’Tis the season for scary movies, but beyond the pure spectator sports of film and television lies a world of horror gaming on the PC. Now is the perfect time to wade in and get your freak on.
Everyone scares a little differently. Most horror games stick by a few time-tested styles of design that have become the hallmarks of the genre. We’ve thrown the best of ’em on the table, cut them up, and taken a closer look at what makes them kick.
The most dangerous games
Action-heavy horror games dominate the market these days, with first- and third-person shooters taking top spots in both sales and critical acclaim. Games like Bioshock are easy to play, with control schemes that feel comfortable to practiced gamers, and mysterious settings that inspire fear and wonder in equal measure.
This is also where the drawbacks creep in: First- and third-person action games are designed to entertain players with slick combat, so most of the satisfaction stems from actually fighting back against the darkness. This boils down to using guns and clubs a lot, which is fine at the outset but usually spirals out of control in later acts, when baseball bats and scavenged pistols give way to chainsaws and rocket launchers.
When a horror game hits that point, you become the most dangerous element in the game, and whatever fear of the environment and enemies you face evaporates. Even the best action horror titles don’t escape these problems, but they can minimize them via careful design decisions.
Bodies in plain sight
Players who prefer the third-person perspective have a variety of terrifying games available. The Dead Space games—especially the second one, with its unforgettable opening sequence—are particularly adept at mixing scares and exotic weaponry without breaking your immersion.
Steeping the player in a futuristic story that’s equal parts Alien and The Thing, Dead Space goes beyond run-and-gun action with dismemberment-based takedowns, equipment-upgrade systems, and cybernetic modules that allow you to slow time and telekinetically manipulate objects.
For third-person horror gaming a bit closer to earth, there’s Alan Wake, which delivers a television-esque, episodic experience heavy on psychological and ghostly story elements inspired by The Shining and The Twilight Zone.
You play Alan Wake, an author suffering from writer’s block who’s vacationing in the peculiar town of Bright Falls, where a malevolent force has begun to corrupt the locals. Wake’s third-person gunplay is broken up by the need for you to use your flashlight to strip away the darkness that both cloaks and protects your supernatural foes. The game also asks you to collect the pages of a book you have written but do not remember. Each page provides clues and a backstory.
I prefer third-person horror games, but first-person shooters have a longer track record of tackling horror. If you’re willing to dig into the back catalog a bit, check out System Shock 2, the cyberpunk thriller that blazed a trail for subsequent first- and third-person games. The smorgasbord of psionic powers, puzzling mini-games, vending machine upgrades, and audio logs went on to become the de facto diet of the genre, and every action game on this list owes it a design debt.
System Shock 2 is well loved by the PC gaming community. Many mods exist to help its now-primitive visuals, including stable high-resolution support, upgraded textures, and post-processing effects. Ken Levine, the man behind System Shock, went on to create the afore-mentioned Bioshock, a spiritual successor about a fallen 1960’s underwater utopia that deemphasizes the horror elements and doubles down on the gunplay.
F.E.A.R. is the best of the three, as it runs smoothly and remains the most fun to play. Lovecraft fans should check out Dark Corners of the Earth, as it captures the spirit of the Cthultu mythos well. Running it on modern machines is tricky, so be sure to check out the unofficial patch and other mods to maximize your chances for a smooth play-through.
Don’t go up there…it’s dark!
If you’ve come this far and you still haven’t found a game that truly terrifies you, it’s time to abandon the armed-and-dangerous approach.
Sadly, horror games sans combat tend to come only from smaller developers. Puzzles and sanity systems stand in for the boomsticks and bullets here, with notes to collect, flashlights to wield, boxes to stack, and traps to set. Combat is a death sentence, meant to be avoided at all costs, since the best you can generally do is either duck or run away.
Frictional Games popularized this style with the Penumbra series. It started with an impressive technical demo and grew into a trio of horrifying games that reached their peak with the second entry, Penumbra: The Black Plague. Set mostly underground in frozen mines and research bases, you play a scientist who follows instructions in a letter from your dead father and uncovers a series of bizarre biological oddities frozen in the Arctic.
Frictional stepped up the scares with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a surprise hit that uses similar mechanics but shifts the story to the gothic gloom of 1830’s Prussia. Here you play Daniel, an archeologist who has lost his memory and has only a letter, which he apparently wrote himself, as a guide to escape the mad castle and shadowy figures that stalk him.
The game engine is much improved over Penumbra’s, and the story more thoughtfully fleshed out. As the plot progresses, you discover that the situation is more complicated than it seems. Multiple endings give the game a life after its natural death.
Although large developers shunned this approach to horror gaming, you can find a horde of titles out there (and more shambling down the street to join the hungry mob), including the Slenderman-mythos-based The Eight Pages and The Arrival, plus Amnesia’s sequel, A Machine for Pigs, and Outlast, an asylum-based thriller with an impressive group of designers behind it.
The Ancient Ones
Still with me? Then you’re ready for the granddaddy of them all: the horror adventure game. This approach is rooted in the classic point-and-click interface made popular by Sierra and LucasArts during the 8- and 16-bit eras.
Sanitarium—with its lush pixel art, volumes of dialogue, and strange, unsettling imagery at every turn—is a perfectly preserved example of this style. The game is showing its age, but you adventure devotees tend to be retro-friendly, so this isn’t the dealbreaker it could be elsewhere. There’s also a campy, drive-in movie vibe to the audio that’s highly entertaining.
A more recent option is Scratches: The Director’s Cut, an updated take on the point, click and explore theme. It tries to innovate with a form of fixed-perspective 3D that splits the difference between static and active environments, with infamous, motion-sickness-inducing consequences. Despite this, Scratches has drawn plenty of fans with its Myst-esque visual puzzles and gameplay.
The crown jewel, however, belongs to The Walking Dead, Telltale Games’ graphic novel-esque masterpiece whose emotional impact is an order of magnitude greater than anything else here. All crucial moments present you with choices you must make, often with ambiguous and far-ranging results. Dialogue often requires quick responses, and the moments when you have time to think about your response will often compel you to get out of your chair and pace while chewing over your options. Combat is simplistic and rare, so it’s well worth checking out even if horror isn’t your style.
The road not taken
If the real goal of a horror game is to scare the players and make them question their sense of reality, there’s one final route, long ago abandoned by all sane developers, that holds the greatest potential for true terror. Back in 2001, Electronic Arts released a game called Majestic that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Split into episodes and played in real time, the game used telephone calls, mysterious fax messages, voicemail, email, video, and previously seeded websites to spin a tale of conspiracy and intrigue. Despite winning awards for innovation, this approach died with Majestic’s premature closure and remains deceased to this day.
Consider for a moment a horror experience that uses Majestic’s template but takes the next logical step. Imagine a game app that tracks your movements via smartphone GPS and plays around with your photographs, superimposing ghostly images. One that waits until you’re in a dark room before turning itself on, or that uses unannounced sound effects. A story that guides you to real-world locations, where clues are hidden in architecture or on rented billboards. I believe the next great horror game lies at the end of this as-yet untaken road. In the meantime, keep your flashlight close, and never play with the lights off—who knows what’s waiting in the dark.