It’s October, so you know what that means: another horror-themed list from Middle of the Row’s biggest fan of the genre! This time I decided on switching from the medium of film to video games. When done right, a horror game can be a wholly unique experience. Controlling a character instead of just watching them can immerse you even further into a story, and heighten the terror to genuinely uncomfortable levels. Most of the ones I selected for this write-up are perfect examples of this, as they freaked me out more than I’d like to admit. I’m only allowing one game per franchise, and omitting titles that aren’t horror-first, so you won’t see more action-oriented adventures like The Last of Us Part II, or DOOM Eternal on here.
And with that, let’s dive right in! These are my favorite horror video games:
The Evil Within
Shinji Mikami, the director of the first Resident Evil game and other Capcom classics struck lightning yet again with this mind-bending title. You play as a detective working on a mass murder case who quickly finds himself trapped inside a distorted reality that is shaped by the mind of a twisted individual who has filled it with all manner of monstrous entities. There’s a seemingly insurmountable number of zombie-like enemies, and multiple bosses that are basically nightmare fuel given digital form, such as Laura, a combination of a spider and Sayako from The Grudge. Most of those boss fights are challenging, intense, and often have unique mechanics or hidden methods you can discover that reward experimentation with shorter or easier paths to victory. The Evil Within also does a great job of making you think carefully before almost every encounter. I was asking myself questions like “should I try to sneak by and save ammo here?” or “is it worth using a match on this ‘dead’ foe to ensure it never respawns?” throughout the vast majority of the game.
Dead Island isn’t as consistently scary (or polished) as the other games on this list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great horror experience overall. The melee-heavy combat forces you to get uncomfortably close to the undead in order to dispatch them, and things can get really out of hand really quickly if you get surrounded or a special infected makes their way into the brawl. The B-movie story and characters are often one-dimensional, campy fun, and the weapon crafting system allows you to create some insanely powerful items that can make the game as comical as it is frightening. Making Dead Island even more enjoyable is the four-player co-op. You and up to three friends can tackle the entire adventure together, and in my opinion, the campaign is one of the best cooperative gaming adventures you can find. Don’t get me wrong though, Dead Island is a worthwhile solo experience as well, as I’ve also played through it all on my own and still had a blast, but I do recommend bringing in at least one friend if you can.
Resident Evil 7
The long-running Resident Evil series went back to its creepy, white-knuckle terror roots with its seventh entry. Gone from RE7 are the emphasis on action-heavy set pieces and nigh-invulnerable, boulder-punching protagonists (as fun as they can be) and in their place are dozens of truly horrifying encounters. The best/worst of those encounters are the ones with the Baker family – an unforgettable combination of the sci-fi horrors that Resident Evil is known for and that oh-so friendly family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – who stalk you throughout different sections of the game. Each of them is unnerving in their own ways, and brilliantly pay homage to a different subgenre of horror cinema while retaining their own “charm.” The Bakers aren’t the only enemies you’ll encounter in RE7 though, as there are plenty of others to keep you on your toes in between your confrontations or chases with the monstrous homeowners. RE7’s main setting, a unbelievably disgusting house on a defunct plantation, is also worth noting; it really puts the “Resident” in “Resident Evil” as you spend a large chunk of the game trapped in or near the grimey, claustrophobic abode.
Bioshock’s setting, the underwater dystopian of Rapture is one of the most atmospheric locations in gaming, and its denizens are equally memorable. Splicers, Rapture’s citizens who became addicted to the superpower-granting drugs known as plasmids now run amok, and many of your fights with them are outright spine-chilling. Then there’s the Little Sisters, children who act as living plasmid-fuel generators, and their intimidating protectors, the Big Daddies. Rescuing a Little Sister (or draining them, if you’re a monster) offers great rewards, such as powering up your own plasmids, but doing so is no easy feat; Big Daddies will die for their friends, or more likely, kill. A Big Daddy fight is something that you can never quite feel prepared for, as their size, deceptive speed, and the enormous amount of damage they can endure make them among the most formidable foes you can come across in the Bioshock games. Luckily, you get to experience the power of plasmids yourself… but even shooting lighting, fire, or bees from your hands in addition to wielding more conventional weapons doesn’t make any of Bioshock’s horror – or the story’s monumental twists and turns – any less impactful.
This dreadfully underrated horror title from Supermassive Games blends my undying love of scary movies and video games into an interactive adventure that still has yet to be bested or matched. Even seemingly innocuous decisions that you make can end up shifting one of the game’s characters’ fate. It’s up to you whether each teen makes it off the mountain with just a scratch, missing a digit, or suffers a brutal, gory death. Until Dawn’s vocal/motion capture cast is terrific too, with recognizable film and TV actors like Peter Stormare and Rami Malek in prominent roles throughout the story. And speaking of the story, I love how much it plays into – and sometimes subverts – the tropes that horror film buffs like myself know inside and out. You don’t need to be a genre veteran to enjoy Until Dawn though; if you’re looking for something genuinely scary, or something that stands out from the usual survival horror fare, I don’t think you can do any better than spending the night on this snowy, deadly mountain.
Dead Space 2
If you read my favorite video game write-up from last year, you probably aren’t surprised to see Dead Space 2 here. It improves the gameplay mechanics that blew gamers away in the 2008 original, and expands the universe we only got glimpses of previously in another terrifying tale. The necromorphs, an ingenious kind of space zombie, are equally disgusting and frightening, from typical slasher variants to massive amounts of bodies combined into singular, gigantic abominations. There’s also a feeling of timed urgency to the campaign; Isaac (you) must stay ahead of the necromorphs while simultaneously trying to escape from the station he’s on as it crumbles around him along with his sanity. The sound and level design pile on even more tension, as they’re about as good as you can possibly find in the medium. Despite the apprehension and time-crunch you feel each time you find a new area, you want to fully explore it – that is, if you’ve managed to scrounge up enough resources to survive an unexpected assault along the way. Dead Space 2 is top-tier survival horror from its shocking start to its marvelously out there final battle. Hopefully the upcoming Dead Space remake lives up to the hype and incorporates just the right amount of elements from Dead Space 2 to create an even greater game.
And those are my favorite horror video games. If you liked this list, you should check out my favorite horror movie villains, TV shows, and underrated horror films. You can also follow me on Twitter, Letterboxd, and bookmark my author page to see what I write next. Until next time, remember: The best seats are in the Middle of the Row!