Horror video games tend to be the most polarising of them all. The majority either swear by this genre or hate it; however, it's nigh impossible to ignore it altogether. It's not difficult to understand where the appeal lies. The video game medium has evolved into a pantomime mainly due to its humble beginnings. Powerful modern hardware makes it possible to deliver subtle nuances with sophisticated facial animation techniques employed in games such a L.A. Noire. However, back when such a thing was not possible, we interacted with faces in a simplistic yet even more satisfying manner such as, say, with a cat-silenced shotgun in Postal 2. You see, it is human nature to revel in violence, sex, and sometimes a morbid combination of the two. However, it is fear that fires up the neurons with an even greater frenzy.
If you resolve human behaviour to its most basic components, you'll find that it all boils down to survival and the binary choice between fight and flight. Fear, after all, is the ultimate driving force behind our most primordial instincts. The purest form of instant gratification, therefore, can only be derived by tapping into the deepest recesses of your psyche and yanking out fear till the point your brain directs your endocrine system to deliver a heady mix of adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters causing that inexplicable rush — the one that puts you in an uncanny state of feeling good to be alive.
What follows is an eclectic selection of the five horror games, cherry-picked from varying genres such as old-school Point-and-Click, Survival Horror, FPS, Third-Person, and Adventure. Each game in this list takes a different approach to horror. Some use the age-old boo technique distilled to perfection, whereas others mess with your head in a deeper psychological manner. Irrespective of their means, all these video games provide a compelling gameplay experience that doesn't just make them excellent horror titles, but great games. Period.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Honourable Mention: System Shock 2, Sanitarium
The Saw films have nothing on this one.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (IHNM) has been adapted from a short story of the same name by the controversial Sci-Fi author Harlan Ellison. This point-and-click adventure game is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where an evil AI known as Allied Master Computer (AM) built by the superpowers (USA, Russia, and China) to fight the war for them has all but wiped out the human race. Sounds familiar? Well, the game happens to be the most seminal of the lot. It's hard not to notice how varying elements and subplots from the horror short eventually went on to inspire Terminator (something that Ellison has already accused James Cameron of).
Most importantly, its mark can be seen in the infamous Saw series of movies. Before Jigsaw from the Saw movies preceded his carnival of pain with the words, “I want to play a game”, the diabolical supercomputer AM did that decades prior in this game. You play as any one of the five remaining humans that the digital tyrant has been torturing for the past 109 years. Each character has its own twisted back-story and a completely different campaign. One of the character's story arc, for example, is inspired by the Nazi war criminal Dr Mengele from the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Needless to say, his campaign involves gruesome depictions of torture and unsettling gore.
Unlike Saw's brand of torture porn, much of the horror is psychological and delivered in the subtext. Each of the prisoners has been mentally and physically altered to play on their deepest weaknesses and fears. The core of the game involves directing each of these damned souls through a personalised version of hell conjured by the evil AM itself. No amount of words can convey the horror of living through their personal nightmares, as you unravel the increasingly sadistic puzzles in the quest to disable the supercomputer. The best part is that since IHNM is abandonware, it's free to download and play.
Dead Space 1 & 2
Genre: Survival Horror, Third-Person Shooter
Honourable Mention: Cold Fear
Guns drawn at all times becomes the norm when you're scared silly
Dead Space (DS) single-handedly revived the dying Survival Horror genre pioneered by the Resident Evil (RE) series, with clever modifications to the gameplay mechanics. Unlike the RE games, the Sci-Fi horror title allowed players to run and shoot at the same time. Did that take away from the horror, you ask? Well, the fact that the franchise DS invariably makes everyone traverse its dark corridors with guns drawn at all times — that would be a resounding no.
The original game is set against the backdrop of an alien infestation that mutates the dead crew of a gargantuan ship into twisted undead beings eager to disembowel every living thing in sight, whereas the sequel continues the madness on a large facility on the remnants of Titan (Saturn's largest moon). While it's hard to imagine the scare quotient of what can effectively be described as a cross between Sci-Fi horror classics Alien and The Thing, it helps if you visualise the film Event Horizon and multiply the dread by a factor of ten.
Ex-girlfriends can prove problematic, even when they are dead
The guys behind this franchise really know how to get into your head with a brilliant use of dynamic shadows and some remarkable audio design and foley work. Both DS1 and DS2 have their fair share of frightening moments, and use some of the most dastardly tricks in the horror book to keep you on your toes. When you think you have figured the plot out, you are thrown a googly that changes everything. The franchise creates one of the most comprehensive mythos woven around two games, books, and feature films, along with an excellent satire of the cult of Scientology that forms the pillar of its narrative.
