Horror is a tricky genre; it's really easy to get your game billed as "horror," just by throwing zombies and blood into it, but the best horror games are the ones that evoke a genuine feeling of dread, discomfort, and, well, horror. A lot of so-called "horror" games aren't really scary or horrifying, and it always boggles my mind that these faux horror games always top the mainstream "best horror games" lists.
So here's my pick of the games that best capture the essence of horror. As an added bonus, I'll even throw in a couple of honorable mentions to titles that accomplish some of the crucial aspects of horror, despite not being full-on horror games.
I already covered this one in-depth in a separate article for "great games you never played," but the quick run-down is that Obscure plays like a traditional survival-horror game, much like the original Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill games. You play as five students trapped in their high school as they search for a lost friend and eventually become subjects of a sinister experiment. Obscure has the usual elements of sudden scares, weird creepy monsters, and a dark gruesome atmosphere, but what really sets it apart from its brethren is its survival emphasis.
This is one game where there are fewer bullets and healing items than there are enemies, requiring item-hording and resource management, and you even have a limit on how many times you can save the game. It nearly suffocates you with its survival mechanics, presenting a consequence for nearly everything you do, ensuring that each of your actions is crucial and will weight for or against you in the long run. A lot of the horror, here, comes from trying to anticipate what's going to happen and constantly pulling yourself out of the rock and the hard place.
But on top of that, each character can die. Permanently. You can switch between characters in the central courtyard (each one has unique abilities that aid you in different ways), and you only need one living character to beat the game, but it adds tremendously to the survival-horror experience knowing that each character is truly mortal. No sissy "game over" screens until every last character is dead.
#5. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
This one practically invented the sanity meter. The actual gameplay is pretty simple and primitive, not much to write home about. Sure there are walking corpses and monsters about, things that might be scary if the gameplay and camera angles played up to them more, but this stuff isn't all that special. What's unique about Eternal Darkness is that as your character experiences trauma and stress, as things start to really get to her, the game starts to mess with you. The player.
When the sanity meter gets low, weird things start to happen. The walls might start bleeding, paintings or busts of people might start watching you. Sometimes you'll walk into a room only for your head to suddenly fall off and then recite Hamlet, or you'll enter a room on the ceiling, or assume control of a shambling corpse. Best of all is when the game starts messing with the interface; slowly dropping the volume down to zero, as if you're sitting on the remote control, faking a power outage where the TV cuts off, or "deleting" your save files. It's a game where the horror exists between you and the screen, and that's something that hasn't really been done before or since.
#4. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
This one takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft, whose idea of horror is that things in the universe can be so alien and unknowable to us that we lose our sanity at the mere sight or presence of them. It's an angle of horror that pushes you to the edge of humanity, all by probing things in your sub-conscience, tearing you apart from within your own mind. This is perhaps the deepest root of horror, and the first third of Call of Cthulhu really strives to go for this effect.
You play as a detective recently released from an insane asylum, brought to the town of Innsmouth on a job to find a missing person. But the town drips with discomfort. You feel lonely and vulnerable in a town full of strange people who want nothing to do with you. Everyone looks slightly twisted and mutated and they try to shirk you off at every possible opportunity. The dread grows deeper once you realize they might be conspiring to get rid of you, and panic sets in when they ambush you in your own hotel bed, frantically fleeing from death as strange monsters start pursuing you.
The adventure continues further and further into hardcore Lovecraftian territory, but it loses a lot of its effect once it turns into a stealth/shooter game. Some moments are still disturbing, like when a giant sea monster starts thrashing your boat and all hope of survival seems lost, but the slow, creepy buildup with the haunting, discomforting town gets under your skin in ways that other horror games never accomplish.
#3. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Here you play as Ethan Thomas, a forensic investigator of the Serial Crimes Unit, following the apparent trail of a serial killer. Things take a turn for the worse at your first crime scene (of the game) as a psycho murders an FBI agent and a local police officer with your own gun, thus framing you for the murders. The rest of the game has you fleeing from the cops, pursuing the killer who framed you (who turns out to be a serial killer killing other serial killers with their own unique MO's), and proving your own innocence.
In a stark contrast to Lovecraftian horror, Condemned roots itself more in reality. You're just an ordinary agent working a typical case in an ordinary city, that just happens to be in the heat of a crime wave brought on by roaming bands of lunatics and drug-addicts. Your journey takes you through the most depraved parts of town where everything is dilapidated and violent psychos run wild. It's not scary because of blatant gore and violence (although there is plenty of that), it's frightening because of the uncanny resemblance to reality. Everything is normal, but just slightly wrong.
Some good scripted scares come into play with this game, but the most horrifying moments come from the unscripted elements. This is a game about tension, with atmosphere so thick and immersing as you wander alone in weird, creepy places, looking out for bad guys and slowly losing your sanity, that even slight scuffling noises can startle and frighten you. No joke: my scariest moment was anticipating an enemy to jump out at me and hearing a box fall off a shelf, frantically running away and hearing more noises behind me, only to find out that I'd bumped that box and kept running into more things as I ran away like a little girl.
#2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
From the masters of Frictional Games, Amnesia may be the best horror game of all time. This is a game that understands what makes horror scary. A defenseless player feels vulnerable and has no choice but to run from threats, thus establishing panicking moments as you fear for life and hope the thing isn't coming after you any more; seeing less of a monster stimulates your imagination, because you're not really sure what it is and your mind fills in the gaps; and scary, climactic moments work best with a slow and steady build-up.
