Video games are scarier than movies. So many people scoff at that notion but it’s absolutely true, and the reason is quite simple: video games are an active storytelling medium while movies are a passive one. When things get tense in a movie, you can always close your eyes, and the movie will keep on playing. What happens to the characters in a horror movie is pre-destined, and there’s a certain comfort in that knowledge.
Video games force you to be the one walking down those steps into the darkness, turning that blind corner, or fighting that monster. You can’t look away. If you make a wrong move you could die. If you get too scared to continue or you lack the skill, you may never complete the story. Nothing illustrates this difference in perception better than watching somone play a horror game versus holding the controller yourself.
This list has been a long time coming. Here are my top 5 horror games.
5) Fatal Frame
While U.S. horror movies were going through their brief love affair with Asian-styled horror in the early 2000’s, we got a video game version of those tropes in the Fatal Frame series. Ghosts and the supernatural are the genres of horror that get under my skin the easiest – the worst parts being the twisted, violated human forms that ghosts sometimes take. That’s the strongest weapon in Asian horror’s arsenal, and the Fatal Frame games take full advantage.
If the anime styling of the characters and rather absurd premise (capturing ghosts in your camera) threatens to nullify the horror, all that falls away the moment you guide your meek, vulnerable teenage girl into a pitch black haunted shack with only a flashlight and a camera in your hands. The atmosphere piles on the quiet dread in droves, playing tricks on the eyes like all good subtle horror. But where Fatal Frame ratchets the terror up to unbearable levels is in the actual ghost encounters.
Your only weapon is your camera. To defeat a ghost, you have to snap its picture, satisfying specific conditions. This forces you to switch your relatively safe third person outsider’s perspective into an up close and personal first person view. And there you have no choice but to behold the ghastly, perverse visage of the game’s many spirits head-on.
In 2012 a short, independent, graphically simple free video game called Slender appeared on the internet and quickly gained notoriety. Based on the world’s first documented internet-originating urban horror legend, Slender puts you in the first person perspective shoes of an unnamed character wandering through ominous woods at night with only a flashlight (running on dying batteries no less). There’s no backstory, no narration, no explanation at all for who you are, where you are, or what you are supposed to be doing.
After wandering around for a few moments, the enveloping silence only broken by the crunch of your footsteps on the dirt, you find a piece of notebook paper with creepy, ominous warnings scrawled on it taped to a random tree. You take this sheet of paper. Then the pounding noise begins…
Your objective is to locate and collect 8 such notebook pages randomly placed around the environment. As you collect each page, the sound design layers on more and more ambient, unsettling noises. Then you realize you’re being pursued. At first you catch only glimpses of the titular Slenderman standing perfectly still in the distance. He is the modern version of The Shape, from Halloween, before he was “Michael Myers”. Featureless white face, plain black suit and tie, impossibly long arms dangling at his side.
With every notebook page you collect Slenderman becomes more and more relentless and unpredictable in his pursuit. You can’t battle or engage Slenderman in any way. Your only hope is to keep running, look for those pages, hope your flashlight battery doesn’t die, and resist the powerful urge to look behind you, because you just know he’s there.
3) Resident Evil (Gamecube remake)
There may have been horror video games before Resident Evil 1, but to most gamers this is where what we know as “survival horror” actually started. It’s the genre’s Doom. Even in 1995, there was much about Resident Evil that read as laughably corny. The story is ludicrous, the crude 3D character models look like Legos, and the voice acting and dialogue are so legendarily bad it’s become a recurring joke on the franchise that hasn’t died in 20 years. But none of that mattered the second that dog crashed through the window…
For countless gamers, this was THE watershed moment for horror in video games. Resident Evil was revolutionary in its use of pre-rendered environments, which not only took processing burden off of the primitive 3D rendering capabilities of the Playstation, but also allowed the developers to force your perspective to maximize scares. That zombie dog crashing through the window just after you wandered by it was the first time we all realized that video games could jangle our nerves just as well as, if not better than movies.
In 2002 the first Resident Evil was remade on the far more powerful Gamecube. The same combination of 3D character models and pre-rendered backgrounds was used again, but this time with such high fidelity and realistic animation that the visuals still hold up today, 12 years later. The cheesiest elements were refined and updated (or scrubbed away), and new mechanics were built from the ground up. It remains the most pure and definitive version of Resident Evil ever.
2) Resident Evil 2
The best sequels in movies and video games take the foundations of the original, and crank up the volume level to the max. Resident Evil 2 is to the first game what Terminator 2 was to its forebear. It moved the action from the contained, spooky corridors of the Arklay Mansion out into the expansive streets of Raccoon City in the midst of a full-on zombie apocalypse. I’ll never forget watching the then-mind blowing CGI intro (cringe-inducing today) only to be suddenly dropped into a flaming hellscape with three zombies shambling towards you before I’d even had a chance to get my footing with the controls. Resident Evil 2 didn’t mess around.
