Update [04/10/2015]: We've added the Five Nights at Freddy's series to this list. All three games (which we've combined into a single entry) deserve a spot on this list.
Horror occupies a strange place in a person’s heart. We turn down the lights, don our headphones and want the game to make us jump out of their seats. We want to cry out, whimper and scream at what we are putting ourselves through.
Many games have scary elements in them, but then there are the games whose sole purpose is send paralyzing shivers down your spine. The games that stick with you long after you’ve turned your console or computer off and when you do coat you with an inescapable dread.
From jump scares to the psychological, from monsters to murderers, here is what I believe to be the top 25 best horror games of all time.
Five Nights at Freddy's Series
The Five Nights at Freddy's series is a simple, yet surprisingly terrifying series of games that's managed to become really popular thanks to YouTubers like Markiplier, who've played the games to death on their channels–with good reason: they're fun. The cleverness in design and subtlety of the game's mechanics provide for some very potent scares.
27. Silent Hills / P.T.
P.T. is an interactive teaser for the upcoming survival horror game Silent Hills. Developed by both Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, the game was intended to immerse players in what Silent Hills has to offer. Looking through the first-person view, the game consists mainly of a corridor that the player walks down repeatedly. It’s a lot scarier than it sounds, honestly.
26. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs [Tie at #6 Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth]
One can see the inspiration from Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. It's not a literal adaptation of the book, which was famous for its portrayal of the atrocities committed in Chicago's slaughterhouses.
Players take on the role of one Oswald Mandus, a Victorian-era mogul whose been afflicted with a loss of memory, who at some point in his past built a gigantic device known only as "The Machine", but you have no idea what it does or why it's important.
With your whole family gone missing, it's up to you to find out what happened to them and delve deep into The Machine and discover the truth of your identity.
Read our review here.
SCP-870 is one of the many stories SCP holds within its archives. For those not in the know, SCP stands for "Secure Contain Protect", a foundation that's not unlike the something you might see in the X-Files, Fringe, or Warehouse 13. The organization works to secure and contain anomalous objects, codenamed, "Safe", "Euclid" and "Keter", depending on the threat they pose or their behavior.
SCP-870 in particular is a still object—a man-sized doll that needs constant monitoring by a live human. Any failure to observe it—even for a split second—will cause the doll to move towards you and kill you. That makes up the core of the game.
The object has managed to escape from its containment facility, and it's on the loose. As a survivor, you have to manage your eye-blinks and keep it always in sight or it'll kill you.
No, it's not based off the Metallica song. Sanitarium is a horror adventure game where you play as an amnesiac patient who arrived at a mental asylum after his car crashed and is now trying to figure out what is going on. The mystery doesn’t lie in the titular facility, but in the worlds trapped inside your head.
Part allegory, part symbolism, all disturbing—Sanitarium is a story that sends you through your own warped and unknown psyche filled with deformed children (some missing their eyes), ancient gods, and ghosts from your past. The settings pay homage to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s that lends the perfect aesthetic to match the pace of the game.
Scratches is an adventure horror game from Argentinean developer Agustin Cordes, released in 2006. It places you in the first person perspective of Michael Arthate, a mystery author seeking seclusion to work on his next book. But after he’s moved in he discovers that the house contains a secret past, and he can literally hear scratches all around the house.
A puzzle game at heart, the atmosphere and tension are pitch perfect as the moments are timed to ratchet up the player’s terror using next to nothing. You’ll be scared of sounds and the cinematic tricks of the trade as you end up committing all the things you yell at characters in movies not to do.
22. Dead Space
What can be said about Dead Space that hasn’t already been said? It was the game to turn certain monster fighting conventions on their head. Players trained to aim for the head soon found themselves out of their depth, as the only way to kill the Necromorphs were to cut their limbs off, the same limbs being slashed in your face ready to cut it off at a moment’s notice.
