Most of us have played at least one game that scared us silly. No matter how creepy it might be, a great horror game can pull you back again and again – but why?
When you climb aboard a ghost train or step into a haunted house at a fairground, you know you’re in no real danger. This means that when a knife-wielding skeleton or a green-faced zombie jumps out at you, the experience becomes fun, stimulating the body’s fight-or-flight adrenaline high. As there’s no actual threat, we can simply enjoy the heart-pounding rush without needing to run for our lives.
As fans of the best Resident Evil or Silent Hill series will know, playing an awesome survival-horror game is a powerful, visceral experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. While neither of these franchises created the horror-themed game (Haunted House, Sweet Home, and others were influential), they definitely defined the genre for the ’90s and beyond.
As with movies and novels, the gaming industry has an abundance of horror titles, but not every release can be a classic. The best examples, though, give us spooktastic thrills we come back for again and again; as the characters we play as are typically underpowered, facing formidable odds in strange environments, players have to be more resourceful and cautious than in more gung-ho action games.
As gaming technology has advanced, developers have more power to enhance the survival-horror experience. Narratives are more complex, and characterisation is typically deeper – so certain in-game events have greater emotional impact.
In the past 20 years, gamers have been treated to many outstanding survival-horror experiences – some of which are creepy enough to stay with us for a long time …
This psychological survival-horror game puts you in control of Mr. Wake himself, a successful novelist on a break with his wife in the small town of Bright Falls. When his wife mysteriously disappears, Wake becomes involved in a bizarre, nightmarish situation in which humans, animals, and inanimate items are all taken over by a malicious force.
Alan Wake is structured like a TV series, with six episodes featuring gripping plot twists and even cliffhangers to keep players hooked throughout.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
While Condemned: Criminal Origins is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite survival-horror game of all time, it nevertheless packs enough of a punch to be regarded as a notable entry in the genre.
Playing as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, players search a series of condemned structures throughout a gritty urban environment, hunting for a serial killer. Played entirely from a first-person POV, Condemned: Criminal Origins features realistic combat and deep crime-scene investigations. Exploring derelict locations and fending off enemies (driven mad by a strange force) with very limited weaponry is genuinely unnerving, for the most part, and this is definitely not a game not to be played in the dark.
The Alien franchise has generated its fair share of scares over the years, and there have been some creepy games based on the license. While many of these have pitted players against hordes of xenomorphs, Alien: Isolation actually featured just one.
Based around Ellen Ripley’s daughter searching for the answers to her mother’s disappearance, Alien: Isolation leans more towards stealth and hiding, rather than simply blasting away at armies of the acid-blooded monsters. For fans of the series, this was a breath of fresh air and absolutely one of the scariest Alien-based games ever made.
System Shock 2
Set in a cyberpunk future, System Shock 2 is a creepy game that might not look quite as fresh as some other titles on this list, but still has the power to induce cold sweats when played alone with the lights off.
Players make their way through dark, claustrophobic spaceship environments in which mutant-alien-monsters roam. Their ability to communicate with you is unsettling enough, but as you start to run out of ammo and supplies, the game’s survival-horror ramps right up. Like an early BioShock, System Shock 2 is worth a look for fans of the genre.
The Evil Within
Directed by industry-veteran Shini Mikami, creator of Resident Evil, The Evil Within is a dark, gripping survival-horror adventure with some truly terrifying enemies. Featuring such familiar elements as masked killers carrying chainsaws and bizarre creatures, The Evil Within tosses players into one nightmarish environment into another.
This is a game best avoided by those with a faint heart, and it’s quite far from perfect, but for players willing to delve into a truly strange experience, The Evil Within is a blast.
Science-fiction and horror gel brilliantly together, particularly in games. Dead Space stands out as a genuinely frightening, thrilling, unforgettable adventure packed with horrific enemies and an original combat system.
Playing as engineer Isaac, armed with mining equipment (such as saws, torches, and plasma cutters) is a refreshing change, and leads to one of the game’s most interesting touches: rather than simply shooting enemies until they drop, Isaac must sever them limb by limb to stop them getting back up. This leads to incredibly intense confrontations in tight corridors, with the precision you need not always easy.
Resident Evil 4
As outstanding as Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was, the series needed a jolt in the arm – and boy, did Resident Evil 4 deliver.
With an all-new over-the-shoulder perspective, more action-based gameplay, and new types of enemies, Resident Evil 4 still managed to be one of the most terrifying instalments in the franchise. Who can forget the horror of seeing Leon’s head chainsawed from his body for the first time?
Silent Hill 2
The first Silent Hill game was frightening enough, but the sequel really upped the ante. Silent Hill 2 was a big hit when it was released, and received much acclaim for its unsettling atmosphere and striking monster-designs.
Following protagonist James’ attempts to find his wife in Silent Hill itself, the game features some intense psychological aspects and features the debut of Pyramid Head: one of the most bizarre and nightmarish enemies to ever feature in a video game.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us has been praised for the depth of its characterisation and storytelling, bringing a fresh touch to such well-worn concepts as post-apocalyptic environments and mutated enemies.
Based around Joel and Ellie, two strangers forced to survive together, The Last of Us features impressive enemy-AI that allows them to react in a wide variety of ways during combat, and leaves gamers questioning the morality of their actions after killing infected people to survive. It may not be quite as frightening as something like Silent Hill 2, but The Last of Us is a survival-horror game few people will forget after reaching the end.
By no means the first game to feature elements of horror, Resident Evil kick-started an entire survival-horror trend in the 90s, spawning various imitations. This was so frightening and original when it was first released, players of all ages lapped it right up (whether they were legally old enough or not), and is still one of the series’ strongest entries even today.
Who can forget seeing that first zombie? Who can forget running from zombie-dogs in those hallways? Who can forget facing Tyrant in that lab at the game’s climax? Resident Evil delivered so much, and while the franchise has strayed considerably from its survival-horror roots, we are promised that the next game will go back to basics.
Whether Capcom will be able to regain that same unsettling atmosphere and sense of dread remains to be seen, but fans around the world have their fingers crossed.
Which survival-horror game scared you most, and which are your favourites? Let us know!