Keep telling yourself its only a game
It's a strange thing, wanting to be afraid, isn't it? Actually having a desire to load up a game that's going to make you want to sleep with the light on for fear of what might lurk in the darkness at the foot of your bed. And yet some of us want to do this on a regular basis. We actually strive to find the scariest horror games of all time and wire them straight into our eyes. Well now isn't really the time to go into the paradox of horror but at least we can recognise its existence.
But what are the best horror games? What the are scariest experiences you can wire yourself into in the 21st century to at least guarantee sweaty palms if not full on night terrors? We've been brave so you don't have to and waded through the uncomfortable tepid seas of horror - no, don't think about what you just stood on - to find the ultimate terrifying experiences. Here are the top 20 horror games of all time.
20. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Silent Hill loves to play the player, as much as the player loves playing it. The series made its name by creating shifting, metaphorical worlds that forced you to consider the reality, the meaning and the underlying truth of every situation you were placed in. Where Shattered Memories distinguished itself was in how it turned your very console against you. Also, it quite literally told you that it was going to play you. Challenge accepted.
The superior Wii version used the tinny, horrible speakers of the Wiimote into weapons, piping through sinister phone calls and fizzing like the worst surround sound system ever created. Then there's the way it alters itself based on your answers to psychological questions, reimagining the original Silent Hill as part-Rorschach test for the player, facing you with the very horrors you've been forced to imagine. It's as smart as it is scary.
19. Layers of Fear
Layers of Fear is the first trickle of what we imagine will be a flood of "post-P.T." games, psychological horrors set in familiar, ultra-realistic settings. Where this Polish effort succeeds is in how it alters the intent of that horror. Where P.T. seeks to flay your mind slowly but surely, Layers of Fear is a little more forgiving, and a lot more surreal.
Playing a maddened artist wandering the halls of his seemingly haunted mansion, scenes will shift behind your back, doors appearing, paintings warping into horrific images, scenes playing out in your peripheral vision. It's bold, brash and pleasingly Gothic, turning your wanderings into a ghost train you'll be pleased to ride, as you discover the true depths of your protagonist's madness.
18. Lone Survivor
Jasper Byrne made his name "demaking" Silent Hill into 2D games, and you can feel that series' influence throughout his sidescrolling indie debut. Creeping monstrosities scrape down barely-lit corridors, the world seems to shift around you, and you can never quite trust that your surgical-masked protagonist is the good guy.
As the only living human - as far as you're aware, anyway - you'll have to scavenge for supplies and hide from the Things That Go Bump in the Night if you hope to keep on keepin' on. Oh, and you also have to maintain your sanity. Periodically returning to your apartment - your base of operations - to eat some food and get some rest. stops you from hallucinating. The longer you're deprived of life's basic necessities, the harder it'll be to tell what's real and what's not. And that's when things get really bad...
17. Alan Wake
Alan Wake isn't like most horror games. It doesn't trade in excessive gore or jump scares - in fact, it's not that scary on the whole. But its sense of place and character is second to none. That place is Bright Falls, a Twin Peaks-inspired mountain community with a terrible secret. The dulcet tones of the night DJ rambling across the airwaves - mixed with the little vignettes you can catch on TV - make this town feel alive, like a character unto itself. Its story unfolds like a thrilling TV miniseries, right down to the episodic structure that bookends each plot twist and revelation.
Alan Wake further distinguishes itself by, well, being a lot of fun to play. Maybe that sounds a bit mean, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable horror game than Alan Wake from a pure gameplay perspective. Developer, Remedy is as famous for action as storytelling, and that comes to bear here, as simple, fluid controls do away with the stilted awkwardness that's characteristic of this genre. Taking on a group of enemies is challenging for all the right reasons: the encounters are well crafted, and the pistol-plus-flashlight combat combo is fun to use without making you feel invincible.
This first-person shooter was heavier on the shootout action than most horror games - the remarkable enemy AI still impresses to this day, and its arsenal of weaponry gets more brutal (wall-pinning, weaponised railway spikes, anyone?) the more you play. But just as you begin to feel powerful, something that can't simply be shot comes along to put you in your place. F.E.A.R.s best scares came about when you were riding the high after clearing out a room full of tough enemies.
