Horror movies are a lot of fun, sure.
But there’s something missing at times, when all you’re doing is sitting in your home or in a theater and watching, detached, as someone else goes through something terrible in an effort to scare yourself.
That’s where video games come in.
As the art form that is gaming has evolved through the years, it has reached a level of interactive storytelling that simply isn’t possible with a traditional movie. Sure, they both are very different and can do different things. But, especially when it comes to horror, video games can pull you in and make you a part of the story in a way that a movie is incapable of, no matter how great it is.
When you’re playing a horror video game, it really is your life that’s in danger — and being invested in what happens at that base level creates the potential for truly visceral, terrifying experiences.
Sadly, my headline quote for this fourth and final Halloween horror list is from the Saw movies, which I personally detest. But it was just too fitting — and War Games isn’t a horror movie.
Before getting into the list proper, there are plenty of games that deserve honorable mention. The original Bioshock, though not specifically a horror game, has atmospheric elements and jump scares that allow it to blur that line. The first Dead Space was very reminiscent of the movie Event Horizon, though its sequels turned more into action shooters than horror. Alan Wake is a solid cinematic game about a horror author who finds himself living in his fictional universe. And games like cult classic Eternal Darkness for the Nintendo Gamecube or the Penumbra and Amnesia series for PC do a great job of making you feel like you’re going insane with some crafty gameplay tricks.
5. Limbo (2010, rated T for Teen)
The artistic direction and atmosphere in Limbo is simply too good not to be listed here, even if the game itself isn’t purely horror.
You wake up as a little boy, completely silhouetted except for a pair of glowing eyes, in a strange forest where everything is different shades of black and grey. With no dialogue or text cues throughout, you make your way through the creepy wasteland, platforming a la classics like Super Mario Bros., only instead of jumping on enemies, you’re solving environmental puzzles.
And when you do get to the end? It’s a puzzle in itself. Plenty of fan theories exist explaining what it all means, but the developer has never confirmed any of them, saying only that some have come close.
Limbo was one of the many catalysts of a golden age of smaller, artistic independent games. Its puzzles are clever and unforgiving — it is definitely a trial-and-error game. And by error, I mean death. You’ll die a lot trying to figure out how to progress, and the deaths are brutal and violent. One of the earliest “living” creatures other than yourself you meet in the game is a titanic spider, and, as someone who has crippling arachnophobia, it’s one of the most spine-tingling experiences in gaming.
Limbo isn’t about jump scares or blood and gore. But it is creepy, unsettling and unnerving — which, honestly, is a preferable and underutilized kind of horror in the modern age.
4. Silent Hill 2 (2001, rated M for Mature)
Speaking of atmosphere …
When people think of horror video games, they think of two franchises — the Silent Hill franchise, and, well, see the next entry. In this, you are James, a depressed and lonely man still pining for his dead wife, Mary. Until he receives a letter from her asking him to meet with her in the town of Silent Hill. Naturally, James decides to abandon reason and go to search for her — but Silent Hill has all kinds of nasty surprises in store for him.
The Silent Hill games are famous for their atmospheric an psychological approach to horror. The outdoor areas you explore are coated in a thick fog, always keeping you wondering what may be right near you but hidden in the gloom. You have a small radio with you that emits static when enemies are close — which is ingenious, because it only serves to keep you terrified of what’s coming rather than actually warning you. It’s supposed to provide comfort, but only creeps you out.
The indoor areas are a bit less subtle. Dark, grungy hallways, rusted metal and grotesque visuals await — and you’ll only be able to see as far as a small flashlight will allow. Every sound will have you on edge — especially the sound of heavy metal being dragged along the ground, as the game has one of the most memorable persistent adversaries in any horror game, even if the name “Pyramid Head” sounds incredibly silly. Get close enough to him to tell him his name is dumb. See how it goes.
I won’t say more about the story, other than to say that discovering what’s going on only leads to even more questions. In a series focused on its eerie atmosphere and metaphysical ideas, Silent Hill 2 is the franchise’s best outing.
3. Resident Evil (1996, rated M for Mature)
Silent Hill is also a franchise that wouldn’t exist without Resident Evil.
The granddaddy of modern horror video games, the original Resident Evil basically created the survival horror genre (as well as a series or awful movies). You’re a member of an elite task force called STARS, and your helicopter crashes outside of Racoon City while investigating strange murders there. Attacked in the woods, you and the surviving members of your team seek refuge in an odd mansion — one that just may house the answers your team was after in the first place.