The USG Ishimura was terrifying setting with half of the ship in disrepair and the other half filled with slavering monsters. So not only was Dead Space the master of the jump scare, it gave you the uneasy feeling the whole time you were in it that the ship would fall apart right under your feet.
And then there was the shoggoth in the tumble dryer…
21. Silent Hill
Back in 1999, the processing power of the PlayStation wasn’t up to snuff—as Konami discovered—to get their entry into the survival horror genre. Thank goodness for that. The draw distance was so short that they had to add Silent Hill’s trademark fog that obscured everything and made you rely on the sounds around you.
The game had a clever way of keeping you on edge. It forced you out into the street with only two bullets in your gun—the sound of flying monsters growing louder or fading away as you ambled across the deserted thoroughfare. You were always outmatched in any fight. Seeing the monsters only made things worse.
Despite the doofus brigade of the death cult, the series—like the town itself—was just getting into the swing of things, but still had the terror ratcheted up.
ObsCure focused on a group of five high school seniors who stumble upon a laboratory where biological experiments are being performed. The students must then fight their way out in order to warn the remaining student body. The enemies are sensitive to light, with direct sunlight destroying them. Flashlights can be used to slightly weaken the monsters and the black aura surrounding them.
The game features all the standard tropes you can come to expect from a B-movie. The scarcity of ammunition, health items and save reels were ripped from the early Resident Evil games, but ObsCure adds a whole new dimension. If a character dies it doesn’t end the game, as the story simply continues without them. However, you will grow quite attached to the characters, and frankly you’ll need every hand available to survive to the end.
19. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
A cookie to those who recognize the game or the 1968 short story off which it was based. A super computer called AM 109 years ago killed off the human race in the Final War and gathered the last five survivors into its underground catacombs to torture them for all eternity for the simple reason it hates humanity with every neuron of its circuits.
In the game—written by Harlan Ellison, the author of the original short story, who also plays the voice of your tormentor—you control the five characters adventure game style as they face their individual trials of "speared eyeballs and dripping guts and the smell of rotting gardenias." Each of the characters must overcome their fatal flaws, but in the end, the best they can hope for is to lose heroically, gloriously and at the peak of their humanity. That’s if the player was ethical throughout the game. You don’t want to know what happens otherwise.
Some might argue that Slender isn't so much of a game as it is a short, interactive experience that's built right into the browser—but I'd argue otherwise. The game's platform has no merit on whether it's a 'game' or not, and the fact that you'll need a fresh pair of pants when you're done playing it is about the only thing that matters when you play it.
All thoughts of whether it's a "game" or "not a game" fly out the window the moment you hear the creeping static of the Slender Man and your screen starts to go fuzzy as he approaches you at a pace so rapid it'll make your heart fall out of your chest.
If you love scares, do yourself a favor and play this one with the lights off and the headphones on.
17. Siren / Siren: Blood Curse
The rural village where human sacrifice once took place is now populated by the nightmares of Japanese folklore with creatures that lie somewhere between ghost and zombie. The village is always dark, the denizens always murderous and had nonlinear story telling complete with interweaving narratives with the different characters. Both the games feature a strong emphasis on stealth, meaning you have to hide rather than fight. Furthermore, there is the sightjacking mechanic where—with a tune of the analog stick—you can look through the enemy’s eyes as they approach the very closet you’re hiding in.
16. Rule of Rose
This psychological horror game is a different sort than the others on this list. There is no supernatural element; just very screwed up kids being psychopathically horrible to one another—but most importantly to you.
The game draws influence from the cruelty found in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the original ones not the sanitized Disney knockoffs. You play 19-year-old Jennifer who becomes trapped with no memory in a world ruled by young girls who have established a class hierarchy based on the cruelty displayed to others.
15. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned is a detective story that was overlooked when it first came out early in the 360’s lifespan. With both horror and brawler mechanics, it was the first true “next-gen” horror title.
You play Ethan Thomas, an agent tasked with investigating the lowest rung of society while searching for a serial killer, with the rest of the world going mad around you. Hobos and junkies jump out from the shadows to bludgeon you with anything they can get their hands on, and you have to do the same.
