With Halloween just around the corner, it's around this time of year that the twisted shadow cast by PC gaming's horror genre becomes most noticeable. Drawn by its catalogue of ghouls and ghosts and gruesome entities, we've gathered the most ghastly and compiled the following list to suit. Whether you like your terror with a pinch of jump scares, the supernatural, action, or the unexplained, chances are you'll find something to stir your nightmarish needs in the following collection of slides. Let's look together, shall we? Go on, you first. I'm right behind you, I swear.
System Shock 2
Before BioShock was BioShock, it was System Shock: an altogether freakier combination of RPG and FPS, and one that in its second (and best) iteration told the story of a rogue AI on a haunted spaceship—that rogue AI being the incomparably uppercase SHODAN. The murderous artificial consciousness paved the way for GlaDOS of course, but its the combination of meaningful character advancement, rewarding exploration, horrifying enemies and (at the time) the novel use of audio diaries that make System Shock 2 such a memorable horror game. It was essentially Deus Ex on a spaceship—if you've ever played Deus Ex, or been on a spaceship, you can imagine how delectable that sounds.
Don't be put off by IMSCARED's rather tedious "A Pixelated Nightmare" tagline—it is easily one of the most unsettling games available today. But it's also a tough one to pitch, because much of its terror lies in the surprises that shouldn't be ruined by a meagre 150 word-long recommendation. Know that it borrows from 90's horror games via its aesthetic and fourth wall-breaking, file-bothering makeup; and that it consistently strives to surprise and keep players guessing. Understand that it'll play with your emotions, and drop you into a confused and confusing world while incessantly goading you till its final breath. Don't expect jump scares, but do expect to be scared enough to jump from your chair. The 2012 GameJolt version of IMSCARED is free, while the full, extended version is cheap as chips over on Steam. If you think I'm at all grandstanding here, please be my guess and give it a try. I'll be hiding behind the couch.
Silent Hill 2
I think we can all agree that Silent Hill 2 is the best in the series, and although Konami have never made much of an effort with the PC versions, if you factor in mods and texture/resolution tweaks this is probably the best way to play it these days—even if prices for the (extremely rare) retail copies can be pretty extortionate. It was the first game to really push the idea of horror narratives as subjective, fluid and untrustworthy things, with a story that invites interpretation and a semi-sentient city that warps and shifts itself to fit the damaged psyches of its inhabitants. The confusing cult nonsense of the first and third games was pushed to the backburner for the more personal story of a psychologically damaged widower battling his way through a foggy purgatory populated by zombie-things, dog-things, and whatever the hell Pyramid Head was.
Whereas the likes of Silent Hill and Fatal Frame rely on radios to alert players to otherworldly adversaries, Sylvio uses sound, EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and audio manipulation as its central mechanics. Not only that, the game builds its entire gorgeously creepy world around this principle theme as players strive to uncover its backstories, bizarre plot twists, and insights into its unsettling unknown—all of which is backed up by some stellar voice acting. Generic first-person horror this ain't, and while it does occasionally force tedious combat set pieces upon players, it thrives in its quirky, idiosyncratic moments that are filled with atmosphere and character and dread. Sylvio is a thinking game and is unique within the horror genre.
Layers of Fear
Perhaps the biggest problem with the horror genre today is its tendency to stigmatise mental illness. As many of the games on this list show, horror games can be scary without perpetuating the tired trope, yet the way in which Layers of Fear approaches it works without ever feeling lazy. You star as a painter who has retreated to an isolated Victorian mansion in a bid to rediscover his otherwise faltering creative flow. Stricken by the artist's equivalent of writer's block (painter's block, perhaps?), this proves easier said than done—and instead sees you systematically losing your marbles while competing with the strange goings on within the seemingly haunted house setting. Are the indelible apparitions, shifting room structures, eerie noises and startling visions real—or are they a result of the protagonist's descent into madness? This narrative-led exploration game wants you to find out and will terrify along the way.
