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Top 10 Horror Games

posted Oct 20, 2013, 8:35 PM by oneclipleft   [ updated Apr 7, 2014, 11:48 AM ]
With Halloween less than two weeks away, the internet has been buzzing with all kinds of wonderful horror. I’ve been particularly impressed with the volume of horror video games released recently, so I figured I’d try my hand at one of these ever-entertaining Top 10 lists. Keep in mind, these are simply my personal picks from the games I’ve played so far, so a few classics will be left out since I haven’t played them yet. Also, I’m limiting the list to one game per series/developer to keep things varied and fair. Now, let the countdown begin!

10. Alan Wake
Released: May 14, 2010
System: PC, Xbox360
Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Alan Wake scrapes in at number 10 because of how well it was put together as a game. I remember the game being tense, but not that scary. The monsters were dangerous, but not terrifying. The locations were immersive and sometimes beautiful to look at, but they didn’t really creep me out. The sound design was superb, but not as unsettling as it could have been. And the story was intriguing, but not as disturbing as I expected. But, when you put all of Alan Wake’s less-than-scary elements together, the experience is quite nerve-wracking. The mystery was definitely there, and I loved the surreal moments toward the end. I rate most of my horror game experiences according to how little I want to keep going versus how much I want to find out what happens next. Alan Wake scores very high on the latter, but could’ve been much higher on the former. So, as much as I loved the game and all its horror movie references, it comes in at number 10 on this list for simply not being as horrifying as it could have been.

9. Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason
Released: February 27, 2009
System: PC
Developer: Action Forms

Cryostasis creeps on you. While there are a few moments that are jump-worthy, most of this game’s horror comes from the environment. The setting is nearly perfect and wonderfully represented in the game’s engine. Boarding the icebreaker ship for the first time served as an interesting transition. The bright, crisp tundra falls away to the cramped, freezing, darkness of the ship. Ice hangs everywhere and the danger of hypothermia creates an oppressive atmosphere. The main character feels just like a frail human being who is faced with this extreme climate should feel.

Essentially a ghost story, the main character must enter the memories of various crew members in order to change the past. Not too terrifying on its own, but combined with the present and past versions of the ship, this game grows incredibly creepy. The ship itself is probably the most frightening thing in the game. Stuck in the arctic, full of dead crew members and strange goings-on, dark and inhospitable, occasionally falling apart, I can’t think of another location that would have served this game so well as this ship. Add to that the need to keep your character warm via scattered heat sources that never feel adequate, and you’ve got a recipe for distress.

8. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Released: September 22, 1999
System: Playstation, PC, Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS Network
Developer: Capcom

I see a lot of Top Horror Games lists that include the newer Resident Evil titles (RE4 mostly), but I can’t bring myself to jump on that bandwagon. The new Resident Evil games are great, but I don’t really consider them horror. They’re more like Zombie Shooters or something to me, and seem to lack the creepiness of the older games. Since Resident Evil stood at the forefront of the then-emerging Survival Horror genre, I tend to grade new games in the RE series by that standard. Anyway, I think the Resident Evil series peak of horror was RE3: Nemesis.

Resident Evil 3 continued developing the awesome traits that made the first two titles so good. Means of defending yourself are always scarce and everything is either a mind-screwing puzzle or a zombie out to kill you. If I remember correctly, Jill Valentine was a great mix of brave, tough, and resourceful, while also remaining a pretty easy target for the zombies and other creatures. This helped me believe in how powerful these awful creatures really were. Then Nemesis would show up.

For the longest time, my friends and I didn’t fully understand that you couldn’t kill Nemesis. We kept trying, running out of ammo, then dying. Kinda like that armored boss in Siphon Filter than you had to lure into the helicopter blades to kill. Yeah, we were kinda slow on the uptake. The final realization that we simply had to run away or fight temporarily to rack up unnecessary damage made every Nemesis encounter that much more horrifying. So, adding the unpredictable Nemesis element to an already proven horror formula makes Resident Evil 3 the best in the series for me.

