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If you like being scared, these horror games might be right up your alley.
Video games have come a long way from the early point-and-click adventures that popularized gaming back in the ’70s and ’80s. These days, games come in all shapes and sizes, from the hyper-realistic to the playfully cartoonish. Many horror games indulge players’ macabre side, residing primarily in the realm of realism for the sake of inducing fear.
We at the Dot love horror–be it in books, movies or video games–so we soaked up many of these titles with a certain masochistic pleasure. After many a sleepless night, we compiled a list of our favorite heart-stopping, nightmare-inducing horror games.
You might want to leave the lights on when you venture into these petrifying worlds.
The best horror games
There is no shortage of horror games to choose from. Excellent releases like The Last of Us and Bioshock have their fair share of terrifying moments, but the entries on this list are in a league of their own. These titles give players very little relief from utter, panic-inciting horror. For those sadists looking to curl up on the couch and give themselves a heart attack or two, look no farther than these genuinely frightening gems.
Resident Evil 2 (2019 Remake)
Play it: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
The Resident Evil franchise created the zombie horror video game genre as we know it. While the early games are known for their clunky controls and awkward camera angles, this remake of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield’s foray into the zombie-infested Raccoon City updated its gameplay for a much more modern experience.
The remake is faithful to the original, but the updated aspects—over the shoulder camera angles and much, much simpler controls—make it more palatable to a wide audience. There is never enough ammo in this game, forcing players to conserve what they find for more challenging enemies. The shift to action-style gameplay in later Resident Evil releases was met with disappointment from fans of the horror aspect of this series. Thankfully, the Resident Evil 2 remake sticks to the more challenging, and frightening, appeal that made the original so popular.
Players can roam Raccoon City as either rookie cop Leon Kennedy and college student Claire Redfield. The two characters offer different gameplay experiences, and—as with the original—both must be completed to access the campaign’s true ending. Zombie dogs, immortal juggernauts, and mutated scientists await players around nearly every corner. And with updated graphics, the ensuing gore is all-too-real.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Play it: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
In a sharp turn from the first six Resident Evil installments, Biohazard feels like a slow-burning nightmare with no real escape. Even in early releases, the Resident Evil games gave players plenty of opportunities to collect ammo, take down enemies and, most importantly, escape. In Biohazard, all of that goes out the window.
The first-person camera in this game allows players to really feel like they are living the story. Emphasizing exploration over action, Biohazard forces players to hide and sneak in lieu of using weapons. Save points are few and far between, even more so depending on the level of difficulty selected. Biohazard encourages players to use their environment, particularly considering the lack of weapons and resources at your disposal.
Play as Ethan Winters, a regular Joe intent on locating his missing wife Mia. Ethan’s search takes him to the derelict home of the Baker family, where he manages to find his wife as well as the cannibalistic residents of the home. A confusing, terrifying journey unfolds as Ethan strives to understand the strange situation he finds himself in. We won’t go into too much detail in interest of preserving the surprise, but know that Biohazard is considered one of the most frightening horror games to date.
Play it: PlayStation 4, PC
When it comes to horror games, there is nothing like an open-world survival setting to really hammer home the fear. Games like Biohazard give players a relatively small field of gameplay–which provides at least the impression of comfort, as the space gradually becomes familiar and, if not comfortable, at least easier to navigate. In The Forest, players are plunged into a strange wooded area populated by eerie mutants, with no shelter or sense of comfort.
Like Biohazard, The Forest places the players in a first-person setting with little to no idea how to protect themselves. A plane crash at the outset of the game leaves you disoriented and alone, with the simple task of finding your child, who was taken by cannibals as you lay wounded. Once you venture into the world, however, be warned—these cannibals are not the simple antagonists of your typical horror game. The characters learn as you play, and adapt to your gameplay style.
You can live as a nomad, sneaking through bushes and trees to conceal your presence, or gather resources and build a fortress. No matter what you do, the cannibals will be watching. They recognize changes in their environment, from fires to chopped down trees, and can use these things to hunt you down.
Rather than aggressively attack like your average video game baddie, these intelligent antagonists will follow you from a distance, and gather information to return to their companions. Deciding to hole up won’t keep you safe for long, either. Food and water are necessary to your survival, and when you venture back into the world you can bet the cannibals will be waiting.
Even losing to a horde of blood-soaked cannibals won’t see the end to your horror. Once they’ve knocked you unconscious, the villains in The Forest give players one last chance for escape. You’ll awaken, stripped of any resources you had, in the underground caverns they call home. With nothing but a lighter, you can attempt to escape the pitch-black caves, but cannibals are still lurking around nearly every turn.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Play it: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac
First-person perspective is a common factor when it comes to horror games. Playing over-the-shoulder as an established character is always fun, but nothing matches the immersion of experiencing a game from directly behind the camera. Amnesia takes this approach but adds additional factors into gameplay for players to consider.
Interacting with objects in this game is not as simple as it might seem on the surface. Merely clicking on an object—a door, for instance—is not enough. Instead, players have the enhanced ability to push and pull. This allows for a better ability to sneak, as you can peer through partially opened doors or glance around a corner.