Horror games owe a significant debt to one Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and not just because he's long dead and his work is out of copyright. Plenty of games have included references to his unique brand of cosmic horror, but Anchorhead is more inspired than most, drawing from several of his novels and stories to tell the tale of the a married couple who have inherited an old mansion in a creepy New England town. The sedate exploration of the game's opening segments eventually give way to tense, turn-limited puzzles as you struggle to stop an ancient, possibly world-ending ritual from being completed. No pressure then. It's free, and you can play it in your browser.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
The Dark Descent casts you as Daniel, an amnesiac who wakes up in a mostly deserted castle that must be explored in search of escape. Frictional draw on all of their experience creating atmospheric, exploratory horror in the Penumbra series to fill Amnesia's fortress with an oppressive and lingering sense of foreboding. Expect distant echoing noises, strange rumbles behind the walls, and to start seeing half-formed dark figures in the ambiguous candlelight. There's a monster, too, stalking you through the corridors. The perennial rule of horror creatures—that they're less scary once you've seen and understood them—certainly applies here, but Dark Descent is still a must-play horror game.
You won't find scripted jump scares here. Dark Souls is a lonely, gruelling struggle through a world on the verge of being extinguished. Lordran is a sad and horrifying place to be. You catch glimpses of the gods' old glory, but mostly you're confronting the aftermath of their terrible mistakes, whether it's the nightmare of the Bed of Chaos or the gross parasite eggs of Demon Ruins. The PC port is poor, but most of its visual shortcomings have been solved by the modding community. Start with the DS Fix and pick and choose from the Dark Souls Nexus to get the game into shape.
Dead Space's lanky alien monsters are noteworthy not just for their ability to fit into tiny closets and jump out at passing protagonists, but for the satisfying fragility of their narrow, bony limbs. Dead Space's high concept, back in the first game, was that you're a simple engineer tending to a broken ship, rather than a meaty space marine with miniguns coming out of his chest. Better still, the cutting and cleaving tools your engineer is so practiced with ended up being more rewarding than the traditional machine guns and shotguns of your typical FPS. Worryingly, foes react differently when you snip off certain limbs—a headshot may only make them madder. Oh, there's a batty plot about an alien obelisk that sends people insane, a space cult, and other nonsense. Don't worry about that too much, the room-to-room stalking is super-tense in spite of the flimsy story. Dead Space classic piece of linear horror design that still holds up.
For all Outlast plays it safe with its catalogue of jump scares and clichéd abandoned mental institution setting, it does what it sets out to do well. Without any means to defend the intrepid reporter protagonist Miles Upshur (who is, it must be said, a bit of a pain in the backside), expect to spend much of your time clamouring around the Mount Massive Asylum, sprinting down hallways from chain-dragging brutes, hiding under beds and in conveniently-situated storage lockers, and locating keys in the strangest of places for doors on the opposite side of the map. It's a formula, sure, but it's executed well and the dread of stalking the institution's corridors is galvanised by Outlast's nuanced take on Amnesia's oil lantern—a video recorder with an ever-diminishing battery life that acts as your only means of illuminating dimly-lit areas. One particular run-in with a certain unhinged doctor stands to mind as a highlight, so too does its Whistleblower expansion.
Ask Irrational, and they'll tell you that Bioshock is a series about mystery. For the first game, though, that mystery was wrapped in the trappings of FPS horror. Rapture may once have been a beautiful temple dedicated to objectivism and art deco architecture, but by the time you arrive it's a watery grave. The dimmed lighting and dereliction are a constant reminder of how far the utopia has fallen. Then there's the splicers. They're not monsters in any traditional sense, but they're also no longer people. And yet, in their creepiest, most effective moments, the warped remnants of their humanity come through.
STALKER: Call of Pripyat
Poor Pripyat just can't catch a break. In real life it's been abandoned since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In STALKER, it also suffers the indignity of corrupted anomalies and invisible monsters. The entire series has focused on a harsh and desperate struggle for survival. You may be seeking valuable anomalies and treasure, but first you'll need to secure the basics: food, bandages, and weapons. Occasionally you'll enjoy the companionship of fellow travellers around a campfire, but for the most part your exploration of the open world will feel oppressive and lonely. Call of Pripyat is the best and most technically competent game in the series, but the original Shadow of Chernobyl is also worth a look.
