Halloween gaming horrors for grown-ups

Forget your Resident Evils, Dead Spaces and F.E.A.Rs. Here's a selection of real horror games for real men and women this Halloween.

Let’s face it, most so-called horror games are about as scary as a sunny day in an English country garden, and that’s not very scary at all unless you have a paralysing fear of wasps. For all their big talk of wanting to elicit real emotional responses from players, few developers actually have the guts to stray too far from the safe, familiar shoreline of teenage power fantasies about big guns, powered armour and killing enough faceless enemies to fill the cemeteries of WW1 ten-times over. So-called “action horror” games are just bog-standard first or third-person shooters wearing rudimentary trappings of horror whilst eschewing the real meat and gristle of it, like Modern Warfare in a cheap rubber Dracula mask.

People who wouldn’t know a proper scare if it whipped them in the face with its tentacle penii might call them horror games, but they’re wrong. A procession of high polygon monsters jumping out of closets yelling “Abooglywooglywoo” punctuated by bursts of gunfire is not proper horror. It’s a fairground ghost train ride where everything is on a rail, safe and manageable, so the kiddie-winks don’t get too traumatised and spend the entire car ride home sobbing to themselves. Even games with supposed “everyman” protagonists like a truck driver or a journalist usually have players tripping over an assault rifle with underslung grenade launcher or seven. Which the character instantly knows how to use because they used to be in the military, are an ex-con, or some other weak justification to make spineless wimp gamers feel better about themselves. “Look at me mummy!” they proudly yell. “I’m playing a scary game that’s dark and has monsters in it! I’m a big boy now!”

Good horror is about vulnerability and it’s hard to feel vulnerable when you’re behind the barrels of a minigun, wading knee-deep through conveniently placed ammo pickups and popping enemies like overripe melons, or smashing an army of clone zombies with your bare fists. Genuine horror titles treat the luxury of weaponry as an illusion of safety, giving the player just enough to have a fighting chance without making them feel like The Punisher. Bolder titles deny players any weapons whatsoever, forcing them to scrabble through the dark like blind rats with the hounds of hell at their heels. Some games never intentionally set out be horrific in the slightest, yet have something about them that brings nightmares scuttling out of the woodwork to spin webs of dread in a player’s brain. Good horror transcends game genres.

Some of the best horror games leave players in a constant state of unease, expecting atrocity around every corner until they get complacent and let their guard down, whereupon the game hits them so hard they wet themselves. Great horror, like great sex, is more effective and satisfying when it slowly builds up to a climax, instead of just blowing its load in your face within the first minute. A monster jumping out of a cupboard on a predictable trajectory isn’t terrifying in the slightest: it’s a glorified clay pigeon shoot. Good horror games have the monsters come at you when you least expect them from a direction you’d never think to look. Some of the most effective don’t have any monsters at all, at least for a while. Great horror games plunge their claw into your gut, run their icy cold talons against your heart and make you forget that you’re playing a game.

Balls to your Resident Evils, your F.E.A.Rs, and any other so-called “scary” games that kowtow to crybabies who can’t play without their heavy-calibre safety blankets. They can take their “Action Horror” games along with their Hello Kitty plushies, Mr Men books and other childrens’ toys back to nursery school where they belong. Here, my friends, are some real horror games for real men and women. Games for players willing to face the unknown with only their wits and cunning, plunge naked and screaming into the void and then claw their way back out again, gibbering, to the light of day. Folks who know a real hero is someone that is afraid yet carries on in spite of their fear, not some gung-ho meathead who is never afraid because their Invincitanium Power Armour and regenerating health protect them from any all harm.

If you have balls or ovaries of the necessary alloy then turn out the lights, strap on a set of headphones and dive into one or more the following.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

20th century horror author H.P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Indie developers Frictional Games tattooed this lesson onto their still-beating hearts before crafting what is possibly the most terrifying game I have ever played. How terrifying exactly? I purchased it on release and played for 45 minutes before taking a quick break to catch my breath, telling myself I’d get back to it later. I didn’t play it again for another 6 months, and I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to scary games. Amnesia is a refinement of the techniques Frictional developed in their earlier work with the Penumbra series, which are also worthy purchases for the discerning horror game fan, and teaches the industry exactly how horror should be done. If it only had the balls to do it.

Thief: Deadly Shadows

While the Thief games are brilliant in terms of atmosphere, they’re more about patience and tension than outright dread and horror. You creep around various medieval-steampunk locales pilfering loot, knocking out solitary guards and generally being one with the shadows as much as possible. Each game in the series has at least one level that cranks the horror up to 11 however, and the greatest of these is The Shalesbridge Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows. A former lunatic asylum and orphanage, at the same time no less, The Cradle is a living, breathing nightmare embodied in brick and mortar that does in its sleep what many dedicated horror games fail miserably at. Play Deadly Shadows and you will always remember your time The Cradle – pray it doesn’t remember you.

