David is a lifelong gaming enthusiast; both video games and tabletop. They are particularly interested in the horror genre.
Horror, as a genre, fascinates us. We go out of our way to be scared—getting a thrill out of what our nature is designed to avoid. Horror is also one of the hardest emotions to properly evoke; most media, whether games, TV shows, or film, are forced to rely on "jump scares" to startle the audience. But actual horror is a more visceral feeling, one that can stick with you after you have stopped playing or watching, and is so much harder to come by. The following is a list of five games, from five franchises that, in one way or another, capture that lingering feeling for me.
1. Dead Space 2
Developer: EA Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
This is an odd one to have on this list. It heavily relies on jump scares to startle the player, and is, in many ways, it's more of an action game with horror elements. Still, I feel that it belongs. While the weapons available to the player can keep one from feeling threatened, that only lasts until the realization that fights can burn through ammo surprisingly quickly. Additionally, there is an immersive atmosphere to take in, and some of the themes and imagery are downright disturbing.
Issac Clarke was an engineer who was sent with the military to investigate a loss of contact with the USG Ishimura spaceship. Shortly after arrival, things began to go downhill, as the team was accosted by bizarre zombie-like creatures. Now, several years later, Issac is in a mental ward on a space station. His memories of what had happened over this period of time are scattered, at best, but things start coming back to him when the station is attacked by the same monsters he faced on the Ishimura. Throughout the game, it is clear that Issac has been deeply traumatized by his experiences on the Ishimura, causing him to suffer from hallucinations and severe mental strain. To survive, he must fight his inner turmoil and the nearly endless supply of monsters on board the station.
This game works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it allows the player to make a personal connection to Issac through his dialogue. He is not merely a blank slate for the player. He can become someone the player actually cares about. It's so much easier to get into his headspace and imagine how he must feel. Secondly, the atmosphere provides a strong sense of isolation throughout the game; Issac is alone, with nobody to trust, or even talk to, except for an occasional voice over a communicator. His only companions are his constant hallucinations, which hound him, even seeming intent on killing him. Thirdly, some of the visual design is just downright disturbing. While dismembered bodies don't faze most horror gamers, few are used to fighting and dismembering hordes of mutated zombie-children.
Now, I put the second Dead Space on the list as opposed to the first for a few different reasons. First, the gameplay has definitely improved: there is a greater variety of interesting weapons, and some nasty new enemies to use them on. The zero-G sections are also vastly improved, allowing for a full range of motion, and more interesting maneuvers. Second, t's also very friendly to people who haven't played the first game—featuring a "Last Time on Dead Space" option to recap the events of the game. Thirdly, and most importantly, Issac is actually a character now. In the first game, he suffered from silent protagonist syndrome, never showing his face. In the sequel, however, he has a face, a voice, and a personality; it's much easier for the player to actually identify with him.
What Doesn't Work
As for flaws, there are certainly a few. Atmosphere aside, things can become predictable, even stale, at times. Once the player starts getting used to the tricks and traps the game throws out, it can be easy to predict what's likely to happen. Also, as previously mentioned, there are times when the game seems to rely on jump scares too much. Lastly, some things begin to feel a bit contrived after a time; the player completes a task to move on, only for something else to go wrong, requiring a tangential objective to be completed before progress can actually be made.
2. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Platforms: PC, Xbox
While the game is advertised as something like a first-person shooter, the actual gameplay will quickly prove otherwise: Jack, the main character, does not actually receive a weapon for a surprisingly long time, and it is frequently better to avoid combat, as many enemies are just flat out tougher. Injuries affect gameplay—slowing movement, reducing accuracy, or even causing dizziness. In addition, Jack is affected mentally by horrific sights and monsters, as they begin to wear on his sanity.
The story of this game revolves around Jack Walters, a private detective hired to find a missing person in the small town of Innsmouth. Upon his arrival, he encounters unfriendly townsfolk, who encourage him to leave. The longer he stays, the more he begins to suspect that something is very wrong with this town. His continued investigations lead him on a journey of supernatural danger that takes him from Innsmouth, to underground caverns, to a navy vessel off the eastern coast. He will try to discover the truths about Innsmouth, the strange disappearance, and perhaps his own past.
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This game draws from the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. Not only does it draw from his works, but it also takes care to do so accurately. At many times, the player can feel downright helpless against the eldritch monstrosities encountered, and they are usually right. While most of the monsters don't look inherently terrifying on the screen, the dangers they present, as well as the existential implications of their very existence, can sink their teeth in, and hold on tight. And even without that, several sequences throughout the game can bring a surprising amount of tension to the table.
