There is nothing scarier than watching a character you love walk along a dark hallway with just a flashlight, all while knowing there is a monster lurking somewhere in the house. Nothing scarier, except controlling that character yourself.
Survival horror video games have been around since the late 80s and early 90s, with games like Atari’s Haunted House and Capcom’s Alone in the Dark kicking off the genre. These 3-D rendered games with puzzles and ghosts proved to gamers and critics alike that the orchestrated scares of cinema were possible to recreate in an interactive setting.
Since the early days, we have seen many changes in the genre. With improvements in graphics, game engines, and interactivity, puzzles have gotten more difficult, environments more intense, and the scares more frequent.
For those gamers that prefer sneaking and hiding to running and gunning, here are the 14 Scariest Video Games of All Time.
The odd one out of this list, The 11th Hour doesn’t feature dimly lit hallways and characters with little-to-no ammunition. Instead Trilobyte’s sequel to The 7th Guest includes delightfully macabre puzzles wrapped tightly in a sexy, spooky mystery.
This follow-up, while not as well-received as its groundbreaking predecessor, amped up the scares and included more difficult and engaging problems to solve. Both games were notable for their episodic structure divided into parts by short films with live-action actors. The 11th Hour certainly has its fair share of fear-inducing moments, in part due to the non-interactive video clips. While both the 3-D graphics and low-budget live-action “movies” were groundbreaking at the time, they haven’t aged well. However, the core gameplay of puzzle-solving and the gothic plot hold up to this day.
In 2009, an internet forum called "Something Awful" issued a Photoshop contest where users competed to make normal photographs paranormal. A poster named Eric Knudsen came up with the idea of inserting an abnormally tall man in a suit with a white, blank face in the background of several photos. He included writings with his submission, dubbing the creature the Slender Man.
Knudsen’s creation went viral, spawning cosplay, fan-art, films, and in 2012, a video game. Titled Slender: The Eight Pages, the game harkens back to older survival-horror works. The player is placed in forest at night with a flashlight and one objective: to collect eight pages while avoiding the Slender Man that follows you. It is a short and simple experience (approx. 10 min) but one that will keep you up all night. Made on a micro-budget by a freeware indie team – it is free to download online – the game nonetheless has some of the best scares in recent memory. The ambiance of the forest, the tread of footsteps on the grass, all contribute to an experience that truly captures the essence of what made Knudsen’s Slender Man so horrific in the first place.
Taking the elements of survival-horror a step further, The Forest is a game that leaves the player with absolutely nothing. The survivor of a plane crash in the middle of a forest, the player must build shelters, hunt, and find their son. Unfortunately for the player, their son was kidnapped by a group of mutant cannibals.
While the player is relatively safe during the day from cannibal attacks, the night is full of terror. You can journey deep into the caves where the creatures live, hide at your base in the forest, crafting weapons and camouflage during the day; the method of play is entirely in your hands. The lack of plot or narrative drive is part of what makes The Forest so petrifying. Your only goal is to survive.
Though the game is still in its alpha version on Steam, it runs smoothly and looks phenomenal. The textures and atmosphere of the titular forest combined with the rewarding difficultly make the game endlessly playable. We can’t wait until the official release on the PC and PS4 sometime this year.
A fantastical psychological thriller, Eternal Darkness was a different breed of horror game than the typical fare at the time. Developer Silicon Knights created it with the idea of making an experience opposite to the “b-movie” horror games like Resident Evil. They wanted to mess with peoples’ heads.
The plot of the game follows multiple protagonists over thousands of years, across locations including Persia, France, and Rhode Island. Eternal Darkness replaces jumps scares with true dread, along with the addition of the Nintendo patented “sanity meter.”
Whenever the player is spotted by an enemy or witnesses some supernatural event, their sanity decreases. This depletion effects the environment and the way the player views the world. From constant cries and whispers in the background, to a skewed camera angle, to simulated anomalies of the Gamecube or TV including a “blue screen of death,” the game created new ways to terrify the player, and for that reason, it earns a spot on this list.
“I chose the impossible. I chose Rapture,” – Andrew Ryan.
Both the city and the man who built it are the primary focus of 2K’s BioShock, a genre-defying game. The player controls a man named Jack as he traverses the underwater dystopia of Rapture in an alternate reality 1960. In this world, a genetic modifier called ADAM has corrupted the citizens of the would-be Atlantis and turned them into zombie-like splicers.
