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.
Left 4 Dead (PC, 360) is the current king of the hill when it comes to zombie apocalypse survival titles. With five unique story lines to play through (in the GOTY edition at least) and the option for custom campaigns and mods, this one's got legs and is a great investment. Valve incorporated special types of monstrosities into the mix, like Smokers who can lash out a 30-foot tongue to try to break up the group, or Boomers who's sticky projectile bile will focus zombie rushes on whomever it hits. Best of all, you can take the fight online with up to four-player co-op, with bots rounding out the foursome, and offering to let other players assume the role of the zombies themselves. SP or MP, this is an edge-of-your-seat experience, standing up to multiple play-throughs that don't always go the same way twice. The imposing sense of dread felt when you hear a huge pack of undead assailants bearing down on you from the shadows is almost palpable.
Clive Barker's Undying came out on PC back in 2001, and despite generally favorable reception from critics, it never caught on with players for some reason. Running on the original Unreal Engine, some very chilling lighting and visual effects were possible, ones that still work well to this day. Imagine being in a room where all the mirrors show your reflection except one, and upon closer examination, something from beyond the glass reaches out for you, or the reflection in another changes to something awful. How about descending a long staircase as the chandelier in the middle of the room continually casts ghastly shadows on the walls around you, or walking into a room and hearing children giggling even though no one is there. Be prepared for the occasional flashback to horrific events that took place within the walls of the mansion you're exploring. A combination of physical and magical attacks are acquired as the adventure unfolds, and you'll need everything in your arsenal to fell the baddies and make it to the end of the story in one piece.
The Silent Hill series debuted with the tale of a man wrecking his car on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and waking up to find his daughter missing. He tracks her to the small town of Silent Hill, where — per Murphy's Law — anything that can go wrong does. From murderous babies to nurses with knives, the creature designs are truly creepy and could keep you from sleeping for weeks. Some entries in the series revisit the sleepy little town from hell while others went in other directions, like The Room where a man finds himself trapped in his own apartment, the only ways out being portals to disturbing alternate worlds where he must gather clues about what's really happening to him. Not all the games in the franchise are as good as the rest, but each promises some good fright.
The Suffering (PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC) is about a mentally unstable man on death row, accused of a crime he may or may not have committed (play through to find out via unsavory flashbacks), suddenly confronted with ghosts and monsters invading the maximum security prison he's called home for several years. Is it all real or imagined? Are these merely his personal demons come to claim him? Play it and find out.
The Thing (PS2, Xbox, PC) came out on the 20th anniversary of the original film, and picks up shortly after where the John Carpenter classic leaves off. Fans of the movie will recognize the demolished research facility, as well as Childs' body sitting frozen in the snow. But where is MacReady, last seen sitting right next to him as the credits rolled? This and many other mysteries await as you begin exploring the remains of the facility (and besting baddies around every corner), with trust being a key element in the game. People you meet may be infected and turn into aliens at any time. Same with people who've been out of sight for more than a few minutes. While the experience doesn't capitalize on this gameplay mechanic as much as it could have, maintaining high levels of trust between you and your comrades is key to surviving. If they suspect you're infected, they won't help you in a firefight, and may even turn their weapons against you. Elements could be better, but it is definitely a fan service to the original story and builds on it admirably.
Rescue on Fractalus (Atari 800XL, Commodore 64) is probably the oldest game in this list, but despite its pixilated trappings, some good scares and tense moments await those willing to gear up and descend to the surface of Fractalus. As you rescue downed pilots and move on to harder areas, the locals get wise, donning the gear of the pilots you're trying to save in the hopes of bashing a fatal hole in your windshield, or worse yet, actually getting inside your ship and wreaking deadly havoc. Those moments as the refugee traipses over to your ship for either a quiet knock at the hull door, or something much worse are some of the most tense in my gaming memory, and my first surprise alien rearing up to smash the windshield scared me so bad I couldn't play the game again for quite some time. Granted, I was about 7 or 8 years old at the time.
Indigo Prophecy (PS2, Xbox, PC) begins when you wake up standing over a bloody corpse in a diner bathroom, knife in hand, with no recollection of how you got there or what had happened. From there, players alternate between playing the fleeting accused and the determined detective trying to piece together how these events transpired. There are taut moments throughout, and while it gets a little cuckoo toward the end, the bulk of it is as close as we've come to a true psychological thriller in gaming that doesn't simply resort to guts and gore or shock effect.
