It might be a little late for Halloween, but it’s never too late to dig into a game sure to scare you silly. The best horror video games combine the same elements of great horror films: mounting tension, solid plot, and the terror of whatever’s lurking ahead.
The difference? You’re the protagonist, propelled right into the bone-chilling action.
The Fall (2014)
The atmosphere of this game is nearly as scary as the implications of its final twist.
You find yourself controlling an exoskeleton combat suit. Its pilot is injured. Luckily, the artificial intelligence in the armor can take the reins.
Working with the A.I., you fight to desperately remedy the situation as it spirals out of control, trying to get the pilot help while evading capture in a decaying industrial facility.
Taking place entirely in underwater terrain, this game might seem more like survival horror than traditional horror. Rest assured, there are plenty of scares.
Your actions against the monsters around every corner are limited. The audiotapes are especially haunting to listen to, as you stealthily move your way through the monsters lurking beneath the waves.
The psychological narrative of Soma sticks with you, even after the game ends.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
As Nintendo’s first M-rated game, Eternal Darkness’ spine-tingling content includes the “Sanity Meter.” It measures how frightened your protagonist is. The more nervous you get, the more likely it is you’ll encounter breaks with reality.
You play various characters throughout the game. While battling evil forces, you collect specific runes or glyphs that allow you to cast spells. Although these spells aid you in your quest, you are still powerless against the real evil: the dark corners of your mind.
Sadly, the game’s planned sequel was never made, due to its initial lack of commercial success.
The setup may be corny, but Outlast strikes out with a serious attempt at real horror through its well-placed jumpscares and startle tactics.
You play as a journalist, armed only with a recorder as you investigate a psychiatric hospital in the middle of nowhere.
Sure, supernatural entities and the insane asylum backdrop feel overdone. But you can’t deny how effective Outlast is at making you feel utterly powerless in the face of terror.
The company produced a sequel to Outlast in 2017, and another installment is projected to come out in 2021.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
While a mysterious castle on a dark and stormy night is even more cliché than the previous entry, Amnesia takes your breath away with increasing tension from the very beginning. Best of all, it expertly maintains that tension during playthrough.
The puzzle mechanics in this game are physics-based, making them a bit fiddly at times. Still, the game manages to keep you focused on the goal.
Additionally, like Eternal Darkness, Amnesia features a sanity meter that shows just how afraid of the dark you should be.
Two sequels have been released: A Machine For Pigs and Rebirth. Most fans agree that neither sequel has managed to live up to the original, but they are exciting explorations into the world’s lore.
Layers of Fear (2016)
This game features an interesting twist on the fine line between genius and insanity.
You play as a painter, completing his finest work while weaving between this world and his own nightmares.
You never fight the horrific creations in this game; only by completing puzzles can you advance through the increasingly horrifying storyline.
Later in 2016, Aspyr released an expansion called Inheritance. You continue the game as the former protagonist’s daughter, and learn about how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation.
A sequel came out in 2019 called Layers of Fear 2, for die-hard players who want to keep playing.
Clock Tower (1995)
No list of horror video games is complete without mentioning one of the first significant franchises: Clock Tower.
This Japanese-developed game serves as a tribute to Dario Argento’s works. It follows Jennifer Simpson as she deals with the escalating violence of a madman known only as Scissorman. Wandering around a sinister mansion, Jennifer must find a way to escape while evading him.
The point-and-click format might be complicated and clunky in comparison with modern-day games. Nonetheless, this trip down memory lane is absolutely worth it.
There have been a few sequels in this popular franchise. Besides a 1996 version of the same name, there’s Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within, and Clock Tower 3.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (1995)
Based on the short story by Harlan Ellison, this game follows five people trapped in a post-apocalyptic world. They must answer to an increasingly sadistic artificial intelligence known as AM.
This game, and the story it is based on, are definitely not for the faint of heart. They both feature graphic descriptions of torture, rape, insanity, and the genocide of the human race by AM.
In the game, you play as each person and must navigate through ethical choices. Meanwhile, AM continues to design horrific experiences based on each individual’s specific phobias and past experiences.
In a departure from normal homages, Ellison actually co-authored the script for the game and supervised the entire process.
While unsuccessful commercially—some countries banned it, due to controversial content—the game won numerous awards from journalists and critics.
The best horror video games offer far more than jumpscares or gore. They pull players right into the action, weaving hair-raising scenes with compelling narratives, growing urgency, and an unsettling terror even the best horror movies can’t match.