The atmosphere is what puts it over the top, as Ethan tracks down the horror the city streets. While the game feels rather “out there”, the crime investigations and crunch of the bones keeps it close enough to reality to be truly unsettling.
Alma. That’s all that really needs to be said about this game. Little girls are scary, especially psychic little girls with long dark hair covering their faces who appear in the middle of empty corridors. As for the game itself, the shooting is great and the AI smart, but it’s the nightmare moments that really shine. The world goes topsy-turvy and your characters sees things that aren’t there out of the corner of his vision.
F.E.A.R. provides one thing that other gun filled, fast paced action, super solider horror games don’t, in that the character you are playing is constantly unnerved. The slight sway of his gun and the shallowness of his breathing during and after these nightmare events make you believe they are happening and the character is vulnerable to having his mind fucked.
13. Haunting Ground
Fiona wakes up in a cage after a car accident and little memory of what happened before she woke up (this seems to be a recurring theme with horror games). Fiona finds an ally in the form of the dog Hewie, but he will only follow your commands if you treat him well and keep up his interest. Together, you have to solve puzzles, avoid your pursuers and survive the night.
It’s easier said than done, as the game takes survival horror to a new level. While other games will give you resource scarcity, Haunting Ground doesn’t give you any resources whatsoever. You have no choice but to run and hide. There are enemies that will relentlessly hunt you down, giving you a very strong signal that you’re the final course on their menu.
12. Silent Hill 4: The Room
Silent Hill 4 is an odd entry for the Silent Hill series, because it’s the only one that doesn’t take you to the titular town. Instead, you are locked in your room in your apartment building and have to find your way out. The room acts as your hub and your safe haven through the game, as you travel through various supernatural locations filled with the ghosts, monsters and general mind-fuckery. The Silent Hill series in general is well known for these things.
Halfway through, the game upsets all your expectations and learned behavior. It teaches you the rules of the world and then it betrays you; ghosts invade your safe haven launching you into a new direction of horror. Suddenly, nowhere is safe.
11. Penumbra series
The series is full of an atmosphere of horror, and the setting is as much a character as the unfortunate man whom you play. You will spend half the time being terrified of nothing and the music, sound and environments will have you jumping at empty dark corners, flickering lights and your own paranoid imagination.
There is danger, but the game knows it doesn’t have to do much or anything at all to keep you on your toes. It knows you’ll scare yourself stupid so long as it hangs its Sword of Damocles over your head.
10. Resident Evil 2
While the first Resident Evil game invented the formula, it is difficult to take seriously thanks to the poor voice acting; you’ll end up laughing during any serious moments. Resident Evil 2 may not have great voice acting, but you won’t burst out laughing. It also contains a superior set up and pulls better scares. The first game was memorable for a number of scenes—with dogs bursting through the windows, but the scene happens in a bright hallway during normal gameplay. Resident Evil 2 ups the ante by pulling the same stunt in a room you can barely see while your fussing with the inventory. It was the single greatest jump scare in gaming and stays with you long afterwards. That scene is simply emblematic of how the game pulls off its scares better than the original.
9. 7th Guest
In the early 90s, full motion video with live actors were all the rage in video games. 7th Guest was a game where its implementation wasn’t campy, but rather unsettling and done so on purpose. You play an amnesiac (surprise, surprise!) who has to figure out what happened to the other six guests invited to an insane toy maker’s mansion.
Everything is unnerving, even the puzzles and how they are introduced. The atmosphere is crushing and there is so much strangeness going on that you can’t help but be frightened by what you see.
8. Clock Tower
Clock Tower is a point and click game set in Norway. Jennifer Simpson, a young girl, finds herself adopted by a wealthy recluse named Mr. Barrows, who lives in a mansion called “Clock Tower.” Shit hits the fan as the other adopted girls disappear in the night. Playing the role of Jennifer, the player has no choice but to figure out what happened to them.
