With Halloween just around the corner, fear is in the air. I can say, without a doubt, that All Hallow's Eve counts among my favorite holidays. I mean, not only do you get more candy than you can shake a stick at, but you've an excuse to dress up, go out, and scare yourself out of your wits.
In hindsight, that last one's a little strange, isn't it? There's a very large camp of men and women - myself among them - who enjoy being frightened...but why? I know I've plenty of friends who don't understand that drive; plenty of folks I know think me something of an odd duck for willfully seeking terror. I'm not entirely certain why I do it myself, come to think of it.
I suppose there's just something invigorating about fear and it's aftermath; you rarely feel more alive than when your fight-or-flight instincts are triggered, after all.
In the interest of terror, I've found that few things are more frightening than a well-crafted horror game. There's a sense of immersion present that simply isn't present in other forms of media. You're not just a passive observer in a horror game; you're actively experiencing things in-game.
Basically, if you're looking to scare yourself, you could do a lot worse.
I'd strongly urge those of you who are gamers - and even those of you who aren't - to give at least one of these games a try this Halloween. 'Tis the season, after all.
We'll start with one that most of you have probably heard about. Amnesia: The Dark Descent stands easily among the best horror titles I've ever played. You're put into the shoes of Daniel - an amnesiac on the run from a Lovecraftian horror - as he makes his way through Castle Brennenberg in an effort to untangle his past and defeat his former associate, Alexander. To say that the game is a harrowing, psychologically draining experience is putting it lightly.
You are alone. You are helpless. You face forces before which you're little more than an insect. You'll desperately flee from monsters against which you've; the very sight of the beasts will cause your character's sanity to drain (resulting in blurred vision and frightening hallucinations, among other effects).
Even better, there's an incredibly active modding community for The Dark Descent: many of the custom stories developed for the game are just as terrifying (some even more so) than the original. (You can see reviews and buy The Dark Decent for cheaper here.)
I've heard a lot of people saying A Machine For Pigs isn't as frightening as the original. I disagree. To me, it's simply a different breed of horror from the first game. Whereas Amnesia made you feel frightened, hunted, and panicked; A Machine For Pigs did a fantastic job of causing the player to experience a sort of perpetual anxiety.
One of the ways the developer does this is through the sound design. It's almost as though thechineseroom carried out some intense research into the sounds its players would find the most unnerving and frightening, then gleefully sprinkled them all about the game. It's atmospheric horror at its finest. (See reviews and buy it for cheap here.)
SCP: Containment Breach
Containment Breach is a free horror game based on a collaborative writing site known as the SCP Foundation. For the uninitiated, The Foundation is basically an organization tasked with tracking down, containing, and researching supernatural entities.
You're put into the shoes of a lowly Class D employee (basically, an expendable guinea pig). As the game starts, you've been sent to clean the enclosure in which SCP 173 (a goofy looking concrete statue) is contained. This creature has a rather unique quality: while it'll kill anyone it can get its hands on, it cannot move while someone is maintaining direct line of sight with it.
Have I mentioned the game simulates blinking?
Naturally, things almost immediately go south - the entire facility loses power, and t`he lights go off in the enclosure. 173 is set loose, and you're left alone in an area 51-esque facility filled with otherworldly beings whose only desire is your gruesome death. Even better, it's completely free.
Cry of Fear
Cry of Fear is a single-player psychological horror mod designed for Half-Life 1. In spite of its age, it's more than worthy of its place on this list. The monsters are some of the most grotesque I've ever seen, the atmosphere is confusing and ominous to the point of anxiety, and the story is superb enough that one might think it professionally written.
Even though Cry of Fear features both weaponry and an inventory system, that won't help you feel any less hunted, or any less safe. The monsters here are terrifying even to one who isn't completely defenseless.
I've been told by many that Fatal Frame II (Project Zero in Europe) is one of the scariest video games ever made; it's one of those rare few titles that manages to do everything right. The game's setting - a village in which the torture souls of the dead are trapped for eternity - is downright unsettling, and the Camera Obscura - a mechanic by which you do battle with ghosts by capturing their image - throws jump scares out the window, instead forcing players to stare for seconds at a time at some of the most gruesome images they'll ever see.
Worse, you as a player will never feel safe. There is no place to run; no place to hide. No matter where you go, the insidious force that animates the village will always be there, looking over you as you desperately try to escape. (See reviews and buy it for cheap here.)
Haunting Ground is the touching story of a girl and her dog. And a gigantic, deranged groundskeeper. And a psychotic artificial maid. And an old man who wants to use said girl as part of some warped breeding program.
Yeah, it's a pretty messed up game.
Basically, you play as Fiona - a girl who was just recently involved in a car accident with her parents, both of whom end up dead by the hands of a mysterious stranger. Fiona survives, and is spirited away inside the walls of Belli Castle. Once there, she befriends a dog named Huey, and desperately tries to escape the castle and avoid several different pursuers. Although none of these pursuers are terribly grotesque in appearance, they're easily as disturbing as any of the other monsters you'll encounter. (See reviews and buy it for cheap here.)
I'd be foolish not to include Silent Hill 2 on this list. After all, the Silent Hill series effectively invented the survival horror genre, and Silent Hill 2 is one of the best of the franchise. The eerie fog that permeates much of the town of Silent Hill (originally a means of dealing with the Playstation One's graphical limitations), give everything a severely foreboding atmosphere, while most of the monsters seem pulled directly from M.C. Escher's darkest nightmares. If you haven't yet played it, I'd urge you to give it a try. You won't find yourself disappointed. (See reviews and buy it for cheap here.)
Another horror game from an era long passed, Forbidden Siren was born from the same twisted mind that gave us Silent Hill; Keiichiro Toyama (that should give you an idea right out the door of what kind of game it is). It's set in a small, rural town three days after a devastating earthquake, and follows the story of ten survivors of the disaster as they fight for their lives in a desperate bid to discover the root of the disaster - and the source of the wandering Shibito (basically, undead abominations). The ability to look through the eyes of your aggressors' is a nice touch, while the atmosphere is remarkably grim and oppressive.
I might note that it's also very much worth playing both of the other titles in the series as well; Siren 2 and Siren: Blood Curse. (See reviews and buy it for cheap here.)
Admittedly, I wasn't entirely sold on the idea of Lone Survivor when I first picked it up. How could a platformer possibly be frightening? As I started to get into the title, however, I realized something - 9/10 of what makes a good horror game is the psychological element; something Lone Survivor has in abundance.
In Lone Survivor, You're the only survivor of a mysterious plague, tasked with wandering the halls of an abandoned, mist-shrouded apartment complex. Right from the beginning, something about the game's setting seems markedly 'off;' it's a feeling that only grows as you progress further. It's a sort of creeping unease that remains gnawing at the back of your mind, no matter what you do. There's a very real sense of isolation, and the monsters present in the complex are somehow downright terrifying by the way they move and behave.
Last, but certainly not least, we've got a curious little title known as imscared. The graphics are pixellated and extremely simple and the game file takes up barely any space. Sound is digitized. Somehow, the whole thing still manages to be incredibly unsettling - almost as though you're playing through a horror story.
Give it a try. It's free, and it doesn't even take that long to play through. I think.
Got any other recommendations for games you feel I've missed? Give me a shout in the comments!