another player nearly levitating off their chair due to a nervous sphincter. You won’t agree with all of these and, as usual, there are some games that just didn’t make the cut because we ran out of space. Japanese horror title Forbidden Siren, based-on-the-movie The Thing and pretty much every title in the list below that has other games in the series makes the Honourable Mentions list this week.
10. Penumbra: Overture (PC) – 2007
The first of the Penumbra games, Overture takes players to an abandoned mine in Greenland. Although effective combat against the malformed creatures the game features is nigh-impossible due to a clunky control system and a lack of decent weapons; this forces players to hide, making for a tense, claustrophobic experience. The stark level design, sparse lighting and cliff-hanger ending manages to turn creepy up a few notches. Despite claims to the contrary, this is not an adventure game.
9. Dead Island (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) – 2011
Dead Island is set apart from other zombie-themed horror titles by being a proper first-person RPG along the lines of Fallout 3. Sure it was horribly broken in places at launch but the game manages to capture the desolation of an island devoid of most (living) human life and the fear of enclosed spaces that a zombie catastrophe would prompt. Nearing the objective for a given mission and hearing horrific moans nearby instills fear in many players. Also, multiplayer.
8. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) – 2010
Waking up in a castle knowing nothing but your name is bad enough but being stalked by all manner of horrible beasties cranks up the level of fear considerably. This is amplified by Amnesia taking its cues from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, meaning that the monsters are always on the edge of vision. You can’t fight. You can only run and hide in the darkness but extended periods in the shadows will make awful things happen. The Dark Descent makes your mind do most of the work and, as it turns out, your mind is really good at scaring the pants off of you.
7. Resident Evil 2 (PC, Dreamcast, N64, PS1, Gamecube, PS3) – 1998
Resi 2 doesn’t have quite the same impact it did when it launched some fourteen years ago but when the tale of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield’s escape from Umbrella, the G-Virus and Raccoon City first released it caused many a sleepless night. Resident Evil 2’s atmosphere is assisted by an inspired musical score and as far back as the original PS1 2-disc release players were asked to swallow their fear and finish multiple playthroughs. This was fine because it was unlikely that anyone was getting any shut-eye after playing for a few hours anyway.
6. Dead Space (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) – 2008
Dead Space is a space-themed survival horror title that pits players, in the form of protagonist Isaac Clarke, against Necromorphs. These friendly critters cannot be killed by conventional means, requiring dismemberment before death’s embrace will touch them. As if hard-to-kill monsters weren’t enough, the atmosphere of the USG Ishimura – where the game takes place – in the sections where nothing is trying to kill you is almost enough to make you question your sanity. It may be linear and at times predictable but since Dead Space opened the door for Dead Space 2, we’re willing to forgive that.
5. Condemned (PC, Xbox 360) – 2005-2006
Condemned, or Condemned: Criminal Origins if you’re being difficult, puts players into the shoes of FBI agent Ethan Thomas as he searches for a serial killer. Unlike the other titles here, the ‘monsters’ players encounter are all human and since Condemned is a bit stingy with the weaponry you have to beat them to death with an empty gun most times. Brutal combat, levels set in darkness with stealth a priority, and the possibility of a whacked-out crackhead leaping at you from behind any counter-top mark this psychological thriller title as something to be afraid of.
4. Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth (PC, PS2, Xbox) – 2006
Taking the role of Jack Walters, private detective, and heading to the town of Innsmouth to track down a missing person is conventional enough but players will first have an odd encounter that drives old Jack a bit insane. Another Lovecraft-themed title, DCotE often only hints at horror rather than shoving it in your face. When anything truly weird starts happening Jack has a bit of a panic attack. Your health kits (morphine) help there but can kill you and almost none of your weapons will do any good in this first-person horror adventure. Call of Cthulu is underrated but still worth playing, despite how dated it looks. Watch out for the weird residents and the three-lobed burning eye.
3. Alan Wake (Xbox 360, PC) – 2010, 2012
Alan Wake is a writer and when bad things start happening to writers the results are almost never pretty. Players are drawn into conflict with the Taken, people and animals that have been infected with ‘darkness’. The obvious counterpoint to this is light and players will find themselves scrambling for the safety of a streetlamp and using torches, flares and spotlights as weapons. Of all the games on this list Alan Wake is perhaps the most basic. It tells you to fear the dark, because the dark is what makes the monsters come out.
2. Project Zero III: The Tormented (PS2) – 2005
Project Zero III, also known as Fatal Frame III, delves into the world of Japanese mythology. Players find themselves taking one of three characters in to the Manor of Sleep in search of ghosts. This isn’t Ghostbusters though and all players have to defend themselves against the mostly-hostile entities is a camera. That’s it. Project Zero III is frightening enough while playing through the story but it also has a talent for making previously-explored areas scary again, judging when an unexpected apparition will do the most harm to your mental state with exquisite precision.
1. Silent Hill 2 (PC, PS2, Xbox) – 2001
Welcome to Silent Hill. Of the numerous titles in the series, Silent Hill 2 is widely considered to be the best of the lot in terms of story, atmosphere and the themes it makes use of. Silent Hill 2 tracks James Sunderland as he journeys to the foggy town in search of his deceased wife Mary. Just bear with it, dead people are not supposed to send letters from beyond the grave.
Several other characters are encountered, not all of whom are trying to tear James’ face off. The world is also populated with some wholly strange enemies and players will come face-to-face with Pyramid Head, who does some pretty unsettling things during James’ visit. Everything in Silent Hill 2 is representative of a crime or a sin, touching on some themes that are almost never explored in a gaming environment.
The atmosphere in Silent Hill 2 is created using a combination of Akira Yamaoka’s musical score and the visuals that shift from claustrophobic (and disturbing) to poorly lit (and disturbing) to just plain disturbing. A total of six endings, two of them gags, present some satisfying conclusions for the tale though they are not exactly happy endings.
Despite an uncooperative camera and sticky combat controls the story that is woven around Sunderland and his time in Silent Hill is one worth experiencing. If you can bring yourself to explore the place that has been created by Konami, that is.