It’s one thing to see something scary in a movie; it’s another to feel like you’ve experienced it firsthand via a video game. Scary video games have had a bit of a renaissance in the last decades, thanks to titles like Dead Space and Outlast that put a renewed emphasis on creating fear and tension after the genre had started to go in a more action-oriented direction via titles like Resident Evil 4.
As graphic technology continues to improve, so too does the potential for ever-more terrifying gaming experiences. There are many games that will scare the pants off you, but if you’re looking for the best, must-play horror gaming experiences, these 15 titles are essential.
15. Resident Evil
In truth, Resident Evil is probably the least scary game on this list, but it still deserves recognition because of its importance to the horror game genre. Originally released in 1996, it pretty much wrote the blueprint on 3D horror game design. Set in the fictional town of Raccoon City in the aftermath of a viral outbreak that turns most of the population into zombies, the game puts players in control of an elite task force officer stranded in a creepy mansion.
The original game has had some significant revisions over the years, most notably a 2003 remake on the GameCube that modernized the game’s graphics (upgraded editions of the game have been released over the years on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC). The amazing thing is that Resident Evil still holds up, thanks to the claustrophobic design of the game’s setting and the creative enemy types that lurk in the Spencer Mansion hallways. There are scarier games out there, but Resident Evil is where it all started.
14. Dead Rising
Dead Rising is an open world sandbox survival game that was released in 2006, beloved among audiences and has led to many sequels. It focuses on one man who ends up trapped in a shopping mall that is infested with zombies and uses any available items as his weapons to defeat them. The fear and scariness in this game comes from the fact that there is never a dull moment as you deal with a constant barrage of hellacious zombies.
Though the atmosphere isn’t very dark and mysterious, there is something very scary about being locked in a mall with zombies, knowing they are lurking everywhere and can sneak up on you. The first couple of Dead Rising games gave the player a very tight time limit to achieve objectives and defeat special enemies before attempting to escape their zombie-filled environments. Subsequent sequels relied less and less on time-based mechanics, which likely also cut down on the tension that had originally drawn many players into that world.
13. Clock Tower
Although it was relatively unknown upon its debut in 1995, Clock Tower is today regarded as a foundational title in the horror gaming genre. The first in the series was released on Nintendo’s Super Famicom exclusively to the Japanese and has players take control of a young orphan, Jennifer. Using a point-and-click format, the player, and Jennifer, must attempt to find her missing friends and evade an impishly grotesque child wielding a giant pair of scissors.
Clock Tower was heavily inspired by the Dario Argento film "Phenomena," with the main character modeled after starring actress Jennifer Conelly. The series soon reached international acclaim in 1997, when official translations of Clock Tower 2 were released for the Sony PlayStation in North American and European markets. Although the franchise hasn’t had a proper entry since 2003, its gameplay of problem-solving and monster-dodging would live on in horror greats like Amnesia and Outlast.
Software, the creators of the Dark Souls series and Elden Ring, took things in a different direction when they first unveiled Bloodborne in 2014. The PlayStation-exclusive title united Souls-like combat with a Victorian fantasy setting and a Lovecraft-inspired story. In the world of Bloodborne, the player is assigned the role of hunter, a league of warriors charged with the task of exterminating wolfish beasts born from humans afflicted with a mysterious disease.
As the game progresses, it becomes less and less tethered to anything we could call reality. The hunter discovers the source of the beasts’ curse, but it only leads to more nightmarish creatures that they must slay, from their former allies to multi-armed extraterrestrial creatures and re-animated corpses bursting with eyeballs.
11. Five Nights at Freddy’s
This game is an indie point-and-click survival horror video game released in 2014. The game focuses on a pizza restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, where the player acts as a night security guard who has to defend himself from the malfunctioning animatronic animal characters in the restaurant by tracking their movement through the building using security cameras. The game is very simple, but also extremely scary, as it is full of uncertainty because you usually have no clue where the characters are until they are right in front of your face. The fear and paranoia that the player experiences while playing this game is unmatched by almost any other horror games out there.
This is a first-person horror game that gained worldwide success and praise in 2012 and is based on the folklore of Slender Man, who is normally depicted as a tall man with a white face and no facial features who wears a suit. He is known in the legends for abducting countless children in dark mysterious settings like deep forests and abandoned buildings. The game is set in the middle of the night in a dense forest and is extremely unsettling because you know Slender Man is around, but by the time you see him it is usually too late. It is also very hard to see in the game and you need to use a flashlight, which will eventually die if left on for too long, so be careful with its use.
9. Condemned: Criminal Origins
When the Xbox 360 launched in late 2005, it was lacking in terms of memorable software, but gamers found a gem among that early game library in the form of "Condemned: Criminal Origins," a first-person horror game by Monolith Productions. Unlike a lot of other first-person games at the time, guns did not feature prominently in its gameplay. Instead, the game placed a significant emphasis on melee combat. As players explored the decrepit setting, in control of an FBI crime scene investigator framed for murder, various melee weapons like axes, pipes and 2x4s could be picked up and used in combat. Every enemy encounter took on an intense personal experience, as players had to brutally take down enemies up-close. Condemned was a sales hit, and its melee combat innovations can be seen in later games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Dead Island.
