With the Halloween season now in full swing, you are probably on the lookout for a few choice scares and worthwhile horror experiences.
When it comes to video games, your options are more limited than they are with say film or literature, but Newsweek has got you covered with an authoritative list of the best that the medium has to offer.
We’ve got everything from interactive movies to first-person indies, PS2 classics, and even one entry that is not a full game. There should be something for everybody here, with titles that can appeal to scaredy-cats and the most desensitized of gore hounds alike.
With that said, these are 9 horror video games that will shake you to your core.
Until Dawn (2015)
Until Dawn is the tamest entry on this list as far as scares are concerned, but there is an awful lot of blood and guts to compensate for that. To get an accurate idea of what you should expect here, it’s almost like somebody fed all of those generic teen slashers that emerged in the late ’90s—like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend and Halloween: H20—to an A.I. bot, and then it tried to emulate them with its own screenplay.
The storytelling is incredibly formulaic (it’s got all the stock characters, a predictable whodunnit mystery and the silliest tropes imaginable) but that is kind of the point. After all, the idea with Until Dawn is not to reinvent the genre, but to instead embrace its cliches and let you be an active participant in them. As Louise Blain of Gamesradar wrote: “It’s a bloodstained love letter to every horror movie you’ve ever seen.”
In terms of gameplay, you are responsible for the decision-making of 8 separate characters (including one played by Rami Malek) and it’s entirely up to you who gets to live and who gets to die. In this sense it is like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories or that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch special.
There are obviously two very different ways you can go about performing your duty. On the one hand, you can be a cruel puppet master and deliberately make all the wrong calls that will guarantee adolescent fatalities, like encouraging the teens to investigate spooky noises in the woods or getting them to have premarital sex in a spooky cabin.
Alternatively, you can try to save everybody, which is a lot harder but also more rewarding. If you are the type of person who often yells at the characters on-screen whenever they have lapses in judgement, then this is an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and prove that you can do better.
Until Dawn is available on PS5. Order it now from Best Buy.
Dead By Daylight (2016)
Where most online games are required to be at least somewhat balanced, “asymmetrical” titles are under no such obligation. If you are not familiar with this term, it is used to describe multiplayer releases in which the two competing sides are not equally matched.
Although there are a few exceptions, they generally take the form of 1v4 games and are therefore an ideal fit for the horror genre. They are often about a group of would-be victims having to work together to avoid a deadly monster or killer, as seen in the likes of Evolve, Predator: Hunting Grounds and Friday the 13th: The Game.
The title with the most staying power though is Dead by Daylight, which launched back in 2016 and is still growing in popularity today. In fact, as of June 2021, it has managed to reach 100,000 concurrent players.
In terms of why Dead by Daylight has such enduring appeal, that can largely be attributed to its regular updates and crossovers that are perfectly geared towards horror aficionados. The initial line-up of killers was limited exclusively to original creations, but now you can slip on the iconic glove of Freddy Kruger, go on a rampage as Michael Myers from Halloween, or traverse The Upside Down as Stranger Things’ Demogorgon.
Not every match is guaranteed to be a hit, but if you get the right combination of experienced survivors and a killer who gets into the spirit of roleplaying, then it can be a very intense experience.
Dead by Daylight is available digitally on Steam, the PlayStation Store and the Xbox marketplace.
Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Although it did receive a reasonable amount of praise at launch, Silent Hill 2 has been subjected to a huge critical reappraisal over the years, to the point where it is now considered to be one of the all-time greats. Notoriously harsh reviewer Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw lists it amongst his top 5 favorite releases, it earned a spot on GamesRadar‘s countdown of the best narratives in gaming, and it boasts a staggeringly high user score of 9.2 on MetaCritic.
If you have not given this classic a whirl yet, then do not let the fact that it is 20 years old put you off. It still holds up miraculously well (despite the technical aspects feeling a little dated) thanks to its timeless creativity and oppressive atmosphere.
If you like your horror with a more cerebral edge, then this one is definitely for you as it eschews in-your-face viscera and jump scares in favor of something insidiously creepy. The nightmarish sequences here are more abstract and psychological than those in Resident Evil and, when you finally realize what’s going on, it makes a second playthrough all the more rewarding.
Speaking of which, you might initially come for the scares, but you will stay for the engrossing mystery plot. It might seem like there is no rhyme or reason to what takes place in the quasi-hell dimension of Silent Hill, but it all eventually clicks into place and when it does it’s even more disturbing.