Everything was improved, even the voice acting which easily managed to clear the low, low bar of the first game, even though it’s still laughably terrible. The visuals were bumped up a few notches and the scares, even more notches. The dog crashing through the window looked like child’s play the first time you encountered a Licker – a sort of skinless, clawed, humanoid crawling monstrosity that scales walls and murders you with its 3 foot long tongue.
Even though I played the first Resident Evil at a friend’s house when I was a kid, this was the game I bought a Playstation for. I beat it more times than I can count, and I’m still waiting for that next-gen remake…
1) Silent Hill 2
There’s a reason this game tops so many lists of horror video games. Actually, there are a number of reasons. I will try to make a good cross-section of them here.
If Resident Evil was a SyFy channel original zombie movie, Silent Hill was Hellraiser. Or The Shining. Or The Exorcist. Maybe all three. Instead of using ham-fisted action and stingers like shattering windows to build horror, Silent Hill doubled down on the environment itself, building a sense of danger and dread long before you ever encounter a monster. As a series, it’s much more cerebral, and much more psychological than just about every other survival horror game.
Silent Hill 2 is the crown jewel of the series. The first game on Playstation 1 established the tone, but the added power of the Playstation 2 allowed them to take the concept much, much farther. Simply put, being in Silent Hill is an endurance test for your sanity. The constant, murky fog and almost total lack of working lightbulbs gives you the impression of unbearable stillness and decay. It feels like purgatory. And this is all before the town transforms, as is its signature, into Hell itself.
The best horror games force you to descened deeper into places you really, really don’t want to go. In Silent Hill 2, this is nearly a constant feature. The almost complete lack of light and (living) people is pervasive and brings you into decaying, crumbled apartment complexes, shopping malls, and even the worst abandoned prison known to man. All places rife with long pitch black corridors, from which the faintest unexplained scratching noises and moans emanate. By the time you reach the prison and find that the only way forward is to plunge down into gaping pit after gaping pit, the environment becoming more hellish and threatening at each level, your nerves are right at the breaking point. When I first played the game, I remember after most play sessions feeling a sense of genuine nausea, only to learn later that such sensations were commonly reported with this game.
In the end, we learn that Silent Hill (the town) is really just an empty vessel, and the horrible monsters you face within are manifestations of the main character’s own guilt and grief. When you go to Silent Hill, you bring the monsters with you, and they are yours and yours alone. That revelation at the center of the game lingers on your psyche long after the credits roll.
Honorable Mention: P.T.
Speaking of Silent Hill, this list was primarily inspired by my experience with the cryptic Playstation 4 demo called simply “P.T.” (for Playable Teaser). It was designed to be a mystery, but it didn’t take long for the internet to crack it, and it’s essentially a proof of concept for the next entry in the Silent Hill series, directed by Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and written by Guillermo Del Toro. Since this is only a demo and likely not even included as part of the full game, I didn’t see fit to put it on the list. But it needs to be discussed.
P.T. is pure, unfiltered dread, and the finest example of how effective the first person perspective can be for a horror game. Graphically, it’s mind-blowingly realistic, with excellent art and sound design that enhance the experience to an insane degree. The moment you step into that hallway (the entire demo takes place in one long L shaped hallway with a couple of small rooms), something deep in your subconscious warns you that this is not a place you want to be. Then it traps you there in an endless loop.
Each time you cycle through the same hallway it gets a little creepier, a little more threatening, and more and more horrors are revealed. It starts small – an unexplained bang here, a door creaking shut on its own there, and gradually chisels away at your bravery. But it’s not all smoke and mirrors, if you make it far enough, the game confronts you with some extremely graphic and unsettling imagery. Stack all that on top of a progress system that’s both obtuse and unpredictable, and you quickly realize that this game isn’t going to grant you the smallest bit of security, or relief from its terrors.
To be honest, I only made it roughly 1/4 of the way into the demo before it got to be too much. I simply couldn’t bring myself to go on. After being exposed to some unspeakably horrific sounds and images, my psyche was hanging by a thread, but I had never actually been attacked. Until, in one loop, I detected a faint, raspy, labored breathing sound coming from my rear speakers, like the sound of someone trying to breathe through a crushed windpipe. As I progressed down the hallway the breathing noise got louder and louder, until it was unmistakably right behind me (note: for the full experience play this in surround sound). What’s worse, turning around, or not turning around? I turned around. What happened then made me unable to keep playing, and I wasn’t able to venture in there again. I quit out to the main menu and didn’t play the demo again, except to briefly demonstrate to other people how scary it is.
P.T. is available now for free on the Playstation Store, only for PS4.