Things are bad enough with the unhinged Mary Barrows who brought the children to the mansion, but the introduction to Bobby, also known as “Scissorman” is where the game truly comes into its own. Gardening sheers were never so frightening. The game becomes a contest of lethal hedge trimmers against your panic and ability to run as fast as the point and click interface will allow. Bobby hunts you relentlessly and, like every scary antagonist, he can come from anywhere—including bursting through the walls, out of the floorboards and even drop from the ceiling.
The game contains 9 different endings, including a secret one.
7. Alone in the Dark
I refer of course to the original Alone in the Dark, not the reboot or Uwe Boll movie based on the series. The first Alone in the Dark is the game that more or less invented the survival horror genre, with its introduction of the concept of resource scarcity. Inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the player takes on the role of Edward Carnby, a private investigator, as he sets off to explore a haunted house where an artist committed suicide.
Despite what we know of the basic premise, there’s much more going on than the game lets on at the beginning. It starts off with the scares, with no building up and no big introduction to the threats. Within seconds of the game starting, monsters will swarm in and kill you. You have to know things practically ahead of time to prevent unknowable horrors and live through the adventure.
6. Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Based off of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the first person action, survival horror game set in the town of Innsmouth. You play as Jack Walters, a man who has just been released from a mental institution, but is still suffering from amnesia and schizophrenia. Needless to say, you can’t even trust yourself.
You are given no HUD or indicators as to your character’s health, and so you have to listen to his breathing and his heartbeat. A severe lack of weapons and ammo is a big problem too where everyone is out to kill you. As with Lovecraft’s novels, witnessing the more upsetting and otherworldly aspects of the environment will cause your to go insane.
5. System Shock 2
There is something to be said for techno horror; it is a genre terribly overlooked by developers, or not done to it’s fullest potential. System Shock 2 is a story of the machines we created becoming the monster that’s out to destroy us—the very things we made to help make our lives easier will instead end them.
The flickering lights and the blood all over the ship are a nice backdrop, but it is SHODAN that steals the show. It is SHODAN that will terrify you, because what recourse does anyone have against a perfect intellect who charts everything you can, or would do to oppose her, while instructing you on how to do it?
4. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is another Lovecraft-inspired title. It is arguably the grandest of them all, spanning centuries and a dozen different playable characters all around the same cult and resurrection of an Elder God, a being whose very existence will make a man go mad.
The game will make you go mad in tandem with your character. If the setting and conflict aren’t enough to terrify you, the game will screw with you in the real world just as much as it does in the digital one. Push the sanity meter too far and you would lose the perspective, the screen or even your save file.
3. Amnesia: The Dark Decent
The last Lovecraft game on the list is also the newest game to be inspired by the author. It took several elements of previous games mentioned and raised them to new level. You play a man with amnesia and that’s all you are given to start with. You are in a castle and you have to remember something that has been forgotten for a reason.
Staying in or looking at dark spaces will lower your sanity, while the light will heal it. You aren’t alone in the castle, which is filled with monsters. Unlike other games, you can’t fight them and your only option is to hide in a dark corner while hoping they won’t see you.
2. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
There is something about innocence in danger that terrifies us even more than anything else. The little girls in the haunted village are just that—the epitome of innocence being threatened by the supernatural forces. Their only defense against ghosts is a camera obscura, that’s only effective when used up close.
You are in control of a girl, whose only means to defeat the monsters to threaten her is to throw her into harm’s way and face the horror head on. The game makes you do this over and over again with every single enemy.
1. Silent Hill 2
The first Silent Hell set up a great franchise and then the sequel became one of the greatest games ever made. Silent Hill 2 delves into the psyche of its protagonist, James Sunderland, in ways—and to depths—that other games only wish they could do.
In Silent Hill, nothing is quite right; everything seems artificial and you don’t seem to be looking at the same world as anybody else within it. After a while of playing the game, you will question as to who was James Sunderland’s biggest enemy—the town, the player, or the character himself?