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Horror gaming has really evolved since the new millennium put it’s cold claws around our necks. Mainstream horror games are no longer relegated to zombie infested mansions or towns overcome by thick fog and pyramid-headed monsters. Ever since the turn of the century new fears and anxieties have sprouted up in the mind alongside the old. Terror regarding the far future, nightmares set in suburbia and abstract technological horror have all come to the fore in the last two decades. So whether it’s monsters derived from Catholic guilt, evil anime girls or the amplified horrors of the home this alphabetical list has you covered.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Waking up trapped in a Gothic Prussian castle with no memory is one thing, being followed by an acidic fleshy mold and horribly mutated monsters is another. Playing as Daniel, an amnesiac, you must avoid the monsters in the dark and solve puzzles in order to progress through Brennenburg Castle in pursuit of both the elusive Baron Alexander and your own memories.
Some things are best kept in the dark. Amnesia: The Dark Descent thrives off of players’ fear of the unknown. The game uses Daniel’s sanity as an alternative to a health meter. Spend too long in the dark or stare directly at the monsters you must hide from and you drive Daniel insane. Alongside mounting tension and consistent jump scares Amnesia also adds the horror of man’s inhumanity to man into the mix as diaries gradually reveal what Daniel did that led to him locking his own memories away. Many other imitators would follow but Amnesia remains unique among the unarmed survival horror games. Andrew Carroll.
Twenty-first Century Catholics are lucky compared to those of two hundred or even twenty years ago. Fire and Brimstone Catholicism is what many of our parents and grandparents were raised on. Hell is a real place they were taught. Looking at those teachings now it’d be fair to say that the land of Cvstodia, the setting of Blasphemous, is a fairly accurate vision of Catholic hell. With it’s twisted amalgamation’s of stone and flesh, blasted landscapes and emaciated enemies Blasphemous makes hell an almost real pace.
Playing as the Penitent One, a silent avenging monk, players must seek out the source of the Miracle – a being so holy it has corrupted everything around it. Guided by a man bound in knotted rope the Penitent One must fight off sin made flesh from the highest mountains to the deepest sewers of Cvstodia. What makes this horror game so terrifying is the fact that the Penitent One’s curse of undeath may be the only life after death this true believer may experience. Andrew Carroll.
Strange worlds inhabit the mind of Hidetaka Miyazaki: foggy doorways open on unspeakable horrors, little girls beg you to find their malformed fathers, a university dedicated to the study of an unending nightmare haunts the edges of a doomed city. Such is Bloodborne a Lovecraftian horror bent on driving you as mad as the city of Yharnam with gruesome architecture and challenging combat against sanity shattering monsters.
Much like Jurassic Park Miyazaki’s masterpiece makes the statement: “You spent so long wondering if you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” The corruption of Yharnam’s two greatest institutions, the Healing Church and Byrgenwyrth University, are central to Bloodborne’s plot. As much as Bloodborne revels in its dripping, bestial monsters it’s humanity’s arrogance powered by their greatest institutions that led to Yharnam’s downfall. Andrew Carroll.
Everyone wants to be closer to their friends whether it’s joining a sports team, a trip to the movies or a kind message now and again. What we don’t want – thanks to Corpse Party – is to perform a friendship ritual and be pulled into an alternate dimension and hunted by the ghosts of murdered children. It’s bad enough to die horribly separated from your friends but it’s even worse knowing that you caused it all.
Corpse Party cribs from a lot of genres such as classic JRPGs, visual novels and survival horror but it’s greatest influence is internet culture. The “friendship” charm ‘Sachiko Ever After’ reads and was definitely influenced by chain emails, screamers and creepy pasta stories. It fits neatly into the J-Horror wave at the turn of the century. Even if the original Corpse Party came out in 1996 it’s influence and sequels stretched far into the next two decades. Andrew Carroll.
By the end of this century humans will be living in space but we still probably won’t know what’s out there. Dead Space posits that in the black void of space, buried deep on toxic planets, there exist ancient alien Markers. Carved into these red and black stones are encoded viruses that promise a fate worse than death. As the old adage goes: “In space no one can hear you scream”.
Isaac Clarke is just a regular guy. Your average Joe Soap doing his best as a mining ship engineer. All that is turned upside down by the Marker and the Necromorphs on the USS Ishimura. Stuck in the rusting hallways and dripping, fleshy service corridors of this miles long ship Isaac must rend and mutilate his way forward in an attempt to save himself and his girlfriend. The only thing scarier than finding out we’re alone in the universe is finding out that we’re not. Andrew Carroll.
Further Reading: Late Capitalism & Body Horror | Dead Space at 10.
