To compile a list of the 25 best horror games on PC is to look into the void for so long that the void not only starts to look back, but shakes you by the hand and takes you out for coffee. It is to fight with monsters until you become a monster and then go on a European railtrip with the other monsters, and really bond over cocktails in Saint-Tropez.
It is also a great way to explore the wide range of possible experiences within horror fiction. Here, there is something for everyone, even the squeamish and the easily-startled. Yes, there are jumpscares, but there are also slow-burn psychological dramas and tongue-in-cheek splatterfests. There are uncanny things and real terrors, but there are smiles and smirks among the shocks.
You can navigate the list by clicking the arrows above or below the header image on each page or by using the arrow keys on your keyboard.
25. Blood [official site] (1997)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: 3D Realms
Ah, theh red stuff. You can have horror without it, of course, but every now and then you need bucketloads of the stuff. Blood isn’t a frightening game, it won’t make you leave the light on after playing it, but it’s a wonderful first-person shooter steeped in references to the great and good of the genre (and some that are neither great nor good). The weapons are central to the enjoyment and a fine reminder of a time when having various calibers of gun wasn’t considered the bedrock of a decent loadout. Dynamite can be lit and then lobbed as the fuse visibly burns down. You can drop it in an enemy’s path or chuck it into the midst of a mob. You can even hold onto it until the fuse burns down and see your hands reduced to skeletal claws. There is a flare gun, which causes enemies to ignite seconds after they are hit. The melee weapon is a pitchfork.
All of that is placed within levels that were mindblowing at the time and remain entertaining today. Above all else though, Blood earns a place on this list by reminding us that horror can be silly. Zombies heads should be booted around like footballs from time to time, and the world needs Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson as much as it needs Romero, Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel.
Notes: Due to licensing issues, the source code for Blood has never been released, unlike Build engine stablemates Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Duke 3D and the original Shadow Warrior are lesser Build engine games but the former is still worth a look. The recent Shadow Warrior reboot is probably the closest thing we’ll see to a modern take on Blood though. Perhaps Painkiller as well.
24. Detention [official site] (2017)
Publisher: Coconut Island Games
A good horror story can teach you a thing or two, and Detention is not only a very good horror game, it’s also a game set in a time and place I knew very little about before playing. The player characters are students in a school and they become trapped their after-hours, but there’s more to worry about than the ghosts and ghouls stalking the corridors. Detention takes place in 1960s Taiwan during the period of martial law known as the White Terror and lands in the fine tradition of horror fiction that draws on anxieties and atrocities tied to specific historical, political and social realities.
It’s essentially a point and click game, though the side-on perspective and control scheme suggests there might be more in the way of combat or stealth. There is some sneaking, as apparitions stalk the corridors and rooms, but most of your time is spent exploring and figuring out which item goes where so that you can make your way through the plot. It starts with a school but Detention will take you to other places. Darker, stranger and, at their worst, frighteningly believable.
Notes: This BBC article gives an insight into the White Terror through testimony including letters and other documents from some of those imprisoned and executed.
Read more: Our review.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Lone Survivor, also on this list, uses a similar blend of stealth and adventure-style puzzling and exploration, while Obscure, White Day and Corpse Party all have unpleasant things happening in schools after-hours.
23. Observer [official site] (2017)
Developer: Bloober Team
Observer sounded dreadful when I first heard about it – dreadful in all the wrong ways. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the developer’s previous release, art-horror walking sim Layers of Fear, and initial press releases spoke of delving into unstable minds. Here, I thought, is a game that will lean heavily on tropes about the criminally insane and cliche ideas about mental illness.
How lovely it is to be proven wrong. Observer is smart science fiction first and foremost, with the horror emerging from the setting and characters. It’s a game about class, poverty, technology and bureaucracy that also has what may or may not be actual monsters. Mostly, it’s a visual masterclass though that uses its mind-hacking to conjure up scenes and distortions that are genuinely astonishing. And while it does eventually lose its way a little, it does so without turning to all those cliches and stereotypes that I initially feared.
Notes: Rutger Hauer provides the voice of the player character.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
Read more: Our Review.
What else should I be playing if I like this: You might enjoy Bloober’s previous game, Layers of Fear, but I’d go for Get Even, another game that messes with minds and memories in visually inventive fashion.