The original Resident Evil still stands as a landmark moment in gaming history. Though horror games had been attempted before, it was the first time the medium pulled off a more cinematic approach. It pulled the player in in ways that no other game had before.
Resources were scarce. You could shoot the zombies, sure, but then you’d run out of bullets and be unprepared for other things you may come across (like giant spiders. AGAIN). The controls were clunky and took getting used to — which I loved, because when something scary happened, your natural sense of panic was only heightened when you couldn’t remember how to make your character turn and run. More recent Resident Evil games, beginning with the fourth, became more action-oriented and gave you an easier-to-control over-the-shoulder view of your character, but the focus on gunplay and killing all the enemies ruined the horror that the series was created for. Tank controls for life.
I’ve always liked the Resident Evil games more than Silent Hill — but, oddly enough, the first Silent Hill movie was better than all of the Resident Evil ones combined.
2. Alien: Isolation (2014, rated M for Mature)
This game is a picture-perfect representation of a perfect movie.
Two weeks ago, I outlined the reasons why Alien is the best sci-fi horror movie. Alien: Isolation is an official continuation of that movie universe — and it makes the player feel like they’re inside that universe better than any other movie-to-game transition ever has. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the movie’s hero, Ellen Ripley. It’s 15 years after the Nostromo disappeared, and Amanda is headed to the Sevastapol space station because someone has discovered its flight recorder. But a corporate terrorist group has attacked the station and unwittingly set free a monster — an alien creature just like the one that killed the Nostromo’s crew.
Alien: Isolation is a terrifying experience, and I loved every second of it. It had been years since my pulse had raced like that. As Amanda, you are pretty helpless. You can craft makeshift bombs and tools to confuse or distract the alien, but you can never stand toe to toe with it and live. Your only real hope is to hide.
It’s so terrifying because, well, the alien is an expert hunter. It’s faster than you, it hears your breathing — and, if you have the XBox One’s Kinect sensor, it will hear you as you play (my dogs got me killed three times before I turned that option off). You have to be more cunning than it to find ways around it.
And the game has ingenious systems to make you want to stay alive. You have to reach designated save points to record your progress, and they’re spaced far enough apart to make you think “how long has it been since I saved? Oh God. I need to stay alive to find another one, or I’ll have to redo everything I’ve accomplished.” It adds a sense of urgency that many games just don’t have. You actually want to stay alive — putting you firmly in your character’s shoes.
A motion tracker, just like the one from the movies, also acts like the radio from the Silent Hill games — its pulse is there to help you, but it only heightens the tension and throws you, as the player, into a panic that could get your character killed.
Oh, and there are extra downloadable missions taken directly from the original movie that put you in the original crew’s place, including Sigourney Weaver’s race to set the self destruct and reach the escape pod. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played that one mission. It’s incredible. And luckily, you don’t have to go back to save the dumb cat.
1. Until Dawn (2015, rated M for Mature)
After all of that gushing over Alien: Isolation, what could possibly top it?
Say hello to Until Dawn. The single biggest reason to own a Playstation 4.
I’ve talked a lot about video games becoming more cinematic. Well, Until Dawn is basically a playable horror movie. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure game with blockbuster-level production values — most video games in that style have been cartoony and smaller up to this point. But this Playstation 4 exclusive has real actors and actresses — including Hayden Panettiere of Heroes fame and Emmy Award winner Mr. Robot himself Rami Malek, among other familiar faces — turning in some of the most realistic looking motion-capture performances ever recorded.
But aside from the terrific graphics and great performances, the storytelling is a huge reason to come to this game. You play through the prologue first, where a group of friends meets at a big cabin in the middle of some snowy woods and some bad things happen. From there, the real story kicks in, where it’s a year later and the friends are returning to the same cabin — and more bad things happen.
What those bad things are? Depends on you. Before you get into the prologue, one of the characters in the game, a therapist, asks you a lot of questions, trying to figure out personal things about you — mainly, what you’re afraid of. Clowns, scarecrows, zombies, spiders, being alone — he covers a lot of bases, and your answers shape the story that follows. And that’s the majority of the gameplay, too. Your choices as each of the characters will steer the story in any number of directions, with even the smallest thing deciding your fate. Decide to shoot a harmless bird while showing off your target practice skills to a girl? Maybe she doesn’t open a door for you when you’re running from a monster. Someone is trying to open a trap door that you’re on the other side of? Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s not.
I’ve been playing video games since a Pac-Man arcade machine hit my local Pizza Hut when I was five years old. Until Dawn is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in all of that time. It allowed me to live out a life-long dream of being in control of a horror movie. And it’s the absolute perfect video game for anyone to play at Halloween.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.