Clive Barker’s Undying

Undying is still scarier than a lot of modern so-called horror games despite looking a tad rough by today’s standards. Set in and around a decaying manor house in post-WW1Irelandyou’re put into the handsome shoes of Patrick Galloway, gun-toting investigator of things that go bump in the night who is asked by an old war comrade to help lift a family curse. Undying’s tale of sibling rivalry and ancient, unspeakable gods unfolds across environments ranging from brooding gothic ruins and dark, claustrophobic sepulchres to bizarre alien realms, in a superb blend of the Gothic and Weird fiction traditions. Although the game skirts dangerously close to utter silliness in places, it never quite fully gets there thanks to superb level design with a keen eye for fear, gallons of atmosphere and a little help from horror supremo Clive Barker.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

A game where you’re an immortal bloodsucker with superpowers is an unlikely candidate for terror. It’s hard to imagine anything being a threat or scaring you when bullets wash over you like rain and you can break a man in half with your bare hands. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines proves you wrong with its Ocean House level, an abandoned hotel haunted by a psychotic wraith that does everything in its power to put you in the grave for good. Something it is perfectly capable of doing without breaking into an ectoplasmic sweat. What good is being a night-born blood drinking killing machine when your enemy is already dead? As well as the haunted Ocean House, Bloodlines has several other fonts of nightmare to visit like the unassuming609 Kings Way, the Nosferatu warrens beneath the resting place ofHollywood’s royalty, an old abandoned hospital in downtown plagued by mysterious disappearances, and a small shop inSanta Monicathat sells prosthetic limbs.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat

Set in the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation in an alternate universe where a second disaster has broken reality itself, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is one of the best examples of environment-as-enemy in gaming. As one of the titular Stalkers: people who trespass into the zone searching for mysterious artefacts and other valuable loot, you roam the large open world of The Zone avoiding dangerous anomalies and areas of fatal radiation whilst fending off attacks from mutants, bandits, the military and other stalkers. Whereas Call of Pripyat is the most polished instalment in the series, Shadow of Chernobyl has the slight edge in terms of overall atmosphere with its terrifying underground sections. Both games are still more than able to scare the crap out of you at any given moment. If you’re brave enough to take a trip into The Zone then play Shadow of Chernobyl with the Complete Mod to get the most out of it, whilst your first playthrough of Call of Pripyat can and should be played as-is, unmodded and vanilla. It really is that good. 

System Shock 2

Waking up alone on a deep-space exploration vessel equipped with humanity’s first FTL drive, System Shock 2 pitches you headfirst against an enemy that is truly alien in almost every way: physiologically, psychologically, philosophically. Everyone else is dead, mutated or both, your enemies outnumber you a thousand to one, and your only ally is an evil AI with her own agenda. Augmenting yourself with cybernetic upgrades and heavier weapons helps even the odds yet you’re still very much alone and very, very vulnerable. Some of the enemies you’ll face are pure concentrated nightmare fuel and even the regular wrench-wielding “zombified” crew members will haunt your nightmares for a while. Play System Shock 2 after Bioshock and you’ll understand why the latter, as great as it is, had so much wasted potential.

X-Com: Terror From the Deep

The red-headed stepchild of the original X-Com trilogy is much maligned by fans for its unfair difficulty, overly-long missions, and a couple of severe game-stopping bugs. Where it succeeds is in the way it takes the horror elements of the first game, gives them a blood transfusion from Great Cthulhu Himself and sets the whole thing within the cold, dark, suffocating depths of the ocean. The hard-as-nails difficulty much bemoaned by some fans strengthens the games brutal, merciless atmosphere, and can result in some emergent-of-sorts scenarios where the last surviving alien in a mission starts butchering your squad one Aquanaut at a time, like an underwater version of Predator. Terror From the Deep brilliantly embodies Lovecraft’s philosophy of a cold, uncaring universe where an insignificant humanity is at the mercy of ancient, superior beings. Don’t let the fact it’s turn-based put you off: it just makes things even more tense.

 

Silent Hill 2

Without question the best game in the entire series, Silent Hill 2 weaves a deep, dark and disturbing tale of guilt, loss, murder, abuse and betrayal set in the fog-shrouded abandoned town of the title. Recurrent nemesis Pyramid Head makes his debut here and is at his brilliant sinister best, before Konami started pimping him out like a tired old whore in every other Silent Hill sequel and spinoff. The supernatural overtones of the Silent Hill series take a step backwards out of the spotlight here, serving chiefly as indifferent stage director and set dressing for a disturbing psychodrama in which one man has his face pushed into the ruined putrescent mess of his own damaged subconscious. There are still plenty of hideous nightmare creatures hiding in the fog of Silent Hill for you to run away from or beat to a pulp with a 2×4, but protagonist James Sunderland meets his worst enemy right at the start of the game. Staring at him from a grimy mirror in a roadside public toilet.

DEFCON

How can an RTS that looks like the 1983 movie Wargames be horrifying? When it accurately demonstrates the cold, clinical reality of Global Thermonuclear War in that there are no winners and everybody dies. As one of the suits in a bunker somewhere hammering the big red nuclear buttons, it’s your job to inflict as many casualties on your enemies as possible whilst keeping your own losses to within “acceptable levels.” DEFCON’s stark visuals and chilling ambient soundscape enhance the grim horror of it all, slowly filling you with despair and dread and robbing you of any hope for the survival of the human race. The terrifying truth of Mutually Assured Destruction is there will be no cheery post-apocalyptic society emerging from the nuclear ashes like in Fallout, only a perpetual nuclear winter shrouding a dead rock in space. A possibility made all the more terrifying by the fact that it could happen tomorrow, in real life. Sweet dreams!

This is only a small selection of some of the great unsettling games out there and I know I’ve missed plenty of other worthy specimens, particularly in the indie sphere. I’m always on the lookout for good new horror games that aren’t just another teenage power fantasy with bats and skulls painted on it, so if you’ve any suggestions for some I may not be aware of then post them in the comments below.

Go on. I dare you.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.