Thats exactly the moment when youd notice a strange figure staring at you from the end of a hallway. You'll come to drea the thought of bumping into the ghastly little girl, Alma when you least expect it. If creepy, phase-in-directly-in-your-face dead girls arent enough, Paxton Fettel seals the deal as a telepathic cannibal who leaves behind remnants of his feasts for you to find. Objects start to move on their own, all the lights would turn out one by one. What happens next, well guess youll have to play it to find out.
15. Dead Space
If Resident Evil is the king of survival action-horror, then Dead Space aimed to be the pretender to the throne, bringing together Capcom's early dread and latter day over-the-shoulder shooting into one gory package. Borrowing from Alien and other sci-fi classics, the 2008 release put players in the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer trapped on a derelict spacecraft. Soon Isaac finds out the ship isnt as empty as it seems, as a strange alien artifact has transformed everyone on board into hideous, flesh-eating creatures, each more horrific than the last.
Dead Space crafts a horrifying experience by limiting the player. Isaac is short on ammo, he rarely knows whats going on in the continually shifting story, and hes most in danger of what he cant see. So much of the disturbing atmosphere is built on what you hear, and the amazing sound design uses audio to fashion an entire deadly world around Isaac. Though the sequel pulled back on the scares somewhat in favor of cinematic action, the original remains trapped in our nightmares.
14. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Youre in Ancient Rome or Modern New York or Colonial Rhode Island and youre... pretty sure the eyes on that statue were moving the last time you walked through this hallway. But now they arent, which is somehow even worse than if they were just moving all along. You dont have time to worry about that, because halfway through your brawl with undead monsters torn out of an H. P. Lovecraft fever dream your... controller became unplugged?
What? What!? It looks like it's plugged in, but it's telling y- oh. Its a Sanity Effect. Eternal Darkness relied on the unknown to terrorize you, with an incredibly well-realized insanity system that messed with you, just because it could. It might look like your console had crashed, or someone was lowering the volume on your TV, the walls might start bleeding, or your character might just... explode when they tried to heal themselves. Playing Eternal Darkness is as much about second-guessing it as it is solving its in-game mysteries.
13. Until Dawn
Teen slashers have been around for nearly four decades now, but aside from the abysmal Friday the 13th on NES, games haven't really been brave enough to venture into that territory. Until now. Or rather, Until Dawn (zing), a 2015 survival-horror game about a pack of randy teens going on vacation to an isolated mountain cabin, only to find that some heinous entity is set on killing them off. But it's not all fun and games: the characters will die gruesome deaths if you can't navigate Until Dawn's horror movie logic, and it takes every opportunity to scare the shit out of you.
While many games on this list are here because of their fear-factor alone, Until Dawn earns a spot for more meta reasons, too - it's wilfully, soulfully entrenched in horror tradition, and uses those tropes brilliantly. It's packed with winks to the slasher genre, and you'll still love the ridiculous twists even if you see them coming from a mile away. You'll laugh as much as you scream, if not more, and few horror games capture that sense of grisly fun so well.
12. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Some horror games dont need fantastical enemies or mythical demons to scare players. Titles like Condemned demonstrate that flesh and blood humans can easily be as scary as demons and ghosts; here, the ethereal threat of the paranormal pale in comparison to the very real hazard of having your head bashed in with a pipe. The rusty, broken down world of Condemned is all the more terrifying because you know that places like those actually exist.
Condemned's shadowy environments are made all the more harrowing by how limited protagonist Ethan Thomas is in fighting the many crazy people that attack him during his criminal investigations. Guns are hard to find, and he's more likely to stun enemies with a taser and snap their necks in brutal fashion than he is to shoot them. Aside from a late addition of occult weirdness, Condemned makes for one of the most brutally real horror experiences on consoles; its worth it for the mannequin level alone.
From Software's Souls games - of which this is a very obvious descendent - don't play like horror standards. They're action-RPGs, built around stat micromanagement and skilful play. And yet they feel scarier than most games that build themselves around fear - stress, dread and jumps come as frequently as loot and levelling.
