If you’re like me, you have read it all and seen it all. I am constantly chasing the proverbial horror dragon and the only thing that can truly sate my urges as of late are horror video games. It’s not that I don’t find the genre compelling in other media, but nothing compares to being the one in the pilot’s seat as true terror enfolds all around you. I am convinced that gaming is the final frontier of horror and here are my top 7 picks for the most terrifying video games of all time. I know I may neglect to mention your favorite games and for that I apologize. I am just going to list titles that I have personally played to completion.
1. Lone Survivor
This may seem like a curious pick. How can a game from a 2D perspective with pixel art be scary? Let me assure you it is. Very much so.
This game takes place after an unspecified plague has wiped out most of the population. A man wakes up alone in his dark apartment building and finally decides to venture out and see what lays beyond his closed apartment door. Pretty soon you discover that this game isn’t going to pull any punches in the scares department. It is a true survival horror game where resources are limited. Oftentimes I was forced to sneak past the ubiquitous creatures that inhabit the building which can be absolutely nerve wracking.
The aspect of this game that terrifies me the most is the surreal nature of the story. You’re never quite sure if what is enfolding is really happening or just born from your crumbling psyche. There are some scenes in this game that are very reminiscent of the most batshit crazy parts of Twin Peaks. If you dig the surreal, this game is definitely for you.
2. Resident Evil 4
It may surprise fans of the series that I have chosen this game to represent the franchise. Many people bemoan the shift in gameplay from strict survival horror to an action game facade, but I feel those criticisms are completely unfounded (at least in reference to 4, don’t get me started on 5 and 6). I had my misgivings as well. However, they were quickly forgotten the moment I entered the first village.
Anybody that has played this game has a similar story. As I was battling hordes of insane villagers, I could hear the sound of a chainsaw in the background. Eventually, I saw a man with a bag over his head, chainsaw in hand running straight for me. I thought to myself without too much concern, this is going to hurt, definitely going to take some damage from this. I was in no way prepared for what came next. The speed with which he removed Leon’s head and the sickening sound it made as it contacted his body made my jaw fall to the floor. I literally dropped the controller. That is the second I knew this game was legit, and the scares continued throughout. Even playing the game now after all these years if I hear the sound of a faint chainsaw in the background, I damn near have a panic attack.
3. Condemned: Criminal Origins
I will never forget the first time I played this game. I was in college hanging out in my buddies’ room. He was the envy of all, because he had acquired an Xbox 360 at launch. He had gotten his hands on the majority of games available (making him a veritable rockstar in our dorm at UW–Madison). However, there was a particular game that we had heard nothing about called Condemned: Criminal Origins. We popped it in and were forever changed.
In this title, you play as Ethan Thomas. He is an FBI agent tasked with trying to capture Serial Killer X, a killer of other serial killers (think Dexter). Throughout the game you battle crazed derelicts and ne’er do wells, as you slowly but surely begin to lose your mind yourself. This game is from a first person perspective, but surprisingly features little in terms of gunplay. The combat is predominantly melee in which you pick up improvised weapons from the dark and dingy environments such as a stick of rebar or a wooden plank. This adds a visceral and personal edge to the violence of the game. On top of the generally unsettling feeling this game instills, there are very effective jump scares liberally peppered throughout. There are parts to this game that are so effectively scary that I had to pass the controller to a friend. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. If that isn’t the sign of a terrifying game, I don’t know what is.
4. Dead Space
This is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve. Such legendary horror films as The Thing, Event Horizon, and Alien comprise the DNA of this fantastic title.
After receiving a distress call from a spaceship orbiting a far flung planet, you are tasked with exploring the seemingly empty vessel. It quickly becomes clear this is not at all the case.
The grotesque creature design in this game is as fantastic as it is horrifying. It subverts your usual expectations of a shooter game since, in order to kill these creatures, you have to remove their limbs as opposed to shooting them in the head like every other game.
