My Top 5 Horror Video Games

It should come as a shock to absolutely no one that my favorite kind of video games are the scary ones. I’ve written before about Growing Up Spooky and Female Led Horror Movies, but it’s time to take a look at horror video games. This isn’t a definitive list of all the horror games I’ve played or enjoyed.Rather, it is a short list of the games that have stuck with me the most. I own and have played all of these games. I’ve singled them out because in these games, story often takes precedence over gameplay. The first four games are all first-person stories where the player plays a specific character. 

 

  1. 1. Outlast

    The Basics: Outlast was released on September 4th, 2013 for PC and Xbox and can be played on PS4, Mac and the Nintendo Switch. This is the only game listed where I’m lumping in all the games in the series because they all deserve a spot on this list. As of now there is the full-game-length DLC Outlast Whistleblower, and the sequel Outlast II. The game follows Miles Upshur (he remains unseen and unnamed throughout the game), who is summoned to Mount Massive Asylum by an unknown whistleblower to investigate and report on the human experiments being conducted.

    What I Like: First, the game opens with telling you that there is no ‘fight’ option in this survival horror game, leaving the player to choose between running or hiding in moments of confrontation with some of the malevolent patients. Since our main character is an investigative reporter, the entire game is done through the lens of their video camera and its optional night-vision setting that gives the grotesque characters an eerie appearance. The story is largely sci-fi, revolving around experiments that are trying to replicate an entity/life force that can control people in a pseudo-sort-of-possession. This sub-genre makes things more visceral for me as instead of explaining everything with ghosts/demons, the real terror behind the bad guys, violence, and excessive gore are power-crazed people.The DLC and connected sequel all tie in to show the larger picture of how humanity can warp itself, and I really enjoyed that.

    What it Gets Wrong: This game is in the horror category and not the sci-fi one for a reason, and that reason is gore and genitalia. Think of the most twisted, irreverent thing you can...all of that is in one of these three games. I have only one weakness in the world of horror and that is alien-chest-bursting body horror, and these games were full of it. I don’t usually complain about gore but there is a room in the sequel where the entire floor is littered with babies. Now it’s implied that this could be a hallucination, but it was too much for me!

  2. 2. Layers of Fear

    The Basics: Layers of Fear was released on February 15th, 2016 for PC, Mac, Xbox and PS4. It’s since gone on to receive a full-game DLC, Layers of Fear Inheritance, and a sequel, Layers of Fear 2. The first game and the DLC follow the same family, and the story follows the father’s existence after losing his wife and daughter. Throughout the game, you discover he suffers from alcoholism and might’ve played a part in the fire that took his family away from him. The DLC expands on this by showing what happens when the painter’s daughter goes back to her childhood home to reconcile her own ghosts. The sequel is unrelated, but takes the same concepts and uses them to tell someone else’s story.

    What I Like: This game is beautiful; the colors are rich, the settings filled with intricate details, the graphics are top-notch and, if you have a computer that can play the ‘Masterpiece Edition,’ it’s 100% worth it—just for the enhanced graphics. The painter, in going mad, uses human hair and other body parts to paint. It’s like if Hannibal Lecter and Leatherface had a baby. The painting changes throughout the game to show the player’s progress, but also shows how the player’s choices (in finding different collectibles) changes the ending. I’m a sucker for multiple endings. I also appreciated the allusions to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which for a while misleads the player into thinking the painter fell into some sort of unholy bargain to stay a famous painter, which was fun to play around with.

    What it Gets Wrong: This game tries to make the story literal-ghost-free, the story being that the ghosts are really all inside the painter's head as a result from alcoholism and trauma. I say tries because time after time, they use settings and characters that all appear to be supernatural without then explaining why we saw them within the rules of real life. I’m pretty easy to persuade, and I love stories where I get to piece things together myself, but giving me ghosts, warped hellscapes, and the like without any bit of “hey, it’s a fever dream” or anything is too much of a reach. The plot gets warped with the DLC where the daughter lives, when upon the game’s initial release wasn’t clear if the daughter lived or died before the start of the game. Also, I didn’t like the sequel, it felt like an old Disney sequel where it imitated all the right stuff. It was fine enough the first time, but looking back, isn’t the same quality and doesn’t really work.

  3. 3. Bendy and the Ink Machine

    The Basics: Bendy and the Ink Machine started releasing “episodes” on April 27th, 2017 for PC, Mac, Xbox, and  PS4. The full collection of episodes was re-released on October 27th, 2018—now also available for Apple devices, Android devices, and the Nintendo Switch. This game follows vintage cartoonist, Henry, who is summoned back to the studio by his old boss, Joey Drew, under mysterious circumstances. Inside, Henry discovers that Joey has been using occult practices to bring ink-monsters to life, warp souls, and turn his studio into a sort of purgatory from which no one can escape.

