DISCUSSION: Our Favorite Horror Games
What with this month's focus on horror, BMD Gaming Editor Andrew Todd and I knew we'd like to do something with horror games. Maybe a tag-team report on Soma, a game we've both been playing (as much as life will allow) over the past few weeks? Maybe we could breakdown P.T. together? We kicked around ideas, and ultimately decided to keep it simple: we're here to highlight several our favorite horror games, and we'd like to hear yours.
People still talk plenty about the Bioshock franchise. They talk about how brilliant/what a missed opportunity Bioshock Infinite was. We talk about the world-building in the first one, with that now-classic intro sending you god-only-knows-how-many leagues below the sea. We talk about the iconic character designs - the Big Daddy, the Little Sisters - and of course we're still talking about that twist ending (stroke of genius, that). This is all as it should be, save for one thing: I don't feel like the first Bioshock gets enough credit for how goddamn scary it is.
The first encounter I had with a Splicer ("Is it someone new?") is stamped into my memory. And that's just the end of the intro: things only get worse from there. The enemy design in Bioshock is revolting, freakish. When you see a team of Splicers coming at you down a dark, wet hallway, your first instinct isn't to fight: it's to flee. But where to? You're trapped in Rapture, and each new corridor offers up fresh horrors: a surgeon gone mad; giggling little girls with glowing eyes creeping around with giant syringes; phantoms that disappear and reappear directly in front of you, screaming. It's a great game, we all know this. I'm just saying I wish we referred to it as a great horror game, because it is.
It isn't until the final stretch of the game - which even Bioshock megafans will tell you ended in the wrong place - that things take a turn for less-interesting, more run-of-the-mill FPS action. That's always struck me as a shame, but then again: those first three quarters are gloriously unnerving, even on repeat plays. (Scott)
I’ll admit it: PT isn’t my favourite horror game ever made. It’s not even really a full game, functioning more as a playable trailer (hence the name) for Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s now-cancelled Silent Hills. But it’s a fascinating exercise in game design nonetheless, and tragically the only hint we’ll ever get at a game that never will be.
The setting of PT isn’t Hell, or an abandoned mental asylum, or dark and scary woods - it’s an ordinary home. But by taking a small section of that home and wrapping it into a seemingly infinite loop, it draws our attention to the little things that change: writing on a wall, a swinging lamp, a subtly opened door. Bigger jump scares happen, of course, but it’s the elements that are just there - a defaced glamour photo, the Eraserhead baby dying in the sink - that really get under your skin. Sadly, the gameplay, such that it is, is opaque to the point of being frustrating, requiring an extensive online treasure hunt to decipher how to get through it. If you perform the arcane tasks required to complete the game correctly - involving taking specific numbers of steps, looking at items the right way, and possibly even speaking into the microphone - you uncover a self-contained horror story that’s as horrifying as any of the imagery onscreen. RIP Silent Hills. (Andrew)
A game so scary, I have literally never finished it. Outlast is one of the new breed of horror games, the kind where you find yourself in a strange, wildly dangerous situation and must sneak from one end of the situation (generally a large complex of some sort, something with plety of foreboding corridors and closets to hid in) to the other without being caught and killed. The key difference, of course, is that you have no way of fighting back. Like Alien: Isolation or Amnesia or most (if not all?) of the Slenderman games, there's no real combat. Mainly there is hiding and running away from things at full tilt. Along the way, your game tells its story via environmental clues (an inexplicable number of audio recordings, perhaps, or a series of "Patient's Logs"), while you avoid becoming a bloody smear on the wall.
Outlast is the only horror game I was too stressed to finish. The extensive gore didn't bother me, and the game strikes a strong balance between cheap jump-scares and legitimately horrifying quiet moments, but I found the game's insane level of tension to be exhausting. I'd play for maybe 30 minutes at a stretch - my heart pounding in my chest and my palms pouring sweat - and by the time I cleared a new area, I'd want to take a break. At first, I was impressed. Then the game's relentlessness began to feel tedious. In short, Outlast stopped being fun and started being a bit of a chore to grind through. This made me feel very old, truth be told. It also reminded me of Alien: Isolation, a game I had similar issues with.