As with most of the entries on this list, this game finds a commendable balance between jump scares and an all encompassing sense of dread.
Resident Evil 4 notwithstanding, this game is the most pure fun game to play on this list.
This is the most recent edition to this list, and it definitely deserves its place. Armed with only a night vision equipped camera, you play a journalist attempting to get a scoop on a closed down mental hospital. That premise alone is terrifying enough, but it only gets worse from there. The reason this game is so well regarded is that it has an almost uncanny ability to instill helplessness in the player. It is of a handful of games that eschew combat (like the next entry on this list). When you encounter an enemy, you have two choices, run or hide. A beautifully implemented mechanic in the game can serve as a catch-22. While hiding in the dark, you want to see what is chasing you and make sure that the threat is no longer there, but if you use the nightvision you become much easier to spot. I oftentimes found myself hiding in a closet in pitch blackness hyperventilating just as much as the character on the screen. This game is truly scary.
6. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
This game definitely served as the inspiration for Outlast, and I feel it is more effective. It is often regarded as the scariest game of all time by many, but it will have to settle with second best on this list. This is another game where fighting back is not an option. Your only choice is to escape the Lovecraftian horrors this game throws at you and just pray that they eventually go away. This game has a very interesting and clever mechanic called the sanity meter. Like in Outlast, you want to keep your eyes on the demonic horrors that are chasing you, but if you stare too long you begin to lose your sanity. This causes the screen to shake and phantom noises to appear making the experience that much more chilling.
The reason this isn’t at the top is that I just wasn’t really enthralled with the story. Though it is fucking pants shitting terrifying while being played, that feeling didn’t linger after turning off my PC. Unlike my pick for number 7…
Side note: The sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, was very much maligned by fans of the original. It is nowhere near as scary as The Dark Descent, but it is well worth checking out for its top notch story.
7. Silent Hill 2
Oh, Silent Hill 2.
My love for you is boundless.
I could fill a book with my praise for this game. No hyperbole, I think it is easily the greatest story ever told in gaming. However, I will attempt to be succinct in my praise for it, and hopefully convince you why it is the most terrifying game of all time.
You play as James Sunderland. A man who has just received a letter from his wife to meet in Silent Hill in their “special place.” The problem is she has been dead for three years. Mary was stricken down in her young age by an unspecified illness. James travels to Silent Hill to get to the bottom of this and hopefully reunite with Mary. Along the way, he stumbles into various characters battling their own personal demons as well as a woman named Maria that resembles Mary, but is more overtly sexual than his wife ever was.
As the story unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that this is something special. The dark and taboo themes contained within would be considered risque for video games even to this day.
Outside its superb narrative laden with sophisticated symbolism usually reserved for literature, this game is just so goddamn scary. This game was the introduction of Pyramid Head a now iconic antagonist that definitely has earned his spine-chilling reputation. Every encounter with this invincible monster is a downright harrowing experience.
In addition to this, the player is “handicapped” with less than ideal controls, a criticism levied against Silent Hill 2 that I would argue works in its benefit. The combat is stiff and imprecise, but this only reflects that James is an everyday man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. You are equipped with a radio that blasts static whenever a monster draws near. This leads to a Pavlovian response in the player. Everytime I hear that noise, my pulse quickens.
There are sequences in this game that are just unparalleled in their terrifying nature. Even after multiple playthroughs there are sections that I would rather just avoid altogether, but I am compelled to push forward.
All of this culminates on an ending sequence, Mary’s letter, that I am almost embarrassed to admit makes me cry like a baby.
With most of the games on this list, the threat is external. Whether you shoot the fiend in the head or just narrowly dodge it to survive another day, there is a relative comfort and distance from our psyche to the horror surrounding us. What will stay with me forever from delving into Silent Hill 2 is the fact that the most terrifying specter is the monster that emanates from within.
And, try as you might, there is absolutely no escape from that.