The scariest games frighten us through a combination of atmosphere, narrative and plain shock factor. These had us reaching for a new pair of pants on a regular basis.
Fear is an odd thing. We're hard-wired to avoid it at all costs, but there is very little in life that gives us the same rush of adrenaline as absolute terror. Games that utilise fear for this very reason are a very careful balancing act - and the horror factor only works if you care about the narrative.
The games before you are not just about simple shocks. They range wildly from mind-messing psychological thrillers to post-apocalyptic horror, but they all have one thing in common - they'll scare the living cheesy corn-based snacks off you.
The best survival horror games are often the simplest, something that is definitely true with Outlast. You play as a journalist, who heads out to, as you do, investigate a remote psychiatric hospital situated deep in the mountains of Colorado. During the game you cannot perform combat, so you have to hide and avoid the terrors that come your way, using only your night vision camera as an aid. It has that ‘found-footage’ style and is truly terrifying. Probably best to play with the light on, and someone close by for comfort.
Virtual versions of one our favourite horror films have been fairly dull, but Isolation is a tense stealth game deserving of the Alien name. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the hero from the movies as you search a deserted space station to track down a lost flight recorder. One small issue though, there’s a blood thirsty Alien on the loose that’s hunting you down. Isolation does a few things well, especially the mechanic that means you can’t actually kill the Alien, you just have to dodge and avoid it. It feels distinctly like the original film, rather that the more action packed sequel.
Resident Evil 4
While it’s development was long and arduous, Resident Evil 4 stands as one of the finest survival horror games ever and one of the games that really made third person shooters mainstream. Originally a GameCube exclusive, the skin-crawling European set adventure boasted fantastic characters, a gripping story and strong gameplay.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
The year is 1839 and you play as Daniel, an amnesiac who wakes in Brennenburg Castle with a letter, from himself, stating he deliberately wiped his own memory and instructing himself to murder Alexander, the Baron of the castle. Daniel only remembers three things: his name, where he lives and that something is hunting him. There is no combat mechanic, so you are forced to hide, and to run. As Daniel spends more time in the dark hiding from monsters, he gradually descends into insanity, seeing and hearing things that aren’t there.
Slender is a free first person survival horror game based around the urban legend of the Slenderman, a tall, faceless, suit wearing individual who makes a habit of abducting children. In the middle of a dark wood, you have to collect 8 cryptic notes explaining the true terror of the Slenderman, before succumbing to his horror. It is a chilling game with incredible atmosphere that greatly succeeds in furthering the terror spread by the urban legend.
Cry of Fear
Cry of Fear is a first person survival horror mod of Half Life utilising Valve’s source engine. You play Simon, another amnesiac who wakes in a dark alley in a twisted version of Stockholm. Desperate to find out if he has gone insane, Simon will confront horrific creatures to get to the truth. Although based of the source engine and maintaining Half Life’s stellar combat mechanics, Cry of Fear is a total conversion mod and utilises new tools and abilities, making for a chilling experience.
Set in a dark and distant future, mankind has the ability to “crack” planets: literally crack a planet open and harvest its resources. When a religious artefact related to a twisted cult is discovered on the planet Aegis VII, The Ishimura mining ship goes dark. Isaac Clarke, whose girlfriend is stationed aboard The Ishimura, is part of the engineering team sent to uncover what is really going on. What follows is, in our humble opinion, one of the best and most terrifying gaming experiences of the last decade.
Rockstar London’s psychological horror game follows Daniel Lamb and his escape from Dixmor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Daniel is an amnesiac and his journey brings him face to face with insane inmates and mysterious, deadly organisations. The gameplay centres on stealth combat and brutal third person “executions”. What makes Manhunt 2 a truly frightening game is the “horror film” setting which provides the perfect atmosphere to compliment the game's gut wrenching brutality.
Penumbra: The Black Plague
The Black Plague is the second instalment of the Penumbra series of first person survival-horror games. Penumbra is the spiritual prequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and both games are developed by Swedish studio Frictional Games. Penumbra follows Phillip and his unsettling journey through an underground research base. Much like Amnesia, combat mechanics are shelved in favour of puzzles, stealth and just plain running away to survive at all costs.
SCP: Containment Breach
SCP: Containment Breach is a free first person survival horror game currently in Alpha testing. You play an SCP containment site worker when something goes catastrophically wrong, leaving you trapped inside the darkened facility with something lurking behind you. Do you try escape? Or find out what’s going on? SCP: Containment Breach features randomly generated levels and “perma-death” meaning once you die, your save file is deleted and you must start over again. This adds a whole new layer of depth to the intensity of the horror, knowing that every threat is potentially your end.
Silent Hill 3
Silent Hill 3 follows Heather, adopted daughter to Harry Mason who ten years prior to the events of the game defeated a god brought forth by the cult of Silent Hill. Set in the aforementioned Silent Hill, a place shrouded in fog and evil, Heather attempts to discover the truth about her father and why the cult of Silent Hill is following her. With gritty hand to hand combat, exploration and puzzle solving in a dreary, twisted universe, Silent Hill 3 is intensely unnerving.
Siren: Blood Curse
Siren: Blood Curse is a 3rd person, over the shoulder survival horror game from Project Siren. Recently released episodically on the Playstation Network, the story focuses on an American Television crew in Japan looking for a lost village where supposedly human sacrifices took place. Whether solving puzzles, fighting or fleeing the undead, Siren: Blood Curse offers a blood curdling narrative with the most tense of atmospheres.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Stalker is an open world FPS from Ukrainian developer GSC. In an alternate reality, a second disaster in Chernobyl has caused widespread mutation leading to the creation of a race of mutant animals. You play an amnesiac (who saw that coming?) and you’re forced to search the post-apocalyptic wasteland to discover the strange truth about “The Zone” and why you are referred to as a “Marked One”.