25. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth [official site (archived)] (2005 /2006 PC)
Developer: Headfirst Productions
Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the best halves of a game ever released. The great moments are scattered throughout the running time but the majority are front-loaded in the earlier stages, which mostly see Jack Walters, the player character, investigating, running and misplacing his mind. Later, there are weapons to wield but Headfirst never allow the player to feel powerful. You’re fighting unfathomable cosmic forces, after all, in this fairly faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The infamous hotel escape scene, which comes toward the close of the novella, is the game’s most iconic scene and from there it borrows from other elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, including a terrifying confrontation on the open sea.
It’s not only in terms of the game that was finally released that Dark Corners feels like it occasionally cuts corners. The sanity system, interactive environments and the town of Innsmouth itself were all stripped down during development, and memorable and intelligent as it may be, Headfirst’s game is sorely marked by compromises. Even so, it’s the most immersive interpretation of the corroding coastline of Lovecraft country and a rare opportunity to meet a Shoggoth.
Notes: In development for seven years and originally planned as the first part of a Cthulhu Mythos trilogy, Dark Corners of the Earth went through several iterations. Headfirst had originally planned a more free-form RPG structure and the eventual game’s linear progression relied heavily on scripted moments, such as the hotel escape.
Where can I buy it:Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Lovecraft’s influence is scattered across gaming like the most common of horror seasonings. GOG recently re-released the two Infogrames Mythos adventures, Prisoner of Ice and Shadow of the Comet, and also consider Anchorhead, a fine work of interactive fiction that delves into Lovecraft’s themes and writing style.
24. Scratches [Moby Games] (2006)
Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
The title is a warning. Like the recent indie horror film It Follows, Scratches recognises that a title can do a great deal of work, planting seeds up-front that work away at the audience’s nerves. In the case of Scratches, the title refers to a sound and it’s a sound that drags bloodied fingernails through horror history. In an abandoned house, notable for its verisimilitude, those scratches could be coming from inside the walls or from the underside of some trapdoor. They could be rats in the walls or Madeline Usher’s fingers tearing at the stone in which she has been prematurely interred. There’s also the possibility that the scratches are imagined, the nails on the chalkboard of your mind.
Scratches’ static first-person scenes create a convincing environment – a rural English home in the seventies – and while the setup is more unsettling than the denouement, the initial mystery makes something deeply macabre out of the mundane. That an atmosphere so thick with dread can be created using an interface that places so many barriers between the player and the world is a remarkable achievement.
Notes: The Director’s Cut contains an extra chapter, in which a new character visits the house after the events of the main game. Seeing the place derelict and vandalised might give a hint as to the environmental detail of designer Cordes’ next game, Asylum, which is set in an abandoned place.
Where can I buy it: Recently removed from digital distribution services due to a lapsed license with the publisher, Scratches is only available in boxed form. The second-hand market is your friend.
What else should I be playing if I like this: (Sub)urban environments are horribly subverted in Dark Seed, a punishing horror adventure featuring the art of the late H R Giger.
Read more: Lead designer Agustin Cordes’ blog is no longer updated but contains a wealth of entries about cult games, films and more, an in-depth Kickstarter update about Cordes’ upcoming Asylum.
23. DayZ [Official Site] (2001)
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Any assessment of DayZ, positive or negative, must come with caveats. When criticising the game, its incomplete state must be taken into account and when praising it, entertaining experiences should be placed alongside the hours of nothing in between encounters. Revisiting now, more than three years after the initial burst of excitement surrounding the mod, reveals a game that is superficially the same as that first iteration. The zombies are still rare and don’t offer threat enough to force human players into any sort of cooperative behaviour, and you’re more likely to die by accidentally drinking gasoline than by stumbling into a horde of the undead.
The detailed simulation of the world is capable of producing moments unlike anything else, however, and that in itself is remarkable considering how many games have made themselves cosy in the space that DayZ carved out. Whether by accident or design (perhaps initially the former and more recently the latter), DayZ is Lord of the Flies with added blood bandits and all the cruelty of the internet age. For some it’s a playground in which to enact their worst possible selves and for others its the most desperate and grim roleplaying game in existence. Without the long hikes through desolate and uninhabited forest, the single crack of a gunshot in the distance might not have the ability to make your blood freeze. Like many zombie films, DayZ exists to remind us that man is the real monster and it makes a compelling argument.
Notes: Singleplayer and console versions of the game are expected by the time of the final release in 2016.
Before its release as a standalone game, the DayZ mod had one million players within four months of release and was considered responsible for hundreds of thousands of sales of ARMA 2.
Read more: Perma-Permadeath In DayZ, Survival Games Are Important, The Injustice Engine: Cruelty and Murder in DayZ, The Saline Bandit: A DayZ Diary, Jim’s Thoughts On An Early Release of DayZ Standalone.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Project Zomboid offers a different take on the zombie apocalypse – not as horrific, with the isometric camera providing some distance from the harsh realities of survival, but measured and accomplished.