    What I Like: Unlike the first two games on this list, Bendy doesn’t tell players if the demonic ink creations and purgatory are real. There's substantial evidence for that interpretation where Joey Drew became an evil Walt Disney and started dabbling in the occult to maintain control and power over his creations.There’s also a lot of indicators that this could all be a metaphor for how Henry never really got over the failure of Joey Drew Studios and their cartoons and keeps getting pulled back through all the old trauma and emotions. This game is also stylistically and aesthetically pleasing. The vintage cartoon style played into the creepy atmosphere and occult themes is unsettling and intriguing while also being visually striking. The voice acting is amazing as well. Each character feels real and unique, which is reflected in the character designs for those that we see on posters, in flashbacks, or in a transformed state. This game also doesn’t use jumpscares. Sometimes, when you turn a corner, a cute, happy, Bendy cardboard cutout will pop out in a sort of satirical take on the entire ‘jumpscare’ trope. This is super refreshing. All modern horror media seems to be populated with lazy jumpscares paired with audio cues that are meant to startle, not scare the viewer/player. 

    What it Gets Wrong: Literally nothing. My only complaint is that I got it during the Steam Summer Sale for $5, and my computer runs it with so much lag even on the lowest settings that it gives me motion sickness. So for PC/Mac users that don’t necessarily have the best computer build, it might not be playable (so get it for the Switch).

  4. 4. Amnesia: The Dark Descent

    The Basics: Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the oldest game on this list, was released on September 8th, 2010, and is what many people credit with creating the gaming side of YouTube. It’s dark, it’s gloomy, the graphics aren't that good, but come on, it was 2010. We’ve come a long with game engines and computer capabilities.The first time I played this game, I missed a lot of the story because I was too scared to explore the larger setting and often got turned around/lost, and then died. However, I'm no longer 12 years old and have since replayed the game while at University. The story is this: Daniel wakes up in a rotting castle with no memories, and only a note explaining he erased his own memories because he’s being tracked down by an evil shadow, and to escape he has to get into the castle’s secret sanctum and kill its baron. This would be easy except for all the monsters lurking about and the omnipresent darkness.

    What I Like: The only way to get the whole backstory on Daniel is to find his old diaries hidden around the castle. I’m a perfectionist and completionist by nature, and this played right into my desire to know the entire story and find all the things.The game has a “sanity” meter, which increases the longer Daniel is in the dark, and this game is very dark. Since video game technology has changed so much in the last decade, this game seems older than it is because of its graphics. It has a nice nostalgic feel to it, despite the fact that its only 9 years old (as of 2019). I have to note that the graphics aren’t even bad! They’re moody, stylized in a gothic aesthetic, and surprisingly realistic. Also, the monsters are awesome. The main monster is vaguely person-shaped, is super pale, but has a face that looks like it drooped and melted until it’s mostly this wide-open mouth, which is really striking.

    What it Gets Wrong: My only problem with this game is that the wider world of horror has a lot of set locations (forest, castle, victorian mansion, asylum/hospital, cemetery) and I understand sometimes that’s not important to the game, and sometimes it’s integral for symbolism and theming. However, I think this game was doing a lot of new things and could’ve taken it one step further with an unusual location. I like to think this game and story could’ve worked well underground in a series of tunnels with mole-people. But that might be because I’m disturbed and frightened by mole-people.

  5. 5. Until Dawn

    The Basics: Until Dawn released on August 25th, 2015 as a PS4 exclusive. This is the only game I don’t own the console for. I bought the game on sale at a discount store two years ago and play it in my University's game room (I don’t know what I’ll do when I graduate). The game features 8 characters, all of whom the player takes control of from a third person perspective. This group of teens are on top of a private mountain for a vacation, but instead are plagued by a masked killer and what appear to be supernatural forces. This game was revolutionary in the way it utilizes the butterfly effect, where any character can die at any given moment based solely on the player’s choices.

    What I Like: The title song is a version of “Conversations with Death,” (which is a dirge from Appalachia). Man of Medan (the sequel) has two more versions of this song, and all three absolutely SLAP. Also, Rami Malek plays a character in this game, and I love him. On a more serious note, one of the game’s trailers is an inspired short film done with a voiceover of “The Road not Taken,” which makes my literature-loving heart happy. This is done to reflect the choose-your-own-adventure style of the game where no two paths are the same. This gameplay style makes the game more of a movie with occasional divergences like Netflix’s Bandersnatch. The game starts out like any other slasher movie: a killer in the woods stalking a cabin of overly-sexualized teens. But, it’s able to de-mask the slasher early on and reveal an underlying supernatural villain in the Wendigo (which is one of my favorite pieces of indigenous folklore/cryptozoology). I liked, and loved, almost everything about this game.

    What it Gets Wrong: The motion capture done by the actors in the game falls in the uncanny valley and, at times, is scarier than the literal monsters and gore in the game. Also, Until Dawn received a sequel in the form of a VR Arcade-Shooter Ride, called Rush of Blood, that people loved and wanted expanded into a full game where the player explores Josh’s descent through the stages of hell. Instead, this past week, we were given The Man of Medan, a spiritual successor in the same style of Until Dawn, that is meant to link to a larger series of games called The Dark Picture Anthology. This game follows the legend of the Ourang Medan, a WWII ghost ship, and absolutely fails to mirror the supernatural/human twist from the first game. It tries to be clever by starting with a situation that appears to be supernatural but ends up having a rational, human explanation. Instead of feeling like a clever twist, this reversal falls flat and for me was an utter disappointment, since this replaced all possibilities of a direct sequel for Until Dawn.