Have haunted houses become too cheesy and passe for your tastes? Scary movies just not getting it done for you anymore? Sometimes an interactive digital adventure is just what the doctor ordered. Whether it's taut tension you seek or blasting monsters limb from limb, my hope is that this list will feature something for every taste and platform.
It was once argued that scary movies are more traumatizing because the stimuli keeps coming at you unless you actively stop it (press pause), whereas games were less effective because the terror depends entirely upon players to press on, to make things happen. However, it's exactly that requirement of action that I think can — in certain situations anyway — make scary games leave an even greater impact, since the horrible repercussions of action or inaction are your choices. You can't bemoan the lead character for running up the stairs when they should be going out the front door. You're there, in the fracas, fighting for your life, and the virtual experiences detailed below should offer some of the most satisfying experiences of this sort.
The systems on which these games appear are listed for reference, some recent, some from the distant past. One thing remains true, though: being afraid is instinctual and can be fun. And while visual and aural fidelity have improved over time, it just goes to show that you don't need crazy effects to elicit a simple frightened reaction.
Bump in the Night
These are the kinds of games that rely on tension, jump-out scares, things lurking, fear of the unknown, and all around creepiness, where shadows are almost as terrifying as what might be hiding within them, just waiting for you to come a little...bit...closer.
Dead Space (PS3, 360, PC; Extraction on Wii) takes some cues from movies like Event Horizon, where isolation in space is the least of your fears, though still a very relevant one. Isaac Clarke and a team of investigators dock with a seemingly abandoned spacecraft to explore the whereabouts of its crew, only to find things much, much worse than they expected inside. A combination of horrific enemy designs, unexpected scares, and tough challenges await any brave enough to pick up the controller.
Resident Evil 2 (PS1, GameCube, N64, Dreamcast) elevated the experience of the original, a title that has only grown cheesier over the years but remains one of the pillars and founding members of the survival horror genre. This title sported two unique story lines (Leon and Claire) that were actually affected by one another (items you picked up in one didn't appear for the other). Rough aspects of the previous RE game were polished up, and there are some spectacular jump-out scares to be had (two-way mirror in the interrogation room, anyone?) as well as improved monster designs and boss characters. It's aged a little since its heyday, but still holds up all right, considering the control scheme it continued to use was missed by no one when it was abandoned in RE4.