The horror genre is uniquely suited to video games, thanks to the inherent interactivity that the medium delivers. It’s one thing to see something scary in a movie; its another to feel like you’ve experienced it first hand. Scary games have had a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so, thanks to titles like Dead Space and Outlast that put a renewed emphasis on creating scares and tension, after the genre had started to go in a more action-oriented direction with titles like Resident Evil 4. As graphic technology continues to improve, so too does the potential for evermore terrifying gaming experiences. There are a number of games that will scare the pants off you, but if you’re looking for the best, must-play horror gaming experiences, these 15 titles are essential.
15. Resident Evil
In truth, Resident Evil is probably the least scary game on this list, but it still deserves recognition because of its importance to the horror game genre. Originally released in 1996, Capcom’s Resident Evil pretty much wrote the blueprint on 3D horror game design. Set in the fictional town of Raccoon City in the aftermath of a viral outbreak that turns the majority of the populace into zombies, the game puts players in control of an elite task force officer stranded in a creepy mansion. The original game has had some significant revisions over the years, most notably a 2003 remake on the GameCube that modernized the game’s graphics (an upgraded edition of that game was released earlier this year on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC). The amazing thing is that Resident Evil still holds up, thanks to the claustrophobic design of the game’s setting and the creative enemy types that lurk in the Spencer Mansion hallways. There are scarier games out there, but Resident Evil is where it all started.
14. Dead Rising
Dead Rising is an open world sandbox survival game that was released in 2006 and was beloved among audiences and has led to many sequels. It focuses on one man who ends up trapped in a shopping mall that is infested with zombies and uses any available items as his weapons to defeat them. The fear and scariness in this game comes from the fact that there is never a dull moment as you deal with a constant barrage of hellacious zombies. Though the atmosphere isn’t very dark and mysterious, there is something very scary about being locked in a mall with zombies, knowing they are lurking everywhere and can sneak up on you.
Bioshock is a first person shooter game in which the protagonist’s airplane crashed and he must now explore and try to escape from an underwater city. The game was extremely immersive for its time and had very unique settings, which can all add to the scare factor. The scariness of this game comes almost solely from the uncertainty of the action and the way it can make the gamer “feel.” Throughout the game you just have this vibe that you are not alone and being stalked by the weird and distorted inhabitants of the underwater city, which is extremely uncomfortable when playing in the dark alone.
12. Doom 3
Doom 3 was first released on PC in 2004 and was another installment in the great Doom series. Doom 3 is set on Mars, where a scientific research facility has been set up. However, the teleportation experiments accidently open a gateway to hell, resulting in an invasion by demons. The player, an anonymous space marine, must fight through the base and find a way to stop the demons attacking Earth. Some may feel this game fits more in an “action” genre than horror, but try and play this game without being on the edge of your seat; you won’t be able to. The game has terrifying elements that really take a toll on the gamer, and the flashlight is your best friend.
11. Five Nights at Freddy’s
This game is an indie point-and-click survival horror video game released in 2014. The game focuses on a pizza restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, where the player acts as a night security guard who has to defend himself from the malfunctioning animatronic animal characters in the restaurant by tracking their movement through the building using security cameras. The game is very simple, but also extremely scary, as it is full of uncertainty because you usually have no clue where the characters are until they are right in front of your face. The fear and paranoia that the player experiences while playing this game is unmatched by almost any other horror games out there.
This is a first person horror game that gained worldwide success and praise in 2012 and is based on the folklore of Slender Man, who is normally depicted as a tall man with a white face and no facial features who wears a suit. He is known in the legends for abducting countless children in dark mysterious settings like deep forests and abandoned buildings. The game is set in the middle of the night in a dense forest and is extremely unsettling because you know Slender Man is around, but by the time you see him it is usually too late. It is also very hard to see in the game and you need to use a flashlight, which will eventually die if left on for too long, so be careful with its use.
9. Condemned: Criminal Origins
When the Xbox 360 launched in late 2005, it was lacking in terms of memorable software, but gamers found a gem among that early game library in the form of Condemned: Criminal Origins, a first person horror game by Monolith Productions. Unlike a lot of other first person games at the time, guns did not feature prominently in Condemned’s gameplay. Instead, the game placed a significant emphasis on melee combat. As players explored the decrepit setting, in control of an FBI crime scene investigator framed for murder, various melee weapons like axes, pipes, and 2x4s could be picked up and utilized in combat. Every enemy encounter took on an intense personal experience, as players had to brutally take down enemies up-close. Condemned was a sales hit, and its melee combat innovations can be seen in later games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Dead Island.
