It is currently late September, which means that we’ve officially been in the Halloween season for about a month now. (It will extend until a week before Christmas. Thanksgiving is apocryphal.) Now, Halloween is objectively the second-best holiday on the calendar, right after “Big Brother’s Birthday”, so this is a fine time to examine the best horror experiences that video gaming has to offer.
Scary games have been a part of my gaming lexicon ever since my first experience with the granddaddy of them all, 1992’s Alone in the Dark, during a probably-nightmare-filled sleepover at a friend’s house. However, in the almost quarter of a century since, only a handful of games have really gotten it right, striking the balance between thrills, surprises, helplessness, immersion, and abject terror. Let’s give them a look!
This unheralded, heavily Japanese PS2 title is a diamond in the rough, but unfortunately a lot of the “rough” is in the game’s design. It took me two tries to actually get going on the game because of a confusing interface and unclear goals, but once I used a spoiler-free walkthrough, I was greatly rewarded with a deep story and a truly terrifying experience. In fact, this is the only game on the list that actually gave me nightmares – caused by playing as a helpless 10-year-old girl trying to avoid her zombified family as they went about their usual routine in her house. At one point, you unwittingly play as a character’s twin brother who has killed him and taken his place, and this is only evident from subtle hints that some people might not even notice. It takes a little bit of patience to appreciate this one, but the payoff is real. (There’s a simplified, “reimagined” PS3 follow-up in Siren: Blood Curse that is absolutely worth your time if you can’t get into the original.)
Best scary moment: Tough call, but I think it’s when one of the characters, a teenage girl, reaches her lost parents, only for the camera to switch to their perspective and reveal that she’s unwittingly become one of the possessed Shibito, bleeding eyes and all.
UPDATE: You can read my full analysis of Siren HERE.
9) Killer 7
In this 2005 gem, you play as a team of assassins with unique personalities and a strange relationship to each other. This is perhaps the least horrific title on the list, but anyone who’s played it knows that it has more than its share of disturbing moments and downright scary imagery. Combine that with a truly mind-bending story (an allegory of U.S.-Japan diplomacy? spooooky), and you have an enjoyable, messed-up title that will more than serve your Halloween needs. Who can forget the creepy laugh and scream of the demonic Heaven Smiles as they run forward to suicide bomb their target?
Best scary moment: I don’t want to give too much away, but for me it’s the big reveal about the assassins themselves at the end of the game. You get to play through part of their background, and believe me, I really wanted to turn the game off so I didn’t have to do it.
8) The Count Lucanor
This recent Steam title proves that you don’t need graphics or advanced gameplay to create a great horror experience, because it’s done completely in 8 bits. It’s a testament to the quality of the game’s design that this manages to knock off so many triple-A titles! You play as a young boy who enters a cursed castle in search of his fortune; his only weapon against the dark forces there are candles which he can place to see them coming and hide before they kill him. The game contains creepy puzzles, multiple endings depending on the choices you make, and a brilliant juxtaposition between innocent aesthetics and spooky happenings. I was riveted and on edge from start to finish. The game is rather obscure for now – I only heard of it on a recommendation from Undertale‘s Toby Fox, who knows a good game when he sees it – but I believe it’ll stand the test of time and stand out as one of the true classics, not to be missed.
Best scary moment: Early in the game, you meet a friendly goatherd. After sharing a drink with him, you pass out and then wake up in the middle of the night to find that the nearby river has turned to blood, the goats have turned demonic, and the goatherd has been decapitated. And then the head starts talking to you.
7) Silent Hill 4: The Room
Get used to seeing this series on the list! Silent Hill 4 is one of the more underrated titles from the series, largely because it only tangentially relates to the story of the first three games. However, it brought along some nice innovations, particularly the addition of first-person gameplay segments in the main character’s cramped, oppressive apartment that he can’t escape. The game loses points for having you spend the second half trudging back through the same levels from the first half, but it makes effective use of its side characters (at least one of which chases you around as a ghost later on) and moments – both in the story and in gameplay – that will freak you out.
Best scary moment: Throughout the game, you can peek into your damsel-in-distress neighbor’s room to check how she’s doing (with no illicit intentions, I’m sure). On her bed is a creepy rabbit doll that faces away from you every time. After something happens to her, you can look through the hole again and you may find that the rabbit has turned so it’s looking right back at you. Gyeh!
6) Resident Evil (GameCube remake)
Resident Evil was really the series that brought horror gaming to the mainstream, so getting an HD remake of the one that started it all was a welcome addition to horror lore! This is one of the better remakes in all of gaming, with improved performances and additions to the plot to make the Spencer mansion feel even more alive. The game even changed the locations of monsters in order to mess with veterans of the original; this was very much a labor of love. They basically took everything that was great about the first Resident Evil and took out anything that didn’t work – sorry, lovers of Jill sandwiches. The gameplay is great, and this is a rare case where being an action hero doesn’t detract from the horror.
Best scary moment: It’s tough to pick just one, but I’ll go with the very first zombie encounter of the game because it’s such an iconic scene. Seeing the flesh eater round on you for the first time in updated graphics is something special.
