It's Halloween season and you know what that means! Scary movies, spooky TV shows, and ghost stories best enjoyed by a campfire or candle light. But there's one medium that offers arguably the best spooky experience of all, one that allows you to both consume the story as it unfolds and become immersed within it at the same time. We're speaking, of course, about video games. And we've put together the scariest titles of all time for you to enjoy this Halloween season.
Now not all of these titles are going to please everyone. There's hardcore horror mixed with psychological suspense and supernatural scares, there are "retro" titles folded in with more modern visually striking games, and there are franchise titles you expected alongside other games you may never have heard of. In other words, it's a curated list of some of the best scary video games around, but not necessarily an end-all, be-all. And if you've got one we haven't played, we'd love to hear about it! In the meantime, here are another recommendations more tailed to specific tastes:
Classic murder mystery stories? Check out Seventh Guest. Horrifying survival horror that's a welcome change from the predictable? Pick up Outlast. If you're into Scandinavian mythology for a bit of a change, we recommend Unforgiving - A Northern Hymn and Through The Woods. Want to go for Soviet-era survival horror sci-fi? Gotta be the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games. Are you looking for a different way to lose your sanity? Go dungeon crawling with Darkest Dungeon or get your Lovecraft on with Call of Cthulhu and Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones. And if it's gnarly, gritty, "I don't want to do this" sequels you've been waiting for, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better recent title than The Last of Us: Part Two.
But enough of our honorable mentions and recommendations, here are our picks for the scariest video games of all time:
A tightly-constructed piece of video game storytelling, with a wide and fried sense of hazy atmosphere, Limbo is designed to discomfort you, and achieves its goal from moment one. You play a small child in a horrifying world, trying to find his sister while traversing a series of gruesome-death-instilling platforming puzzles. Feeling like an Eraserhead take on an over-industrialized nightmare, this world exists in some surreal ether realm, with shadowy, black-and-white monsters lurking in the margins of this dreamlike plane of existence.
So much of Limbo feels, in direct correlation to its title, unanswered. Where are we? Who are we? Why are we trying to find our sister? Who are these creatures? Are we as good a savior, as morally pure a hero as we think we are? All of these lurking questions sit and simmer in my gut every time I play this righteous game, and that cut to black at the end punches it all without fail. - Gregory Lawrence
Fatal Frame (2001)
For Westerners, Fatal Frame may not be the first title you think of when it comes to scary games, but thanks to the franchise's focus on Japanese horror, it's one of the best. It's also one of the most unique of the bunch. Other games feature player protagonists who aren't superheroes out to battle supernatural enemies; they're just normal people trying to survive. But at least those everyday heroes are equipped with melee weapons, guns, or other items to combat the forces of darkness. In Fatal Frame, your only defense is a camera.
The original game sees you take control of Miku Hinasaki who goes in search of her missing brother Mafuyu, who had in turn gone looking for a famous novelist in an infamously haunted mansion. (There's quite the recurring theme in these survival games, isn't there?) The only way the siblings can defeat the ghosts that haunt the building -- and get to the bottom of a dark, ritualistic event that took place there -- is by using the Camera Obscura, an antique camera that acts like an analog "ghost-buster." This shift to first-person "shooter" here is your only weapon in the game, one that can be upgraded by scoring enough points when you defeat ghosts by taking their picture. The closer the spirit, the higher the points, but also the higher risk of taking significant damage. It's a clever mechanic that forces the player to confront the very ghosts that are hunting them with only a shutter, flash, and lens. But it's the exploration of some really disturbing themes and Japanese horror stories that makes the original title in the franchise a standout. - Dave Trumbore
The Evil Within (2014)
A survival horror game by the original creator of Resident Evil, The Evil Within is an extremely brutal experience that gives you almost no moments of reprieve. Everything is terrifying 100% of the time, and you rarely have enough bullets to feel anywhere close to safe.
You play as a police detective trapped inside the mind of a killer, traveling through twisted environments and fighting horrendous enemies all based on the killer’s memories and emotions. In classic RE fashion, you don’t have the ability to defeat every single enemy, so you have to pick your battles carefully and get used to holding down that sprint button. The imaginative level design and the upgrade system are rewarding gameplay loops, but nothing holds a candle to the game’s terrifying boss fights. These are frantic confrontations with genuinely frightening monsters, and each victory you manage to eke out feels extremely narrow.