8. Call Of Cthulu: Dark Corners Of The Earth
A re-imagining of famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth, Call of Cthulu is well-regarded in horror fan circles due to its excellent use of Lovecraft’s source material and its punishing attempts at realism, including a sanity system and bare-bones heads-up display that withheld valuable information like health and ammunition. This HUD-less approach made Call of Cthulu a uniquely unnerving experience, as it flew in the fact of most game design philosophies. Restricting the player in such a way helped make an already scary experience even more so, although the game received some criticism that argued that these restrictions made the experience too difficult and frustrating. Still, it’s hard to deny that increasing a game’s realism also increases the effectiveness of its scares; whether or not this makes the game better is a matter of debate, but Call of Cthulu still deserves recognition for its efforts.
7. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl
When you think about it, the radioactive wasteland of Chernobyl, Ukraine, is a perfect setting for a scary video game — especially when you add radioactive mutants into the mix. Released for the PC in 2007, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a first person survival game set in an alternate reality where a second nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that mutated the area’s environment, including plants and animals. Shadow of Chernobyl is primarily recognized for its heavily bleak atmosphere and open-world design. The real area of Chernobyl is one of the most eerie and dangerous places on Earth, and designing a video game based around surviving in such an unsettling place is arguably one of the creepiest game concepts ever created.
6. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
There’s just something about not being able to use traditional weapons in a horror game that increases the scare factor. Fatal Frame is a particularly unnerving series that tasks players with fighting ghosts — with only a camera. These ghosts can only be seen and defeated by using the camera, which means that they are otherwise invisible at all other times, ratcheting up the tension to a level so high that the game’s director has gone on record with the claim that many players were too scared to even finish the game. There have been five mainline Fatal Frame games released over the years, but 2003’s Crimson Butterfly remains the widely considered champion of scares in the franchise.
5. Silent Hill 2
Along with Resident Evil, the Silent Hill franchise helped define the modern horror game genre back on the original PlayStation. The second title in the series was one of the earliest major released for the PlayStation 2, receiving rave reviews at the time, and its legacy has only increased with time. Set in the fictional American town of Silent Hill, the game puts an emphasis on psychological horror, where running away from enemies is often a much more viable choice than engaging in combat. The game’s strengths also lie in its narrative design, as much of the storyline is derived from objects found in the environment, and from the town itself. Silent Hill 2 is still widely regarded as the best entry in the long-running series and regularly charts high on lists of the best video games of all time.
4. Dead Space
The original Dead Space made a huge splash in the games industry when it released in 2008, and is often credited with helping jump-start the horror genre comeback of the late 2000s. Set aboard a derelict mining spaceship called the Ishimura, Dead Space puts players in control of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who finds himself having to survive a mysterious alien scourge that has infected the ship and wiped out its crew. Dead Space functions like a tribute to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien, as Isaac is reminiscent of that film’s lead character Ripley: both characters are not soldiers and must rely on their wits and technical know-how to survive. The game also introduced an innovative dismemberment system to its combat, where enemy’s limbs had to be shot off in order to take them out. The series lost its way a bit with the more action-oriented Dead Space 3, but the original game and its sequel are absolutely terrifying and helped elevate the horror game genre.
3. Alien: Isolation
Fans of the Aliens franchise were justifiably skeptical when Alien: Isolation was revealed in early 2014. After all, just a year earlier, they had received the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines, so to say that confidence in the franchise was at all time low would be a vast understatement. Isolation developer Creative Assembly (not responsible for Colonial Marines) was evidently keenly aware of this issue because they delivered the best Aliens game to date. Isolation returned the series to its horror roots, functioning as something of a love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film, as it retains and builds upon the frightening concepts that film introduced. Unlike Colonial Marines, There is only one Alien in the game, and players are trapped on board a ship with it. It can’t be killed and stalks the player relentlessly, contributing to a stressful, terrifying experience.
2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Being chased by monsters might just be the scariest gameplay experience of all time (especially in first person perspective); being chased happens all the time in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and if these sequences don’t drive you mad with terror, the darkness probably will. Amnesia introduces a sanity mechanic that increases the longer you look at horrifying images and stay in the darkness. The problem is, you need to hide from monsters in the dark. This creates an interesting risk and reward to the very act of hiding, as you must throw yourself into risky situations just as often as you need to hide from them. This PC game is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Outlast is honestly so terrifying, it makes Amnesia: The Dark Descent look like a sun-soaked vacation. Players control a journalist who sneaks into a remote psychiatric hospital to investigate reports of horrific events. The hospital is filled with all manner of disturbing imagery and enemies that will chase you down until they kill you. Outlast is further proof of first person perspective being the most effective for horror games; as you hide under a filthy, blood-stained bed while a mad, skeletal doctor enters the room in pursuit, you’ll understand why. Outlast is available for download on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Mac, but download at your own risk. If you manage to get even an hour into Outlast, you are a brave soul indeed.