22. My Father’s Long Long Legs [Official Site] (2014)
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: There is a sequel, but despite ditching some of the original’s silliest bits, it also loses some of its strangeness in the transition from first-person adventure to something far more like a walking simulator. It’s still creepily atmospheric but it all feels a little disjointed. 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. Teleglitch [official site] (2013)
Developer: Test3 Projects
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
You can craft weapons but they won’t help and you can attempt to learn patterns and layouts, but the world will shift around you. Teleglitch, more than any other game on this list, uses its difficulty as a weapon to terrify. The visuals are lo-fi corruptions that still manage to communicate how awful your situation is, as every room and corridor swims with the hazy form of unimaginably horrible things. If your reactions aren’t up to scratch, you’ll suffer, and if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them over and over and over and over. Hell, even if you do learn from your mistakes Teleglitch will find new ways to confuse and confound you, and new things to confront you with.
Tricky as it is, you’ll make progress eventually and that’s when the whole situation becomes even more agonising. You become used to treating life as a throwaway thing and then, suddenly, you’re carrying just the right equipment and confidence starts to rise, and you make the biggest mistake of all. You value your tiny doomed character and you start to think ahead. Not to a homecoming parade or even the next level, but to the next room and the one after. You start to believe that you’ve got a chance in hell and then the game reminds you that you are in hell and that hell doesn’t do chances. Teleglitch is like top-down Doom if Doom were about a terrified survivor of the Phobos incident rather than a rugged space marine.
Notes: The Die More Edition, published by Paradox, contains additional content. Not that anyone ever managed to see all of the original content in the first place.
Where can I buy it: Many places.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Darkwood is a more distinctly horror-themed take on top-down terror that is well worth your time.
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 have since closed.
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. The Evil Within [official site] (2014)
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
The Evil Within isn’t just a third-person survival horror game – it is every third-person survival horror game. It begins in madness and swiftly moves to gothic melodrama and Hammer horror. It contains apparently earnest science fiction concepts and places them alongside hammy mad doctor tropes that would make Kenneth Branagh’s topless Frankenstein blush. In one level it introduces invisible enemies that can only be tracked by observing their impact on curtains and puddles, and waves of dynamite-wielding enemies that assault the player and companions in a blood-drenched stand-off.
Throughout all of these tangents and experiments, the game retains almost perfect pacing, finely tuned stealth and combat mechanics, and a level of guts ‘n’ gore that could make Tom Savini slightly squeamish. What’s astonishing – so much so that it’s easy to miss – is that the game’s almost anthological format allows it to push against the boundaries of survival horror. Even as the end approaches, new ideas are being introduced and the DLC has continued that trend, playing with a defenseless protagonist and then turning the tables completely and popping the player behind the eyes of the box-headed antagonist. It should be a wildly uneven journey, given how much Tango Gameworks explore using the limited toolset of the survival horror template, but everything hangs together beautifully.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The sequel is very good, but even though it doesn’t have bossfights as irritating as those in the first game, or lows quite as low, it loses something of the erratic nature of its predecessor. The re-release of the first Resident Evil is essential Shinji Mikami.
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.
15. Amnesia: The Dark Descent [Official Site] (2010)
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
From the moment the “Water Monster” video hit the internet, Amnesia: The Dark Descent captured the imagination of every horror fan who was paying attention. The scene was so simple: from a first-person perspective, a character attempts to make his way through a series of flooded rooms and corridors, and something is waiting in the water.
That scene is in the game, as advertised, and neatly encapsulates how Amnesia functions. There are enemies but rather than hunting relentlessly, they follow rules, designed to allow the player glimpses of what they are capable of and how they operate, without closing in for the kill. As in a horror film, the monster is only partially revealed but the difference here is that Frictional have to work around the intelligence and freedom of the player. To that end, they must allow their creatures to demonstrate behavioural integrity without revealing the scripting and code that operates them from moment to moment.
On the whole, the game is so effectively constructed that the machinery is hidden from view. There are sections that induced such an incredible feeling of anxiety that members of the RPS team almost decided to live in the tiny hiding places that felt like the only safe place in the world. Why continue, when the way ahead is a claustrophobic darkness full of things that shamble and devour. Things with faces like wounds that sniff at the corner of the room, searching for meat.
The Dark Descent is the perfect haunted house game, a ghost train that allows you to wander off-track and poke around in the backdrop, being careful not to lose a finger in the machinery.