BioShock is primarily a first-person-shooter, but it also includes many RPG and survival-horror elements. The player is very often low on supplies and health, and the city of Rapture is full of horrific villains. Fans of the game will remember the deranged Sander Cohen, a musician whose many tests for Jack become increasingly gory. The player also encounters Little Sisters and their Big Daddies: young girls mutated by ADAM, and the hulking monstrosities that protect them. It’s a harrowing experience.
BioShock was widely praised upon release for its immersive story and beautiful, yet disturbing setting. Rapture remains one of the most terrifying places in gaming, but one we’d visit again and again.
A pizza restaurant a-la Chuck-E-Cheese seems like a walk in the park in comparison to a haunted mansion or dark forest. But what happens at night, when the animatronic animal characters come to life?
The point-in-click horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s answered that question. You play a nighttime security guard at the delightful Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. By viewing the many security cameras, you can track the movements of the creepy animals as they march slowly towards your office, where you sit, unable to move. With limited electrical power, the player must decide when to turn on lights and lock doors to avoid being “forcefully stuffed inside a mechanical suit,” i.e. killed.
The game doesn’t sound particularly scary, but the design of the animatronics effectively haunts the player, and the gameplay is intense as it is terrifying. For those easily taken-aback by jump scares, or those with a fear of mascot characters, this game is best played with the lights on.
Taking a wholly unique approach to the genre, Fatal Frame sheds traditional weaponry, arming the character only with the Camera Obscura. The series of games sees the player in an environment filled with ghosts, their only means of defense a camera which, by capturing the spirits on film, pacifies them.
The games are credited for helping to revive the survival horror genre in the early 2000s. The original Fatal Frame took a unique premise and a slight alteration of gameplay aspects to deliver a harrowing experience. However, it's the sequel Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly that earns the spot of the scariest among the series. It featured creepy twins, an unsettling environment, and a disturbing ending. The head of developer Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us) called the game “the scariest kind of experience in any medium.” We agree.
The first and only to truly capitalize on the “cabin in the woods” horror scenario, Until Dawn is a game like no other. It follows the story of eight teenagers who decide to vacation at Blackwood Mountain. Of course, things take a turn for the worse and a psychopathic killer starts to off them systematically.
As the player traverses the fictional Blackwood Mountain, they must help the eight friends survive, making ethical and moral decisions that impact the many possible branching storylines. With a campaign that lasts only nine hours, the game begs for you to play it again and experience something completely different. The gameplay itself is similar to Quantic Dream games like Heavy Rain or Beyond Two Souls, but the environment is far creepier.
There are many excellent scares in Until Dawn, and it is certainly the most cinematic of the entries on this list. Be warned: there are dozens of possible endings, and you might not like the one you get.
Outlast is the most horrifying game about journalistic integrity ever made. Capitalizing on the ever-popular found footage genre of movies, the game is seen through the first-person perspective of a video camera.
The player controls Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter who journeys to a psychiatric hospital after hearing about unethical experiments. When he arrives, he finds that the patients have become incredibly violent and have taken control of the hospital. Using the limited battery night vision, you travel the hospital grounds, looking for evidence as to what happened, and of course, a means to escape.
Outlast, on the surface is a very traditional survival-horror game. The player has no means of attack, and must hide and avoid any inmates they come across. However, the addition of the night vision camera, along with the spectacularly realized setting, help set this game apart.
These aren’t your typical zombies.
While the monsters you encounter in Dead Space are technically reanimated corpses, they hardly resemble the ones Romero introduced us to and Call of Duty turned into Nazis. These “necromorphs” are absolutely horrifying, with long spider-like limbs and the ability to run, not just stumble, towards you.
Dead Space follows Isaac Clarke as he investigates a mining ship that sent out a distress signal. Oh, did we mention this is a mining ship in space? Yes, the player must battle these disgusting, near impossible to kill monsters while in zero gravity environments. With only mining tools at your disposable, limited health, and a seemingly endless horde of enemies, Dead Space is heart-pounding from start to finish.
By far the best video game based off of the Alien franchise, Isolation is set 15 years after Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi film. The player controls Amanda, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, who arrives on the Nostromo to find out what happened to her mother.