What Doesn't Work
There is, unfortunately, one glaring issue with this game: it is quite buggy at times. Some people report program crashes at various points in the game. I played on Xbox, and only encountered one such freeze, which did not repeat after reloading my save, but some have encountered more serious issues. As such, I would recommend the PC version, which runs much better.
3. Clock Tower: The First Fear
Developer: Human Entertainment
Platforms: Super Famicom, PC, PlayStation, WonderSwan
This game has a point-and-click interface, allowing the player to choose which objects Jennifer should inspect or take. The player must take care to monitor Jennifer's stamina, represented by her portrait in the corner of the screen. When she is confronted with a horrible sight, physically exerts herself, or is attacked, she will lose stamina, making it easier for the threats of the mansion to kill her.
Jennifer Simpson, along with her friends, Laura, Ann, and Lotte, are adopted from an orphanage in Norway. They set out with Mary, their caretaker, to their new home; a large mansion in the woods, owned by a man known only as Mr. Barrows. When they arrive, Mr. Barrows is nowhere to be found, so Mary goes to look for him. As the girls sit in the waiting room, they become concerned. Finally, Jennifer sets out to look for Mary. Before long, she discovers the dead body of one of her friends, and is assaulted by a strange man, wielding an enormous pair of gardening shears. Now, Jennifer must discover the secrets of the mansion, find her friends, and avoid the homicidal Scissorman.
Three things make this game stand out; first, the Scissorman actively stalks Jennifer, being able to appear virtually anywhere in the mansion. His appearances can be triggered by inspecting certain items, or just entering a room. Second, Jennifer has no real way to defend herself. Through use of the game's "panic button," she can struggle to fight off assailants, but she can never permanently dispose of Scissorman. The best hope when being pursued is to run and hide, though sometimes even that can fail. Third, this game features nine endings for the player to discover. Seemingly minor events or items can alter the course of the entire game.
This game works because of how strongly it evokes the feeling of helplessness in the player. Jennifer isn't a soldier, or a police officer, she's just a teenage girl. The things she faces are strange and terrifying, and pretty much everything around her wants her dead. This sense of helplessness then leaks over into the player. As such, the player's ability to protect Jennifer, and hide her from danger, is the only thing standing between her and a grizzly demise. The game becomes akin to a horror movie, complete with "don't open that door!" moments, except that now the player can control whether or not Jennifer opens the door.
What Doesn't Work
While some of the puzzles and endings can be fairly obtuse, the greatest problem is a pretty big one: it has never been released outside of Japan. Even now that several other games in the series have washed up on other shores, the original Super Famicom game remains solely in Japanese. There is good news, however. A version of the game was released for Windows, and there are fan translation patches available online.
4. Corpse Party
Developer: Team Gris Gris
Platforms: PC, PSP
Corpse Party began its life as a game made in RPG Maker on the PC. It has undergone a couple of transformations, but the RPG Maker roots are still visible to anyone familiar with the style; the gameplay resembles a top-down JRPG in the vein of Final Fantasy. The player controls various members of the group at different times, exploring the environment, collecting items, avoiding hazards, and solving puzzles. The other portion of gameplay is akin to that of "visual novel" games, where most of the story unfolds. Occasionally, choices will be presented during story and dialogue sequences. Some of these choices cause mild changes, but many will either dictate how the story continues or lead the player to a "wrong end."
Satoshi Mochida and his friends stayed late at their high school to clean up after the school cultural festival. One of them, Mayu Suzumoto, is going to be transferring to a new school the next day, and everyone is feeling pretty sad about it. The class representative, something of an occult enthusiast, suggests a charm she found online, that's supposed to ensure that the participants will remain friends forever. However, something goes wrong, and the students, along with their teacher and Satoshi's visiting sister, are transported into a hellish dimension filled with hostile spirits. Separated from each other, the characters must reunite, unravel the mystery of this strange dimension, and escape from their horrific fates.
This game works for myriad reasons. Most of the characters are genuinely likable, though flawed, humans. The player can really start to care when bad things happen to them. And make no mistake, bad things will happen. This game is gruesome, horrifying, and depressing. Characters die in horrific, bloody, painful ways, and the written descriptions are evocative enough to create a visceral reaction in the attentive player. Additionally, the graphics design is superb; despite the anime aesthetic, many images can be absolutely terrifying. The voice acting is great, conveying character emotions very skillfully, and the translation is good. But possibly most importantly, the sound direction as a whole is phenomenal; this game must be played with headphones for the maximum effect, because the audio utilizes binaural sound. This means that the sounds work with the player's ears to give impressions of where noises are coming from; not just right and left, but front and back. It is a truly unique experience and is vital to the atmosphere of the game.