Anyway, credit where credit's due: Outlast is not fucking around. I may recommend the game with caveats, but there's no denying how effective it is. (Scott)
One of the first games I played to completion on the last console generation, Dead Space scared the living shit out of me. If playing at night, I dared not stop playing, lest I have to walk down the darkened corridor between the living room and the bedroom.
Taking a big page from Doom’s playbook and infusing it with more specifically horror-oriented ideas, Dead Space drops you in a derelict spacecraft filled with all manner of grotesquely-twisted terrors. Unlike other horror shooters, you can’t aim for the head - or even the belly; only by shooting the limbs off your attackers can you stop them. It’s a gruesome and powerful change in combat that makes enemies all the more terrifying, as they continue to drag their bodies toward you after having some of their limbs severed.
There are so many elements that contribute to Dead Space’s scariness. The masterfully ominous sound design; the panic-inducing zero-g and limited-oxygen combat sequences; the apocalyptic religious cult of Unitology; and yes, even the overused monster closets all worked on me. And nothing has made me run away faster or more blindly than the Regenerator. That rat bastard. Later games in the series moved further down the action route, failing to match the original’s (in hindsight) restrained design and claustrophobia. But the original Dead Space remains the Event Horizon of video games: a bit silly at times, but still damned scary when it wants to be. (Andrew)
THE 7TH GUEST
This one's sorta cheating.
I can't pretend that The 7th Guest is scary by today's standards - no matter how you remember it, I can assure you (having revisited the game in the last year or so) that it's not even remotely frightening - but back in 1993 this thing scared the everloving shit out of me. Old Man Faust, a creepy toymaker, struck 12-year-old me as a legitimate threat, super-scary and very mean-looking. His house was filled with puzzles, and each was more macabre than the last. Some were maddeningly difficult, but it was a good kind of maddening. Sure, the game wasn't perfect - sometimes the tiny-budgeted game's seams would show (read: any time the community-theater cast is tasked with delivering more than a few lines of dialogue) and it'd instantly lose whatever strange power it had - but on the whole I remember thinking The 7th Guest was hardcore.
If that's how you remember the game, I implore you to leave that memory well enough alone. Do not attempt a revisit. You will not be thrilled with what you find there. (Scott)
AMNESIA: A MACHINE FOR PIGS
I’m probably in the minority for vastly preferring The Chinese Room’s sequel to its predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Dear Esther developer’s sequel largely abandoned many of the original’s gameplay mechanics in favour of, predictably, a horror experience more driven by exploration and narrative than by setpieces or monsters (though there are certainly monsters). But in doing so, it created a memorable story that stuck with me long after completing the game.
A Machine For Pigs refers to an immense mechanical contraption beneath the Victorian-era abbatoir empire into which you descend. The term “pigs” is used interchangeably with “people” by certain characters in the game, few of whom you ever see but whose impact is felt across the game. It’s not so much the people-slaughter that terrifies as it is the how and why and who. There are big, complex ideas at work in A Machine For Pigs, which scratch at your brain for hours until becoming frighteningly clear in the endgame. It’s a powerful story because it’s sad as well as horrifying; though there’s madness at work, it’s a relatable madness, after a fashion. Though the story eventually ropes in Aztec mythology and possibly even time travel, it all radiates from a core of parental paranoia that starts as a motivation and ends as an obsession. A Machine For Pigs will always sit in the shadow of its predecessor, but that only makes it more of an unsung masterpiece. (Andrew)
What're the first horror games you remember playing? Which ones stuck with you? What's the scariest thing you ever experienced in a game? What do you recommend (bonus points if you surprise us with something we haven't played before)? We dig the BMD gaming community and have a feeling you'll be well-versed in the world of horror games. Check out some of our favorites and hit the comments to let us know what you can't believe didn't make it on our list!