Unfortunately, it is hard to play the definitive version of Silent Hill 2 nowadays (unless you have still got a PlayStation 2 lying around), so you will have to make do with the inferior HD remaster. It’s not quite the same, as they had to rebuild certain assets and lost some of the original audio files, but if you have nothing to compare it to then it’s still worthwhile.
If the Silent Hill games bring a welcome touch of class and subtlety to the horror genre (recalling The Exorcist) then Outlast is the video game equivalent of a ’70s exploitation flick. It is blunt, crass, unbelievably explicit and packed to the brim with jump scares.
The Escapist magazine put it best in their review, writing: “There are some alarming sexual images, and the amount of torture, death, and gore would give even Troma a run for its money.” Which is exactly what makes it such a great candidate for a Halloween binge session.
The premise is that you are a photojournalist who has been sent to investigate rumors of human rights abuses taking place at a remote psychiatric hospital. Of course, when you get there, you discover that the patients have taken over the asylum and are all doing very NSFW things to each other. Armed with only a night vision camcorder—that has an inexcusably poor battery life—you must sneak around in the dark while trying to evade a bunch of intimidating stalkers.
As far as pure shock value is concerned, you won’t find much that eclipses Outlast, except for maybe those rare titles that have been outright banned. Red Barrel’s sleeper hit contains everything from genital mutilation, to necrophilia, naked machete-wielding killers, and all manner of bodily fluids. There’s no taboo it shies away from. To give you an idea of what the tone is like, the following text appears when you first start a new playthrough: “Outlast contains intense violence, gore, graphic sexual content, and strong language. Please enjoy.”
If you think you can stomach the extremities, then Outlast is available digitally on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and the Nintendo Switch, where it fits nicely alongside Super Mario Odyssey and Animal Crossing.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (2003)
The Fatal Frame series never quite took off in the same way as Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but it deserves just as much praise.
The second entry is a particular highlight, featuring an unnerving plot about a rural Japanese village that is under the influence of a terrible curse. The enemies you encounter here are classic Onryō spirits, like those you would see in something like The Ring or The Grudge, and you can only defeat them by taking their picture using a special camera.
With haunting imagery, a dark backstory and an overwhelming sense of dread, Crimson Butterfly is certainly not for the faint of heart. Don’t just take our word for it though, as Neil Druckmann (director of The Last of Us) has also cited it as being “scarier than any film out there,” adding that he had to play it in chunks because he just “couldn’t take it.”
Alien: Isolation (2014)
The Alien series—in both its cinematic and the video game iterations—has been badly mistreated over the past couple of decades, but there have been occasional bright spots. Chief among these is Alien: Isolation, which is arguably the best thing to come out of the franchise since 1986.
The survival-horror outing tells the story of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda (who is briefly mentioned in the special edition cut of Aliens), as she forms a search party to rescue her mother. Of course, she ends up finding nothing but death, malfunctioning androids, shady cover-ups and endoparasitic creatures that have a tendency to kill on sight.
After a slew of first-person shooters reduced the xenomorphs to nothing but disposable cannon fodder, what works so well about Alien: Isolation is that it makes H.R. Giger’s infamous monster scary again. You cannot fight it, nor can you outrun it and so stealth becomes your only viable option here.
Playing out like a particularly nerve-wracking, 16-hour game of hide and seek, you would think that Alien: Isolation might grow stale after a while. Yet it never does thanks to the unpredictable enemy A.I., which makes you feel as though your nemesis is constantly learning and adapting its hunting pattern.
On top of that, you have also got sublime atmosphere, immersive sound design, and dynamic lighting effects that will have you jumping at every shadow. It is no wonder that this went on to be named PC Gamer‘s best release of 2014 and one of GamesRadar‘s greatest horror titles of all time.
Alien: Isolation is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. Buy it now from GameStop.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)
You cannot put together a list of essential Halloween games without including at least one Resident Evil. While there are plenty of classics in this beloved series, when it comes to outright scares you have to go with the terrifying seventh entry.
Before Biohazard came along, Resident Evil was in very bad shape. Its identity had been watered down over the years for the sake of bombastic action and globetrotting adventures, and Capcom just didn’t seem to be interested in making horror games anymore.