What you have here, then, is a blindingly-competent horror game with great gameplay, interesting physics and temporal puzzles garnished with one of the best storylines found in gaming.
Silent Hill 2
Genre: Survival Horror
Honourable Mention: Penumbra Series, Resident Evil 2
There are horror games, and then there's Silent Hill 2. Considered by many as the best of the series, it is arguably the best thinking man's horror game of them all. Unlike its contemporaries, the Silent Hill franchise doesn't stress too much on zombies, space creatures, ghosts or combat, but it delivers the most impressive psychological horror experience ever seen in a video game. Silent Hill 2 puts you in the shoes of James Sunderland, who visits the town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his deceased wife Mary. Soon enough, you find that something isn't right with the town. It somehow seems to be physically cut off from the rest of the world, while nightmarish creatures prowl the thick fog permeating the streets.
This will not end well
In reality, Silent Hill happens to be a personal nightmare of the protagonist. Each creature you encounter reflects Sunderland's deepest repressed fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions. Think of it as stumbling into a Rorschach test — one that will eventually consume your sanity or body, whichever breaks first. It also happens to be one the few games that extensively use Jungian archetypes to craft various NPCs and recurring monsters, and genuinely warrants having some knowledge about the concept for a truly enriching experience. Video games rarely get as cerebral as this.
Honourable Mention: Condemned: Criminal Origins
F.E.A.R. is one of the few games that can claim the bragging rights of making grown men cower in, well, fear. It's hard to explain how a game involving a kid with supernatural powers and a runaway Special Forces team can be nigh impossible to play alone in a dark room without experiencing a mild heart attack or two. Partly inspired by Japanese horror flicks, this FPS puts you in the shoes of the Point Man — a military operative with superhuman reflexes bought in to contain a cannibal telepathically controlling a battalion of cloned supersoldiers. If that wasn't bad enough, you also have to deal with Alma, a spooky girl with frighteningly potent supernatural powers. What makes this combination of Jap horror and American action work, is an exemplary implementation of eerie sound effects and dark, foreboding environs held together with a clever scripting engine.
Looks like she prefers racy red
The game masterfully builds tension around unnaturally silent sequences, interspersed with some of the most unsettling boo moments when you least expect it. Interestingly, the suspenseful segments when juxtaposed with loud and frenetic encounters with supersoldiers, their brutally efficient AI puts you in an unexpected dilemma. It's hard to decide what you'd rather have — the snot scared out of you by Alma, or being turned into Swiss cheese by a well-coordinated team of clone soldiers. The answer is rather difficult, because when you think the game has dialled its scope of terror to the max, along comes an even more frightening encounter. F.E.A.R.'s well-perfected combat, supreme AI, and some genuinely scary moments make it a title with the best combination of twitch and horror.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Genre: Adventure, Survival Horror
Honourable Mention: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Slender
This is where you make dental hygiene jokes
The best way to describe Amnesia: The Dark Descent is by calling it a First-Person Adventure title with a strong Survival Horror theme. You play the role of a man named Daniel, who awakens in an eerie castle with absolutely no memory of how he got there. What follows is fare that will satisfy both old-school Point-and-Click Adventure fans as well as the proponents of Survival Horror games. Like the former, you explore the castle to dig up clues about yourself as well as the ancient evil that resides there. The exploration mechanics are combined well with the Survival Horror elements.
Throughout your adventure, you will be chased around by hideous monstrosities. Witnessing them drains your sanity and so does being in the darkness for extended times, but your grip on your psyche can be regained by staying in the light and away from the fiends chasing you. The best, or worst, part is that you don't have any weapons, which makes the proceedings even more terrifying. Clever gameplay implementations such as limited light sources and physics puzzles forcing you to use the monsters themselves adds a great deal of depth to the game.
Staying in the light is crucial for survival. Too bad it attracts the ghouls as well
Much like Call of Cthulhu, Amnesia uses the same HUD-less setup that makes the sanity and fear mechanics all the more interesting. However, the main pull of the game lies in the foreboding atmosphere it creates with well-thought out lighting and competent art direction. It's suspenseful plot and the constant dread of being chased by monsters that you can't fight back elevates this horror adventure to an experience that begs to be savoured first-hand.
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