7. Doom64
Released: March 31, 1997
System: N64, PC (Fan Port)
Developer: Midway

Ah yes, the black sheep of Doom games. You might be thinking “Doom64? What about Doom 3 or the original Dooms?” Well, while Doom 3 was certainly terrifying in its own way, and the original games are some of the most important shooters ever made, Doom64 still feels like the most well-executed entry in the series, blending classic Doom gameplay with more modern horror sensibilities.

Several technical upgrades introduced for Doom64 really amped up the scare factor. Environments were darker and more foreboding than ever before. The rock soundtrack was replaced with a more ambient, creepy soundscape that prevented players from feeling like a one-man army. Enemy sprites were bigger, and the camera was slated at chest-level rather than eye-level, making everything seem larger and more imposing. Unexpected enemies and level triggers created an unpredictable and hostile atmosphere. There were a few drawbacks in that some enemies weren’t present, but the Mother Demon and Nightmare Imps helped to make up for that.

All in all, the level design was superb, the graphics were a huge step up, and the feel of the whole game was gloomy as hell. The only other N64 game that I remember more fondly than Doom64 is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I recently acquired a PC port of Doom64, which is something I’ve been waiting for almost 15 years. I can say with authority that Doom64 has not lost any of its dark power, and remains the most tense and frightening Doom title that is still true to everything that made the originals so great.

6. Silent Hill 3
Released: May 23, 2003
System: PS2, PC, PS3, Xbox360
Developer: Konami

Alright, before you jump on my case about not including Silent Hill 2, let me preface this by saying that I have not yet had the pleasure of playing it, so I am going with the Silent Hill game that I’ve played the most. I fully intend to jump into SH2 as soon as I can, though, so next year’s list (if there is one) will reflect that.

Silent Hill 3 contains just the right combination of horror elements next to a ton of originality that catapults it into greatness. Since I hadn’t played the first Silent Hill, the story was pretty confusing, but that confusion only increased my horror. The protagonist is very effective as a strong but naïve and ultimately human character who must face unnatural creatures left and right. Heather is a believable character caught in unbelievable circumstances, which is Horror 101 and works amazingly well.

The creatures of Silent Hill are among horror’s best and most memorable (Pyramid Head, anyone?), and encountering them in the game’s real world is bad enough. When reality slips into Otherworld, though, all bets are off. The level might rearrange itself (one of my favorite horror game tricks), the creatures become stronger and more frequent, and everything just reeks of malignant atrocities around every darkened corner. The fog is another great effect, as is the radio static that alerts you to nearby danger. You never quite know what you could face next, and the unknown is horror’s most powerful ally. Silent Hill 3 makes masterful use of all these elements, and keeps players on their guard every second of gameplay.

5. Lone Survivor
Released: March 27, 2012
System: PC, Mac, Linux, PSVita, PS3
Developer: Superflat Games

If you missed this indie title, then seriously consider going back and buying it. This goes for any title discussed from here on out. Lone Survivor is about a masked dude with a tenuous grasp on reality who wakes up in his nightmare-infested apartment building. He is given two simple objectives: to escape the building, then escape the town. On the way, he is bombarded by insane hallucinations (or are they?), terrifying creatures, and all manner of things that challenge his life and sanity. What Lone Survivor does best is remind players that mind-numbing terror does not need flashy graphics to paralyze you. The faux 16-bit, 2D side-scroller accomplishes its horror exquisitely.

Nailing down reality is the biggest challenge in Lone Survivor, as you can never be too sure what is real and what isn’t. Are there other people inhabiting this world, or is our masked hero all alone? Should you return to your apartment to rest up or pop some pills and soldier on? Where are you exactly, and what happened to your world? Can you escape at all, and if so, to where? These questions are always pecking away at my mind when I play, and the game can be so oppressive and tense that I can barely play for any length of time at once. The game is relatively short, but amazing on all counts. Go get it!

