There are different kind of horror games for different kinds of people. Some enjoy the shock to the system of a particularly startling jump scare, where frightening sounds and imagery accost you like a slap to the face. But others (like me) prefer the subtle, slow-burn dread of great psychological horror, without any of the loud noises or sudden camera zoom-ins. Uneasiness creeps under your skin bit by bit until you're almost too disturbed, unnerved, or straight-up afraid to go on - despite the lack of any in-your-face freakouts.
Whether you think jump scares are little more than cheap theatrics, or you enjoy them but just want to try something tonally different, these stellar horror games will pull you in with their potent suspense and palpable atmosphere (without opting for a canned 'GOTCHA!' moment every 15 minutes).
Specializes in: An atmosphere of encroaching rot, somehow making a top-down perspective immersive and unnervingly tense
If Silent Hill's aesthetic is rust and grime, Darkwood has mastered the art of making everything feel like it's dripping with rot, mold, and fungus. With its top-down perspective, brutal-but-doable challenge, and pristine pixel art - which gives you just enough gruesome detail to let your imagination do the rest - Darkwood feels reminiscent of classic PC games mixed with modern psychological horror. You play as a mysterious abductee who awakes in an oppressively gloomy forest; the trees have grown so rampantly that they've created an impenetrable wall, trapping everyone inside and driving them to insanity. During the day, you scavenge for supplies, fending off rabid dogs or crazed villagers and meeting a supporting cast full of endearingly freakish characters. At night, you have to hole up in your shanty of a safe house and pray you survive the coming onslaught until dawn. Darkwood makes amazing use of subtle sound effects to make you dread whatever's lurking in the shadows, and it's brimming with dark subplots that ask you to connect some disturbing dots. As atmospheric horror goes, Darkwood is in a league of its own.
Tormentum - Dark Sorrow
Specializes in: Lavishly detailed nightmarescapes you could stare at for hours
This point-and-click adventure is never outright scary - it's more unsettling than anything, in the entrancing, eerie kind of way you might associate with a creepy art gallery. Tormentum's protagonist is a hooded wanderer lost in a hellish dimension that's clearly been inspired by the works of H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Beksinski (look up this Polish artist's name if you don't plan on sleeping tonight). Every vista in this hand-painted realm is at once grotesque and oddly gorgeous, full of warped exoskeletons, hideous machinery, and fleshy growths. Solving puzzles and making progress in Tormentum is fairly straightforward, so you can sit back and soak up all the haunting sights and unsettlingly characters at your leisure.
Siren: Blood Curse
Specializes in: A chilling, voyeuristic version of hide-and-go-seek
Zombies are creepy enough as it is - but what's even scarier than a reanimated corpse is a flesh-devouring Shibito ghoul that's still clinging to a semblance of its original personality. This pale-skinned twist on your typical walker - many of whom are infested with insect parasites - serve as the basis for Siren: Blood Curse, an episodic, thoroughly Japanese horror series that's easy to find on PSN. You'll play as seven different characters trapped in the misty Hanuda Village, some of whom have the capacity to fight back against the legion of chanting stalkers. But eventually, you'll be forced to use Siren's most intriguing mechanic: the "sight jack" system. This ability lets you see from the perspective of your undead pursuer, praying that they don't find your hiding spot as you catch a glimpse of yourself through their eyes. Instead of banking everything on fleeting, one-note scares, Siren: Blood Curse is all about the almost unbearable build-up of anxiety, until you just can't take it anymore and decide to flee in terror.
Specializes in: Traditional Hammer horror, plus a persistent need for self-preservation
Sure, Bloodborne's got the heart of an action RPG - it follows in the hallowed footsteps of the Souls series, and it certainly requires more mechanical skill and dexterity than any other game on this list. But once you've acclimated yourself to your Hunter's nimble movements and weapons of choice, you'll be able to see past the intense combat to really appreciate just how spooky the city of Yharnam really is. Every enemy design is bristling with macabre details like disgusting mandibles or bits of rotting flesh, and the environment reveals some intensely disquieting secrets once you've built up enough Insight (cleverly designed stat representing your deeper understanding of the world). Of course, there's always the fear for your own survival keeping you on the edge, knowing that a mid-fight misstep could cost you an hour of hard-fought progress. Trust me when I say it's a good kind of afraid.
Specializes in: Classic haunted house spookiness, with artistic anime flair
Ib (pronounced 'eeb') is the perfect introduction to world of creepy, classy RPG Maker horror games (which, by the way, are almost always free). It's plenty eerie wandering through a museum that may or may not be haunted, but Ib treats its frightening crescendoes with a soft touch, terrifying you just enough so that you're constantly giddy at the thought of whatever clever scares might await you around the next corner. The story can also be touching or morbid depending on your choices, and you never have to worry about combat - it's just you and your aesthetically pleasing, increasingly distressing surroundings, which you're free to explore at your own pace. Also, the scene with the room full of dolls will stay with you forever.
System Shock 2
Specializes in: Claustrophobia, and the distinct feeling that you're being watched
The precursor to BioShock is arguably just as ingenious, set on a futuristic space station rather than an undersea dystopia. As one of the few survivors on a ship full of hideously infected crewmembers, you have to figure out just what the hell is going on and how you're going to survive your rude awakening from cryosleep. There's a distinct sense of place to the eerily quiet, corpse-ridden hallways on the Von Braun ship, but your apprehension will quickly turn to terror whenever you encounter the gruesome mutants that run rampant throughout its corridors. You don't know fear until you've desperately tried to hide from a gang of screaming psychic monkeys (which shoot plasma from their exposed brains), with only a wrench and the cover of darkness to protect you.
Specializes in: Pure psychological strangeness, with a lot of heart underneath the ugly exterior
Deformed children. That's close to the first thing you see in Sanitarium, an early, incredible example of psychological horror in games. You see through the eyes of Max, an amnesiac who's struggling to piece together his identity after a nasty car crash (and sounds vaguely like Hank from King of the Hill). The only thing you're certain of is that your face is covered in bandages, and you're trapped in an insane asylum with no concept of what's real and what isn't. It's nearly impossible to find Sanitarium's aging graphics scary these days, but that doesn't mean you won't be disturbed by the twisted scenarios Max is torn between. A small town where kids play hide-and-seek with dead bodies, a dilapidated circus, the strange, intestine-like inside of an alien ship - you're never quite sure what kind of creepiness awaits you next, or how you're supposed to interpret it.
Silent Hill 2
Specializes in: Intensely disturbing content (and not just its monsters)
Silent Hill 2 is the master class in atmospheric horror. The Silent Hill franchise has always excelled at captivating you with themes that are just as unsettling as its otherworldly monstrosities, and this is, without a doubt, the best Silent Hill game of all time. Its story centers around our mild-mannered protagonist James Sunderland and his nightmarish search for answers after he's somehow contacted by his dead wife. The entities James encounters in Silent Hill's foggy streets are terrifying at first sight, but it's what they really mean about James' psyche that makes them truly unnerving. And if you've never introduced yourself to Pyramid Head, with his colossal, rusty blade and grimy apron, there's no time like the present - just make sure you've got some spare trousers handy.