Scaring someone isn’t all that difficult. You can make a weird face and jump at someone while shouting, “OOGA BOOGA WOO!” and you’ll probably give someone a good scare. However, I would hardly call that horror. The shiver that goes down your spine when you realize that Intertops Casino no deposit bonus is a bargain is not terror.
Horror is the kind of fear that gets under your skin. It creeps into the corners of your consciousness, tipping you off to its presence, while not overplaying its hand. It’s the glinting gleam of a bloody knife in the corner of your eye as you feel the warm breath o f s o m e o n e s t a n d I n g r I g h t b e h I n d y o u.
Ahem, as I was saying, cultivating such an experience is no easy feat. There are so many factors to consider in game design, and getting them right is vital for creating that unnerving experience. There’s sound effects, graphics, level design, music, and even the gameplay itself has to all come together in a way that almost no other genre of games does in order to sell the experience.
That being said, let’s get spooky.
Technically, Bloodborne is not a horror game. It’s a strange choice than to put it on such a list, but hear me out.
Bloodborne was developed by the Japanese studio, FromSoftware, and follows the design principals that led to their wildly successful “Dark Souls” franchise. Sharp difficulty curves, unforgiving boss fights, and minimal emphasis on narrative.
Except… that last part isn’t quite true. Like FromSoftware’s other titles, Bloodborne is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and environmental storytelling. Everything from the gothic architecture to the Victorian styles to the geriatrics with the steampunk equivalent of machine guns makes playing Bloodborne feel as if you’ve stepped into a cross between Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, 90s anime, and modern video games.
The only reason I’m not ranking Bloodborne higher is, as I said, because Bloodborne is technically not a horror game, and despite the cosmic entities that hunt you constantly, Bloodborne is the least scary game on this list. Still, do not pass over Bloodborne if you’re looking for something dripping with spooky monsters and gothic horror.
“We are born of the blood. Made men by the blood. Undone by the blood. Fear… the old blood.”
Despite being the shortest game on this list, Observation still manages to be a slow burn. You can chalk that up to its phenomenal pacing, as Observation takes you down a mind-bending rabbit-hole of sci-fi horror.
The easiest way to explain the plot is to imagine that the story is 2001: A Space Odyssey, except you, get to play as Hal: 9000, as you and a single remaining astronaut attempt to get your space station up and running again after some kind of catastrophe. As the not-Hal AI, your control of the station increases as the camera’s get fixed, the systems are rebooted, and access to your core memory gets restored.
When I compare Observation to 2001, I’m not just trying to reach for an easy metaphor. Observation is a Stanley Kubric movie adapted into a video game. The atmosphere, the pacing, and sense of dread could all be taken directly out of The Shining, and the Science-Fiction part of the game makes my inner nerd squeal with delight.
SOMA was developed by Frictional Games, the company made famous by its previous franchise, Amnesia, which dominated YouTube back in the early 2010s. The gameplay hasn’t changed much between titles. Like Amnesia, SOMA is a physics-based, survival horror game about dodging monsters without going insane.
The story is where SOMA makes this list for me. You play as joe-shmoe who goes to the doctor to get a brain exam when he suddenly finds himself trapped in an underwater facility on the ocean floor, that’s been overrun by rampaging robots and weird alien goop.
What really makes the story interesting is the philosophical questions the game raises throughout about the nature of living. I’d be entering spoiler-territory if I detailed it any further, but suffice it to say that SOMA is one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve ever experienced.
SOMA is the first game that introduced me to the idea of contained moral conundrums, which is a term I just made up. There’s a moment where (not really a spoiler) you find a random woman hooked up to an alien parasite that using a nearby powerline to keep her alive. There are two cables connecting the parasite to the power supply. To get to the next area, you need the power.
However, you’re only required to remove one of the cables, which will keep the woman alive. That being said, she’s forever trapped down here. Would it be better to… end it? The woman has no relevance to the rest of the game, and never appears again, regardless of what you choose, and for some reason, I find that a really memorable experience.
2. Alien: Isolation
I just realized that I might have a slight bias for Sci-Fi horror. So sue me.
Alien: Isolation is a direct sequel to the movie, Alien, following the story of Amanda Ripley as she tries to find out what happened to her mother. If you don’t remember, at the start of Aliens it’s revealed that Sigourney Weaver was in cryosleep for decades and actually outlives her daughter. But enough about the movies, let’s talk about the game.
Alien: Isolation succeeds where literally every single other Alien game has failed- the Xenomorph is actually scary. Rather than being just a bland shooter with a cool art style, A:I goes the extra mile and made a proper horror experience.
The Xenomorph is a terrifying, immortal killing machine that relentlessly hunts you throughout the game. Your pitiful weapons anger it more than anything else, and your better off hiding in a closet or under a table and praying that it doesn’t sniff you out. Your tactics for navigating around it will have to evolve throughout the game, as the Xenomorph will learn and adapt. What works now won’t work later, so you better be sure of your gameplan.
I have never seen any video game that’s as faithful to its source material as A:I. It really is a shame that probably won’t ever get a sequel, because it’s easily one of the best horror games on the market.
PT is a succinct horror experience wrapped into only a couple hours of content, and the behind-the-scenes story is probably as tragic as the game itself (ok- maybe not that tragic).
PT takes place entirely within a single hallway, plus a bathroom. When you walk through the door on the other side, you find yourself back at the beginning of the hallway. Except… something is different every time. This simple premise will take you through one of the most horrific experiences ever designed. I’m not joking. This little prototype easily beats out all other AAA contenders with amazing graphics and sound design that to this day is only matched by a few titles.
The plot is very minimal. A father went crazy one day and murdered his family. Are you the father? Maybe. Probably. It’s never explicitly stated. But the reveal, the ever-increasing sense of dread will send shivers down your spine in ways that almost no other game can.
PT stands for “Playable Teaser”, and was the prototype developed by Hideo Kojima and director Guillermo Del Torro for another game called “Silent Hills” that was sadly never released. For inexplicable reasons, Konami removed PT from the Playstation Store, and now the only way to play it is by buying a PS4 with PT still installed on it.
Still, in other ways, PT lives on. It’s methods have been aped by thousands of other games in the industry, from both a greater game design perspective and even the looping-hall-premise itself. It’s a tragedy that the full game was never released because if PT was anything to go by, it would have blown everything else in the market out of the water.