If you’d like to be scared shitless tonight, you’ve come to the right place.
Horror is a bit like comedy. What scares one person might not scare another person. Have you tried explaining why a joke is funny? It’s a bit like explaining why a monster is scary.
But there’s something undeniably attractive about horror, especially horror games. It’s a safe place to experience an adrenaline rush, an opportunity to flirt with the existential nightmare that is inevitable death. It is also, by far, the best possible use of a huge stack of cheap beer.
Let’s be clear. This list is not about honoring and recognizing the horror genre’s historical milestones. Resident Evil and Silent Hill remain important horror games, but if you’re simply looking to download a video game and scream on the couch with a beverage in hand, this list will serve you well. Eternal Darkness? System Shock 2? Aliens vs. Predator? I love you, I’ll always love you, but without a dose of hypnotic nostalgia, you’re not scary anymore.
This list will also be updated as new horror games are released! Or, in the case of former horror king P.T., ripped from the world’s downloadable storefronts.
With that said, here’s the list. Good luck!
1. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
When I saw the credits roll on Amnesia, it felt like I’d earned the kind of t-shirt you buy at the end of a rollercoaster. “I survived The Dark Descent.” I’m still not sure how I managed to make it through the infamous water sequence without screaming. Getting to the end is a harrowing journey, a slow-moving exploration into a perturbed mansion with many secrets to hide. To survive, you must hide. To hide, you must remain in the dark.... but the dark makes you go mad. That means that to avoid dying, you must flirt with death for as long as you can. Devilish.
Even if you’re over the found footage thing, Outlast is scary as hell. You’re a journalist entering into an insane asylum with nothing more than your wits and a night vision camera. Most of the game takes place in the dark, which means the camera becomes your best buddy. The camera’s batteries run out quickly, forcing you to choose wisely. It’s about hiding, watching, and running very, very fast. Everything is out to get you, and in the DLC expansion, there’s a sequence that involves cutting off your...well, you’ll see.
3. Five Nights at Freddy’s
Welcome to the jump-scare factory. Five Nights at Freddy’s has a comfortable predictability that makes it so utterly effective. Pretty much every game of FNAF’s ends with a mechanical demon screaming at the screen and running at you. Every time, it will result in you nearly falling out of your chair. It’s easy to call the game’s scares cheap, but it’s more subtle than that. FNAF’s represents some elegant game design. The jump scares are a consequence for failure. In most horror, jump scares work because you don’t see them coming. In FNAF can see every jump scare from a mile away, but that’s what makes it frightening. If you screw up, if you forget about a room, it’s time to cover your eyes.
4. Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly is one of the few games here transcends the advance of technology. There have been several Fatal Frame games since Crimson Butterfly, but the second one remains the definitive take on horror photography. In Fatal Frame, enemies are omnipresent: they’re ghosts. You can’t touch them, sometimes you can’t see them, yet they’re always there. It’s trendy in horror to strip attacking, but Fatal Frame proposes an interesting compromise. The Camera Obscura, is a magical device capable of hurting spirits. The game’s played through a third-person perspective until combat begins, in which everything moves into first-person and you’re suddenly firing photography bullets at creepy phantoms. Ugh.
5. Siren: Blood Curse
Years later, I’ll still think about a few sequences in Siren: Blood Curse and shudder. Anyone who’s played Blood Curse will remember approaching the church and know what I’m talking about. Fuck that. Like Fatal Frame, Siren’s always been able to differentiate itself with a neat mechanic that no one else has picked up on. The trick is that you’re able to hop into the minds of the enemies around you. You can leap from enemy to enemy to learn the map, and when you’re looking through the eyes of the menacing Shibito, the screen splits in half. In Siren, the enemies are—for a brief time—your friends. Without them, there’s no way to survive.
6. Alien: Isolation
Games have not been kind to Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s monster from deep space. Hell, the movies haven’t done right by the xenomorph in ages, either. It seemed unfathomable that someone could make the primordial alien scary again, but Alien: Isolation pulled it off. (Our review here.) Several times, my wife straight up walked out of the room because she was tired of screaming while I was playing. Sure, Alien: Isolation sticks around 10 hours too long, but the highs outweigh the lows by a hefty margin. Be warned: I hope you like sulking in stuffy lockers and patiently waiting to die.
7. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Brutal. That’s Condemned. Plenty of games take place in the first-person, but precious few make the experience as raw and unnerving as this one. The game makes you feel the buckling crunch of your knuckles as a right hook collides with someone’s face, and bristle at the devastating impact a pipe can have when swung swiftly at the human elbow. The story somehow devolves into an alien conspiracy and other stupidity, but that hardly matters when you’re in the midst of a fist fight underneath the city streets. What remains remarkable about Condemned is how the A.I. will try to mess with you by running away and hiding. In a game with minimal lighting and plentiful shadows, this prompted many “oh, shit” moments.
8. Dead Space
The Dead Space series has been on a steady decline since the first game, and my personal preference of Dead Space over Dead Space 2 is pretty similar to the split between fans of Alien and Aliens. (Alien is the right answer, but I’m trying to be civil here.) Dead Space relies on the element of surprise; it knows how to tease out the moments where a seven-armed thing finally pops out of a vent. You’ll walk down a hallway for long stretches, the screechy violens building in the background. You’ll hear creatures rustle in the vents. The tension builds to a breaking point. If you’re lucky, the game offers the satisfaction of killing whatever was moving around you. Often, though, the game keeps its monstrosities in the shadows, forcing you to cautiously walk through the next door, not knowing when a screaming death will finally appear.
Otherwise known as the best horror game no one played, ZombiU introduced a slew of fresh ideas to the horror genre few games have picked up on since. You will die a lot. The walking dead in ZombiU are vicious, unrelenting, and endless. You have little more than a wooden stick to defend yourself. Like Dark Souls or countless other roguelike-inspired games, when you die, you start from the beginning but your items remain at the spot of your death. If you can make it back, they’re yours again. That’s a big if. The tension ramps the longer you’re able to survive. The more you have, the more you have to lose. The first time I fell off a ladder and lost several hours of progress, I put my head into my hands and nearly sobbed. ZombiU also features some ingenious uses for the Wii U’s GamePad, as players must stare down at the secondary screen to quickly rearrange items and equip weapons while a zombie slowly shambles forth.
10. Until Dawn
Otherwise known as 2015’s most pleasant surprise, Until Dawn is a must-play for anyone familiar with the world of horror. It uses the genre’s tropes—Final Girl, Dumb Blonde, etc.—as a foundation for tearing them apart. To that end, players have a surprising amount of control over the fate of the game’s characters. You can even buck the tropiest trope of them all and have everyone survive, if you play your cards right! It’s full of amazing jump scares, too. The yelps were frequent enough that my wife and I ended up shutting our windows, lest someone think horrible things were happening to us in apartment.
BONUS #1: P.T.
Hail to the (cancelled) king of horror. There’s no defending the awful puzzles and confusing endgame of P.T., but the first hour with Hideo Kojima’s playable teaser for Silent Hills is an unforgettable experience underscoring what’s possible when patient design is paired with the latest in technology. The photorealistic quality of P.T.’s singular, tormented hallway lulls one into a familiar and emotionally disarming place. We’ve all been in a hallway like that. We’ve all wondered if something was around the corner. In P.T., there is. If you have a friend with P.T. on their PS4, you owe it to yourself to finally play this.
Bonus #2: Dreadhalls
Dreadhalls didn’t make the proper list is because strapping on an Oculus Rift is required for the full experience. (It’s possible to play Dreadhalls without the aid of virtual reality, but it’s not the same.) In Dreadhalls, you’re dropped into a dungeon and the goal is simply finding the exit. Unfortunately, you’re only equipped with a lantern and a map. The map fills in as you explore, but you can’t see the map without looking down. With Oculus, you’re physically looking down to inspect the map. The game is aware of this dynamic, leaving you in situations where looking down creates a risk of coming face-to-face with a cackling demon. It’s the absolute worst. When my brother played it, he smashed his knee into the table and knocked over two beers.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, and your favorite game probably isn’t on here. Like I said, my hope was to provide a thorough guide to scaring you as soon as possible. I’m always looking for new ways to scare myself, though, so please let me know what some of your favorites are below! Happy hunting!