Notes: Amnesia may not have existed if Paradox hadn’t stepped in with the funds necessary to complete Penumbra: Black Plague, which they also published.
What else should I be playing if I like this: SOMA, Frictional’s follow-up (though not sequel), is a better sci-fi game than it is a horror game, but it’s very good indeed. The earlier Penumbra trilogy contains some awkward combat but is a fine precursor to Amnesia. A Machine For Pigs, the semi-sequel to the Dark Descent developed by Dear Esther studio The Chinese Room, discards the sanity mechanic and thrusts its narrative front and centre, which disappointed some. We loved it though.
14. Inside [Official Site] (2016)
It’s natural to assume you’re going to have to kill the chicks. Playdead’s inside comes heavy with expectations: it’s the follow-up to indie darling Limbo, once described on this website as “Rick Dangerous for Goths” but widely loved. Inside is similar, in that it’s a side-scrolling glum game in which a youngster runs, mostly from left to right. And dies. A lot.
But you don’t have to kill the chicks and that’s important. An early puzzle on an abandoned farm has these fluffly little yellow creatures follow the player, and then they’re launched into the air and, oh no, they’re going to burst, aren’t they? They hit the wall with a little thud, and then they land and they chirp merrily the same as before. Inside is bleak and its world is grim, but there’s more to it than misery, death and horror, though there’s enough of the latter to qualify it as a genuine scare ’em up.
Notes: It is never safe to go back into the water. Inside has one of the most unnerving underwater creatures of them all.
Read more: Our review, in which other opinions are very much available, How Inside’s levels were designed, Inside makes it into our games of the year list, and an examination of the game’s dark comedy.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Limbo is the obvious call but Little Nightmares is a fine take on a similar formula.
13. Resident Evil 7 [official site] (2017)
Developer: Capcom Production
Yes, Resident Evil 7 is replacing Resident Evil 4 on this list. Is it a better game than Resident Evil 4? Maybe not. Probably not. But is it a better horror game? Almost certainly yes.
It depends what kind of horror you want, of course, but while Resi 4 does have some inspired creepy sections, especially those Regenerators, the latest in the series has one of the most frightening opening sequences ever. And it doesn’t let up immediately, keeping the tension and gore levels high as you explore a house that’s home to something far more intimidating than ghosts or zombies. A family gone wrong.
The scares do let up and the quality of the game as a whole dips in the final stretch, but Capcom succesfully reinvented their series with this shift to first-person terror and it makes waiting for the next one an exciting prospect for the first time in a while.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Evil Within and the re-release of Resident Evil 1 are essential showcases of Shinji Mikami’s talents as a game director, and both hew closer to horror traditions, but Resident Evil 4 is perhaps his finest hour.
12. F.E.A.R. [official site for F.E.A.R. 3] (2005)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
That F.E.A.R. is a better first-person shooter than it is a horror game is not reason enough to exclude it from the horror hall of fame. That’s because it is an exemplary shooter and merely a very good horror game, and also because the unlikely blending of overpowered action sequences and SPOOKS is completely unexpected. F.E.A.R. shouldn’t work at all and that it does is testament to the excellence of Monolith, a studio that left a hole in gaming that becomes more noticeable every year despite still existing as a Warner Bros.-owned studio.
The plot is a load of guff, as made evident by the inferior sequels, but F.E.A.R. knows exactly how to break up its ultra-punchy dramatic firefights with moments of shock and arrrghh. Those who have played often refer to “that bit with the fucking ladder” but reducing the effectiveness of Alma, the tiny Sadako-esque girl at the heart of the horror, to a single sequence is unfair. It’s the constant awareness that your ability to rip through opponents using bullets and slow-motion will be interrupted by something that cannot be stopped that plays on the mind. When you fight, you feel like the toughest customer in the building but there are some things that don’t care how tough you are. They’ll eviscerate you with a glance.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Ignore the sequels and use Alma’s appearance as an excuse to delve into White Day, a Korean horror game. Failing that Clive Barker’s Undying and Realms of the Haunted are decent first-person shooters with a horror flavour. Betrayer, made my ex-Monolith staff, might also tickle your horror-bone.
