Five (genuinely scary) horror games

I’m a coward.

There, I said it. I have the constitution of a rubber chicken when it comes to horror games. I just can’t bear to see my character get torn asunder by whatever evil may be lurking in the digital darkness. And that’s exactly why I love horror games. You’re not watching a scripted sequence with characters that you have no connection with. In video games, the onus is on you to press onward into the depths and brave whatever lies within. And if you’re reading this, I suspect that you also have at least a passing interest in checking out some of the scariest games around. Yes, Halloween has come and gone, but for the sake of this article, let’s all just pretend everyone’s favorite night of fright is still in full swing. So steel yourselves, my friends, as we descend into the top five (genuinely scary) horror games.

1. Dead Space – Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Most “horror” games released during the current generation of consoles focus more on action than atmosphere. And while control standards have risen considerably as a result (anyone remember those horrid tank controls for the original Resident Evil?), modern horror games just aren’t very scary. That’s why Dead Space stands as one of the crown jewels in the horror genre. Not only is it a harrowing experience, but with a control scheme similar to games like Gears of War, you won’t find yourself fighting the controls every step of the way.

Anyone familiar with Doom will find Dead Space’s story familiar. Space-faring humans dig up an ancient evil on a remote planet, which causes them to transform into hellish monsters called “Necromorphs.” You are Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent to investigate the USG Ishimura, the now-derelict ship responsible for the outbreak. With such a heavy focus on narrative, suffice it to say that from there it’s a fight to survive as Clarke searches for his girlfriend, Nicole, who happens to be the chief  medical officer aboard the Ishimura (hint: look at each chapter name’s first letter).

Nicole frequently contacts Isaac throughout his investigation.

The story alone would make Dead Space one of the best horror games of this console generation, but the cherry on top is the gameplay. Necromorphs are able to absorb large amounts of damage, so the game places an emphasis on dismemberment, making every encounter feel like a morbid puzzle. No encounter feels pedestrian, with tense lulls and clever puzzles interspersed to amplify the action.

Horror games that empower your character as much as Dead Space does generally fall flat. However, the story and atmosphere are executed so well, and the Necromorphs are such an awesome enemy that Dead Space overcomes that stigma with ease.

2. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth – PC, Xbox

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was part of a wave of post-Half-Life 2 single player-focused shooters released in the mid-2000s. Though it may have been a middling shooter at best, Cthulhu’s claim to fame was its strong atmosphere and focus on the psychological health of your character, Private Investigator Jack Walters, as you slowly delve deeper into the seedy occult buried within the game’s setting of Innsmouth.

As you uncover the truth about Innsmouth’s residents and face Cthulhu’s minions, Walters will build up anxiety. Let him go too long without medication and Walters would eventually suffer a nervous breakdown and commit suicide. It was a highly unusual (and disturbing) gameplay mechanic in its day, and though the game’s characterization was below average, it really aided in creating an emotional investment in Walters’ survival.

3. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream – PC, Mac

Rather than give a cursory introduction about the story of I Have No Mouth, allow me to share the opening text of the game’s antagonist/protagonist, AM:

“Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits on wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word hate was [sic] engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles it would not equal on billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro instant. For you. Hate. Hate.”

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a game of gray. There is no good or evil. The civilized world is a distant memory, wiped from existence through constant war fueled by AM, an artificial intelligence that became self-aware — with the exception of five humans, that is, each of whom did terrible things during their lives. AM captured them 109 years ago and has tortured them continually since then, giving them their proverbial just deserts.

You play as each of the five survivors’ individual story lines, as AM gives them one opportunity to redeem their past mistakes. The gameplay is standard fare for the genre, but even if point-and-click adventure games aren’t your thing, the dreary, post-apocalyptic atmosphere, characters, and fantastic 2D art are definitely worth the trade off.

4. Condemned: Criminal Origins – Xbox 360, PC

One of the few good Xbox 360 launch titles, Condemned is one of those games that gets lost in the shuffle between modern releases and all-time classics. People always seem to forget about the Condemned franchise, due in large part to contemporaries like F.E.A.R. releasing around the same time (though, oddly enough, both titles were both developed by Monolith Productions).

The game featured an interesting mix of crime scene investigation, dark corridor crawling and first-person melee combat. And while none of those mechanics blew you away individually, they fit so well together as a whole.

Monolith has always put a lot of effort into enemy intelligence, and no game better-illustrates that than Condemned. Sure, F.E.A.R.’s enemies would dive and take cover during firefights, but the thugs and lowlifes in Condemned would trail you in the shadows like a pack of dirty, 2×4-wielding hyenas. The enemy AI was programed to hover in the periphery of your screen and use guerrilla tactics, taking a few quick swings at you and then retreating back into the cover of darkness.

Definitely and underrated gem.

5. Amnesia: The Dark Descent – PC, Mac

From Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head to Clock Tower’s Scissor Man, there’s no shortage of iconic horror game monsters, but true horror aficionados know that the best kind of fear comes from within. Legendary movies like The Blair Witch Project are terrifying, not because of what you see, but because of what you don’t. And that’s exactly what makes Amnesia so good.

Where other games are so eager to throw everything in your face and say, “Boo!” Amnesia gives you just enough disturbing imagery doused in heavy shadow to trigger paranoia in even the most controlled individual. “What could be around the next corner?” Amnesia does just enough to get your imagination to do the heavy lifting.

Amnesia is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Amnesia also emphasizes a balance between light and dark. The main character, an amnesia-stricken man named Daniel, has no means of defending himself, so the player must utilize shadows to stay alive. There’s just one problem: stay in the darkness too long and Daniel’s anxiety will build, eventually causing him to panic (though he won’t commit suicide like in Cthulhu).

To defend against panic, Daniel must either stay near a light source or light a lantern he carries. However, it too, will draw enemy attention. Put simply, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one big mind f***, and that’s the best kind of horror.