The Walking Dead
Is anyone still scared of zombies? Sure, they're creepy—there's something intrinsically unsettling about a vacant sack of human flesh—but when is the last time you felt visceral, gut-wrenching fear in the presence of the horde? Blood, guts, and realistic subsurface glistening just don't do it any more. Telltale's The Walking Dead forgoes the anatomy lesson for something more harrowing. The eponymous dead are extras in a bleak human drama, a handy plot device to prompt the fall of society and watch what happens when people break. Those people, all well-written and interesting characters, make for a more immediate, more believable horror story. The Walking Dead could be real, a plausible portrayal of a world going to hell, and that is scary indeed.
Phantasmagoria is the most infamous horror adventure of the interactive movie age, but that's only because almost nobody played the infinitely gorier, endlessly more disturbing Harvester. You wake up with amnesia in a messed up 50s town, where mothers pop their babies' eyeballs, the paperboy packs a gun, the local teachers deals discipline with a baseball bat at Gein Memorial High School, and nobody bats an eye at the wasp woman down the street. All you know is that unless you join the mysterious Lodge in the middle of town, you're not going to last the week - one that ends in an involuntary blood drive where the nurse uses a scythe. Then things get really weird. It's a tough game to find legitimately, but check out our Saturday Crapshoot on it for more.
Pathologic is ugly and broken. It will sit on your hard-drive like a gangrenous limb, in need of amputation. If this sounds like a criticism, it isn't. Beyond the dirty, putrefied atmosphere, Pathologic is also weird and theatrical, frequently breaking the fourth wall and questioning your role as the player. You choose one of three characters, each with their own mysterious past. Afterwards, masked figures explain the rules of the game: that you have twelve days to cure the town of its disease, and that time will progress regardless of your actions. As it slips by, you'll have to pick your goals wisely, gathering resources and helping characters in the hope of slowing the inexorable decay. Whatever your choice, the town continues to rot, and the game builds towards its horrific conclusion
Kafka bites back in this adventure we can all be glad is one of a kind. You're a man turned into a cockroach in the world's filthiest apartment, facing scaled up horrors designed to churn your stomach. Spiders. Fly traps. Dead rats in traps. Carved, bloody fish. If you're not already feeling queasy, here's a fun fact: they're real dead animals, acquired by the developers from exterminators and the local market, slapped under hot studio lighting and lovingly carved up for your squeamish pleasure. There's also a plot, but it doesn't matter even a little. Don't play this one just after eating. Make some time afterwards to give your house/room/apartment the clean that you'll have to give it.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
The Silent Hill series does creepy mannequins well, but nowhere near as well as Condemned: Criminal Origins. The premise is quite simple: there's a serial killer on the loose, you're a crime scene investigator, and people expect you to catch him. What's less straightforward is how quickly agent Ethan Thomas takes to cold-blooded murder—even considering the entire populace of Metro City appears to have it in for him. Nonetheless, while Condemned: Criminal Origins offers frontman Thomas a range of firearms, he seems happy enough to do his crowd controlling by way of melee weaponry, each of which has its own distinct feel in close-quarters combat. With that, Condemned rarely pulls any punches—it knows what it is and is happy doing so from start to finish. It's now somehow ten years old, however holds up well today.
The Evil Within
Reasons to be interested in this survival horror can be boiled down to just two words: Shinji Mikami, the designer responsible for Resident Evil (the good ones), God Hand and Vanquish, the latter of which have criminally never punched and rocket-boosted their way to PC. The Evil Within is his grand return to horror. Expect to spend a fair bit of time hiding from chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, shooting and burning lumbering zombie-likes and laying traps. The Evil Within is a fitting conclusion to Mikami's outstanding horror legacy.
Frictional Games has already appeared in this roundup, and that's because time and time again they've proven that they know horror—first in the Penumbra games, and then again in Amnesia. Soma is their latest first-person scare-'em-up, full of creepy experiments, creepier blinking computer-things, and exchanges that question the nature of humanity and consciousness. There are disturbing monsters too, of course.
Is DayZ a horror game? Absolutely. It's also a military shooter, an MMO, and a survival sim wrapped into one. Are you afraid of the zombies, who will run screaming in your direction with remarkably little provocation, or of your fellow humans, many of whom would shoot you in the back over a can of beans? The answer of course is that you're scared of everything, and everyone, and that fear only intensifies as you acquire better equipment, form alliances and grow more confident in your dealings with the undead—all of which will get you killed if you don't remain eternally vigilant. Death in DayZ robs you of all but the most basic equipment, throwing you back to a random point on the beach and forcing you to make your way all over again. Can there be anything more terrifying than that?
