Horror-themed video games often aim to scare, but precious few leave a lasting impression. There is a reason why franchises like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Dead Space have endured--because those games tap into the primal emotion of fear via atmosphere, sheer grotesqueness, and spine-cringing tension better than most. We go back to a game like Silent Hill 2, for instance, because the terror inherent to that game is so gripping, so maddening, so utterly memorable that we can be scared by it over and over again. We remember the horrors contained with in, yet our capacity for shock vitally remains.
In honor of this day, the most terrifying of days of the year (I am speaking, of course, of Reformation Day), I went ahead and polled the Giant Bomb staff on what games left the most lasting scars on their brain, what games managed to bore into that deep, hidden space of uncontrollable fear with the greatest success. Some of their answers may surprise you, others may horrify you, and at least one will probably completely confuse you.
Enjoy, and on behalf of the Whiskey Media crew, I wish you a safe, happy Halloween.
Brad Shoemaker: System Shock 2
Plenty of scary games get by on out-of-nowhere gotchas that merely startle your lizard brain. (Say what you want about its straightforward shooter design, but Doom 3 is still one of the most deeply atmospheric games I've ever played.) But for deep-down psychological terror, you can't beat System Shock 2. As I alone made my solitary way through the wreck of the Von Braun, I started to build up this creeping sense of dread when I discovered, person by person, the awful ways the rest of the crew had been consumed by the ambiguous bio-mass called the Many. The incomparable audio design--especially the ambient sounds that haunted the ship's decks--was a big reason I was often terrified of going around a corner and facing whatever was lurking there. And while these days too many games have used the found-audio-log device as a way to tell story, SS2 was one of the first and in my mind is still the best. I'll never forget the feeling of revulsion at hearing the log in which the captain describes his own transformation, with some truly horrific effects applied to his dialogue. That made it all the more meaningful and personal when you had to face the thing he had become, later on.
Fans have curated System Shock 2 for years, adding and upgrading new graphics and technology here and there to try and keep the game somewhat current. But I can't think of a better game that's ripe for a full remake, even just a visual one. The story, pacing, sound, and RPG mechanics are as close to perfect as I've ever seen.
Patrick Klepek: The Blair Witch Project Games
The Blair Witch Project was the first movie to deeply affect me. I was 13 when it came out, and it took me a long time to completely accept it wasn’t real. Even then, the sights and sounds continue to haunt me, and when I think about it too much, they still do. I spent an entire summer waiting until the sun came up before sleeping, finding it fruitless to try and sleep when squirrels and raccoon were snapping twigs and leaves just outside my open window.
Naturally, this lead to an outright obsession with everything related to The Blair Witch Project, including the trio of not-very-good games Terminal Reality-produced games that had players exploring the larger mythology behind the film, including Coffin Rock and Rustin Parr. Those games definitely got under my skin, too, but only because while I’d be playing them, I’d have the “shaken tent” scene or the murderous screams from the last, terrifying shots of the film running in my head. God, I’m not going to sleep tonight, am I?
Matt Kessler: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Most scary video games cultivate tension and dread over the course of an entire playthrough. The 2004 RPG Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines did that in just a single level. Troika’s final CRPG release may have been deeply flawed and buggy at launch, but it contained a perfect, bite-sized (Ugh) horror section within it; the Ocean House hotel. What begins as just an ordinary quest to rid a local hotel of a ghost becomes a atmospheric, distressing flight to get out, trying desperately to avoid the traps of the resident Poltergeist. All along the way, you’ll slowly pick apart the reason why the hotel became so haunted--concluding with my all-time favorite instance of the “Dear Diary, I’m Being Murdered” concept--which does a terrific job of creating a sense of unease and worry that transcends the game's other flaws.
And all of this from a CRPG, one of the last game genres you’d expect to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. As someone whose cowardice has been well documented on the Internet, I never expected a game like Vampire could make me want to keep the lights on in my room at all times. It was a perfect slice of anxiety-inducing scaritude, and as a result I approached every single mission that followed in Vampire with a measure of trepidation, fearing it would be just as terrifying as the Ocean House.
Matt Rorie: X-COM: UFO Defense
It might sound ridiculous to claim that a turn-based game could actually wind up scaring anyone, perhaps especially if you view X-Com from the perspective of someone who's used to the graphical fidelity of Battlefield 3. It is, by now, an aged game, both in gameplay style and looks, but there were more than a few all-night gaming sessions that took place in my basement in the mid-90's, which is where the game is probably best experienced. (Well, a dark, quiet room late at night; not my basement, specifically.)