Developer: Michael Lutz
Michael Lutz’s short Twine game has the pacing and logic of a nightmare. The choices that you make cause the story to be delivered piecemeal, each morsel adding to the sense of wrongness that comes to a head in a sequence that pushes the Twine medium to its limits. How much can be done with text, a few tricks of layout and design, and a simple sound effect (not a screamer, not a jumpscare)? Enough to trouble sleep and keep the mind turning over impossible horrors and the insinuations that make feasible realities of them.
Many of the games on this list overtly discard their psychological trappings – eventually, the metaphor is shown to be an actual monster. Sometimes, the most terrifying reveal is the discovery that the man behind the curtain actually was a man all along. No wizard, no magic, no cult, no escapist fantasy. A hundred people might have a hundred interpretations as to the specific meaning of My Father’s Long Long Legs but most would agree that it’s a game that finds an absurd and lasting terror that is somehow recognisable. Fear of the known.
Notes: Lutz’ work has some similarities to the short stories of Bruno Schulz as well as the body horror of Junji Ito.
Where can I buy it: It’s free.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Cyberqueen and Horse Master are excellent and unusual Twine horror games. Traditional interactive fiction is also home to some uncanny experiences, notably the cleverly told urban legend of All Alone, the strange reality of Shade and the horrific moral maze of the intricately constructed Vespers.
21. Sylvio [official site] (2011)
The idea that electric voice phenomena – the voices of spirits captured in recordings – is a powerful one because the possibility of fragmented communication from beyond is both reassuring and terrifying. Reassuring to think that some semblance of the self still exists and might make the effort to leave messages for those left behind; terrifying to think that those messages might be warnings or threats, and that they are an ever-present part of the white noise and electronic waves that are the background to our lives.
Sylvio requires the player to gather recordings in an abandoned park, which is drowning in a creepy red mist that would make Silent Hill flinch. There’s a smart interface for manipulating the recordings on a reel-to-reel player, altering the direction and speed of playback, and there are puzzles to solve, some clunky and weirdly out of place, others sinister and satisfying. The game’s effectiveness comes from its willingness to resist shock, relying instead on a gradually increasing sense of dread that eventually becomes almost unbearable. In a game full of situations in which the player is straining to hear, how easy it would have been to startle them with a scream or a shout – instead, Sylvio relies on the power of its words and in doing so creates a quiet cocoon that, like EVP, is almost comforting until the penny drops.
Notes: Sylvio had a Kickstarter campaign but the two-year development was mostly complete when the fundraising began. Instead, Swanberg raised funds to create promotional packages in order to spread awareness about the game.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The scariest ghostly games in existence belong to the Project Zero (Fatal Frame in some territories) series but they’re not available on PC. The Blackwell adventure game series is all about paranormal communication and is a far less stressful experience.
Read more: Our Review.
20. Manhunt (2003/2004 PC) [official site]
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Combining elements of snuff films with the horrors of reality TV, Manhunt is an oppressively unpleasant game. It delves into aspects of horror that have been excavated so thoroughly by modern film-makers that the barrel has been scraped dry, buried, exhumed, reincarnated and then thoroughly dismantled from top-to-bottom. Found footage + extreme violence is a stinking trough that too many snouts have been buried in for too long. Rockstar recognise that the violence must be a requirement of survival rather than an indulgence, and by mixing their snuff with stealth, they make horrible deeds feel necessary, cathartic and then horrible again.
The executions are dirty and desperate. There’s no glamour in the game and even in the most excessive moments, the camera is a grotesque voyeur rather than a fetishising framing device. The gunplay is rubbish, and the environments are ugly and repetitive (by design, but still…) but the stealth-violence is tense, horrific and smartly designed.
Notes: Manhunt was one of the games targeted by now-disbarred attorney Jack Thompson during his campaign against “murder simulators”. Links between the game and a 2004 murder were dismissed by police but pursued by Thompson, who attempted to sue Rockstar and Sony (Manhunt was initially a Playstation exclusive), later describing the latter’s release of violent games in America as “Pearl Harbour 2” and Rockstar’s games as “the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio”.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: This might be the first time these games have been linked, but the Thief games’ interludes into stealth-horror are the best example of that particular genre crossover.
Read more: Kieron’s thoughtful retrospective .
19. Dead Space 2 [Official Site] (2011)
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Big budget horror rarely works well. The temptation to show the money on the screen works against the mystery and murkiness necessary for so much that frightens us. The original Dead Space threw everything at the screen – guts, extra limbs, hallucinations, cult religions, erratic sci-fi – and was content to see at least some of it stick. It was at the gun-happy end of the survival horror spectrum but it succeeded in creating a strong setting and icky, fearsome set of creatures to laser-carve into pieces. While the ‘tactical’ limb-lopping might have been slightly oversold, the combat was satisfying and there were some genuine scares.
