The haunted season is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than to lock the doors, turn off the lights, and subject ourselves to a series of interactive nightmares? From aliens to ghosts, to the weird and indescribable, here are our picks for the scariest video games of all time.
ALIEN: ISOLATION (2014, Creative Assembly)
Long-time readers know we’re huge fans of the Alien franchise, particularly the very first film and the video game which serves as its quasi-official sequel. An interactive survival horror masterpiece, Alien: Isolation picks up with Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda Ripley, who by some terrible intergalactic fate finds herself trapped in an abandoned space station just as another xenomorph breaks loose and starts terrorizing the ever-thinning crew.
Nominally, Alien: Isolation‘s main selling point is its fidelity to the source material: the game looks, sounds, and feels like the 1979 film, right down to the deliberately clunky in-game retro-tech, which makes even the simple task of saving your game progress an anxiety-inducing race against time.
That said, the real star of Alien: Isolation is the xenomorph itself: not before, and certainly not since, has there been a video game antagonist so aggressive, so intelligent, and so deadly. Thanks to bespoke AI programming, the xenomorph is methodical and terrifyingly unpredictable; you may spend minutes on end just hiding in a storage locker, praying against all hope the creature doesn’t find you.
FATAL FRAME (2002, Tecmo)
We’ve written about the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series before, though never about its original incarnation, this 2002 J-horror masterpiece from Tecmo. In retrospect, it’s a shock how much the first FF gets right, from its genuinely random ghost encounters to its desaturated film-grain aesthetic, which gives the whole thing the feel of a haunted videocassette. (No doubt an allusion to the Ringu/Ring series.)
Fatal Frame is one of the rare games to successfully mess with player expectations: when you expect something spooky, the room will be eerily calm; when you’re confident you’ve reached a safe space, that’s when something horrible crawls out of the woodwork.
Later entries abandoned some of that unpredictability, though Fatal Frame III: The Tormented (what a title!) does have a few of the best “oh my god I can’t believe what I’m seeing” moments in gaming, serving as huge narrative payoffs for those who’ve been with the series since its inception.
VISAGE (2020, SadSquare Studio)
I only recently experienced the glorious dread that is Visage, from Montreal-based SadSquare Studio. A quiet phenomenon when it came out, this low-budget indie title is heavily inspired by “lost game” P.T., which set the template for modern haunted house titles.
When P.T. was unceremoniously axed and delisted from storefronts (that’s a whole other story), a wealth of copycats – some fantastic, like Layers of Fear and the Toronto-set SOMA – and some dreadful – like the recent Layers of Fear reboot – flooded the market, but none have come close to the terror-inducing nature of Visage.
Set across a handful of dark and spooky nights in a seemingly benign middle-class house, Visage knows exactly how to spook a player, generating just as much fear from the unseen as from the digital monstrosities it occasionally unleashes. Visage also makes excellent use of its first-person perspective, ingeniously positioning its spookiest moments at the edge of the screen, as if glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye.
YEAR WALK (2013, Simogo)
If not the scariest game on this list, Year Walk is certainly the most unsettling, not least because of its expert manipulation of the medium of gaming itself.
Presented as a fragment of Swedish folklore, it superficially resembles a point-and-click adventure (albeit one with a deeply eerie aesthetic), with players moving from static screen to static screen as they wander through dark, snowy woods. Strange and psychedelic in its own right, the Year Walk experience is greatly improved by the presence of a companion app, presented as a (fictional) journal purporting to provide background on the game’s mythological elements. Players can ignore this journal if they choose, but in doing so they miss out on a haunting, even beautiful metafictional narrative which reveals fascinating – and yes, disturbing – details of this altogether unique world. The game’s transcendent conclusion is unparalleled.
RESIDENT EVIL: BEGINNING HOUR (2016, Capcom)
It gives me great delight to share that my final choice is a freebie: a playable demo released ahead of the (slightly less frightening) Resident Evil 7 back in 2016, Beginning Hour nearly matches Visage for sheer first-person terror.
Beginning Hour does something I wish more video games would embrace: it drops you in media res, no context for what’s going on or what to expect, and with only the meagerest of tutorials to nudge you in the right direction. No other video game is such an unknowable quantity the first time you boot it up: you’re someone, trapped somewhere awful, and it’s up to you to figure a way out of there.
An absence of weapons or gimmicky accessories (such as are found in the main RE7 game) further reinforces the feeling of hopelessness, and that’s even before you encounter something in the more traditional horror vein. Beginning Hour made me nauseous with fear. That’s a hell of a feat for a thirty-minute demo.