11. Knock-knock [official site] (2013)
Developer: Ice-pick Lodge
Publisher: Ice-pick Lodge
Ice-pick Lodge’s Kickstarted game about the horrors of waking nights wasn’t particularly well-received by critics, but what do they know? Structurally, it’s a game that feels like escaping from a box to find oneself inside a slightly larger box – a puzzling Lament Configuration of a game – and that isn’t the most rewarding experience. However, all things move toward an end and Knock-knock is no exception. It’s a game that seems to take place in the moments between sleeping and waking, and it’s never clear which state you’re moving from and which state you’re moving toward.
The exhausted brain can be controlled using strange logic. Don’t think of anything that crawls or could conceivably hide beneath the bedsheet. Don’t open any doors or turn your back on any that are already open. Never look in a mirror. Avoid clocks. Do not be tempted toward hot drinks, either to soothe into sleep or to take the edge off the night, because the sound of the kettle may disguise the dull pitter-patter of footsteps in another room or the scratching of fingernails at the windows. Every sense, submerged as it is, must be as clear as possible.
Knock-knock begins in the confusion of a night-walker’s cobwebbed world. Sounds are exaggerated or muffled, seemingly at random, and every object and space is heavy with meaning. Or at least heavy with potential meaning. As entrances to the house are checked and the patrol continues, reality disintegrates, like a biscuit in broth, but the logic of the threshold takes the place of everyday rules and restrictions.
In this house, at this time, turning the hands of a clock accelerates the night, pushing the world toward the relief of a new day. Avoiding the worst apparitions – be they motes in the eye or the brain – is essential, but a frightful encounter will only elongate the night rather than ending it, violently or otherwise. Knock-knock is not an artful abstraction without rules – it places strict limitations on the player and leaves him/her to push at the boundaries until rules are discovered.
Notes: The Kickstarter campaign claims that the game is a found object of sorts: “In late November, 2011, a strange and troubling event has happened to our studio. We have received an anonymous e-mail which suggested that we should produce some “unconventional” game based upon the materials attached to the letter. Such offers are a dime a dozen and most of the time they barely deserve any attention at all, however, this one seemed quite different.”
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s nothing else quite like this so stick with Ice-pick Lodge and see where else they take you.
10. Left 4 Dead 2 [Official Site] (2009)
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
The basics of Left 4 Dead are brilliant – the AI director mixing up the threats on each attempt, the desperate rush to save a fallen companion, the red rain that follows the BEEP BEEP BOOM of a pipe bomb. Back when Left 4 Dead 2 was part of a daily diet, it lent itself to all kinds of invented survival scenarios, games within games that sometimes required mods but more often simply required other players willing to experiment with odd, self-imposed rules.
One of the beautiful things about both Left 4 Dead games is how clearly the developers have indulged their love of horror films. They don’t show that love through the pastiche of a game like Blood or the endless references that might have prevented them from building their own believable world – they show it in the specific details of set-pieces and environments, and in the terror of the witches (the more horrifying thing among the regular horror things that you become accustomed to – see Rec). If you play for half an hour, there will be tension, excitement, triumph and terror.
Putting the actual shooting and surviving to one side, Left 4 Dead 2 earns its place in the pantheon of greats thanks to the beauty of its environments and the way that it uses a place as a theme. I love that the familiar musical stings from the first game have been recreated, Southern style, and that an organ adds a delirious quality to The Passing’s horde attacks while a banjo frantically attempts to keep up with the panicked drums of Dead Center.
And if you still prefer the original, that’s all here as well.
Notes: Left 4 Dead 2 contains around 7,800 lines of dialogue, a 40% increase from the first game. It also contains approximately 7000% more guts by our reckoning.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Killing Floor and its sequel are much more compact and intense. A grindhouse splatterpunk approach to similar ideas of cooperative horror. Dead By Daylight is a 4vs1 weird, abstract version of every slasher film you’ve ever seen, transplanted to a nightmare realm.
9. Condemned: Criminal Origins [Moby Games] (2005/2006 PC)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Sega / Warner Bros
Condemned is a game about the hunt for a serial killer that very swiftly becomes a game about beating people to death with a plank. Whether we’re supposed to laugh at how rapidly the investigator becomes a murderer, knee-deep in the corpses of unfortunates, isn’t entirely clear. The entire game is pitched oh-so seriously, never seeming to acknowledge the campy potential of its ludicrous ‘everyone-is-now-an-angry-murderer’ plot. There’s something about dead birds and shards of metal, and the sequel (never released on PC) seems lamentably keen on expanding the mythology, but Condemned is best enjoyed as the best horror-melee game in existence. Whatever else it might, it is certainly that.