Thankfully, Resident Evil 7 fixed all of this by returning the franchise to its spine-tingling roots. It trapped you in a claustrophobic environment, stripped you of all the rocket launchers and mini-guns that you got in RE5, and provided some truly memorable villains in the form of the unstoppable Baker family. All of which contributed to making you feel vulnerable again, which is the key ingredient to effective horror.
Sure, it kind of loses steam in the third act and it does crib a lot of its best ideas from movies (most notably Saw, Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but the pros here vastly outweigh the cons. If nothing else, the harrowing encounter with a gross bug lady who scuttles around on the ceiling is enough to warrant it a place on this list.
You can buy Resident Evil 7: Biohazard on PlayStation 4 at GameStop.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Amnesia is often attributed with single-handedly rescuing the horror genre after it fell out of fashion in the late 2000s.
During that era, AAA publishers had collectively decided that the niche market just wasn’t sustainable anymore, with even Capcom being reluctant to make proper Resident Evil games. Instead, they were all busy chasing after the Call of Duty multiplayer crowd. The few horror titles that were released at this time were essentially just shooters that happened to have monsters in them, like F.E.A.R., Dead Island, and Dead Space.
Amnesia was the indie underdog that managed to change the industry’s mind, as it proved that there was an undernourished audience who were craving more slow-burn, understated experiences. It had a truly novel idea too, by giving you no means of fighting back against the formidable creatures that were lurking in the dark. You were simply dropped into a medieval castle and tasked with running, hiding and generally cowering for your life.
The developers at Frictional Games smartly concealed their budgetary restraints as well, by relying more on suggestion and evocative sound design than big action set pieces. In fact, it takes a couple of hours before you even get to see one of the creatures here and, even then, it is heavily obscured by shadow. In that sense, think of it a bit like the gaming equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.
Amnesia was highly praised at the time for its comparative restraint and emphasis on genuine tension, with Rock Paper Shotgun decreeing it the “the most successfully frightening game to have been made.” There was subsequently an indie horror boom (spawning titles like Outlast, Five Nights at Freddy’s and the Slenderman franchise) and even those AAA companies that had previously written off the genre were trying to emulate the Amnesia formula.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available to download on Xbox, PlayStation and PC. If you haven’t already played it, we would also recommend checking out its anthology sequel Amnesia: Rebirth.
An appetiser for the then-in-development Silent Hills, P.T. (which is an initialism for “Playable Teaser”) is often hailed as one of the scariest video games ever made.
It was a collaboration between video game developer Hideo Kojima and movie director Guillermo Del Toro. Together, this eccentric duo came up with a truly unique piece of art that has been often imitated but never surpassed.
The short experience has you wandering around a cramped apartment in a never-ending time loop. When you try to leave through the front door here, you are immediately taken right back to the very beginning and have no choice but to repeat the whole process again.
The first few of these cycles are relatively uneventful but, after a while, you begin to notice subtle changes in the environment. During one loop the bathroom door might be fully closed, but the next time you pass by it will be slightly ajar. Shortly thereafter cryptic inscriptions will appear etched on the walls, cockroaches will infest the corridors, faces will be violently scratched out of photographs, and you will receive chilling phone calls from beyond the grave.
This gradual escalation of supernatural phenomena will really get under your skin, until eventually you are dealing with flayed foetuses and a murderous revenant that hunts you incessantly from room to room. It all culminates in one of the most bloodcurdling moments in any piece of media, when a voice on the radio dares you to turn around so that you find out what is currently breathing down your neck.
With its surreal visuals, illogical geography and the sense of powerlessness that it instils in the player, P.T. is the closest that a video game has ever come to capturing the feeling of a nightmare. It was so effective in this regard that it managed to pick up numerous accolades, despite not even being a fully-fledged release. For instance, Bloody Disgusting readers voted it as their scariest game of 2014 and A.V. Club went so far as to name it the best horror title of all time. Not too shabby for what is essentially just a trailer.
Alas, Silent Hills was cancelled after Kojima had a messy split from Konami. P.T. was tragically caught in the crossfire of this and was promptly taken down from the PlayStation store. Optimists are still clinging to the hope that it will one day return but, for now, the only way that you can experience the teaser is to either buy a second-hand PS4 console that still has it installed, or to just watch a let’s play video on YouTube.
Alternatively, there are some decent spiritual successors that we can recommend, like Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear and the bone-chilling Love, Sam.
Newsweek has affiliate partnerships. If you make a purchase using our links, we may earn a share of the sale.