It’s probably heresy to admit on this site, but horror isn’t my favorite movie genre. When it comes to video games, though, it’s by FAR my favorite; seven out of my ten favorite video games fall squarely into the horror genre. (You could probably make a case for Heavy Rain as well, since some of the trials the protagonist goes through are very Saw-like in nature, but I’d place it more in the thriller/action/interactive movie category. I cannot, however, manage to make any kind of argument for Odin Sphere or Persona 4!)
Anyway, I figured that during this holiday season, you might be wondering what video game to get for your favorite horror fan, or maybe you’ve been wanting something for yourself. Fear not, for I’m here to help! This is, of course, by no means an inclusive list, and it’s a very personal one. Just because I didn’t much care for The Evil Within (which is a damn shame, seeing as it was created by Shinji Mikami, the same man behind the Resident Evil series) doesn’t mean you won’t love it, so take this article for what it is: a highly opinionated selection.
A few notes before I begin: this list doesn’t include any first person games because they give me such terrible simulator sickness that I throw up and/or get a migraine, so I can’t personally vouch for any of them. Also, although I love the Resident Evil series and count three of them among my favorite video games of all time (4, 2, and Code Veronica), I haven’t included any of them here because I am feeling awfully petty towards the Resident Evil folks right about now. Why? Well, Resident Evil 7 comes out in January, and—you guessed it!—it’s FIRST PERSON. This is especially galling to me because the few moments of gameplay I’ve been able to safely watch before the nausea kicked in show that they’ve gone in a bit of a Silent Hill direction, so I’m quite unhappy and will have to console myself in the furry arms of Dead Rising protagonist Frank West when the fourth game comes out this month.
Unfortunately, I had to leave a couple of favorite titles off this list because they will probably be impossible to find or extremely expensive to acquire, but if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a moment to fangirl over them anyway.
RULE OF ROSE: This intensely creepy PS3 game was described by The A.V. Club as “Lord of the Flies in petticoats”, and that’s pretty dead on. You play as Jennifer, a teenage girl trapped in an orphanage with odd impish creatures and a group of bullies who force Jennifer to find tributes for them and, just for variety’s sake, occasionally do things like tie her up in a bag and toss insects inside. Fortunately, Jennifer has one loyal friend: a dog named Brown, who helps her find items and keep her sanity.
Prior to its release, the game was plagued by rumors that the point of the game was to rape and murder a child; despite the fact that this was not even remotely true, the game was cancelled in several countries, and considering the violence dealt out and aimed at children, as well as hints of lesbianism and sexual abuse, I’m still amazed it was released in the United States. The combat is absolutely dreadful, but the musical score, the graphics (at least for the time), and the heartbreaking story made it well worth a play. It sells for hundreds of dollars online, but if you have a friend who owns it and is willing to lend it to you (don’t be offended if they require a deposit!), check it out. At the very least, watch the opening cinema on YouTube to get a good idea of its general feel.
ILLBLEED: I bought a Dreamcast because they said Resident Evil: Code Veronica was going to be a Dreamcast exclusive, and although that turned out to be false, I wasn’t even mad because the Dreamcast had some awesomely quirky games: Seaman (interactively raise a sarcastic fishman), D2 (fight aliens in the Canadian Rockies and shoot a supercomputer that looks like a metallic vagina and oh, by the way, is the protagonist’s mother; no, I’m not joking), and this bizarre gem. Eriko and her friends are horror aficionados, so when they hear about a horror theme park offering a reward of $100 million to anyone who can reach the exit alive, they jump at the opportunity. It’s not a particularly scary game, aside from one area where you’re being chased around a maze by a flamethrower-toting freak, but it’s great. Like Rule of Rose, I’m astounded it was released in the United States. It’s got farting rump roasts that leap off the supermarket shelf to attack you, a butt-shaped statue that craps on you, an evil doll named Bloody Mary, crash test dummies, some breathtakingly politically incorrect moments, a level inspired by Tremors, and a bonus round in which you fight…well, it’s a massive spoiler, but let’s just say it really isn’t someone you would want to fight while wearing nothing but a few scraps of rags and some strategically smeared mud, as Eriko does.
CLOCK TOWER: This game cribs so heavily from Phenomena (or, ugh, Creepers as it was known stateside) that it owes Dario Argento royalties, although it skips the ability to control bugs and the razor wielding chimpanzee (shame, that). In this point-and-click scarefest, Jennifer (who looks exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, like Jennifer Connelly, the star of Phenomena) is undergoing treatment to recover from the trauma she underwent in the first game, which was never released outside of Japan. After a string of brutal murders, Jennifer is afraid that Scissorman is back at it, so she and a motley crew of associates head back to Barrows Castle to see if they can end things once and for all. The graphics are awful, and I’ve heard better voice acting in Cinemax After Dark movies, but man, is it frightening. I will never forget clicking on a painting and Scissorman bursting through it; I screamed so loud I sent my cat tearing upstairs in a panic.