Unlike the other games on this list, Alien: Isolation only has one antagonist. The player is stalked and hunted by the vicious alien that we remember so fondly. Amanda is armed with several weapons, but nothing to kill the creature; you can only temporarily stun it, giving you enough time to escape.
You can sneak around, hide in lockers and vents, and use both a flashlight and motion tracker to check the whereabouts of the Xenomorph. The graphics and lighting effects on display here are incredible. In fact, developer Creative Assembly made an entirely new engine to accommodate these aspects. For fans of the films, or just plain horror in general, this game is a must-play.
What’s scarier than only having a flashlight to protect you? Only having an old-fashioned lantern to protect you.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent arms the player character Daniel with an oil lantern and the occasional tinder box, as he searches for an answers to his past in a Prussian castle. Daniel, as the title suggests, has no knowledge of his past, only a note telling him to kill the Baron Alexander.
Amnesia borrows the excellent sanity effects from Sanity’s Requiem, improving upon them greatly. With its physics-based puzzles and haunting sound design, Amnesia brings the nightmare directly to the player. There is hardly time to catch your breath while being stalked by monsters, searching for clues to your past in a castle that seems to have a mind of its own.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a joy to play for those that love a great gothic scare.
Known as Bio Hazard in Japan, Resident Evil is the most popular series of horror games on this list. The initial 1996 survival horror game has since spawned five live-action films, several comics and books, and an additional 20+ video game sequels.
The first game follows Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, two S.T.A.R.S. agents investigating the disappearance of their team members in Raccoon City. They must battle mutants, giant spiders, and more with limited ammo and a tiny health bar. Puzzles throughout the game help to explain the origin of the virus that caused these creatures to appear, and divulge information about the mysterious Umbrella Corporation.
Though subsequent games dropped the puzzle aspects in favor of third-person shooting mechanics and crafting, they still kept the horror elements that made the first entry great. The stand-out here is Resident Evil 4. While it is arguably not the scariest in the franchise, it is often considered one of the best video games of all time. Period. Plus the bosses in the game are absolutely terrifying: Ramon Salazar’s final form comes to mind and haunts our nightmares. The lack of ammo, save points, and a NPC that just won’t do what you want her to do, Resident Evil 4 is a tense, terrifying, thrill-ride of a game.
When it comes to survival horror games, there is one series that consistently reigns supreme. The first in the franchise of 12 games was released in 1999 to critical acclaim. Most of the games feature an everyman protagonist in the foggy town of Silent Hill, where mysterious phenomena are known to occur.
Unlike Resident Evil, the Silent Hill games feature little to no weaponry, and focus solely on psychological horror scares rather than blockbuster moments. David Lynch and Stephen King are large influences on the plots and scenarios in many of the first entries in the series.
When it comes to picking the best in the series, we had to go with Silent Hill 2. You control James Sunderland, a man who receives a letter from his deceased wife, telling him to meet her in Silent Hill. Things only get creepier from there. James makes his way through the fog, encountering monsters such as Pyramid Head, a creature with, you guessed it, a pyramid head. The twists and turns in the narrative and constant aspirations along with the atmosphere and score make Silent Hill 2 the scariest game ever made.
From the mind of Guillermo del Toro. Just that phrase alone is enough to send shivers down the spines of the easily-scared everywhere. The P.T. is short for Playable Teaser, and P.T. is just that: a teaser. The game lasts a total of 30 minutes, and was meant to introduce players to the world of the next Silent Hill video game.
Unfortunately for fans of del Toro, Norman Reedus and P.T., that game was never made. Furthermore, P.T. is now no longer available for download, so you’ll have to settle for watching someone do a “Let’s Play” of it.
The game follows a player that walks through a series of halls in a suburban house in a continuous loop, over and over again, with things changing slightly with each progression. The time on the clock always reads “23:59.” The player sees blood seeping from the walls, cockroaches scattering every which way, and several other apparitions which still give us nightmares. If a certain amount of clues regarding the backstory of the character are not discovered, they are treated to a jump scare that is pee-your-pants level scary.
Though the game is very short, it features so many memorable scares in its short playtime that it earns an Honorable Mention on this list. If only we had gotten the Silent Hill game we were promised. We will just have to deal with …
What other spooky games should be on this list? Did we miss anything? Let us know!