Dead Space 2
Bigger means better is not necessarily true but it was in the case of Dead Space 2. Isaac Clarke returns, driven to the brink of insanity by his experiences on the Ishimura. After discovering and defeating the truth behind the Marker and the Necromorphs Isaac must now escape the Sprawl – a massive space station orbiting Saturn. Chased by the living, mutated dead as well as a psychopath and the literal ghost of girlfriend past it’s no wonder Isaac always has that crazy look in his eye.
It can’t be said that those on the USS Ishimura deserved their fate but they certainly sealed it themselves. Those on the Sprawl are mostly innocent victims of the religion of Unitology which secretly worships the Markers and believes that the Necromorphs are merely a higher form of existence. It’s tragic in it’s horror in much the same way the Raccoon City or Silent Hill disasters were. Andrew Carroll.
Doki Doki Literature Club!
We’ve already explored evil anime girls with Corpse Party but Doki Doki Literature Club took it to a new level. With a small, core cast of characters this free-to-purchase game finds horror in the strangest, darkest recesses of your PC. Doki Doki Literature Club aims for psychological, meta-fictional horror in the mode of visual novels – something that earned quite a bit of rancor from VN fans – as well as to disrupt the harem story lines certain visual novels are prone to.
If you play the game – be warned for there are graphic depictions of suicide and self-harm – to its completion one character, Monika, reveals herself as evil in the way only a computer programme can be. Think HAL 9000 or the super-computer from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream but in the form of an anime girl. They say AI and computer programmes are only as smart as the people that build them but the fear that they are far more capable will persist and grow the more prevalent they become. In that prediction Doki Doki Literature Club remains truly terrifying. Andrew Carroll.
There is light and there is darkness. As a child on the cusp of adolescence you exist between these two zones. LIMBO places you in a cracked nightmare where shafts of dreamy sunlight poke through shattered roofs and dying branches. The little boy you play as is trying to find his sister and must dodge fearsome giant spiders as well as industrial death traps in pursuit of his goal. Although LIMBO’S developers would later release the dystopian horror INSIDE it’s LIMBO that has the simpler, scarier message.
Whether king or pauper we both enter and exit the world alone. LIMBO suggests that the space between death and rebirth is not worth questioning. If there is an afterlife or a path to reincarnation maybe its best to hope that it’s a happy place and not some endless trial by fire as exists in Egyptian mythology. What if death is more of a struggle than life? Now that really doesn’t bear thinking about. Andrew Carroll.
For all of the horrors we’ve discussed so far there’s only one actual ghost on this list. P.T. hovers like a phantom over the horror genre. Killed before it could fulfill its true potential P.T. and it’s unborn successor Silent Hills never delivered on what it’s ludicrously talented design team had in store. Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Junji Ito were the stars behind P.T. with Norman Reedus eventually revealed as the player character but the Playable Teaser’s true star was always Lisa.
With it’s photo-realistic graphics and off kilter sound design P.T. made the natural seem supernatural. Although players rarely saw Lisa – the ghost that was hunting them – they often heard her. The idea that someone or something is behind you is one of the oldest tricks in the book but it doesn’t always work in games. It’s common in P.T. to hear noises behind you and see shadows in front of you but upon turning, the endless, looping hallway is empty. Gaming YouTuber Lance McDonald proved that when these things happen it’s not just a cheap trick. Lisa is always there just behind you watching and waiting… Andrew Carroll.
Further Reading: P.T. is Dead. Five Years On It’s Ghost Still Haunts Horror Gaming.
Resident Evil 4
While it may be easy to poke fun at the cheesy dialogue and mishandled use of quick time events, there’s no doubting that Resident Evil 4 was a serious game-changer; both for the series itself and the horror genre. The signature fixed camera angles of the PlayStation 1 trilogy were done away with for a then-new over-the-shoulder view of our protagonist, Leon Kennedy. RE 4 had larger and more spacious environments compared to it’s predecessors, but kept up it’s tension with more enemies with more aggressive behaviour than your of run-of-the-mill zombies.
There’s no denying that RE 4 is not the most “horror” of the Resident Evil titles by any stretch, with Leon packing more lead in his larger arsenal of weaponry, and straight up round-housing and suplexing stunned enemies throughout. It still makes sure to keep you on the edge of your seat however; whether it’s trying to survive the onslaught of Ganados villagers during the first hour of the game, or later encountering the seemingly invincible and unsettling Regenerators.
While some of RE 4’s successive titles would further steer away from horror elements to almost being jokingly unrecognisable, it would be extremely influential for other upcoming game series (such as Dead Space or even RE series director Shinji Mikami’s own spiritual successor, The Evil Within). Even this year’s release of the excellent remake of RE 2 takes huge inspiration from RE 4’s gameplay, which is a testament to what a classic it is 15 years on. Neil McAllister.
Further Reading: Anxiety ASMR: Resident Evil 2 As Relaxation.
