As many of us prepare for an evening full of candy and horror movies, or perhaps a night of drunken, costumed debauchery, we here at Tor.com wish to humbly offer up a third option: the horror video game. The genre has come a long way over the years, and while it’s true that horror is an intrinsically personal and somewhat variable experience, at this point in time there’s a little something out there for everyone. So, what better way to spend the Halloween Edition of the Gaming Roundup than with a list of our favorite scary games?
Theresa picks: BioShock
A beautifully-realized game changer, BioShock was made for late night gaming sessions. Meeting my first harlequin splicer was probably one of my scariest moments in gaming ever. Exploring the gardens of Arcadia, you see a distant figure crying for help, beckoning you to follow him through the lush flowers until he lures you into a deserted corner… and rips apart into a fine red mist, only to re-materialize right behind you. This was only one of many moments the game lulled you into a false sense of security, only to scare the crap out of you again and again. And yet BioShock remains incredibly replayable.
Pritpaul picks: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Frictional Games makes its first appearance on our list via Amnesia, and for good reason—their 2010 surprise hit was a breath of fresh air in a somewhat stagnant time for the genre. You wake in a castle in 1839 with no memory of why you’re there—only that something is hunting you. You have no means of defending yourself—only a lantern to light your way and your legs to allow you to flee whatever misfortune may find you. Bearing extended witness to the castle’s horrors or spending too much time in the darkness drains your sanity, causing hallucinations and making you more vulnerable to monsters. In short, Amnesia is pure atmosphere, and one of the scariest gaming experiences you can have.
Theresa picks: Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (aka Phantasmagoria 2)
While not as technically sound as its predecessor or Sierra’s other big point-and-click adventure franchise, Gabriel Knight, this macabre game was banned in several countries for its violent and sexual content. Being a fan of Clive Barker, I thought I could handle the massive amounts of S&M and demonic possession. I was wrong. For its day, Phantasmagoria 2 really pushed the envelope
Pritpaul picks: Clive Barker’s Undying
A lost classic of the early 2000s directed by Clive Barker, Undying puts you in the shoes of Irish paranormal explorer Patrick Galloway in 1923, paying a visit to his friend Jeremiah Covenant on the coast of Ireland following receipt of an urgent letter. Turns out Jeremiah’s estate is bad news, as a curse has claimed (then resurrected) his four siblings, and it’s up to Galloway to set things right. The game blossoms into a wonderfully balanced mix of magic, demons, ghosts, and violence, pulled together by some wonderful storytelling by Barker, but poor sales figures make it a woefully underappreciated horror classic.
Theresa picks: Dead Space
Weird death cults, reanimated corpses, Zero-G, and long stretches of creepy silence makes Dead Space a near-perfect horror/sci-fi hybrid. Engineer Isaac Clarke must cut his way through mutilated zombies infected by exposure to a mysterious alien artifact. And I do mean that literally—Isaac’s main weapon is a plasma cutter that must be used to systematically dismember opponents’ limbs. It’s a brutal reminder that space exploration doesn’t always elevate our species or impart us with noble scientific wisdom. Sometimes it leads to pure, random cruelty at the hands of our alien overlords.
Pritpaul picks: Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2, created by survival horror master Shinji Makami, furthered the genre as significantly as its predecessor. Set in the thoroughly infested Raccoon City, in the wake of the sinister Umbrella Corporation’s misguided experiments, the game introduces franchise icons Leon Kennedy, a cop having the worst first day ever, and Claire Redfield, a college student searching for her brother Chris (a protagonist of the first game). RE2’s visuals, puzzle-solving, artwork, character design, and gory deaths make it a mainstay on the list of all-time horror classics.
Theresa picks: Left 4 Dead 2
The first installment of the zombie shooter franchise set the post-apocalyptic stage with its creepy abandoned cities and ravenous zombie hordes, but its sequel upped the scares with a Louisiana setting showcasing foggy swamps, rural towns slammed by a hurricane, and a decayed New Orleans. And two words: ZOMBIE CLOWNS. Add the multiplayer “Survivor” mode where you and your friends are swarmed by wave after wave of the undead until your team expires and you’ll know true fear when you hear the dreaded music signifying an incoming Tank.
Pritpaul picks: System Shock 2
A brainchild of game developer extraordinaire Ken Levine, creator of BioShock and major contributor to the first Thief, System Shock 2 (1999) was a sci-fi horror game truly ahead of its time. You play as the sole survivor of a starship infected by an alien virus spread by a race known only as the Many, eventually taking on one of gaming’s all-time greatest villains, an evil Artificial Intelligence named SHODAN. System Shock 2 takes its place on the horror classics list due to its seamless blending of RPG elements with FPS gameplay, a tight, intense story, and an iconic villain, all of which combined to leave thousands of fans clamoring for any hint of the existence of System Shock 3.
Theresa picks: Alan Wake
Maybe better named Twin Peaks: The Video Game. A writer retreats to a cabin in the Pacific Northwest and soon after, his wife disappears and events from the plot of his latest novel come to life. It’s an old horror trope, but utilized in a clever, self-aware narrative, using the literal forces of light to battle darkness-possessed lumberjacks. As your battery supplies dwindle and your main line of defense— a simple flashlight—starts to flicker, your pulse races as you make split-second decisions to flight or flee. Bonus points for the ominous dirge of Nick Cave’s “Up Jumped the Devil” playing on a radio in a deserted trailer.
Pritpaul picks: the Penumbra series
Frictional Games makes its second appearance on our list via their episodic Penumbra series. A unique blend of survival horror, FPS, and adventure gaming, the Penumbra series revolves around Philip, a physicist investigating a letter received from his supposedly dead father, shortly after the death of his mother. Penumbra’s tense atmosphere and psychological approach to horror, combined with the game’s focus on exploration, puzzle-solving, and melee combat, make for a horror gaming experience you won’t soon forget.
Honorable Mentions: Doom 3, Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame, Outlast.
Over to you, Dear Reader. What are some of your all-time favorite horror games? Let us know below, and have a fantastic Halloween!