Is there a dingier setting in gaming? Condemned’s city is like a metaphor for the societal pressures that grind the underclass into the dirt and the gutter. Except it’s not really a metaphor at all – it’s an entire game in which people are physically ground into the dirt and the gutter. Nobody seems to enjoy fighting or killing – the primary antagonist aside – but almost everyone you meet is compelled to grab the nearest blunt object and pummel your skull until your brains fall out of your nose. Everything that happens drains a little more hope that there can ever be a light at the end of the tunnel and when mannequins in an abandoned department store assault you with their own severed limbs, the best response is to shrug and carry on bludgeoning. It’s one of those nights.
The atmosphere is relentlessly oppressive, so much so that some people are likely to switch off, numbed by the unchanging grime long before the end. That’s understandable. For those who can tolerate the single note that plays throughout, Condemned is a rare thing though – a horror game in which the combat emphasises the terror rather than diminishing it.
Notes: The voice of lead character Ethan Thomas was performed by Greg Grunberg, who you may know as Matt Parkman, the telepathic cop in Heroes.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should be playing if I like this: Hotline Miami and its sequel take place in a brighter setting but also feature desperately violent melee combat.
Read more: Alec’s Condemned’s possible indie future.
8. Darkwood (2017) [official site]
Developer: Acid Wizard
Publisher: Acid Wizard
Boasting some of the best lighting in a top-down 2d game you’re ever likely to see, Darkwood makes the shadowy corners of a room, or the spaces between trees, absolutely terrifying. Things skitter into view, go bump in the night and then latch onto your face or leg, and chew right down to the bone.
Don’t be fooled by the screenshots and videos into thinking this is a crafting/survival game with horror elements. It’s a narrative game and a surreal nightmare that borrows from RPGs, roguelikes and survival games but feels distinct from any particular genre. Really, deep down, it’s a pure horror game, with all of its design focused on unnerving and startling its players. It’s also in the rare group that might make you recoil from the screen but also has enough quiet dread to creep back into your mind late at night when you’re far from the screen in a far more insidious fashion.
Notes: According to developers Acid Wizard, Darkwood is inspired by: “The works of David Lynch, Strugacki brothers, Stanisław Lem. Games like Fallout, Dark Souls, Project Zomboid, Teleglitch. Slavic folklore. And, well, life.”
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s nothing else quite like it, but the developers’ list of influences are a good place to start. Project Zomboid has the least in common with Darkwood, tonally, but it’s a great way to explore the survival mechanics in more detail.
Read more: Thoughts based on an early release.
7. Stories Untold [Official Site] (2017)
Developer: No Code
The House Abandon alone might have been enough for developers No Code to earn a place on this list. Originally released for free, it’s a superb spin on parser-based interactive fiction, putting the player in the shoes of somebody playing a game which is maybe about somebody playing the same game. It plays with perception, expectation and interaction in ways that made us smile as much as they made us shudder. It’s scary, but it’s also delightfully clever.
But there’s much more than The House Abandon here. One of No Code’s founders, Jon McKellan, previously worked on Alien: Isolation and some of that game’s DNA has carried across with him. It’s the love of old-fashioned interfaces that make up so much of Alien’s retro-future that you’ll see in the other tales that make up Stories Untold. Each has its own mode of interaction and loosely fits into its own sub-genre of horror. Consistently surprising, genuinely unnerving, and wholly unique, this marks No Code out as one of the most exciting young studios in the world.
Notes: You can still download The House Abandon for free. It’s the first episode of Stories Untold and is available as a demo, in its remastered form.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Anthology horror is due to have its day in the sun on PC, mark our words, but for now you might have to look to the past. The distant past. The 8-bit Adventure Anthology contains three spooky games released between 1987-91.
Read more: Our review.
6. Alien: Isolation [official site] (2014)
Has a game ever recreated the look and feel of a film as accurately as Alien: Isolation? If so, I haven’t played it. Creative Assembly’s FPS horror masterpiece isn’t just a generous portion of stealth and scares, it’s a superbly detailed trip into the world that Ridley Scott and his team brought to the screen three and a half decades ago. Everything from the creature itself to the individual posters and pieces of machinery that fill the Sevastopol has been crafted to fit with the design principles that made the Nostromo such a fascinating and enduring location.