It's difficult to describe if you haven't played the game, but few games have quite managed to evoke the sheer atmosphere that X-Com laid down in bulk quantities. It was a game that played with your level of knowledge: you'd shoot down a UFO in a cornfield at 3 AM, but then you'd have to actually land a ship and attempt to find the sectoids and chryssalids through the pitch-black farmhouses and silos, never knowing when someone was going to pop up and take out a few of your soldiers before you could react. It's that helplessness that gives X-Com its atmosphere of dread: no matter how much volition and power you thought you had when your turn began, clicking that button that passed the action to the CPU-ran aliens was always a breath-holding affair, and one that, surprisingly enough, could actually generate jump-in-your-seat scares when an unexpected opponent appeared in a direction you thought had been cleared out. Tactically and strategically, X-Com is still a masterpiece of game design, and even if its visuals are approaching 20 years old, it also still retains the power to scare.
Alex Navarro: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Over my many years playing games, plenty have left me a quivering husk of jelly from sheer fright. Most of them, coincidentally, were Japanese. Be it Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame, or whatever else, the Japanese seemed to have a direct line to my terror bone that games made by North American and European developers simply couldn't quite counter.
Swedish developer Frictional Games changed all of that with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Arguably one of the most disquieting experiences of my young life, Amnesia is legitimately one of the first games I've had no choice but to quit out of out of sheer, sweaty discomfort. Its tale of an amnesiac man trapped in a castle with scads of horrible, disgusting creatures lumbering after him doesn't sound overly thrilling on paper, but it's in the mechanics that Frictional captures the true horror of the experience. Much as games like Silent Hill are far less about combat than they are the evasion of the terrible creatures bent on eviscerating you for fun and possibly profit, Amnesia eschews any weapons in favor of forcing you to hide in the shadows from that which stalks you. This is counterbalanced with a sanity meter that, should it drop too low (after witnessing numerous terrible things), begins tossing horrific hallucinations at you, the likes of which are of the utmost unpleasantness.
I recently remarked in a Screened feature on the John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness that it captured the spirit of Lovecraftian horror better than most films actually based on Lovecraft. I'd argue precisely the same thing about Amnesia when it comes to the realm of games.
Another editor with a late entry! Woo hoo!
Ryan Davis: Friday the 13th (NES)
While I was terrified by even the thought of something like A Nightmare on Elm Street as a child of the ‘80s, my appetite for horror films has grown considerably, particularly over the past few years. Call it part of growing up, but the grisly disembowelment at the hands of some malevolent supernatural boogeyman that’s so terrifying to Child Ryan sounds like a pleasant vacation in comparison to the constant, low-level anxiety of mortgages and mortality that haunt Adult Ryan. There’s also a certain sadistic glee to watching horror movies with my girlfriend, who hates horror movies, but loves to hate them.
That appreciation for the macabre has never really translated to games, though. While I could wax philosophical about the difference between watching the victim and being the victim, and the impact that’s had on my ability to appreciate the likes of Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space, I’ll just blame the awful, terrifying NES classic, Friday the 13th. It’s a panic-inducing distillation of the Friday the 13th formula, putting you in the role of the Camp Crystal Lake staff counselors who must protect themselves and the campers from the relentless Jason Voorhees. While most movie games might soften up their antagonist, or give the player easier targets before ramping up to a proper confrontation, Jason is essentially as he is in the movies--invincible and murderous, with the ability to materialize anytime, anywhere--and his appearance meant either certain death for your counselor, the campers you were trying to protect, or both.
For me, playing Friday the 13th was an exercise in helplessness as I watched everyone get murdered. Occasionally I got lucky and survived a Jason episode, but that was just staving off the inevitable, a dreadful meditation on mortality that no eight-year-old ought to be subjected to. That Friday the 13th was a really terrible game, with crude graphics (note the faceless, club-fisted counselors armed with fucking rocks) bad controls, and maddeningly vague objectives just amplified that helplessness.
And, of course, we'd love to know what your most terrifying gameplay experiences have been. Comment away, and tell us all about the times a video game managed to scare the crap out of you. Not literally, though. Keep those stories to yourself.