And now on to the games you don’t have to take out a loan or go on a scavenger hunt to play! When a particular game has more than one installment, I’ve chosen my favorite.
FOR FANS OF JACOB’S LADDER, STRANGER THINGS, AND JUST PLAIN AWESOME THINGS: Silent Hill 2
WHY? From its initial release in 1999, Silent Hill differentiated itself from the pack by emphasizing psychological terror over cheap jump scares, and I fell in love from the very first game and never looked back. All of them are worth playing (even Origins, which I personally feel was extremely underrated, and Silent Hill 4: The Room, which suffered from some major issues but had enough good parts to even the score), but the crown jewel of the collection is Silent Hill 2. Friends, if you can only play one Silent Hill game, make it Silent Hill 2. Although playing the first game is helpful in that it gives you an idea of the town’s mythology, it’s not necessary; Silent Hill 2 works perfectly well by itself. You play James Sunderland, a man who’s received a letter from his wife Mary, telling him she’s waiting in their “special place” in Silent Hill. Well, that’s all well and good, except Mary is dead. Understandably intrigued (and more than a little frightened), James goes to Silent Hill and is met by the usual monsters and bad guys, including the instantly iconic Pyramid Head. (If you’ll allow me a side rant: Pyramid Head has appeared in other Silent Hill games, which CHEESES ME OFF. Without going into spoilers, there’s a reason Pyramid Head is James’ personal tormentor.) He also runs into a few other humans along the way: psychotic Eddie, obnoxious little girl Laura, troubled soul Angela, and most notably, Maria, who looks like a tarted up version of James’ dead wife Mary. Man, this game wrecked me in the best possible ways. There are two scenes near the end that absolutely destroyed me; I had to put the controller down and pause the game so I could sit quietly with my thoughts for a moment. It’s heartbreaking, terrifying, and my absolute favorite video game of all time. A remastered, high definition version came out in 2012, and because it also includes the excellent Silent Hill 3, that’s definitely the one you’d want to pick up.
FOR FANS OF THE ALIEN SERIES AND EVENT HORIZON: Dead Space 2
WHY? In the first Dead Space game, you played as Isaac Clarke (please note the homage to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), a silent engineer fighting his way through the Ishimura, a mining starship overrun by alien creatures called necromorphs. It’s fantastic, but the second one is even better, thanks to a stronger story, a deliriously horrifying segment set in a nursery, and a new enemy that made the skin crawl off the back of my neck and flee for safety. These monsters look like huge plucked birds, only not nearly as funny as that may sound, and they like to play peek-a-boo around corners before running straight at you while making the most hideous sound I’ve ever heard in my life. They rank only behind Silent Hill’s skinless children as the most terrifying enemy I’ve ever encountered in a video game, and it’s a much closer call than you might think. This game is best experienced through headphones or with a great sound system; the sound design is perfection.
FOR FANS OF SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ZOMBIELAND, AND BLOODSUCKING BASTARDS: Dead Rising 2
WHY? If you like your horror liberally laced with humor, the Dead Rising series is the one for you. Fight your way through thousands and thousands of zombies by any means necessary. If you can pick an item up, it can be used as a weapon, from the obvious (assorted sharp objects, guns) to the unusual (food, fireworks, “personal massagers”). And in Dead Rising 2, they added a new twist: you can find blueprints that allow you to create a new combo weapon that is super deadly (a shotgun/pitchfork combo that allows you to pick up a zombie and systematically shoot each limb off), super funny (a teddy bear/machine gun hybrid that yells “RRRRAWR, COME GET SOME!”), or both. Dead Rising 2 is my favorite because of this mechanic, plus protagonist Chuck Greene can GET it, but Dead Rising’s intrepid photojournalist Frank West has my heart forever. Dead Rising 4 drops this month, and I couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift. (Hint hint, friends ‘n’ fam!)
