[sound of coffin opening] Welcome! I am your (g)host, Craig FEARSOME, beckoning you in to this eldritch gathering of... LOOK BEHIND YOU! [sound of special effects budget being cut] Yes, there is NOTHING there. The very absence of fear is perhaps the greatest fear of all. No? But I used Caps Lock and italics! WhAt aBOut NOwWow? [sound of awkward silence] Fine, you are unafraid of typography. How about a list of the scariBOOest PC games? Hah. I saw you flinch! Now you are atmospherically prepared, ensure there are neither babies nor pets between yourself and the nearest toilet, lest your bowels react unfavourably to this mildly cursed list of possibly evil games, aka The five Scariest PC Games of alllllllll timmmmmme*. [sound of coffin closing][sound of Craig snoring]
*What? No AvP? No FEAR? No Hidden: Source? Where's Pathologic? Why not Cryostasis: Sleep of
Reason instead of Amnesia? All fine questions... that I can answer by pointing out that you might find things scarier than I do. Even though it does make you less of a man than I am, I'm contractually obliged to let you know that it's all okay, and that you're allowed to be a big baby in face of those games that I consider as scary as a kitten's hug. But please do let us know what you do find scary, and what your list would be, because fear is best shared in a big group.
You awaken on a broken, quiet space ship. You're one of the few people still alive. The walls are covered in bloody graffiti and the ship's crawling with crew possessed by aliens. It's a standard set-up, but the fact that it wrings out scares from a murk of tropes is truly impressive. System Shock 2's genius lies in plain sight. If you want ink black shadows and scary violin screeches, you have come to the wrong game. This not the canned scariness of Dead Space. There are no closets with monsters. There are long sections of space corridors, punctuated by terrifying fights where you always seem on the back foot. Your weapons break. Your mind gets invaded by the ghosts of those that perished. The incongruous details really put it over the edge. Did that man just apologise for attacking me? Yup. Is that the sound of a screeching monkey? Holy fuck it is. All the while you're being guided by the voice of the ship's captain, who leads you on to one of the most guts-wrenching twists in gaming. It's a trick that worked so well that the developers pulled it off again years later, in BioShock.
If there is one thing more terrifying than a game world that barely acknowledges your existence, it's one that's also filled with zombies and humans. The multiplayer post-apocalyptic DayZ welcomes you to its 225sqkm of zombie infested world with disdainful silence. You spawn on a beach miles from anywhere. You need supplies and weaponry. This is where most games would start telling you where you go and what you need to do to, but here all you get is a sneer and a challenge to figure it all out on your own. You are not the star of DayZ; you are meat for the beast. The elements can kill you. The zombies can kill you. But the worst thing is the players. You just don't know if someone's friendly or not. The first friend I made in-game shot me in the back. The second I had to kill because he was acting so strangely I was convinced he was leading me into an ambush. I don't like not trusting people. For weeks afterwards I'd spawn at night, avoid human contact, and pick my way across the pitch black land looking for the glow of light on the horizon, then change direction. People suck, and the guy in the video above, Surviving Solo, understands that.
Stalker is set in the real post-disaster area of Chernobyl and Pripyat, the perfect setting to unsettle. Layered on top of the harrowing, beautiful open-world of a post-nuclear disaster is an ecosystem of mutant animals and wandering scavengers. Day and night tumbles along as you try to survive out in a world of grim Russian fable, picking at the scabs of the story and searching for artefacts. The AI isn't out to get you, it's just trying to exist in a barren land where everything is in pain and hungry. When you're walking in the dark, in the rain and on your own, there's no telling just what will unpeel from the shadows and decide to take you on. It might be a scruffy hound, which is easy to kill but not worth the bullets, or it might be an invisible, blood-sucking hell beast. It might just be your imagination, fuelled by the pitch of night and a soundtrack that sounds like Aphex Twin making music with rust and orgasms.
Almost any Thief game could appear on this list. They have a thin, low-tone of terror quietly running through that spikes you're inches from a patrolling guard, close enough to hear a quiet a cough and a mumble, nothing but a quirk of lighting keeping you from being spotted. You are always vulnerable, a fact your bladder keeps reminding you of. But then Thief 3 unleashes the Cradle on you. The Cradle is a place where the history is as important as the present horrors. An ancient orphanage and mental asylum (at the same time), the classic haunted house level that subverts the format of Thief and plunges you into a dark story of its own. As you stalk deeper into the place the history is revealed, coming off in chunks rather than a slow reveal of text, and when you put it together the place takes on a twisted life of its own. This is one that should be experienced first hand. If you have played it, Kieron Gillen's amazing dissection is an essential read that'll give you deeper understanding of the themes and backstory. If you haven't, you can grab the full game cheaply enough on Steam or GOG.com. Or just watch this and be glad you didn't.
You can see flashes of Amnesia in Penumbra and its sequel: a first-person adventure game where the world is a reactive, physical space to be poked and prodded. Penumbra nearly made it in here, but there's something about Amnesia that raises it above the others. The story is ridiculously hokey, and the setting is closer to a cheesy Hammer horror story than something you'd expect to give you sweaty palms. But in Amnesia you're not a typical game hero: when bad things happen, you don't have the power to confront it, you don't have a buff bar full of counters, and you don't have a gun in your hand. You have a lamp. You have to run and hide and hope whatever it is goes away. Your character's fear is palpable: the screen shakes and warps as the terror builds, and the monsters seem to wait for the perfect moment to strike at you, delivering the sort of scare that has you hyperventilating along with your character. Just keep telling yourself that it isn't real.