12 best horror video games
A dozen scary titles to tide you over through Halloween and beyond
With the cold, dark nights drawing in ever sooner, autumn is the perfect time to turn off the lights, put on your headphones and settle down for a night of interactive terror. Some of these games are action-oriented and will repulse you with their sickening imagery, while others focus on a more singular experience that will leave you fearful of your cold, dark surroundings. It's a mixture of old and new across all formats, with varying degrees of technical polish. Even with the oldest aged 15, they're all still available to buy.
Silent Hill 2 (2001)
By far the best entry in a series which has thrown up significantly decreasing returns, this is an immaculately conceived psychological horror. As James Sunderland, you find yourself in the mysterious, foggy town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from your late wife. The town's ghastly inhabitants have since become breakthrough horror icons, including the impossibly twitching Bubble Head Nurses and the horrifying aberration that is Pyramid Head.
Alan Wake (2010)
Set in a seemingly idyllic small town in the Pacific Northwest, this psychological thriller frequently homages Twin Peaks. While it features a novel method of combat – light must be used to soften up the attacking ghouls before you finish them off with conventional weapons – the game's episodic structure reinforces its repetitive combat. While it's a frustrating experience it's undeniably frightening, and that cyclical structure reinforces the tense atmosphere.
The dubious backronym is certainly more frightening than 'First Encounter Assault Recon'. For the most part, this is a standard FPS (albeit one featuring some nice bullet-time combat), but what separates it from the vast competition is the occasional, terrifying appearance of that millennial Japanese horror trope: the creepy little girl with dank black hair. When the action stops, the corridor goes dark and Alma appears right in front of you, you instantly forget that you're playing a shooter.
Slender: The Arrival (2013)
A sequel and partial remake of free game Slender: The Eight Pages. The Arrival is the simplest of all these games. Creeping around dark, abandoned areas at night, you must evade the Slender Man: the notorious tall faceless being created by an internet meme. It's one of the most popular games to watch others play online, with a huge number of 'let's play' videos documenting horrified reactions to the game.
It's not just Grand Theft Auto that's landed Rockstar Games into trouble. Manhunt is an unrelentingly nihilistic action survival horror game which capitalised on the popularity of 'torture porn' films of its era. You play a death row prisoner forced to commit multiple murders, all captured on CCTV for the enjoyment of an unseen enemy (voiced by Brian Cox). It's a uniquely bleak experience.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
Live out your zombie survival fantasies with three friends as you make your way across a variety of maps. L4D2 (and it's worthy predecessor) demands close teamwork, and – just like in the films – anyone who wanders off on their own will likely cop it. It's at its best when played against a team of four 'infected' players who stalk the heroes using a variety of fun skills, such as the 'smoker' who can grab players from afar using his incredibly long tongue.
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
RE4 was a brave departure from the series' long-established gameplay. Rather than static camera angles and slow zombies, here we have a close-up over-the-shoulder viewpoint and fast-moving enemies racing across the dingy but varied rural Spanish setting. Resident Evil never really looked back after RE4, although it did get slightly easier: one of the scariest things about this is how damn hard it is. But then the joy of beating apparently overwhelming odds forms a large part of its success.
Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004)
The third game in this stealth series is enjoyable but fairly unremarkable until its penultimate level: Shalebridge Cradle. A horrifying combination of haunted orphanage and Victorian-style psychiatric hospital, the Cradle is a masterpiece of level design. Superb sound design helps paper over its rather dated visuals and the slow-building tension is magnificent. You must infiltrate the Cradle to solve a mystery, all while avoiding the reanimated bodies of former inmates.
It's a shame that psychiatric hospital facilities are so poorly represented in fiction. At least Shalebridge Cradle is set in a fantasy world; Outlast has no such qualms and – in its modern-day Colorado setting – no excuse. Putting that to one side, this is a genuinely frightening survival horror game in which you must illuminate your progress using the night-vision viewfinder in a camcorder. It's a bit too reliant on cheap jump scares and the linear environments often bring frantic escape bids to an unfairly dead end, but the environment is disturbingly claustrophobic and it's one of the most technically accomplished games of its type.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Poor graphics, iffy controls and awful voice acting. What could possibly go right? If you can get over its presentation and lose yourself in its foreboding atmosphere and superb sound design, Amnesia is one of the most terrifying experiences you can enjoy. The rub here is that if you look at the monsters that stalk this enormous castle then they will find you. And so you spend much of your time crouching in the corner sobbing, while the soundtrack of your heartbeat and thrashing strings intensifies as the ungodly beasts approach. Spiritual sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs swaps terror for story, to slightly less effect.
Amnesia developer Frictional Games built on their success with this magnificent, absorbing survival horror set in an underwater remote research facility. Following a car crash in 2015 you awake in the PATHOS-II facility in the year 2103 to discover that the world above has been destroyed by a comet impact. As if that's not bad enough, the remaining crew aren't what they seem and the facility is haunted by disturbing machine creatures who must be avoided at all costs. What sets SOMA apart from everything else on this list is its fantastic story, a tremendously thought-provoking exploration of what it is to be human.
Alien: Isolation (2014)
Gaming history is littered with poor titles which cashed in on the success of the Alien film franchise. A:I's success lies in the brave decision to build a game around a singular alien rather than multiple xenomorphs (although there are other enemies including fellow humans and the deeply unnerving androids with glowing eyes called Working Joes). The first few hours set the scene before the alien appears, and that slow-burn builds the tension perfectly. The Alien is a formidable, intelligent creature, and you are practically unarmed. What follows is a masterpiece of hide and seek level design as you crouch under tables and scurry through vents. It's a long, tough game and the Alien will frequently catch you, forcing you to start again. Nevertheless, those final moments when you know you've been caught – just before the camera forces you to endure your painful death – are absolutely, primally terrifying. Where most 'game over' events are an annoying curtailment to your fun, in Alien: Isolation they provoke such a strong physical response that you'll be glad you're still alive.