FOR FANS OF TWIN PEAKS: Deadly Premonition
WHY? Because this game basically IS Twin Peaks, to the point that the main character might as well be named Dale Cooper. He’s actually named Francis York Morgan (“Call me York”), an FBI special agent sent to a small town in the Pacific Northwest to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Oh, and did I mention York loves coffee and pie? Yep. But about halfway through the game, it stops cribbing from Twin Peaks and turns into something more original. Make no mistake; Deadly Premonition has many, many flaws, to the point that it even received a Guinness World Record for the most critically polarizing survival horror video game. (Side note: that was a category they needed?) The combat makes Rule of Rose look like Gears of War, and the graphics were terrible even for its time. But it’s so quirky and different and fun that I found myself helpless to resist its charms. As a bonus, creator Suehiro Hidetaka (also known as SWERY or Swery65) is one of the absolute nicest people on Twitter and loves interacting with his fans. Be sure to pick up the director’s cut instead of the original version for additional content and improved graphics.
FOR FANS OF SCREAM, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, AND PRETTY MUCH ANY 80S SLASHER FLICK POPULATED BY ATTRACTIVE TEENAGERS: Until Dawn
WHY? This game is the most recent one on this list, and it’s definitely one of the best. A group of friends has come to spend the weekend at a secluded mountain cabin owned by the parents of their friend Josh. But exactly one year ago, Josh’s sisters Beth and Hannah disappeared, and now there’s a killer in their midst. The group is snowed in and help can’t arrive until the storm dies down, so they have to survive until (you guessed it!) dawn.
If you’ve ever watched a horror movie and screamed with irritation at the stupid mistakes of its characters, this is your opportunity to make things right…or at least try to. A clever “butterfly effect” mechanic means that sometimes you have literally seconds to make a decision which can either save you, doom someone else, or have unforeseen consequences up the road. Any one of the characters can die, and the story will keep on going. You’ve got the classic teen horror flick stock characters: the jock, the smartass, the pretty one, the awkward one, the lovelorn nerd, the horny couple just trying to find a place to bone in peace, and the most wretched bitch to ever whine her way through a video game. (I actively tried to get Emily killed, but unfortunately, she survived in both of my playthroughs.) The voice acting is great and includes established actors such as Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Brett Dalton (Agents of SH.I.E.L.D.), and horror stalwart Larry Fessenden, who also cowrote the script. It’s as close as video games have ever come to making a horror movie you can play.
FOR FANS OF THE WALKING DEAD: The Last of Us
WHY?: Because this game is phenomenal. How phenomenal? Every once in a while, I seriously consider kicking Silent Hill 2 down to second place and crowning The Last of Us as my favorite video game of all time. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a strain of cordyceps (a fungus that infects its host and controls its behaviors; it’s an actual thing, but fortunately limits itself to insects in real life) has turned people into mutated, bloodthirsty monsters called clickers that look like something out of one of Hieronymous Bosch’s nightmares. You play as Joel, a weary man who’s just struggling to get by. He’s asked to escort a teenage girl named Ellie across the United States, because she was bitten by a clicker and remained miraculously infected, and a rebel group known as the Fireflies wants to study her in hopes of finding a cure. Along the way, Joel not only has to fight clickers and newly infected humans (they haven’t fully mutated yet, but they’re twice as fast as clickers and just as deadly), but other people with bad intentions. The script by Neil Druckmann is amazing, and as you’d expect from a Naughty Dog game, the graphics and the voice acting (possibly the best video game voice acting ever) are first rate. Ellie is my favorite video game character of all time; she’s foulmouthed, smart, tough, and funny. This game made me cry at least three times, and when it’s over, you will be thinking about it for a long, long time. Be sure to also check out the DLC called “Left Behind”; it’s set before Ellie meets Joel, and it’s unmissable.
ALSO FOR FANS OF THE WALKING DEAD: Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead
WHY?: First of all, duh; secondly, it’s like playing a particularly great side story of The Walking Dead comics. You play as Lee, a man who rescues a young girl named Clementine (who, though much sweeter than Ellie from The Last of Us, is just as endearing and wonderful), and together they navigate the zombie-filled world, meet up with other survivors, and try to find safety. Like many of Telltale’s games, it’s done in a cel-shaded cartoon style that pays perfect tribute to its inspiration, and like all of Telltale’s games, it’s first rate. If you play the first “season” and enjoy it, you’ll be thrilled to know that there’s also a second season out, a side story focusing on everyone’s favorite katana-wielding badass Michonne, and a third season being released soon. It’s the perfect game to tide you over when the TV series goes on its midseason hiatus.
And there you have it! I hope this list provides you with some gift giving inspiration, either for the horror fan in your life or as a treat for yourself. Turn off the lights, do some pregaming wrist stretches, have your favorite beverage nearby, and enjoy.
Sairentohiru is an OG horror fan who still has fond memories of perusing the oversized VHS boxes in the horror section of her hometown video store. She’s a big fan of all aspects of the horror genre, but especially video games. She evens out the macabre aspects of her personality with an intense love of cats and candy. You can find her on Twitter at @sairentohiru.