Dead Space 2 went bigger. Protagonist Isaac Clarke found his voice (literally – he was silent in the original, bar his grunts of distress and stomp-sigh) and the action moved to The Sprawl, an enormous space station that lived up to its name. The new setting allowed Visceral to mix the familiar with the strange, as Isaac moved through residential quarters, shopping districts and everything else one might expect in a city. The Sprawl was an urban environment that just happened to be located in the vicinity of Titan. That helped to anchor the ridiculous excess of the game’s wilder setpieces but Dead Space 2 succeeds because of that excess – it’s loud, violent and paced like a theme park ride. There’s no subtlety but at least 80% of what Visceral throw at the screen works.
Notes: Although it has spectacular moments – the journey through a graveyard of wrecked ships being the most notable – Dead Space 3 was as bloated as a ‘Pregnant’ necromorph’s abdominal sac. EA’s sales targets were similarly bloated and DS 3 was considered something of a commercial disappointment. Developers Visceral moved on to Battlefield: Hardline and a currently untitled Star Wars game.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you want the full Dead Space experience, the first game is definitely worth playing. It feels more like a survival horror game than the sequel, which has big action setpieces and, in giving Isaac a voice, makes him more than a vessel for your own fears and anxieties. The Bioshock games aren’t quite as loud and violent, but similarly mix action, sci-fi and horror.
18. Depths of Fear: Knossos [official site] (2014)
Developer: Dirigo Games
Publisher: Digital Tribe
Knossos is an obscure game that didn’t receive a particularly warm welcome but it’s a perfect example of how well horror can work when created with strict limitations. In that sense, it’s completely at odds with Dead Space 2, the previous game on this list – where Visceral use their big budget for bombast, Dirigo (a one-person studio) uses a tiny budget and a few stiffly animated models to create something truly uncanny. Equal parts animatronic Greek mythology gone terribly wrong and perfectly scored giallo tribute, Knossos is a series of procedurally generated deathmazes that rarely make sense and generally appear as if they’re about to fall apart at the seams.
Sometimes that’s how horror is most effective, when we don’t even trust that the creators are in control of their creation. Knossos is a dangerous game, in which the sound effects feel as if they might have been borrowed from a tape of samples created in the Berberian Sound Studio and the behaviour of the enemies is as unpredictable as the design decisions that lead to a randomised horror game starring a terrifying satyr and endless streams of spiders.
Notes: The entire game is the work of Philip Willey, including the remarkable seventies-synth soundtrack.
Read more: Our Review.
Where can I buy it:Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back is another weird take on Greek mythology. To cleanse your palate of the fear, you might want to turn to the colourful clicking of Titan Quest.
17. Alan Wake [official site] (2010/2012 PC)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Alan Wake is overlong, repetitive and altogether too-reliant on its central torch and gun combat mechanic. It’s a game that promises so much, beginning with the initial view of the town of Bright Falls and holding up through the first enemy encounters. Eventually, it settles into a rhythm that is more action than adventure, and the plot seems as scattered and fragmented as the pages of Alan’s book that are available to collect. Is it a story about a man who has predicted his own descent into murder and madness, or is it a story about the power of writing and its ability to fray the fabric between worlds?
Despite its hefty running time and all manner of subplots and segueways, Remedy’s game refrains from definitive answers. It’s not ambiguous so much as overwrought and overwritten, and that’s in keeping with the chap whose name is on the box. Alan Wake is about Alan Wake. That’s initially disappointing because Twin Peaks has trained us to value sleepy lumber-haunted towns like Bright Falls – the story should be about the place not the person visiting – but Wake is a fascinating protagonist because he allows Remedy to indulge in and play with all manner of horror mainstays. Even though Alan Wake disappoints in places and is baggy in others (both the man and the game), its a playful exploration of horror fiction that shouldn’t be taken quite as seriously as it sometimes seems to take itself.
Notes: Like Misery’s Paul Sheldon, many of Wake’s problems begin when he kills off the main character in his most popular series of books.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a schlocky semi-sequel, is a much tighter game and improves the combat. For other mysterious small town goings-on, turn to Deadly Premonition.
16. Lone Survivor [official site] (2012)
Developer: Superflat Games
Publisher: Superflat Games
Lone Survivor initially looked like a 2d Resident Evil but as more details emerged, it started to resemble a 2d Silent Hill. That lone developer Jasper Byrne managed to shake off both of those reference points and make something that stands alone is impressive enough, but that Lone Survivor is funny and heartbreaking as well as frightening is astonishing. No game other than Hotline Miami has a soundtrack so important to its mood and overall composition. Whether it’s the improbable jazz filtering through a rotting and apparently uninhabited apartment building or the click of fingers in a Lynchian dream lodge, Lone Survivor’s horror takes place in a welcoming sea of synths.
The plot demands to be unpicked and although there is a fairly strict structure, replays reveal fresh ideas and the player often has control of the pacing. Some scenes are gruesome but there’s a warmth to Lone Survivor. Not everything is lost, even when there seems to be nobody left alive, and despite the monsters, gore and corpses, the eventual horror is touched by sorrow rather than disgust.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Lone Survivor almost demands that you turn to the Silent Hill series but also consider the superficially similar Home and if you tire of playing a character who shuffles slowly from room to room, look into Deadlight.