5) Silent Hill
Never as popular as the Resident Evil series, Silent Hill at its best would go for the more intellectual scares (a style straight out of Japan), and that has always appealed to me more than the in-your-face boogums of the typical big budget title. The original Silent Hill was the ultimate slow burn; you’re running around a largely empty town looking for your daughter, and a lot of the horror is psychological rather than visceral. The thing I love most about this game is how much of the story is in the subtext; I eagerly read a 40-page plot guide when I was a kid, and people are still arguing over what the game actually means and whether any of the later sequels should even be considered canon. This one launched a heck of a series, and despite being graphically dated, it still stands up as a great gameplay experience.
Best scary moment: Early in the game, you travel down an alley while the world around you gets darker and darker. You’re eventually forced into a dead end where tiny demons come and stab you to death while you helplessly attempt to escape. Good times!
4) Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
This is one that many horror aficionados look upon wistfully, and for good reason – the Lovecraftian horror story is enhanced by unique fourth wall breaking gameplay elements that mess with the player beyond what’s happening in the game. If your sanity bar drops too low, you’ll experience things like the game pretending to delete your save, taking away your control of the character, and clearing the display while you hear horrible violence happening. This is a neat gimmick, but what really makes the game special is the story, spanning thousands of years and several different characters as they fight against an aeons-old monster. Brilliantly executed from start to finish, Eternal Darkness delivers an unforgettable experience.
Best scary moment: One of your first playable characters physically starts to decay as the evil magic of the place wears down his resistance, in a very affecting sequence. Hundreds of years later, another of your characters encounters his undead form as a boss, still futilely attempting to reach “Char…le…magne!”
3) Silent Hill 3
A worthy successor to the original story in the series, Silent Hill 3 follows a teenage girl with a supernatural background as the proverbial chickens (read: cult members) come home to roost. Silent Hill 3 takes all of the best elements of the horror genre and uses them to keep you on your toes while holding your attention in its death grip. This entry has some of the most memorable locations in the series; fun places like a shopping mall and an amusement park are twisted beyond recognition and made to be utterly grotesque. It also contains disturbingly weird imagery, with some “monsters” that aren’t even there to interact with you, but only to make you feel like this is a real world that you’re intruding on – one that doesn’t really care whether you’re there or not.
Best scary moment: In the Borley Haunted Mansion, we’re treated to a gleefully evil narrator who does things like dropping a real corpse from the ceiling in what’s supposed to be a joke exhibit. After enduring a few rooms of such shenanigans, he tells us we’ve made it through and can leave now – then he flips the script and chases us with a red mist that quickly kills Heather if it touches her.
2) Resident Evil 4
Some will argue that this isn’t a true horror title, but I disagree. And very few will argue that it isn’t one of the best titles of its generation. This is the single best blend of action and horror in any game I’ve ever played, and it also gave renewed mainstream credibility to a genre that hadn’t sold all that well up until its release. Series mainstay Leon Kennedy heads to South America to take on the latest strain of the zombie virus at the series’s core and rescue the President’s daughter, but gets more than he bargained for. Leon is an ideal tough-guy action hero – not over the top powerful, but extremely competent and likable enough to let the player slide into his shoes – thrown into a horrific world of body horror, murderous pursuit, and mutilation. The game skews more toward action in its later stages, but the first half delivers more scares than most horror games manage in their entire length. RE4 is the undisputed king of action/horror, no questions asked.
Best scary moment: After putting up a reasonable fight against the evil townspeople in the game’s first environment, you encounter a chainsaw-wielding maniac wearing a sack on his head. If he catches you, you don’t just take damage – you die. He cuts yo’ damn head off. Holy crap.
1) Silent Hill 2
This may be the consensus opinion of the gaming community, but it was always going to be my choice. No other game made me feel so creeped out so consistently, while refusing to let me put down the controller because of the sheer force of its immersion. The game has unusually realistic acting that’s just off enough to make you feel like you’re talking to a crazy person, in the best possible way. It judges the way you act during the game in order to determine which ending you should get, rather than giving you any big explicit choices the way virtually every multi-ending game has ever done. (Walk around with low health and frequently check out that knife in your inventory? Your character might just be suicidal.) Each side character has a fully fleshed-out background and a complete arc throughout the game, and you encounter them at different points on their own journey through the purgatorial town. And best of all, neither you nor the main character has much idea what’s going on as you search for his dead wife (it makes just as much sense in context). Yahtzee summarized it best: “It’s a fascinating voyage of pain and despair that leaves you emotionally drained and satisfied, like f—ing a burning dolphin.”
Best scary moment: I think the first encounter with Pyramid Head takes it. You’re in a landing that’s way too small for a boss fight, up against a hulking devil with a giant knife who you have no chance of beating. If you survive long enough or pour enough bullets into him, he leaves, more because he seems to have something better to do than because you pose any sort of threat. You don’t exactly feel like a tough guy afterward.
UPDATE: You can read my full analysis of Silent Hill 2 HERE.
Honorable Mentions (Worth Playing): Dead Space, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3, The Evil Within, Condemned: Criminal Origins, The Suffering, Silent Hill Downpour, Silent Hill Shattered Memories, Clock Tower, Corpse Party, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Rule of Rose, The Last of Us, Fatal Frame
So that’s my list! Did I leave anything out? Leave a comment below or tweet at @DashingNerds if you want to share your thoughts, and have a happy Halloween!