Condemned: Criminal Origins (PC, 360) and Condemned 2: Bloodshot (PS3, 360) builds on the thriller trappings of Indigo Prophecy, casting you as an FBI agent on the trail of gruesome murders perpetrated by serial killers, in an effort to bring them to justice. The sordid parts of town you must venture into for the sake of forensic investigation present tension and challenges as this is more about evasion than straight up combat; the sequel delves more into melee and other combat techniques, and accordingly makes your targets more aggressive and hostile. They make for some anxious moments and provide experiences unlike anything else.
Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (PS2, Xbox) follow a girl (or two in CB) into a haunted mansion (or village in CB) where spooks and spirits abound, hiding in the ample darkness, appearing only to attack, with your only defense being an old camera. Capturing the spectres on film weakens them and/or scares them off. Given the atmosphere and ambiance, it's very possible you'll have trouble turning out the lights and going to sleep shortly after dabbling in the world of Fatal Frame.
The F.E.A.R. franchise (PS3, 360, PC) doesn't just have a clever acronym; it's got some genuinely creepy moments and characters, not to mention devilish AI that will try to flank and out-maneuver you at every turn. Investigating the annihilation of a paramilitary force that infiltrated a pricey aerospace compound soon turns macabre as lights flicker on and off, demonic denizens lurk left and right, voices and screams echo from nowhere, and ultimately the creepy girl Alma will deny you many nights of easy sleep. There is a fair amount of gunplay involved, but the subtlety and execution of many tiny details will have you reaching for the Visine, too afraid to blink.
Alone in the Dark: Inferno (PS3) is the sort of Director's Cut of the game that debuted previously on 360, to critical disappointment. This version rounds off the rough edges and hones everything into a tight package of apocalyptic evil run amok. Set up like a television drama, each chapter of the story is separate, providing recaps at the beginning of what happened in the last episode, and allowing you to skip around if a particular chapter has you stumped. While it's a departure from the series roots of old and thankfully has nothing to do with the craptastic Uwe Boll film of the same name, it's worth checking out for survival horror fans. The demo hooked me quickly.
Eternal Darkness (GameCube) plays tricks on the player depending on the level of terror the on-screen avatar is currently experiencing. Hallucinations appear, controls go wonky, the environment shifts, and friends appear to be foes as you try frantically to keep a grip on your sanity. Exclusive to the GameCube and now somewhat hard to find, if you can, it'll play just fine on your newly snagged Wii with a classic or GC controller. Turn out the lights, turn up the sound, and prepare to get freaked out.
Manhunt (PS2, Xbox, PC) starts off with you getting executed in prison, then sees you waking up very alive, but in a desolate ghost town of a place. It proves to be the stage for the making of a snuff film with you as the star. Taking a frontal assault on your enemies is largely discouraged, and while many balked at it for having somewhat repetitive gameplay and the obviously offensive subject matter of filmed brutal executions, if you have the stomach for it, it's one of the most clever and wicked stealth-action titles out there. The level of severity of an execution is entirely up to the player, ramping from a simple suffocation with a plastic bag to adding stabbing the victim in the face, to ending it all with a skull-crushing blow with a baseball bat. So with the aggressive elements, why isn't this in the Monster Mash section? Because the key to the game is keeping a low profile, and being discovered can be the death of you, or at least having you running for your life from a pack of wild-eyed gang members. The stalk of your prey is the name of the game, with the finishers just being icing on the cake. The nigh orgasmic coaxing you get through an ear bud from your "host" (voice expertly by Brian Cox) makes it all the more unsettling. If you play the game wearing a headset yourself, you can taunt and lure out your prey by talking into the mic. Immersive, violent, and disturbing, what more could you want for Halloween?
At the other end of the spectrum we have games that aren't particularly scary or tense, but offer some quality monster blasting, bashing, and destroying. Creature designs may be top notch, or the game may put you in the shoes of the monster itself.
The Legacy of Kain series (PS1, PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PC) spans several games across numerous platforms, but the story is one of the better ones out there if you can keep up with it. You begin as Kain, a man lynched and sent to hell, who is offered a chance to return as a vampire to seek revenge on his assailants. From there, he reigns over the world, enlisting lieutenants to do his bidding. Among them is Raziel, who, in Soul Reaver, is cast into an acidic abyss for the "crime" of evolving faster than his master Kain. After acquiring the title weapon, he seeks to end Kain's reign of darkness. From there on out (through a few more games) you alternate roles, trying to set things right in the world (as Raziel) and then undo them again (as Kain), coming to a head in a final conflict (Defiance) requiring the two mortal enemies to unite against a common foe to protect their world from eternal damnation. Excellent storytelling, clever gameplay elements, environmental puzzles, and generally good voice acting make it a story worth playing, and the seminal vampire saga in video games to date.