Bloodborne is the best of the lot, a sprawling, mysterious tale of eldritch horror set in a twisted nightmare vision of Victorian Europe. Travelling down cobblestone streets amidst dark spires, you'll hear hushed conversations behind firmly-locked doors, wondering who you are, and what "The Hunt" you seem to be on could be. It's gaming's best Lovecraftian horror - you'll be driven to discover its secrets as much as you are to master its vicious combat systems.
SOMA doesn't just trap you in a creepy underwater facility, abandoned save for the mysterious growths covering the walls. Nor does it just bring you face-to-is-that-a-face with twisted, horrific monsters and inundate you with terrifying imagery. No - it also makes you doubt that any of what you're seeing is real. Just like that, SOMA brilliantly nails you with a deeply frightening idea: what if the only thing trying to hurt you can't be stopped, because it's your own mind?
That fear is supplemented by the sort of environmental design SOMA's developers (the folks behind Amnesia) are famous for - your surroundings are rife with creepy sights and sounds, and can make you scramble for cover when nothing's even happening. Only when you're properly on edge do you start to encounter robots who are absolutely certain (just as you are) that they're human, and can see their own human bodies clear as day. It plants a seed of doubt that sticks with you, as the discoveries you make get more and more frightening, and pushes deeper than most horror games are willing to go.
9. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Picking up on the tropes of Japanese horror and folklore that were made famous in The Ring and Ju-on, the Fatal Frame series has always been unsettling. Characters are frozen in place with fear, their only weapon against soul-stealing ghosts is an ancient camera. This means the only way to fight your enemies is to face them head-on, an increasingly terrifying proposition as the game wears on. The franchise has several great entries, but we choose to single out the second game as the best fit for this list.
Crimson Butterfly updates the graphics a bit from the first game, and its the most inviting in its difficulty, making sure theres an ever-present threat without getting too frustrating. It also has the best story, a personal journey between two sisters dealing with loss and guilt. Its always nice when the intense experience is backed up by a plot thats deeper than survive.
A freelance journalist's survival is entirely dependent on the stories s/he breaks, so when writer Miles Upshur gets wind of an old insane asylum that had been reopened under bizarre circumstances, he can't resist the opportunity to nab a hot story. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever watched a B-grade horror film might've guessed, said asylum is full of creepy, blood-thirsty cultists; all Upshur really nabs is an excuse to buy new pants.
Outlast offers a first-person trek through a setting literally no one in real life would willingly check out. As you explore the dilapidated asylum, its inhabitants (whose mouths are often sewn shut because holy Christ that's scary) will pop out when you least expect it and give chase until you can parkour away to safety. Kudos to Upshur - if we were getting chased by a mutated human wearing the skin of another just for the hell of it, our hearts would explode into approximately 1.2 million pieces.
7. Resident Evil 4
Resi invented modern survival horror. But that wasn't good enough for director Shinji Mikami - so for the fourth instalment the series invented modern 3rd person shooting, just for fun. Leon Kennedy's adventures in gunplay are rightly famous, the feedback-heavy combat making every situation a shaky joy. But, I hear you cry, how does that make it qualify as a top 10 horror game? Surely it's just an action experience in Resi clothing?
Tell that to anyone coming to the Ganado-infested village for the first time. The sheer stress of being rushed by the parasite-infested local population, headed up by a sack-masked, chainsaw-wielding maniac ranks up there with gaming's most frightening moments. Its a feeling that returns constantly - whether it's one of the iconic boss fights, a battle across crumbling rooftops or in the most expected location, Resi 4's horror is in how it puts you on the backfoot and asks you to fight your way out.
6. Resident Evil 2
Few survival horror games are as memorable as those born from "the good old days," an era in which we all just kind of dealt with god-awful tank controls and camera angles in exchange for scares. And while the original Resident Evil introduced us to a few of the horrifying creations of the Umbrella Corporation, Resident Evil 2 was the masterpiece that kept us up at night with the fear that our quiet little towns might someday be home to a zombie outbreak.
The Raccoon City setting was far more unsettling than the original's mansion, and you were forced to explore some areas - the zombie-infested police department (oh god, that Licker that crawled across the window) or an underground lab facility full of hulking B.O.W.s - that were capable of moving bowels in ways you'd never known to be possible. And if you survived the zombies and other creatures, the haunting score and distant moans of the undead were sure to make you reconsider leaving the safety of a save room.
