Halloween is fast approaching, and with it, horror shows its face. It’s all around us. It lies not in the tangible, but in thought. The concept of what is scary is, itself, what is actually scary. When you allow your mind to wander, to dwell on things that defy one‘s understanding and logic, that is when real fear is born. It’s something that children learn at a very young age: that strange, loud bump in the night or the bogeyman under the bed. You can’t see it, but you think it’s there, and that makes it absolutely terrifying. Once you see it, that irrational fear turns rational, and your mind becomes restricted by logic and practical thought. Your imagination is effectively shut out. The thought of what it could be now turns into the knowledge of what it is, and thus, it is actually the house settling, or the tree branch hitting the window, or the wind. The anticipation is more terrifying than the experience. That is what true fear is to me. And that is what these games excel at.
10. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Nintendo Gamecube)
The first game on our list is one of the Gamecube’s greatest releases, a true necessity in any horror aficionado’s collection. Developed by Silicon Knights, the studio behind Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, and Too Human, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was a pioneer in implementing the “sanity meter” which has been featured in several games since then, but rarely to the same degree of effectiveness. The time-traveling plot of Eternal Darkness will have you taking control of a dozen characters spanning 2000 years. What makes Sanity’s Requiem such a classic and stand-out horror game is its brilliant use of sound design, atmosphere, its downright unsettling presentation, and as I mentioned, its sanity meter. Eternal Darkness also contains one of the most shocking moments in video game history, and if you’ve ever played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
9. Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360, PC)
Released to moderate reviews, Condemned: Criminal Origins was a fresh jumpstart to the horror genre. It combined gritty realism with macabre supernatural phenomena. The player assumes the role of Ethan Thomas, an agent of the SCU – or Serial Crime Unit – who is framed for the double-homicide of two of his fellow officers. On the run from the police, and in pursuit of the serial killer he was sent in to capture, Ethan becomes trapped within the fictional Metro City, a sprawling hive for those citizens whom society rejected – i.e., the “condemned.” To further complicate his hunt, the city is being ravaged by a mysterious event turning the inhabitants into deranged and aggressive savages. Though the sequel was better received thanks in part to improved gameplay mechanics, the first is far and away the more terrifying game. It blends the aforementioned realism with the unknown in a truly unsettling way, and what makes its novelty so memorable is that it will frighten you with things that should, under normal circumstances, be entirely ineffective.
8. Phantasmagoria (PC, Sega Saturn)
One of the more unknown entries on this list, Phantasmagoria was a controversial adventure game developed for PC in the mid 90s and later ported to the Sega Saturn. It was notable for being one of the first games of its kind to utilize live actors, but perhaps its most infamous legacy was the extent of its graphic nature. The content of the game by today’s standards might seem less than offensive given the advancement of the medium, but at the time it caused a serious commotion. Despite being banned in Australia and simply prohibited from being sold in many major retail stores, the game was one of the best selling PC titles of the year. It combined effectively unsettling atmosphere with a genuinely disturbing story. Playing more like an interactive movie, Phantasmagoria follows fiction writer Adrienne Delaney and her husband who have just moved into a secluded mansion formerly owned by a 19th-century magician. The plot unfolds as Adrienne begins having nightmares elicited by the mansion’s dark past.
7. Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
From the famed Japanese developer Tecmo, most recognized for their Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series, comes this descent into the madness that is Japanese folklore and the paranormal. Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly borrows elements from the Silent Hill franchise, but is enough its own terrifying beast to merit a place on this list. What makes this series so deserving, and downright unsettling, is that your only defense against the ghoulish haunts that threaten your life is a camera. It sounds silly, but it’s a brilliant mechanic. In order to ward off the violent spirits, you need to take their picture. You need to look at them to make them go away. It says a lot about confronting your fears if you’re able to make it through one of these games, and none more so than Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly. The helpless protagonists are twin sisters, one of whom walks with a limp from of a childhood accident. A childlike innocence draws the sisters on the trail of an unusual crimson butterfly which leads them through the blackened woods to a village bathed in fog, a proverbial ghost town where a failed ritual binds the souls of the dead to this cursed land.
6. Clock Tower (PlayStation)
From the series that pioneered the unkillable villain, Clock Tower’s Scissorman is one of the unfortunately lesser known stalkers of video game lore. True to his name, he hunts the player down with a giant pair of scissors. Where most horror games, then and now, award the player for killing as many enemies as they can, Clock Tower forced you to play cautiously. When encountered, the player enters a “panic” mode where he or she must struggle against Scissorman by repeatedly pressing the appropriate button. What makes him such a terrifying villain even by today’s standards is the constant, looming threat of his presence and the knowledge that you can do very little to defend yourself against him. His appearances are triggered randomly, or by progression through the game, and you may even find him waiting for you in places you might use for hiding. This kind of anxiety doesn’t come often enough in horror games.