The story is a little heavy on gibberish and ultimately doesn’t make a ton of sense, but The Evil Within is such a fun spookfest that you won’t really mind too much. - Tom Reimann
Eternal Darkness (2002)
We've talked a lot about survival horror and psychological torment in this list of scary games, but we've yet to address one of the smartest twists in the genre: A sanity meter. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is largely cited as the first game to add such a mechanic, especially in the West, though earlier Japanese releases Laplace no Ma and Clock Tower did this first. It's also listed among the best Gamecube games but is often lost in the conversation among the more globally recognizable franchises. But for our money -- and our nerves -- it's still one of the best when it comes to getting under your skin. So good, in fact, that Nintendo patented the standout "Sanity Effects" mechanic.
Eternal Darkness can deliver a slightly different gameplay experience every time you pick it up. The hardcore gamers out there will take the "red" path, while completionists will have to tackle all three paths if they want to play any one path twice. The game gives you a level or so to warm up and get used to the combat style, but once you hit chapter two, keep an eye on your sanity; it'll drop whenever an enemy spots you ... and things will get increasingly horrifying from there on out. Those effects range from slight visual changes like a tilted camera angle or environmental effects, to full-on mind-blowing fourth-wall-breaking moments that'll have the player questioning whether or not their game is actually malfunctioning. It's brilliant stuff and it paved the way for many other games that came after it.
Unfortunately, despite attempts to revive the title with sequels and possible franchise runs, those efforts ultimately failed. Perhaps some tortured soul out there will give it another go. Until then, we'll have to be happy with returning to the original nightmare. - Dave Trumbore
The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us comes at you from all angles. Its combat sequences, in which your playable character Joel hides, stalks, and does his best to reckon with the corrupted, vilely designed zombies (not to mention the corrupted, vilely temperamented humans dealing poorly with this post-apocalyptic warzone), truly take my breath away. They are visceral, physical, immersive pieces of game design that raise the stakes, alongside your heart rate, with ruthless, borderline cruel efficiency.
And then, psychologically, The Last of Us hits you harder than twelve Bloaters in a row. Its cold open? Emotionally devastating. Its moments of mercy and comfort, including that beautiful giraffe? Only momentarily relieving, the inevitable calm for the doubly devastating storm. Its central relationship, between Joel and Ellie? What can I say? It’s one of the best duos in all of video game history. It’s rich and complicated and both the only life raft both characters have and predicated on all kinds of unhealthy coping mechanisms. And the ending fate of these two is presented in a sequence I desperately did not want to perform.
This might be the scariest part of The Last of Us; the unending, relentless, borderline cruelly efficient sprint toward fate, toward realizing you don’t have control after all. A frightful game no matter how you slice it. - Gregory Lawrence
Alien: Isolation (2014)
The most important lesson I learned playing Alien: Isolation is that the alien 100% does not give a shit about my pistol. I was so relieved to finally get a gun that I foolishly tried to stand toe-to-toe with the titular space demon and it just slapped that thing out of my hands like it was a giant cartoon lollipop and murdered the shit out of me. Isolation is a survival horror game that casts you as the daughter of Ellen Ripley, making her way through a chaotic space station in search of answers about what happened to her mother. The station has been split up between factions of humans, so you’ll have to deal with Mad Max-style scavengers and crazed androids while trying to make as little noise as possible to avoid attracting the alien. When the alien shows up, you can try hiding in lockers and beneath tables and such, but be warned: The alien is a damn psychic and will find you before too long regardless of how quiet you’re being.
The tension and atmosphere are pitch-perfect for fans of the 1979 Ridley Scott film (it even features DLC where you can play as the crew of the Nostromo in a mini-mission). It’s a little too long for its premise to sustain, but when it’s at its best, Alien: Isolation is a satisfyingly scary experience that came dangerously close to giving me a stress-induced panic attack. - Tom Reimann
I’ve spoken about P.T.’s particularly vicious context as a time loop game, but it, appropriately, bears repeating.
In a disorienting first-person perspective, you wander through the same looping hallway, over and over again, slowly uncovering an increasingly miserable mystery while a damned ghost pops up and scares the pants off of you. And the more details about this mystery you uncover, the worse it all gets, culminating in one of the most skin-crawling, taboo revelations I’ve ever seen in a video game.
This strange, hard-to-find title, which literally stands for “Playable Teaser,” comes from the dream team of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, who designed the short, self-contained title as a, well, player teaser for concepts that could have popped up in the next Silent Hill game. Sadly, that game was cancelled and P.T. was ripped from the PlayStation store for good measure. But all of this only adds to the title’s near mythological-level of influence, of immersion, of ghastly fright and psychological destruction. To this day, it is the only horror video game I’ve ever played that made me lose sleep. - Gregory Lawrence
Silent Hill (1999)
While it's certainly not the most graphically impressive title in this list, the visual style of the original Silent Hill remains creepy AF even 20+ years later. Konami's own survival horror franchise, created by Keiichiro Toyama, is now inseparable from spooky atmospheric effects, flesh-covered Hell dimensions that would make Cronenberg cringe, and other-worldly denizens that are hungry for your blood and happy to destroy your sanity. And it all started in the first game.