This is a vision of a future populated by ordinary people – working Joes, you could call them – who just so happen to make their living as part of the crew of gargantuan spacefaring vessels and stations. These are the places that they live, love, work and die. We don’t have to be told that existence is precarious when the only thing between you and the vacuum is some uncaring corporation’s cut-price tech because we can see and hear the fragility of the situation in every creaking panel, glitching console and bundle of loose wires. There is no room for sleek starships here or crisp, pressed uniforms with neat little badges. The Sevastapol is a product of pragmatic industrial futurism and even before the parasite gets into its blood, everything is going to hell.
Within that world, Isolation is a story about a horrific alien that seems to be made of knives, acid and a phallus tearing through the population of a science fiction facility. It is also the story of a woman who has lost her mother, searching for answers. And then again, it’s the story of a corporation in decline, of power plays and the victims of financial competition. That it manages to tell all of those intertwined tales while also delivering one of the most tense and terrifying system-driven games of this or any other year is a remarkable achievement.
Despite all of that praise, there are frustrations. Isolation is an unforgiving game. Unfair even. The alien will kill you, again and again and again. Progress can be slow and sometimes altering your tactics and using every tool at your disposal will seem pointless. Luck plays a role and passing a particular section can seem like an exercise in trial and error. The odds are stacked against young Ripley and even a fine understanding of the behaviours at play won’t be enough to prevent every single death.
That’s the nature of the beast though and would the game feel like an authentic Alien experience if every encounter didn’t come with the risk of a swift demise?
Notes: The most notable alteration to the design of the Alien, as compared to the film, is seen in the legs. The man-in-a-suit design didn’t have the recurved legs of the game’s creature but the designers realised that hiding under tables and watching humanoid legs shuffling past wouldn’t be quiet as creepy.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Stories Untold shares a developer and some design elements – namely a love of vintage computers and machinery. SOMA, the sci-fi horror game from Frictional, is worth a look. System Shock 2 is the only currently available sci-fi horror game comparable in quality though.
5. Silent Hill 2 [official site] (2001/2002 PC)
Developer: Team Silent (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo)
James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, three years after her death. The letter brings him to Silent Hill, which is a ghost town in a literal and literary sense. Seemingly abandoned and fog-shrouded, it has the qualities of a Mary Celeste, and it would be no surprise to find a great body of water at its boundary, isolating it from the rest of the world. It is a place adrift.
So begins one of the most terrifying stories in any medium. Silent Hill 2’s strength isn’t in the details of its plot but in the manner of the telling. Through a combination of unmatched environmental storytelling (this is the game for anyone frustrated by the messages written in blood and ubiquitous audio logs of ALMOST EVERY OTHER HORROR GAME) and occasional human encounters that feel like haunted therapy sessions, James Sunderland’s return to the “special place” he once shared with his wife takes on the qualities of a nightmare, although it’s a nighmare that is so intense at times you’d surely awaken from it if you could.
James arrives at the town via a secluded walkway, a journey that lasts just a little too long for comfort. It’s a distancing effect, marking the transition from one kind of reality to another, but it’s also a clear denial of genre conventions. No monsters, no puzzles, just a linear path, a walk, a conference of whispers and footsteps.
The tone is perfectly set. At times it sounds as if James is being followed but nothing manifests and if you choose to stand still, as soon as the sound of your footsteps ceases, so does the sound of whatever might be lurking in the undergrowth. The camera angles are indicative of eyes in the fog, things waiting and watching. They don’t pounce though and they don’t make themselves known.
Nothing terrible happens as James approaches the town. A meeting in a graveyard is confusing rather than horrific, and the final stretch of the journey is marked by the banality of chainlink fences and an industrial hinterland. No traps, no jump scares, no sense of an ending. Nothing happens but everything is possible. Silent Hill shows its monsters eventually, but it creates spaces for the imagination to fill during that first long walk into town and once it has carved out those spaces, they stay in the mind forever.
Notes: Marks the first appearance of Pyramid Head in the series. He later became the series mascot because that is how marketing works.
Read more: Letters From Nowhere: Memories of Silent Hill.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Silent Hill 4 is another standalone entry, with a deeply frightening concept and brilliant first-person sections in the titular room. The actual survival horror parts are uneven but it’s probably the next most interesting game in the series. Homecoming is available on PC and is just about worth playing if you go in with low expectations. No. Lower than that.
Where can I buy it: The second-hand market.