5. Clive Barker’s Undying (PC)
Few names are as synonymous with horror as Clive Barker. The man responsible for the classic Hellraiser series ventured into the world of video games to lend a hand in shaping the concept of Undying. Developed by then-Dreamworks Interactive, Clive Barker’s Undying was the company’s last game before being consumed by EA. Set in a time rarely visited in gaming, Undying takes place shortly after World War I. Our hero, Patrick Galloway, is a veteran of the Great War who receives a letter from his friend Jeremiah Covenant detailing strange phenomena and events of the occult. Traveling to the Covenant estate on the coast of Ireland, Patrick seeks to aid his ailing friend who is convinced that a curse has destroyed his family and is what’s plaguing him. Undying utilized some interesting gameplay mechanics then not seen in any other First-Person Shooter, but what made it truly stand out was Clive Barker’s unmistakable touch. The atmosphere of the estate on which you’ll spend the entirety of the game oozes pure dread and the haunting soundtrack is certainly no comfort. The game’s major downfall was it its poor sales, enough to earn Gamespot’s “The Best Game That No One Played” award for that year.
4. Penumbra: Black Plague (PC)
Oppression. Claustrophobia. Darkness. If there’s one thing the small team at Frictional Games knows best, it’s how to scare the absolute daylights out of you. Where most horror games forsake the idea of what is actually horrifying in favor of greater shock value or action, Frictional, and their first attempt at the genre with Penumbra: Overture, embraced the idea of a more helpless, realistic protagonist. Though that game featured a very basic melee combat system, most enemies were still frightening enough that you couldn’t simply stand toe-to-toe with one of them. This led many players to abuse some of the game’s level design and outsmart the enemy AI by standing in places where they couldn’t reach, but where the player could still hit them, effectively taking the horror out of any situation. In the game’s sequel, Black Plague, Frictional fixed this problem by eliminating combat entirely, and the result was an absolute masterpiece of a horror game. Black Plagued also amplified the terror by crafting some truly nightmarish enemies, and as the players delved deeper into the Greenlandic mine shaft, the horrors of what happened there finally are revealed.
3. Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
Some would hail Silent Hill 2 as the king of all things horror, and I will have to admit, organizing this top 3 was a very, very close race. The Silent Hill franchise is the premier lesson in a creepy atmosphere. There’s no greater fictional location in all of gaming that elicits as much unadulterated paranoia and disgust than Silent Hill. It’s a place literally born out of hell, festering with ungodly abominations that put most other horror enemies to shame. Silent Hill 2’s notoriety stems from its excellent story and use of psychological terror, earning it near unanimous praise from fans and critics alike. Perhaps the most unsettling scene from the game, and one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever witnessed, involves a Pyramid Head – Silent Hill’s mascot, for lack of a better term – a mannequin, and a very unacceptable sexual act. You know what I’m talking about, guys… If you missed out on this classic, you can still pick it up as part of the Silent Hill HD Collection released for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
2. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (PC, XBox)
In the world of fictional literature, there are no greater masters of horror than Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of whom is the genius behind the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu” was noted as being the only work of the author wherein the actual entity, Cthulhu, makes a major appearance. Since then, the Cthulhu mythos has been adapted by and has influenced the likes of nearly every work of fiction, horror or otherwise: from Doctor Who to House M.D., from The Evil Dead to In The Mouth of Madness, and from Shin Megami Tensei to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Every one of these has shown some influence from the Cthulhu mythos, whether significant or small, but none have been more inspired by the world that Lovecraft created than Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth based on the author’s novella The Shadow over Innsmouth. A first-person adventure game that incorporates elements of a shooter, Dark Corners was a trip into the mind of a madman. The game was unfortunately marred by some detrimental bugs and glitches, some to the extent that they prevented players from progressing. But technical issues aside, Dark Corners of the Earth was a masterpiece horror adventure and one that anyone willing to lose their sleep must play.
1. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)
The second entry on this list by the team at Frictional Games, what they learned in their Penumbra series, they perfected in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. From gameplay to mood, everything was infinitely superior. The pure sense of hopelessness that permeates the Prussian castle in which you will spend the bulk of your time is so overwhelming, you may need to take frequent and perhaps extended breaks in between playing. There is a certain element of player immersion that is required. To absorb the horror, you must accept that you are Daniel, the character whom you control. In doing so, you will likely not experience a greater fear from any other game. When I talked about fear of the unknown in my introduction, this was the game I had in mind. Amnesia: The Dark Descent will remind you of what it was like to be a child afraid of the darkness in your closet or under the bed. Afraid of the unknown noises upstairs or in the next room. Afraid of everything and anything you cannot see. Don’t worry, it’s okay to scream.