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Why you never played: The Path, self-published by a small handful of designers and marketed almost entirely through word-of-mouth, is about as indie as games can get. Plus, depending on which confused critic or obscure message board you ask, The Path can’t really be “played,” and may not qualify as an actual game at all.
What’s so scary: Remember the tale of Little Red Riding Hood? How an innocent little girl got lost in the woods, and preyed on by wolves, on her way to Grandmother’s house? Now imagine that the woods are filled with deserted playgrounds, foggy cemeteries and decaying movie theaters. Picture the girls – you can choose between six – as depressed preteen Goths, or as cripples with limps and leg braces, or as rebellious flirts on the cusp of adulthood. Recast the wolves as metaphors for temptation and puberty, creepy male strangers who appear out of the shadows to offer the girls cigarettes and other sins. And, by the end, make Granny’s the last place anyone would ever want to go.
The terrifying genius of the game – and what some argue qualifies it as art instead – is that most of what we just described is optional. The adventure starts with explicit instructions: “Go to Grandmother’s house… and stay on the path.” If you do so, you’ll arrive safe and unharmed in less than a minute; if you wander into the trees, however, you’ll risk danger, death and depravity with every forbidden step. Worse, when you reach your final destination, the formerly cozy cottage will have transformed into a nightmarish gallery to remind you of each grievous mistake and avoidable transgression.
You’ll still disobey, though, won’t you?
You can’t resist, and The Path knows it.
Current availability: Released earlier this year, The Path is still readily available on Steam or through the creators’ website for $10.
Why you never played: This game is the oldest on our list, so unless you were born in the early to mid-‘70s – and our demographic research suggests you probably weren’t – then Haunted House on the Atari 2600 is completely unfamiliar to you.
What’s so scary: On the surface? Nothing. Sure, you’re exploring a dead man’s mansion, trying to steal pieces of his broken urn while avoiding bats, spiders and ghosts, but the way in which all of that is represented on screen is exceedingly simple… today, laughably so. The nearly empty environment is made up of straight lines connected by 90-degree corners, and the often indistinguishable enemies are a few colored blocks smushed together. The player is just a pair of rotating eyeballs, surrounded by pixels upon pixels of pitch blackness. Again, you ask, what’s so scary?
The fear – or at least the overwhelming, palm-sweating anxiety – comes from how Haunted House is played. Except for on the easiest difficulty level, you can’t see either the surrounding walls or the items you’re looking for unless you hit the Atari’s “fire” button to light a match… which reveals only a tiny radius and almost immediately goes out again. Monsters roam everywhere, and if you brush into them more than eight times over the course of the entire game, you’re killed. On the bright side, there’s a scepter that can be wielded as a defensive weapon against them; on the down side, you can’t hold it at the same time as a key or precious piece of urn, rendering it practically useless.
The Atari 2600 may not be capable of much, but you won’t find horror this hardcore – in the true gaming definition of the term – anywhere else.
Current availability: Legally? Try Atari Anthology for PC, PS2 or Xbox. You can get Haunted House and over 70 other old-school titles for $5 used.