Developer: Kitty Horrorshow
Publisher: Kitty Horrowshow
The less said the better when it comes to Kitty Horrowshow’s masterpiece, which uses elements of found footage and lo-fi visuals to create the only piece of horror fiction that has ever made me want to leave my own home and sleep in a hotel for the night.
It’s short, though it has only just begun after the first playthrough, and I challenge anyone to play it in the dark, wearing headphones, alone. There are no sudden frights but if you’re amenable to its particular sense of dread, Anatomy will actually steal sleep from you.
Notes: Developer Kitty Horrorshow runs a Patreon where you can gain access to many wonderful, strange and terrifying experiments and games.
Where can I buy it:Itch.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything else by Kitty Horrorshow. And check out Connor Sherlock’s Marginalia, recently released in an enhanced edition, as a first step into another world of spooky delights.
3. Pathologic [official site]
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Publisher: Buka/G2/Ice-Pick Lodge
Pathologic is unique. It almost seems reductive to describe it as a horror game but if not horror then what? Set in a diseased town whose districts and major buildings are named after parts of a human body or biological functions and extractions, Pathologic doesn’t place the player character at the centre of things. You can move toward the centre of things, in an attempt to keep yourself alive or to discover the city’s secrets, but the game never panders to you.
The story of the city’s death takes place over twelve days and can be experienced from three different perspectives. Brilliantly constructed, the setting and story are among the most literate and intelligent in gaming, and that they can be experienced piecemeal is testament to Ice-Pick Lodge’s ability to exercise the unique qualities of the medium. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Pathologic advanced interactive storytelling in ways that few games ever have. Or at least it would have done if anyone had been paying attention, or had been able to emulate its finer qualities.
There are rough qualities as well. Combat is arduous and feels out of place, and the AI of assailants can lead to chases across the length and breadth of the city. Fortunately, Ice-Pick are working on a new version, with an entirely new translation, following a successful Kickstarter last year. Pathologic isn’t just one of the best horror games, it’s one of the best games. It’s a game about dissection and post-mortem dressed up as a survival horror RPG, and the time has come to revivify the corpse.
Notes: Elements of Pathologic were drawn from a stage play, traces of which may be found in the theatrical elements of the game.
Where can I buy it: GoG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Wait for the remake and prepare to experience an improved version. Or try other Ice-Pick Lodge games, especially Knock-knock which is elsewhere on this list.
2. System Shock 2 [official site] (1999)
Developer: Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made, whatever the chosen category might be. It’s one of the finest sci-fi games, crafting an almost unparalleled sense of place through careful use of its relatively crude engine and sublime audio design. Few games, whether set in the depths of dungeons or the depths of space, have captured the claustrophobia that comes from existing in a space surrounded and infiltrated by death. You’re never allowed to forget that a skin of metal separates you from extinction and that the interior spaces that the universe is pressing against from the outside are filled with corrupted and corrupting organisms.
That sense of dread and doom makes Irrational’s masterpiece one of the greatest horror games and, as a sci-fi horror RPG, it is unique. Character creation is in the form of a prologue and tutorial, guiding you through initiation into your chosen branch of service in the Unified National Nominate, and then, during the maiden voyage of the Von Braun, something goes horrible wrong. Shock 2 is a first-person survival horror game – a rare enough thing in and of itself – but it’s the use of RPG mechanics such as inventory management and character development that allow it to retain its power on repeated visits. There is no other RPG so tightly designed, so terrifying and yet so open to experimental play.
The cyborg midwives, as their name suggests, are the most horrifying creatures in any game. Even monkeys have become agents of fear within the coffin-ships of Shock 2. Oh, and there are spiders. Of course there are spiders.
It’s the freedom that you’re given to approach those enemies that makes them truly horrifying though. That the game gives you so much agency allows you to feel like the agent of your own destruction and that you are never railroaded makes it easier to believe that the things that lurk in the dark have as much freedom as you do.
Notes: It may be one of the best games ever made but System Shock 2 has one of the worst endings. That’s not a spoiler – we’re not discussing what actually happens, rather the way that it happens. It’s the equivalent of ending Beethoven’s Fifth with a kazoo solo.
Where can I buy it: GOG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Bioshock games borrow half of the name but drop most of the horror and roleplaying conventions, most notably inventory management. Looking Glass’ Terra Nova is now GOG, making its first digital retail appearance, and is a different sort of game made with a similar level of care and class.
1. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat [official site] (2009)
Developer: GSC Game World
Publisher: Viva Media / Deep Silver
Let’s be clear – Call of Pripyat could sit in the top spot on many lists but this is as much its rightful home as any other. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are often spoken of as immersive simulations, and as first-person games that transcend the shooter bracket thanks to the atmosphere of their setting, the ecosystem that functions within that setting and the way in which objectives are communicated and handled.
Everything flows naturally from the world. If you need something, you find it within its place and if you are required to do something then you consider, observe and approach. This is a world that is dying and yet in which you can live, for a few hours at a time, building relationships not only with the people but with specific places and features. It is a real place made fiction, as much by the historical events that shape the games’ mythology as by the games themselves.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are about exploration, encouraging you to dig deeper until, like the dwarves of Moria, you unleash terrible things. And those terrible things are far more terrible than the inhabitants of a haunted house or a derelict spaceship. At their most harrowing, the creatures of Pripyat are the final barrier that stands between you and an understanding of the world. There are anomalies that fuse bone and boil blood, and those can be accepted and circumvented with a little ingenuity. There are blistered buildings and the skeletons of a society, and those too can be accommodated into our understanding with a shudder and a sidelong glance. Even the blowouts, psychic catastrophes that eliminate life and turn the sky to blood, are regular occurrences. Measures can be taken and even if the world does seem to have lost its grip, rules and regulations can be drawn up to calibrate new ways of living.
But the things that lurk in the darkest, most claustrophobic corridors and tunnels of the Zone do not allow the mind to linger upon them. They are horrors in the truest sense – entities that behave in a repugnant fashion and that are simply unacceptable. They should not exist and cannot exist. But once they have been encountered, they will always be there, just beneath the surface. Just behind the walls.
Notes: The notion that the Zone is expanding was introduced in Call of Pripyat and may well have formed the basis for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2.
Read more: How to convert Call of Pripyat into a survival game, visiting the real Pripyat as a gamer, the joys of watching the AI fight, Alec and Jim do the Stalk-talk, our review, Jim writes about the importance of S.T.A.L.K.E.R..
What else should I be playing if I like this: There are enough mods to ensure you have a lifetime of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. ahead of you, even if the sequel never materialises.
This is the second version of this list and so much has changed. Perhaps it’s been a great couple of years for horror games or perhaps our fears are as changeable as our socks. Whatever the case, there’s plenty of new stuff to sink your teeth into.
As with comedy, horror is highly subjective – you either laugh or you don’t, and you either cower in fear or you don’t. On the whole, we value games that use horror to inform their mechanics or setting rather than those that simply startle or frighten us. Some of the highest rankings and the number one spot go to games that incorporate several moods rather than laying on a terror buffet from start to finish, and the use of scares to modify and perfect pacing is a quality that most of our favourites share.
With all that said, let us know what your favourites are and why, and take a look at the way this 25 compares to the one from 2015:
1. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat [=]
2. System Shock 2 [=]
3. Pathologic [=]
4. Anatomy [new entry]
5. Silent Hill 2 [-1]
6. Alien: Isolation [-1]
7. Stories Untold [new entry]
8. Darkwood [new entry]
9. Condemned: Criminal Origins [=]
10. Left 4 Dead 2 [=]
11. Knock-knock [=]
12. F.E.A.R. [=]
13. Resident Evil 7 [new entry]
14. Inside [new entry]
15. Amnesia: The Dark Descent [-9]
16. Lone Survivor [=]
17. The Evil Within [-3]
18. Depths of Fear: Knossos [=]
19. Dead Space 2 [=]
20. Teleglitch [-12]
21. Sylvio [=]
22. My Father’s Long, Long Legs [=]
23. Observer [new entry]
24. Detention [new entry]
25. Blood [-12]
Games that left the list but not our hearts: Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Scratches, DayZ, Manhunt, Alan Wake, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Resident Evil 4.
For more of RPS’s bestest best games, take your pick from:
The best PC games of all time
The best FPS on PC
The best strategy games on PC
The best co-op games ever made
The 20 best space games on PC
The best non-violent games
The 14 best Metroidvania
The 10 best hacking, coding and computing games
The best VR games
The best free games on PC
The 10 best games based on movies
The 25 best stealth games on PC
The best action games on PC
The best RPGs on PC
The 25 best adventure games ever made
The 25 best puzzle games on PC