Resident Evil 7
I’m a proper horror wuss: can’t hack the genre. I can barely get through a 90 minute horror film, so choosing to intentionally scare myself shitless in an interactive scare-fest is pretty much at the bottom of my priority list. So being given Resident Evil 7 for Christmas last year was a weird one for me; the game was massively acclaimed and it was a present, so I had to at least give it a go, didn’t I?
Objectively, it’s a fantastically spooky riff on the ‘haunted house’ genre, bringing the series back to its survival horror roots by pitting your relatively weak character against a family of crazed, cannibalistic serial killers. Subjectively, I got freaked out and stopped playing after one very… H.R. Giger-y sequence in an underground laboratory (sorry to my big brother for never finishing it!) Like I said, pure wuss. Still, it’s great fun to play if you have friends on the couch, with some fantastically manky moments of gore and body horror. Not so much at 2 a.m. with the lights out. Still getting over that to be honest. Niall O’Donoghue.
Silent Hill 2
The rural northeastern American town of Silent Hill is just as if not more iconic as the Spencer Mansion or Raccoon City. The original game in the series was the horror gaming swan song of the 1990s. Just two years later it’s sequel came out and made the series the gold standard in horror gaming, for a while at least. James Sunderland is called to the town of Silent Hill which is connected to his dead wife Mary. Upon arrival James meets several teenage runaways and a woman named Maria who bears a stunningly eerie resemblance to Mary. From there he descends into a hell of his mind’s own making.
Silent Hill reflects the mind of its protagonist. The traumas and psychoses of James, Maria and the teenage runaways are reflected in the twisted monsters that occupy Silent Hill. Silent Hill 2’s central revelation is a nightmarish twist with deep consequences that spawn numerous psycho-sexual monstrosities for James to fight. A greater emphasis is placed on avoidance of enemies and puzzle solving in Silent Hill 2 although James must still go toe-to-toe with Pyramid Head occasionally. Still with it’s focus on survival in the face of horrors drawn from the depths of your own mind Silent Hill 2 is where this decade’s fresh take on horror gaming truly began. Andrew Carroll.
The Last Of Us
The individual horrors of the apocalypse all add to the weight on Ellie’s shoulders. Abandoned by her parents with nary a friend in the world Ellie has experienced almost every nightmare the post-apocalypse can foist on her. From infected fungal zombies to murderous marauders to the threat of sexual violence by a crazed cannibal Ellie has suffered more than any teenage girl ever should. That’s why the game’s ending is so gutting.
The rain-soaked, subdued climax gives no closure instead plunging it’s clawed, rotting hands deep into your guts with heart-breaking dialogue and a devastating cut to black. Judging by the incoming sequel Ellie has been ignorant of or willing to forgive Joel’s lie. We put our heroes on pedestals and it hurts then to see these pedestals crumble. More horrifying than any shrieking runner or stalking clicker or raving bandit the ending of The Last Of Us leaves you emotionally broken. The final thing that dies in The Last Of Us is not a physical person, it’s hope. To live in a world like that after all the horrors both realistic and fantastical? If that’s not horror I don’t know what is. Andrew Carroll.
Further reading: Alone at the End of the World in The Last Of Us.
If I’m going to play a horror game I prefer it when it’s multiple choice. That’s what Until Dawn gave players in spades. Stacked with a cast of characters played by the likes of recent Oscar winner Rami Malek, character actor Peter Stormare and Heroes alum Hayden Panettiere Until Dawn placed several teens in a secluded log cabin and tasked players with either keeping them alive or making them die in inventively gruesome ways.
Hunted by a masked killer as well as strange, evil creatures through the cabin, a mine and an old sanatorium players must successfully (or unsuccessfully) attempt to guide their charges through the night. Rather than forcing you through chase scenes Until Dawn takes the form of an interactive drama using a mix of Quick Time Events and terrifying prompts that have you hold the controller as still as possible. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to playing a high budget slasher flick. Andrew Carroll.
We may no longer have P.T. but we have it’s legacy although despite numerous direct remakes and the directly inspired Allison Road only one has gained any kind of success in terms of replicating P.T’s scares. That game is Visage. Still in early access it shows great promise at going beyond what P.T. only hinted at. It’s biggest scares will leave you shaking but just as threatening are its random moments of paranormal activity. Doors slamming on their own, footsteps in an empty room and light bulbs popping are all preludes and aftershocks to Visage’s scripted scares. Once you have your first “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!” moment with Visage they never really stop.
It’s an exhausting, intense game but it’s also a very lonely one as well. There’s no one else but you in that dark, isolated house. No one but you and the ghosts. Visage is an amalgamation of some of the best games on this list and a few more besides. Resident Evil’s keys and puzzles, Silent Hill’s bloody manifestations of the subconscious and Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s sanity meter all factor in here in some way or another but it all ultimately comes back to P.T. The looping hallways, abstract horror and the nakedly vulnerable fear that there might be no real defense against the unknown. Only a throat-rending scream and then, silence. Andrew Carroll.