What Doesn't Work
While an excellent game in general, there are some important notes. Unfortunately, it will at times put emphasis on unnecessary fan-service, with superfluous dialogue and occasional upskirt shots that can take one out of the atmosphere, or cause discomfort. It is not something that occurs regularly, but some scenes or images are just pointlessly sexualized. There is never any actual, full nudity—instead being obstructed by steam or such. Additionally, some players might be made uncomfortable by a couple of incestuous undertones. Lastly, some "wrong end" scenes can be needlessly long, eventually wearing out their intended effect.
5. Silent Hill 2
Platforms: (Original) Playstation 2, Xbox, PC (HD) PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Silent Hill 2 is an independent story, requiring no familiarity with other games in the series! It's a great introductory game to the series.
The game uses "tank controls" like those found in other survival horror games of the time, like Resident Evil. It has two different difficulty categories: action and puzzle. At lower action difficulties, monsters become weaker, disappearing almost entirely at the lowest level, while higher action difficulties feature a greater shortage of resources, as well as tougher monsters. Puzzle difficulty can be modified to assist players with less of a knack for puzzles, or challenge experienced players.
James Sunderland has returned to the town of Silent Hill at the behest of a letter from his wife, Mary, asking him to meet her in "their special place." There's only one problem: Mary died years ago. Even James doesn't exactly know why he has come to the town. He doesn't know what he's expecting to find, but something within him persists. Perhaps some sense of fleeting hope. As soon as James enters the town, he can tell that something is extremely wrong: the streets are shrouded by a thick fog, there are no people to be found, there are blood trails on the pavement, and the town is inhabited by strange, aggressive monsters. James' search for his wife will take him through the depths of his own subconscious, and the player is along for the ride.
This game is, in my mind, not only the greatest horror game ever made, but one of the greatest games of all time. There are two layers to Silent Hill 2's horror. On the surface, the game provides a claustrophobic atmosphere, even on the streets of Silent Hill, thanks to the thick fog. While James occasionally meets other characters, most of them are clearly unstable, and many can seem downright antagonistic. These two factors, along with the grotesque visual design and dissonant soundtrack, put the player on edge, and forces a sense of oppressive isolation. But it's not until reaching the second layer that the game shines. Psychological symbolism is prominent throughout the game, from notes left for James, to dialogue, to the appearances of the monsters themselves; everything serves to explore the depths of the human mind through the lens of James' psyche. Out of context, the monsters look odd, maybe even somewhat silly in some cases, but when placed in the context of the game, and when they are properly understood, they become unnerving, even terrifying. One, in particular, is the sadistic helmeted monster, called "Pyramid Head" by fans, that stalks James throughout the game. It torments other monsters, but seems to have a personal hatred for James himself. It is a being of malice, violence, and sexual predation. And it is unstoppable.
I mentioned sexual predation above; this game contains heavy sexual themes and tones, both subtle and obvious. These themes are present in a disturbing way, meant to progress the story, develop characters, and unnerve the player. The design of most monsters contain at least some sexual symbolism, and certain situations carry heavy sexual connotations, including abuse and rape. It is vital to understand, however, that these themes do have a purpose, and serve to further the plot and characters, even if it is not realized until the very end. It is not present for fan service, or for any form of titillation.
What Doesn't Work
For all of my waxing poetic about Silent Hill 2, there are some quite noticeable flaws. The controls can frequently be stiff and awkward, causing trouble when trying to fight or run. The voice acting, unfortunately, frequently leaves something to be desired, and the graphics have not aged well. That said, if a player can get past those problems, they can find the game to be a very rewarding experience, and one I would recommend to anyone who is thinking about playing it.
Note: For the best experience, I recommend the Xbox version, the Greatest Hits PS2 version, or the HD collection.)
The above list is hardly exhaustive. There are plenty of other titles, new and old, that rise above the mediocrity of so many games in the genre. But to me, the five games discussed here provide a cross-section of the best qualities that horror games have to offer. If you love horror games, you owe it to yourself to try these titles.
Kingslayercrow on October 01, 2014:
Dead Space one and two would always freak me out, especially if i was playing at night in the dark. It seems like the best horror games fall under the radar because they don't make it to a popular console.
David (author) from Iowa on May 07, 2014:
Thanks! Good luck on your quest!
MoonRaye from Florida on May 06, 2014:
One of the things on my bucket list is to play every horror game available, no matter how many times I have to change my pants. I know these games have been out for a while, but I have yet to try them! Anyway, excellent work. :D
David (author) from Iowa on April 28, 2014:
Glad to hear it! Thanks for the feedback.
Justin Biser from North Carolina on April 28, 2014:
Really great article. I love horror games, and some of these were great experiences for me.