It used to be all a good horror game needed was a monster to run away from. Something would usually jump through a window, you'd scream and then tell everyone about it for years afterwards. Not any more. While the core of horror gaming is still the same, it has grown into a far more nuanced genre. Jump scares are still important obviously, as are dubious stains and buckets of 'best not ask.'
Over the years, however, horror has evolved to give us more philosophical offerings like SOMA, note-perfect movie homages like Alien: Isolation and experimental dreams of what could have been with PT. Some things never change though. Resi is still scaring us silly, and we're still running away from nearly all of it. Something almost certainly jumps through a window as well. You just can't fight some things.
But what are the best horror games? The things from this and previous generations guaranteed to scare the life out of you, leave you with uncomfortable thoughts, and just generally mess with your head. Let's take a look.
20. Lone Survivor
Jasper Byrne made his name "demaking" Silent Hill into 2D games, and you can feel that series' influence throughout his side scrolling 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...
This first-person shooter was heavier on the shootout action than most horror games (the remarkable enemy AI still impresses to this day), while 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 you'd notice a strange figure staring at you from the end of a hallway. You'll come to dread the thought of bumping into the ghastly little girl, Alma, when you least expected it. If creepy, phase-in-directly-in-your-face dead girls aren't 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 you'll have to play it to find out.
18. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Some games tread the line between real and not-real beautifully and Condemned: Criminal Origins' murder-solving intro blurred the boundaries beautifully. Starting with with a very Hannibal-like overly staged murder, thing are almost immediately... wrong. There are barely human homeless attackers to fight, black light blood trails to follow, and things just get worse from there.
By the time you're exploring a ruined department store full of people wearing the faces of discarded mannequins it's hard to tell where you crossed over from 'cop solving crimes' to 'man potentially in hell'. It's a very physical game, mostly focusing on a block/attack melee combat system, with guns and ammo a rare and treasured respite. It's constantly dark and unpredictable, blurring the line between a monstrous reality and an even worse something else.
17. Fatal Frame 2: 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 it's the most inviting in its difficulty, making sure there's 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'.
16. Little Nightmares
There's a fairytale feel to Little Nightmare's strange world, but it's a darkly unpleasant one. And certainly not suitable for kids unless you want to scar them for life. Focusing on a strange little character in a yellow mac, you have to escape The Maw, a never really explained location full of snuffling, twitchy grotesque creatures out to get you. While it has issues - some frustrating perspectives and controls, mainly - the horrible atmosphere and revolting cast still make this a great horror experience. One minute you're trying to sneak past a contorted blind man's impossibly long arms, the next you're running from a tidal wave of flopping obese restaurant gluttons. It's disturbingly beautiful, and framed with all the love and care of an twisted animated movie.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
As if being trapped in a monster-infested fortress without knowing who you are or why you're there isn't scary enough in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, 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 losing the run of yourself, know that you've succeeded where countless others have not.
12. 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 bejaysus 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.