*This is a special Halloween post that may not be suitable for younger audiences*
The horror genre in video games is about as old as mainstream video games in general, starting all the way back in 1972 with Haunted House on the Magnavox Odyssey. Over the last half century since then the horror genre has evolved and had many games that have either innovated or made great use of existing mechanics. Many of these games have gone on to set up large series/franchises while others have been hit indie solo games. Below I will go over five horror games that are known very well, have had high praise by gamers, and what they did that helped them perform as well as they did.
Dead Space is a science fiction, survival horror game developed and published by EA in 2008. In Dead Space, you play as an engineer named Isaac Clarke who is stranded on a mining space station after crash-landing into the station when attempting to dock. Throughout the game you come to realize that the station has become completely taken over by monsters called Necromorphs after an artifact called the Marker was found by the station's mining crew. The player’s primary goal is to fix the station in order to send out a signal for help and rescue. This is an oversimplified version of the actual story in the game, but enough of an overall synopsis without revealing any spoilers to those who have not played it.
The sense of dread the player feels being stranded on a desolate space station is a large aspect of the game. Many of the rooms include bloodstains and messages of fear and dread, which sometimes would give the player a helpful hint for gameplay. Not everything is as it seems though as enemies can appear to come out of the walls and ceilings. These enemies can grab the player as they enter rooms, sending them into a sudden quick-time-event to prevent themselves from dying. Although the player has ways of defending themselves as they are given weapons of varying sizes and types, these are finite in ammo and take many precise shots to defeat oncoming Necromorphs. Dead Space likes to use its environment and level layout to give the player a feeling of despair while giving them limited instances of defending themselves.
Made by Frictional Games in 2010, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a survival horror game where the player plays as a character named Daniel who wanders through a dark, abandoned castle called Brennenburg. While exploring this mysterious castle, Daniel has to attempt to maintain his sanity while avoiding monsters and distressing events. The main and unique gameplay feature of The Dark Descent is what is known as the “afraid of darkness” mechanic. This mechanic is tied to the game’s sanity system, where if the player is within darkness or looking at a monster their sanity goes down, while if they are within a light source it goes up. Negative effects persist the lower the player’s sanity is.
While in most horror games a dark corner can be something of a hiding place for the player, in Amnesia it is quite the opposite. With their sanity lowered their chance of a monster appearing increases. And the player has no way of defending themselves against the monsters, meaning they must run and/or hide to remain alive. This run and hide tactic ends up leading the player often into dark areas and corners, which in turn lowers the sanity even more. Another effect of lowered sanity is that the player will see and hear hallucinations of monsters, which adds to the horror aspect of the game and the constant stress of having to run. As this cycle persists, the player will eventually lose some mobility for a short period of time and, in high difficulties, die. This sanity and darkness cycle is, along with the complicated but intriguing story, what has allowed this game to become an indie classic within the horror genre.
Released in 2013, Outlast is a survival horror game developed by Red Barrels. It takes place at a remote mental institution called Mount Massive Asylum. You play as a freelance investigative journalist by the name of Miles Upshur, who decides to take a look into the place after getting a tip about inhumane experiments being conducted at the asylum. Upon entering the facility you see the maimed corpses of the staff strung out in the torn apart building. The mentally insane inmates have escaped and have taken over the building that you must now escape from.
Throughout the game you have to explore a mostly pitch-black building with a personal camcorder that has a night vision setting. This camcorder has a limited battery life and will need to be replenished quite often, by picking up batteries found in the asylum. The game uses this eerie darkness and setting to keep the player at high alert, then pouncing on them with traditional jumpscares. The player is unable to harm enemies and must rely solely on stealth tactics like crouching past enemies, staying in the dark, and hiding in or behind objects to stay out of the enemy's sights. Although the player can attempt to run away from enemies, and will have to in certain sections of the game, hiding is the much easier route of the game. Outlast uses all of the basic aspects of a horror game, combined with its stealthy gameplay, dark atmosphere and environment. It creates one of the more memorable horror experiences in gaming.
Made as a solo project by indie game developer Scott Cawthon, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a point-and-click survival horror game from 2014. In this game you play as a night security guard at a seemingly run-down restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Your play each night from midnight to 6 AM, with each night becoming increasingly more difficult. The main enemy or monster in this game is the pizzeria’s animatronics Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy. These animatronics move around at night and the player is told by a man on the phone that if they come across someone after hours they will be forcefully stuffed inside of an animatronic suit, likely killing them in the process. To prevent this from happening, the player must monitor the animatronics through the security cameras placed around the building.
The main gameplay of Five Nights at Freddy’s is that the player is stuck in one place, the security room. The only movement they have is to turn their head to see the two large electronic-powered doors in their office. This lack of movement makes the player feel like a cornered animal, as they have nowhere to go and can only wait for the animatronics to come to them. The player must also balance their power usage throughout the night as the doors, lights, and cameras in the building are on the same, limited supply. If the power goes out before 6 AM hits, then the player is more than likely dead as there is nothing stopping the animatronics from getting to them.
Although a simple game, Five Nights at Freddy’s ended up being a hit mostly thanks to YouTube lets players and its eerie environment and unique gameplay that had not been prevalent in many games before it. The lack of control over your character, surprising jumpscares, and the lifeless looks of the pizzeria and animatronics helped to make this a popular horror game that created thousands of copies and a series of 9 games, a book series, and a movie that was just released.
Alien: Isolation is a survival horror game from 2014 made by Creative Assembly while being published by Sega. It is based around the 1979 film Alien, taking place 15 years after the events in the movie. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the movie’s protagonist Ellen Ripley, who is investigating the space station Sevastopol while on a search for her mother. Once on board it is revealed that an Alien had made its way onto the station and has killed a large number of the workers within the station. The goal of the player is to do whatever they can to survive and escape the space station.
This game emphasizes stealth above all else. While it does give you some tools to defend yourself such as a shotgun, revolver, and a flamethrower. The player will have an easier time avoiding the alien completely if possible because the player will never be able to fully kill or permanently harm the Alien. One of the most unnerving aspects of the game, which is toggle-able in the settings, is that there is a proximity chat between the player and the Alien. This means that anything the player says into their microphone the Alien can hear and will be drawn to their location. The player is also at some point in the game given access to a motion tracker to keep tabs on the Alien. Although using this tracker has the negative effect of drawing attention to the Alien when close enough due to its sound. Overall, Alien: Isolation does an outstanding job at adapting the horror aspects from the original movie into the video game format. Many have praised its retro-futuristic art direction and its eerie atmosphere.