The unfortunate side to this, however, is that—like in real life—some objects don’t react the way you expect them to. There is nothing quite like accidentally pushing on a ‘pull’ door with a baddie only steps away to really get the blood pumping.
On top of the challenging gameplay, players have more than their health bar to consider in Amnesia. Main character Daniel’s sanity must also be monitored, with things like prolonged darkness and witnessing monsters or unsettling events pushing him closer to insanity.
There is no access to weapons in Amnesia, so players must hide or flee if noticed by monsters. This makes staying in the dark an appealing concept, if not for the damage it does to Daniel’s psyche. The character gradually develops as players take him deeper into an eerie castle, where diaries and notes unravel the mystery behind his memory loss.
Play it: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch
Most truly frightening horror games have a few things in common. Perhaps the most important is a sense of helplessness, which really forces players to immerse themselves in the gameplay. Outlast absolutely delivers in this respect, completely disallowing any kind of combat.
Outlast is all about stealth. Aside from a complete lack of weapons or way to defend themselves–players don’t even get a health bar to gauge how well they’re doing. Instead, they are forced to outrun or hide from any enemy they cross paths with. Players can hide in a variety of areas, from lockers and under beds to the shadows cast by nearby objects.
Assume the role of investigative journalist Miles Upshur, who made the terrible decision to visit a ramshackle psychiatric hospital in Colorado. In order to see in the near-constant darkness, players must use the night vision on an equipped camcorder. This will gradually drain the batteries, however, so proceed with caution.
In order to continue use of the camcorder, players will need to collect batteries from throughout the building. The found-footage style enhances Outlast‘s gameplay, balancing with Miles’ helplessness to create a heart-pounding experience.
Play it: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 & 4, PC
This game is a must-play for fans of Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. Carefully crafted to mimic the feel of the first Alien installment, Isolation forces players to avoid detection by a single xenomorph, who cannot be defeated in combat. A number of other enemies, from androids to hostile humans can be engaged, but the game encourages players to rely on stealth rather than combat.
Players are often forced to run or hide, but a number of weapons will eventually be available for use. Guns, bombs and even a flame thrower can be employed, but are not the emphasis of the game. Instead, players are encouraged to use vents, ladders and hidden areas to avoid detection. A number of craftable items can be used to your advantage as well, however many of them also come with a handicap.
Follow Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda as she searches for the lost flight recorder from her mother’s ship. In typical Alien fashion, Amanda and her companions quickly find themselves in dire peril from an alien presence. Characters are gradually picked off by the menacing creature, as well as the other lurking dangers. With the same ’70s vibe to it, the game feels like a love letter to the original Alien movie.
Play it: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Another space-oriented game, Dead Space is considered one of the greatest video horror games of all time. Fight through the reanimated corpses of the brutally slaughtered crew of a spaceship, but don’t rely on typical zombie games for pointers.
In Dead Space, a headshot will do little more than disorient the reanimated Necromorphs. Instead, players must dismember the alien scourge using a variety of salvaged weapons. Deviating from first-person perspective, Dead Space places the player at an over the shoulder third-person angle.
Several abilities, such as with the main character Stasis, allows for intriguing gameplay options. Slow down time, navigate zero-gravity environments, and traverse toxic environments as you engage the twisted Necromorphs. A number of improvised tools can be used in combat, and workbenches allow upgrading of gear as the game progresses. Enemies thought dead might reanimate on a second foray into an area, so double-tapping should be considered standard practice.
Play as engineer Isaac Clarke, one of the sole survivors aboard the USG Ishimura. While the ship initially appears to be abandoned, Isaac and his companions quickly discover the presence of the Necromorphs. Thus begins a mad fight to stop the spread of the strange alien virus, which causes violent hallucinations and hysteria. The player, as Isaac, strives to protect the remaining crew and discover an escape from the hellscape of a ship.
Silent Hill Franchise
Play it: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 2 & 3, PC
We tried to determine a single Silent Hill entry to add to this list, but ultimately they all deserve a spot for different reasons. This popular franchise of horror games often relies on relatable ‘everyman’ characters to tell the story. In several installments, a number of potential endings are possible, depending on decisions made in-game.
The Silent Hill games all use third-person camera angles and rely heavily on puzzle-solving to find solutions to problems. Most characters are equipped with a flashlight, which assists in illuminating the perpetually foggy world while also alerting monsters. A radio is also usually equipped, which alerts players to the presence of monsters by emitting static. Many creatures are too powerful to engage, forcing players to flee or hide in order to survive.
This franchise also introduced us to one of the most recognizably terrifying monsters in horror game history: the pyramid head. The balance of trauma, insanity and horror make many of these games feel like a purposeful mind-trip.
Often, players will find themselves questioning the background and even motives of the characters they are controlling. Carefully ambiguous storylines keep players guessing to the very end, and the excellently crafted, slow-burning horror works its way under your skin and refuses to let go.
Nahila Bonfiglio reports on geek culture and gaming. Her work has also appeared on KUT's Texas Standard (Austin), KPAC-FM (San Antonio), and the Daily Texan.