The scariest enemy in the game invisible. You have no idea what it is and you can only tell that it's coming for you because of how it splashes water in the environment. It's terrifying almost entirely because of the mystery element. Amnesia is in a long list of horror games with sanity meters, and here the meter plays more of a role than just causing a "game over" or only affecting aesthetics. Looking at enemies too long or hiding in darkness (where enemies can't see you) causes you to lose sanity, and besides the disorienting effects, it causes your controls to lag and feel cumbersome, which contributes to the sense of dread and panic when death is closing in on you.
#1. Silent Hill 2
I didn't think much of Silent Hill 2 the first time I played it. It wasn't overtly scary to me, but had nice tension and pacing, and so I passed it off as a functionally competent survival-horror. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that SH2 really stuck with me. What makes it really stand out is the story and premise, with everything seemingly a projection of James Sunderland's own guilty conscience, out to punish himself for the horrific things he's done in the past.
From the very beginning, the game presents itself in a weird, unsettling sort of way. The fog makes the town feel very isolated and claustrophobic, the enemies are basically two pairs of legs sown together at the waist (which is disturbing enough by itself), and the very presence of Pyramid Head, this monstrous-looking thing that lurks in the background and stalks you throughout the game is the icing on the cake. It's so unnerving when you see him at the end of a hallway, behind a set of steel bars, just out of reach and just watching you. And then you get trapped with him in a very small room with his very big sword.
So SH2 plays like any conventional survival-horror game of the time; slow movement speed, limited combat prowess, puzzle-solving, etc, but its depth of meaning is what makes the experience more haunting than what you experience in, say, the Resident Evil series. This is a psychological game that doesn't necessarily creep you out or get under your skin, but it shows you a darker side of humanity that might lurk within all of us, and that can be truly unsettling.
* Honorable Mentions *
I can only talk about the games that I've actually played, but there are some games that seem to have nearly unanimous praise when it comes to horror. I've always heard good things about Fatal Frame and System Shock 2, but have yet to experience them myself. I own copies of each game, though, so hopefully I'll get around to them one day. They're mostly here so that no one can freak out about them being omitted. If you have your own opinions on them, feel free to describe them in the comments.
The next couple mentions aren't really horror games, but have an underlying horror aspect to them. They're the kinds of games you wouldn't consider all that scary, but have some nice creepy, dark, or otherwise horrific undertones.
* The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
At its core, Majora's Mask is secretly a horror game. The whole game is about death and tragedy, with you trying to save the lives of everyone against an inevitable destruction. You can literally watch as everyone dies, and several characters actually do die before your very eyes. The whole atmosphere is dark and moody, and features some relatively graphic and disturbing imagery, such as the mask transformations, the twisted and soulless deku spout in the very beginning, the death of Mikau, the entire Ikana canyon. It's never truly scary or horrifying, but it's very, very dark.
* STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
Set in the irradiated vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the radiation has turned all sorts of creatures into disturbing mutants and causes all kinds of paranormal anomalies in the environment. Any time you go into underground tunnels or facilities, you're in for some serious frights, and other areas of the game are so full of weird things that you just want to get out of there as quickly as possible. On the whole, though, the game is about survival in an oppressive, hostile atmosphere much like Silent Hill. Just existing within the game space proves to be a very tense experience because you're always vulnerable to some kind of harm.
Pathologic is the story of a dying city. You play as one of three possible "healers" who have come to the town just before a deadly plague breaks out. What unfolds is pretty gruesome as the plague literally sweeps through infected districts of the town with people going crazy, or more often just writhing on the ground in pain. It's pretty bad to watch the town succumb to the disease day after day, the deathtoll rising every night. But not only are you tasked with saving this town, you also have to struggle to keep yourself alive, by maintaining your health, immunity, hunger, stamina, reputation, and infection levels. It's a tough economy where sometimes you have to sell your only pistol just for a few scraps of food. Even though it's not a true horror game, the experience can be fairly horrific.
* Dishonorable Mentions *
And just to round the list off with a few wags of my finger, there are some so-called "horror" games that aren't really horror games at all. Sure they've got blood n guts n zombies and what not, but that's not what makes a horror game. The likes of BioShock, Resident Evil 5, Dead Space, Dead Rising, and Left 4 Dead (basically anything with "Dead" in the title, which may include Dead Island, though I haven't played it to be sure) are all faux horror games.
And these are the games that are usually at the top of mainstream "Top Horror Games" lists. The big problem with these games is that they're all mostly action games with horror themes. It's hard to feel vulnerable and scared in these games where you have a shotgun to kill anything in sight, in these games that are designed specifically for you to be able to survive and be the valiant hero throughout.
All of the games in my list of favorites feature some kind of combat (except for Amnesia), but the combat is almost always secondary to other factors; it's never the focal point of the experience. One game in my list does, however, have a serious emphasis on the combat: Condemned. It's ultimately a brutal action game, but for starters it does actually try to be scary. Secondly, you're only ever equipped with improvised melee weapons where you're frantically bashing peoples' skulls in trying to survive, so it's not like you're a heavily armed space marine or something. And finally, you're not a valiant hero.
So, yeah, I get kind of annoyed whenever I see these dishonorable mentions in the top 5 of any horror list, because they're really not the cream of the crop.