4. F.E.A.R.
Released: October 18, 2005
System: PC, Xbox360, PS3
Developer: Monolith Productions/Day 1 Studios (Console Ports)

Ok, now that we’re in the final stretch, you should start seeing games that make it onto nearly every Top Horror Games list. There’s very good reason for this, as these games are absolutely terrifying at least the first time through. F.E.A.R. (or as my friend once called it, Scariness: The Game) takes the number 4 spot because its scares only truly work the first time through. It’s the classic case of scripted events and triggers that only freak you out when you have no clue that they’re about to happen. However, when they happen that first time, you will dump ass all over the place (gross, sorry). And, luckily, they gave us two decent expansions to continue the scares.

F.E.A.R. as a concept is a difficult pill to swallow. Many “horror” games these days try to follow its groundwork of action sequence, scary sequence, action sequence, but none has done this so well as the original. My theory is that F.E.A.R. maintained a true separation between action and horror, leaving the player ultimately unsure what type of sequence to expect next, whereas more recent titles blur the lines into a bland mash of semi-horror, semi-action. The shock of having soldiers run in right when you expect some harmless-yet-effective scares (and vice versa) kept tensions running high. Although F.E.A.R. uses the now-worn-out cliché of the little dark haired demon girl from Japanese horror, it does so to wonderful effect. Paxton Fettel could have been totally absent from the game without impacting it, but the game did need some kind of antagonist I guess.

One missed connection might have been in the army of clone soldiers. I never once felt anything while mowing down hundreds of these guys. If they’d been given some kind of humanity under their mind controlled aggression, I might have felt something more complex than “run, duck, kill, repeat.” But the gameplay and horror set pieces were equally well constructed, and I nearly fell out of my chair more than once. So, F.E.A.R. earns its place in horror gaming history, even despite its stupid title.

3. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Released: October 24, 2005
System: PC, Xbox
Developer: Headfirst Productions

Oh yeah, now we’re talking. Like any game that draws heavily from an established franchise, I had low expectations when I finally got around to playing this game last year. But holy hell, I did not know what I was in for. CoC:DCotE, along with having an annoyingly long title, is one of the most impressive horror stories/games I have ever experienced. Impressive in the way that it impressed itself into my primitive brain like a giant, horrifying stamp inked with blood. Atmosphere is the name of the game here, as it is with all true horror. The town of Innsmouth is both unsettling and believable with its hostile populace and strange mishaps. The beast that lies underneath, however, must be experienced to be understood.

Here, atmosphere and gameplay go hand-in-hand, each underscoring the horror of the other. The main character is capable, but still fragile little human with a fragile little human mind, both of which may break under pressure. The human enemies are frightening enough with their single-minded devotion to their evil cult and all, but the Lovecraftian monsters only make things worse. Every environment is well done, and contains all the relevant creatures and objectives. The camera-work is superb and really helps immerse the player into this impossible world. The only hiccups can be found in some wonky controls here and there, and the occasional WTF do I do next moment. Otherwise, everything the player does in this game feels natural and horrifying at the same time.

I cannot recommend this game enough to anyone who hasn’t tried it. Without giving too much away, the story is amazing and contains some really memorable moments and characters (a pre-president J. Edgar Hoover anyone? Real asshole as it turns out). Feedback for the main character is handled exceptionally well, from the per-body-part damage system to the mental health system. Two types of danger always seem to work better than one, and you can’t have your character going insane, can you? The game is neither too long nor too short for the story, which is a very nice quality. Just be ready to be really, really nervous all the time.

2. System Shock 2
Released: August 11, 1999
System: PC, Mac
Developer: Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios

The tired old cliché of the Space Marine (or Navy Guy or Psi Ops dude, if you’re into that) has never been so enfeebling as it is in System Shock 2. I hate to admit that this game completely flew under my radar when it was released, but I’m so glad I caught up to it last year. Despite its age, System Shock 2 does not disappoint. At all. For even one second. This game should be the standard of comparison for every RPG/FPS game made since, but sadly no other RPG/FPS hybrid has quite gotten the hang of it again. For shame. Every single element of System Shock 2 is geared toward one goal: terrorizing the player. From the derelict space ship, the Von Braun, down to the hacking mini-game, every action or non-action can result in horrible things happening. There is so much good to discus about this game, I can’t even cover half of it, so just trust me. It is worth every penny.

