As an easily scared, thrill-seeking, avid video game-lover, it was only natural that I eventually make my way to the horror genre. I began this, ever so tentatively, with Outlast. From there I worked my way back in time to older horror games while picking up any new terrifying titles. It pains me to see this genre get a bad name as a result of bad horror games; there are masterpieces within this group. For this reason, I wanted to give a shoutout to some amazing titles and discuss what makes them so good.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Perhaps more than any other series, the Amnesia games have left a lasting mark (dare I say a scar?) on the minds of all players. In The Dark Descent, you take 1st person control of Daniel – a man seemingly alone in a castle without his memory. Knowing only that something is hunting you, it is your job to descend deeper into the castle and unfold the mystery behind your past and the creature hunting you. Along your path, you’re plagued constantly by the “gatherers”, monstrous humanoids determined to kill you. If the terror of running and hiding (for you are left miserably weaponless) isn’t enough to jack up your adrenaline, Amnesia has one more trick up its sleeve. You must manage both your health and your sanity in the demented castle. That’s right, your sanity is tested both in and out of the game as you keep yourself calm – disturbing sights and prolonged darkness deplete your sanity. As this bar runs low, you’re prone to monstrous hallucinations and are much more likely to be found by the gatherers. It is this element, coupled with a storyline I refuse to spoil even 8 years later, that earns Amnesia: The Dark Descent a spot among the greats.
Outlast 1 & 2 (2013 & 2017, respectively)
As the game that brought me into this twisted realm of terror, Outlast holds a particularly special place in my heart. Outlast 1 (and 2, for that matter) and I developed a love / hate relationship; They petrified me, tortured me (often literally), and disturbed me deeply. That said, they also gave storylines and scares that were developed far beyond any feeling of cheesiness. These games (particularly Outlast 2) have the strongest sense of what true psychological horror can be, and that alone earns them my respect. As for their stories, the first has you wander through a horrifying asylum as Miles, an investigative journalist called there on a tip. You enter the asylum to find it destroyed and filled with mutilated bodies both dead and alive. As you play through, you are plagued by such villains as a massive guard with clanking chains, a deranged doctor with bloody shears, and the big baddy himself – the walrider. So much of this game was centered around psychological and stress horror as opposed to jump scares; many of the little moments in this game have stuck with me in ways that a jumpscare never could.
Outlast 2 provided an entirely distinct story. Playing as Blake the investigative journalist (yes… again. How else could they be found film games though?), you are tasked with finding your wife after a horrendous helicopter crash over the Arizona desert. Knowing only that a pregnant woman was recently murdered in this desert, you must brave an area filled with two rival cults, each more murdery and sacrifice-loving than the other. While searching for your wife you are in constant danger from some of the most terrifying villains in gaming history: a shrouded, whispering woman wielding a pickaxe (can’t ask for much more than that), a duo of monsters prone to shoot an arrow or two your way, and, in classic Outlast style, a couple of naked men. The real beauty of this game, in my opinion, came from the flashbacks. At various intervals, Blake is transported back in time to his Catholic school. There, in dark hallways (and a horrifying scene in the swimming pool), you are haunted by the memory of a dead friend and the monster that caused it. No longer can I see anything related to a school without devastating memories of Outlast 2. The ambiance was unequivocally the best in the history of horror games. Moreover (yes, I really did love these games this much), Outlast 2 continued the trend of psychological horror over jump scares. If you haven’t played the game, I’ll say only this: a woman wandering through the desert whispering “God don’t hear dead men! Be still! Take your penance! God loves you. God loves you,” is much much MUCH more disturbing than a simple surprise on your screen. All of this said I think that both Outlast games are beautiful creations of horror that combine disturbing stories with upsetting visuals.
Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 (2014)
Ok, hear me out. Youtubers and little kids did a bang-up job of butchering this series, but even they could not take away the power that the first few games had. I was almost ready to group the whole series together (there’s only so much you can say about one of these games anyway, right?) but FNAF 2 was a standout in my opinion. This game, chronologically a prequel to the first, introduced a number of new mechanics and animatronics that really stepped up the game, so to speak. While parts of this game make it contradictory to the points I make in the other titles on this list, it epitomizes one of the most important elements. Sure, it’s centered around jumpscares and that’s all there is when you die. However, this game mastered stress manipulation like none has before. Here’s a quick look at how night 5 usually played out: Bonnie up front, mask on… oh, balloon boy’s in the vents. I’ll just put my mask down now if – is Chica up front? Son of a – mask back on… good lord that’s the music box. Ok ok leave balloon boy here it’s fine… *Wind Wind Wind*… Alright, there’s Freddy so mask – annnnd dead to Foxy again. Almost made it to 1 AM that time.” Never in my life has my heart beat as fast as it did playing this twisted game. For those more devoted to the series, FNAF 2 also developed the story and contributed to the eerie meaning behind the whole collection. Though the jump scares were a little cheap, the stress stimulation and backstory still left me extremely jumpy and uneasy. For this alone, FNAF 2 earns its spot among the greats.
Layers of Fear (2016)
Rounding out my top horror games of all time is Layers of Fear, an indie classic. This game is in a class of its own. The story is a tragic masterpiece, guiding you through little moments that reveal all too much about the history of the haunted mansion you find yourself in. Layers of Fear takes place entirely in an artists mansion, with an appropriately ominous storm always crashing outside. As you go through the dozens of halls and creepy rooms, you find gruesome parts of an unknown human which you add to an easel to create your masterpiece. Any more would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave the storyline there – just know that it is haunting and extremely memorable. As for the horror element… wow. Rarely was there an actual danger; I recall only a few genuine jump scares. What Layers of Fear did have though, was a weirdly upsetting sense of how to play with your mind. The horror was all based on mind-boggling alterations of reality. You, for example, might wander into a small square room. Seeing no other door, you’d turn around to exit and find that the door you just walked through is gone. A little claustrophobic you turn around again and see a door (thank goodness) but find that it opens to a brick wall. Ok, nothing to panic about. Turn around again and now there’s nothing but doors everywhere, rising infinitely into a black void in the sky. Behind each door is an eyeball which follows you as you stand spinning and hyperventilating in this 4×4 room. Eventually, the game takes pity and offers an exit, but that’s only a minuscule sample of the way that Layers of Fear plays with your mind. I found myself always doubting the reality of my surroundings in this mansion, and it left me more on edge than a jump scare ever could.
A Handful of Other Games
This is far from a comprehensive list – some other games deserve the love. I’d like to give a few honorable mentions: SOMA (2015), Dead Space (2008), Until Dawn (2015), and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017). Even this doesn’t give every game the credit it deserves, but if you were going to immerse yourself in horror games, this article brings together all of the most important in my opinion. To avid horror fans out there, tell me why I’m wrong. Give me your thoughts on the greats of our time and why they deserve the title.