5. Resident Evil 7
It could have been a disaster - a clunky, forced update to a revered series, that left fans clamouring for the bombastic nonsense of Resi 6. But Resi 7 is a triumph, smartly feeding off the best horror movies of the last 20 years, effortlessly easing all that edgy new into a recognisable, modern reinvention of the series. The central story is fantastic, the mysteries artfully concealed and your tormentors, the Bakers, are brilliantly subversive.
Switching the action to first person adds some VR possibilities, but also makes the horror feel uncomfortably close - gruelling, compelling stuff, in a setting you’ll remember forever after exploring up close. But perhaps the cleverest trick is just how Resi it all feels. The safe rooms have the same sense of unsettling respite; ammo feels desperately scarce; and the boss fights have the right mix of terror and glowing, oozing bits to shoot. It’s a tight, smart horror game, and far better than most fans dared hope. A brilliant and chilling rebirth.
4. Alien: Isolation
Countless games have been inspired by elements of the Alien franchise, be it James Camerons space marines, Ellen Ripleys fortitude, or the chilling power of silence in a soundtrack. Despite all that, Alien: Isolation may be the series greatest gaming triumph. It takes the gut-wrenching fear fostered by the lone Xenomorph in the original film, and extends it into a lengthy game. Isolation's tense survival gameplay keeps the pulse pounding for hours and hours
You take on the role of Ripleys daughter, searching a derelict space station for her mother, only to find the same beast she fought. Youre constantly on guard from the cinematic AI of your Alien hunter. This means holding your breath as you narrowly avoid detection, or screaming in terror after failing to reach safety. The atmosphere the game sustains is impressive enough, and it deserves even more credit for taking the Xenomorph, a movie monster bordering on cliche due to overexposure, and making it terrifying once again.
3. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
You may have heard of a little game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent - you may have even seen reaction videos of the poor souls who deemed themselves brave enough to step foot into its dark, creepy castle. Attempt it if you dare, but know this: to play Amnesia is to stare your greatest fears straight in the face.
As if being trapped in a monster-infested fortress without knowing who you are or why you're there isn't scary enough, you'll have to guide protagonist Daniel to salvation while maintaining his sanity. That means staying out of the darkness (in a huge building where light is scarce) and running from monsters, which have a habit of popping up extremely unexpectedly. You have no weapons; you cannot fight them, and each daunting new room is usually host to some unexplainable, spooky event that drains Daniel's sanity further. Of course, the best way to lose your own sanity is to don a pair of headphones and play Amnesia in the dark - and if you manage to get through the infamous "water part" without soiling yourself, know that you've succeeded where countless others have not.
If you brought together the world's most idiosyncratic game auteur and one of its greatest film monster creators and they didn't make one of the oddest, most horrible games yet released, you'd be pretty upset. Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro's "playable teaser" for the now-canned Silent Hills, places you in a single, infinitely looping hallway, and proceeds to find a thousand ways to shit you right up.
There are moments where you face peril, but they're few and far between. The real terror comes from the unknown. What could be around the next bend? A fresh nightmare or nothing at all? Your imagination fills in the blanks, creating more terror than any simple jump scare or creepy noise could. Add in an underlying tale of domestic terror that would make any Silent Hill fan nostalgic, and youve got the world's shortest masterpiece of horror on your shaking hands.
1. Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill, as a franchise, is home to some of the most frightening enemies and situations in gaming history, but the developers greatest accomplishment in creating horrors that stay with you forever was Silent Hill 2. This PS2 classic's greatest achievement is in what you come away fearing. Though he'll encounter creatures like the iconic nurses and Pyramid Head, protagonist James Sunderland is far more threatened by his personal demons. And the empty town of Silent Hill brings them all to the surface.
James has returned to Silent Hill answering a letter that seems to come from his dead wife, but all he finds are reminders of his own anguish and guilt over her death. Every corner of the town is inhabited by some new horror, but James has to push past his fears if he ever wants to know whats going on. You and he will not like what he finds beyond them. Silent Hill 2 doesn't just present you with a horror game worth playing, but a story worth being listened to, parsed, and gawping awfully about. The deeper you go, the worse it gets.