8. Resident Evil 7
Following Resident Evil 4, the series fell into something of a sophomore slump. The games’ budgets exploded, and all the horror elements took a backseat to unending action spectacle. It all culminated in RE6 being chock full of hours of explosions and car chases, just to be met with general apathy by critics and the gaming public. Developer Capcom took it as a sign that things had to change for the series to maintain relevance.
With Resident Evil 7, they decided to steer the franchise back to its roots and isolate the player in an abandoned Louisiana mansion with too many Cajun-seasoned monsters and not enough bullets. In a new twist, the game is controlled from a first-person view, amplifying the claustrophobia of the Baker Estate’s dark hallways. VR support was also added to make the player feel like they’re really in a house of horrors. Most of RE7’s gameplay elements would then be carried over into Resident Evil Village, released in 2021.
7. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
When you think about it, the radioactive wasteland of Chernobyl, Ukraine, is a perfect setting for a scary video game — especially when you add radioactive mutants into the mix. Released for the PC in 2007, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a first person survival game set in an alternate reality where a second nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that mutated the area’s environment, including plants and animals. Shadow of Chernobyl is primarily recognized for its heavy, bleak atmosphere and open-world design. The real area of Chernobyl is one of the eeriest and most dangerous places on Earth and designing a video game based around surviving in such an unsettling place is arguably one of the creepiest game concepts ever created.
6. Pathologic 2
Pathologic 2 is hard to encapsulate in just a few paragraphs. It’s at once a basic survival game, but also a mind-bending tale of plague and poverty in a setting inspired by the dying Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. The player is tasked with clearing their name of a wrongful murder while scrounging for food, water and antibiotics to stave off infection.
The player character, Artemy Burakh, is a doctor. He eventually sets his sights on curing the disease spreading through the game world, but only has 12 days to accomplish it, before everything in the region is consumed. Every character around Artemy can succumb to sickness, and force dire consequences onto the game’s story. At night, he’s beset by nightmares that only get more surreal and cryptic as time runs out.
5. Silent Hill 2
Along with Resident Evil, the Silent Hill franchise helped define the modern horror game genre back on the original PlayStation. The second title in the series was one of the earliest major releases for the PlayStation 2, receiving rave reviews at the time and its legacy has only increased with time. Set in the fictional American town of Silent Hill, the game puts an emphasis on psychological horror, where running away from enemies is often a much more viable choice than engaging in combat. The game’s strengths also lie in its narrative design, as much of the storyline is derived from objects found in the environment, and from the town itself. Silent Hill 2 is still widely regarded as the best entry in the long-running series and regularly charts high on lists of the best video games of all time.
4. Dead Space
The original Dead Space made a huge splash in the games industry when it was released in 2008, and is often credited with helping jump-start the horror genre comeback of the late 2000s. Set aboard a derelict mining spaceship called the Ishimura, Dead Space puts players in control of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who finds himself having to survive a mysterious alien scourge that has infected the ship and wiped out its crew. Dead Space functions like a tribute to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece "Alien," as Isaac is reminiscent of that film’s lead character Ripley: Both characters are not soldiers and must rely on their wits and technical know-how to survive. The game also introduced an innovative dismemberment system to its combat, where enemies’ limbs had to be shot off in order to take them out. The series lost its way a bit with the more action-oriented Dead Space 3, but the original game and its sequel are absolutely terrifying and helped elevate the horror game genre.
3. Alien: Isolation
Fans of the Aliens franchise were justifiably skeptical when Alien: Isolation was revealed in early 2014. After all, just a year earlier, they had received the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines, so to say that confidence in the franchise was at an all-time low would be a vast understatement. Isolation developer Creative Assembly (not responsible for Colonial Marines) was evidently keenly aware of this issue because they delivered the best Aliens game to date. Isolation returned the series to its horror roots, functioning as something of a love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film, as it retains and builds upon the frightening concepts that film introduced. Unlike Colonial Marines, there is only one alien in the game and players are trapped on board a ship with it. It can’t be killed and stalks the player relentlessly, contributing to a stressful, terrifying experience.
2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Being chased by monsters might just be the scariest gameplay experience of all time (especially in the first-person perspective); being chased happens all the time in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and if these sequences don’t drive you mad with terror, the darkness probably will. Amnesia introduces a sanity mechanic that increases the longer you look at horrifying images and stay in the darkness. The problem is you need to hide from monsters in the dark. This creates an interesting risk and reward to the very act of hiding, as you must throw yourself into risky situations just as often as you need to hide from them. This PC game is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Outlast is honestly so terrifying, it makes Amnesia: The Dark Descent look like a sun-soaked vacation. Players control a journalist who sneaks into a remote psychiatric hospital to investigate reports of horrific events. The hospital is filled with all manner of disturbing imagery and enemies that will chase you down until they kill you. Outlast is further proof that first-person perspective is the most effective for horror games; as you hide under a filthy, blood-stained bed while a mad, skeletal doctor enters the room in pursuit, you’ll understand why. Outlast is available for download on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Mac, but download at your own risk. If you manage to get even an hour into Outlast, you are a brave soul indeed.
Now That’s Interesting
S.T.A.L.K.E.R is loosely based on the Soviet novel "Roadside Picnic" and its film adaptation Stalker. Both of those were released before the Chernobyl meltdown, so the plot is more metaphysical in nature. It’s likely that plot elements from the more recent book/film "Annihilation" were lifted from "Roadside Picnic" as well.
Originally Published: May 8, 2015