From solely a horror standpoint, though, the only thing holding SS2 back is the now-dated graphics. But hey, Lone Survivor already showed us that WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ GRAPHICS. The Von Braun is a great vessel for making the player feel stranded and isolated. Nothing is more isolating than cold, dark, unfeeling outer space after all. Isolated as you may be, though, you are not alone. The crew of the Von Braun (a ship whose main color scheme is devious silver and soul-crushing blue) has suffered some weird science thing that made them into NOT ZOMBIES (they are body-snatching aliens, for the record). This pulls from one of horrors crowning film achievements: Alien (1979). Except all the bad stuff has already happened by the time the player enters the scene. Whereas F.E.A.R. missed the boat on offering enemies that are sympathetic, System Shock 2 delivers wholesale. While bashing the player’s brains out with a wrench, these poor creatures might lament their desire to kill, or beg for death themselves, making them sad, twisted threats rather than bland, off-to-the-murder-mill stock baddies. Every time I killed one of the wretched souls, I had to wonder “who did I just kill?” as though they were real people once before.

Aside from organic threats, SS2 sets the entire ship after you. Security cameras are everywhere and must be disabled or else a turret will ruin your day or flood of The Many (still not zombies) will come after your tasty innards. But the biggest horror of them all is both alive and not alive. Seemingly on your side, but always clearly not, the ship’s computer and its egotistical ravings and creepily pleasant presence pervade every moment of the game. You are truly alone with a god-like maniac who controls your very surroundings, and you must press on to save yourself. Talk about willpower, this game demands it by the truckload. Get it immediately.

1. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Released: September 8, 2010
System: PC, Mac, Linux
Developer: Frictional Games

To be fair, every single Frictional Games title would be right at home on this list (get them all, you won’t be disappointed). However, I can only pick one, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the clear and rightful choice. And, yes, I could have gone with A Machine for Pigs instead, but it just wasn’t as malevolent and threatening as The Dark Descent (thanks a lot, The Chinese Room). You know how many times I hid in paralyzing fear in AMFP? Maybe twice. In TDD though? Pff, way too many for my manly pride to admit. Though not without its flaws, The Dark Descent is flat-out terrifying on all levels. This is sad, of course, because I think that A Machine for Pigs did improve on the Amnesia formula in terms of certain mechanics, but damn it the scares just weren’t as potent. Not by a long shot.

The guys and gals over at Frictional Games seem to wholly understand horror in the way that Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, or Alfred Hitchcock did/does (I cannot wait for Soma to drop in 2015). There are three options in horror as I understand it: Nothing is there (which isn’t too scary), something is there, and you can see/know it (which isn’t too scary), and something is there, but you can’t see/know it or only see/know part of it (which is horrifying). That third option abounds in The Dark Descent in every way. The story is barely knowable until the end, which adds mystery and intrigue to the horror. The high-octane nightmare fueled creatures are fleeting and cannot be examined, lest Daniel lose his proverbial shit, slinking to the floor like a small child. Everything is half concealed and mutilated beyond all recognition. Even Daniel himself is part of the madness, unbeknownst to him or the player. Every little revelation paints the portrait in darker hues.

Though I didn’t care for Alexander as a plot device/antagonist, his story is both maddening and sympathetic as well. Everyone is both victim and perpetrator in this game, which engages our sense of compassion and revulsion simultaneously. That mix, plainly put, does not compute and results in fear of our very selves. The greatest villains are ones that we identify with, and the greatest atrocities are the ones that we can envision ourselves committing under the right circumstances. TDD overflows with this kind of horror, and rightfully earns its place in the number 1 spot. I can’t wait until some other game comes in and takes its place. It will be a dark time for gaming for all the right reasons.





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