Mutant League Football (Genesis) brings monsters, aliens, goblins, and more to the world of competitive sports. Designed to be over the top and ridiculous, not to mention hilarious at times, this is quite possibly the only football game I ever took to. Mines, lava pits, and other lethal obstacles are scattered all over the fields, which themselves range from hellish rock to alien worlds, making it so that the defensive line is the least of your worries. Exploding balls, referee bribery, insane audibles, jet packs, and murdering the quarterback are all part of your repertoire. You don't just play the game, you survive it.
The Doom series (PC, PS1, SNES, GBA, Xbox, 360, Game Boy Advance, Atari Jaguar, et al) began not so creepy, but offered satisfying gameplay for years, and really kicked off what the first-person shooter genre could become. Imps, flaming skulls, zombified troops, cacodaemons and much more laid between you and liberating Mars from the maw of hell. Chainsaws, shotguns, bazookas, plasma rifles, and the legendary BFG-9000 should make the task easier, though by no means easy. Get your ass to Mars, soldier!
Prototype (PC, PS3, 360) spent years in development at Radical Entertainment (the whiz kids behind the similarly enjoyable Hulk: Ultimate Destruction), and turned out to be a hell of a ride, in my opinion. You wake up as Alex Mercer in a Manhattan morgue, about to be cut open for autopsy, with no memory of how you got there, or the events of the last several months; one thing is for sure: everybody wants you dead. What follows is a devastating infection of the citizens of the Big Apple that the military can't control. Everybody's against you, from zombified citizens and a handful of other infected creatures (Hunters, Hydras, and the malevolent Elizabeth Greene) to the military and Blackwatch mercenaries, it's more than enough to kill a man. But Mercer is a man no longer. The infection has given him the ability to shapeshift and perform incredible acrobatic feats like sprinting up the sides of buildings and gliding through the air. Need to get into that military installation? Consume a commander and assume his identity, sneak in, and cut loose. Want to lose pursuers? Consume a citizen, drop out of sight, morph into them, and you're home free. You are the monster in this title, and from razor-sharp claws to giant club-fists, a bladed tentacle arm, aptly named devastator attacks, skyjacking helicopters, stealing tanks, and more, you are truly a force to be reckoned with. After an hour with Prototype, every other game just feels tame by comparison. Let the rage out; it's gonna be bloody.
Resident Evil 5 (PC, PS3, 360) is the latest in the survival horror genre. I suppose you're wondering why it's not up in the Bump in the Night section. Honestly, the series feels more about gunplay and blasting enemies apart than about an overall sense of dread or tense moments where baddies leap from nowhere. It's a perfectly serviceable shooter, though ammo shortages early on can make levels more challenging than you'll find them on repeat play-throughs. The visuals are top-notch and co-op play adds to the blasting fun, but by no means would I call this game particularly scary. Gross at times, sure, but unlikely to give you insomnia.
Clive Barker's Jericho (PC, PS3, 360) borrows some ideas from Undying, but expands them into a squad-based shooter set in a remote village in the desert, where a new evil has emerged and threatens the whole of humanity. With trademark Barker horror trappings and character designs standing against you, the squad of four — each with different weapons, abilities, and play styles — requires the player to switch between members depending on the situation. It was lamented for not having multiplayer or proper co-op play of any kind since it seemed like a no-brainer for the overall design, but still functions as an entirely passable gun-toting adventure into the macabre.
Splatterhouse (Arcade, TurboGrafx-16, Wii Virtual Console) is up for a remake in the next year or two on PS3 and 360, but in the meantime you can check it out in its classic gory glory. Ever wonder what would happen if you smacked someone really hard with a nail-encrusted two-by-four? Splatterhouse lets you carry out such fantasies, with blood, guts, and side-scrolling brawler action taking center stage. It won't win any awards for story or character development, but the visceral moment-to-moment gameplay more than makes up for it. Get to smacking monsters!
Parasite Eve (PS1) was a cinematic marvel in its day, a product of the Squaresoft studio that continually produced stunning computer-generated imagery. The story itself pits a police detective against an evil monstrosity, the two bonded in some way (that's for you to figure out), and the bond will last until one of them dies. Real-time combat with customizable weapons, abilities, and armor gave it a bit more of an RPG feel than adventure, though it certainly straddled the line. This has become a definite classic and collector's item. A sequel came out in 2000, two years after the original, and addressed some issues with the original's combat system, though was generally considered to have a less compelling storyline.
Whew! Heck of a list, wouldn't you say? I'm sure there are other titles you'd like to see discussed, either ones I overlooked or lesser-known cult classics that deserve recognition in some fashion, and I welcome such titles and conversations in the comments below.