Similar to STALKER featured elsewhere on this list, Metro 2033 visits a post-apocalyptic, nuclear war-ravaged world that's filled with mutated abominations—the vast majority of which seek to harm you. Here, the year is 2033, 20 years after Russia fell victim to nuclear war. Moscow's surface is now too dangerous to explore, therefore much of the game takes place within its interweaving subway system and a hostile group named the Dark Ones stalks the player and their pals. Admittedly, Metro 2033, like STALKER, leans towards the action genre however while much of its scare factor is tied to running out of supplies and/or ammo, there's something truly unsettling about its post-nuclear war premise—that perhaps because this sort of scenario could happen, it becomes scarier? I dunno, maybe it's simply the fact the Dark Ones are bloody terrifying.
The slim, suited menace known as Slenderman started life as a forum meme, and has quickly grown into a horror series. His schtick is simple, but terrifying enough. If you look directly at him, he devours you, but when you look away he can move position instantly in an attempt to trick your gaze. You have to collect eight notes from a dark forest as the demon hunts you. The free downloadable version, The Eight Pages , has inspired a wealth of YouTube Let's Play videos, because it turns out it's almost as fun to watch Slender's potent psychological terror inflicted on others as it is to endure it yourself. Its popularity encouraged Blue Isle studios and Parsec productions to create a prettier version called Slender: The Arrival, which is available for $10 on Steam , and has bonus Oculus Rift support for VR terror.
The best Alien game ever, by a long way, Isolation stars the smartest, scariest enemy in any game. The Xenomorph's killer instinct is matched only by its curiosity. It learns more about the Sevastopol's nooks and crannies as it hunts you over the course of 12 hours, ripping doors off closets and peering under tables in search of prey. The motion tracker can help you to avoid its grasp, but it can sense the sound, and even the gentle green light of its screen, making every glance a risk. When the game forces you into the vents and you can hear the creature in there with you, Isolation becomes one of the scariest games ever made.
Call of Cthulhu
Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos should be a ripe playground for gaming scares. It rarely works out like that; the fiction often put to use in ways that fail to convey the sheer magnitude of its ancient and maddening horror. Despite the bugs and the clunkiness, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a first-person survival horror that both stays true to its source, and provides a multitude of ideas through its many and varied levels. You'll go from escaping an assassination, to being hunted by cultists, to fighting off Shoggoths and Deep Ones. It's left such an impression on our production editor Tony that the game regularly makes an appearance in our annual Top 100. And he's a man who yawned his way through Amnesia.
FEAR is a better shooter than a horror game, but is worthy of note for referencing asian cinema with its creepy villain, Alma, a little girl who can rip people apart with her thoughts. FEAR also exploited the first person perspective to create jump-scares, using ladders and narrow corridors to funnel the player's view through a rollercoaster of linear frights. You catch glimpses of Alma in the corner of a room as lightbulbs shatter, you'll suddenly see her feet at the top of a ladder as you descend, and there's a gratuitous corridor of blood, because The Shining deserves a nod every now and then. First person horror techniques have been honed into a more concentrated horror experience by games like Outlast, but FEAR does let you pin clone soldiers to walls with a stake gun, and kick them in the face in slow motion as they scream “FUUUUUUU” in a low-pitched, slurry expression of terror. The psychological horror themes persisted in FEAR's sequels—FEAR 2: Project Origin and FEAR 3.
The tank controls and pre-baked backgrounds hint at Resi's age, but it's a survival horror classic nonetheless, and received a handsome HD upgrade earlier this year. The famous Resi mansion drips with atmosphere, and hides some top-drawer jump scares—when crows come crashing through a window, it makes every future trip down that corridor especially tough. The giant spiders are hideous and the relentless threat of the mansion's zombie population grinds down your spirit and your health bar. Soon you're a limping picture of pain and regret, searching for the octagonal object you need to go in the octagonal slot. What a nightmare.