Anytime I find myself walking through a sudden fog, I still keep an eye out for Groaners, Mumblers, and Grey Children. Silent Hill was all about the atmosphere, a stroke of genius that solved limitations of graphical processors of the time while also amping up the creepy factor. Be it fog or darkness, protagonist Harry Mason could never see very far in his quest to find his lost daughter in the monster-ridden title town. Add in a busted radio that played a burst of static whenever enemies were near, blood-soaked obstacles wrapped in razor-wire, plus Rompers, Puppet Nurses and Puppet Doctors, and, yeah, this game hits you in every sense and sensibility. But to win the day (and experience one of multiple endings), you'll have to push past your own fears and descend into the darkness to deal with a deadly cult. Your reward? Coming back for Silent Hill 2 to meet Pyramid Head! - Dave Trumbore
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
A first-person horror game in which you have no weapons of any kind, Amnesia: The Dark Descent throws you into a creepified Prussian castle with no memory of who you are or how the hell you got there. As you slowly progress through the castle, solving standard survival horror adventure puzzles such as flipping switches, repairing machinery, and discovering secret doors, you begin to unlock memories that gradually reveal pieces of your identity. However, the castle is chock full of monsters that are so over-the-top terrifying you’ll probably lapse into peals of shocked laughter in between genuine shrieks after one abruptly shambles out of the darkness towards you.
Your only “weapon” is a lantern that chews through fuel like a blind shark, leaving you in a constant race against darkness that will literally kill you if you spend too long in it. Amnesia is a truly frightening experience that never lets up (even the music in the title screen is enough to make you want to instantly switch it off and watch Everybody Loves Raymond). It’s probably the scariest goddamn game I’ve ever played, so much so that I haven’t yet been able to play it all the way through. You’ll see what I mean while you’re huddled in a tiny pool of torchlight in a pitch black prison listening to things scuttle around you in the dark. - Tom Reimann
Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017)
To explain why Doki Doki Literature Club! is so freaking scary would be to inherently spoil it, so if you want to have as pure an experience with this game as possible, stop reading and start playing now. But if you want a touch of what to expect in this unpredictable nightmare, here goes: Doki Doki Literature Club! feels an awful lot like a traditional anime visual uptop, featuring four female high school students — Sayori, Yuri, Monika, and Natsuki — and the player as a new student. The five of you attend a literature club, where you write poems, read books, and prepare a presentation for an upcoming festival. It’s rendered in bubbly, cute, and completely innocent flair. Until something devastating happens to one of our characters. And then it… takes a turn.
I’ll avoid exact specifics because, again, you just need to experience this provocative game as purely as possible, but I’ll say things move into the horrific, into the surreal, and especially into the metafictional. Nothing about the world is safe to the game’s desires to break everything down, even the fact that it’s a game itself. But it’s not just twisty scares and clever trickery for horror’s sake. These techniques make Doki Doki Literature Club! a potent, aggressively immersive statement on trauma, on legacy, on grief, on sociopathy versus empathy, and on asserting control however one can. It will get under your skin and stay there, I promise you. - Gregory Lawrence
The EA Redwood Shores game Dead Space scared the holy terror out of me, and although it’s been a decade since I played it, I can still hear the screams. Released in 2008, the survival horror game takes place on a (supposedly) empty mining spaceship that’s been overrun by deadly monsters called Necromorphs. You make your way through the ship happening upon various monsters in various forms, as well as remnants of the ship’s crew in different states of, uh, disrepair.
What’s brilliant about Dead Space is how the game uses light, shadow, and sound design to spook you. It’s not necessarily about the look of the monsters so much as it’s about the tension that builds as you make your way through a corridor with only your flashlight to guide you, only for a creepy crawler to jump out and scream at the top of its lungs as it tries to thrash you apart. It didn’t help that I played this in a gaming chair with speakers right by my ears, but I clearly remember making a decision to not play this one right before bed anymore. And while the game spawned two sequels, the initial entry holds a special place in my heart – which, having now written about Dead Space, is beating rather quickly… - Adam Chitwood
Resident Evil 7 VR
Much like Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 7 is scary enough on its own in first-person (a first for the RE franchise), but playing in VR is a whole other dimension of Hell. The various demos that came out prior to the game's launch were more than creepy enough to give players the heebies-jeebies regardless of whether they were connected to the RE7 story or not. What was clear here was that Capcom was focusing on horror over action -- a refreshing change for the rather dynamic and kinetic line of titles -- and that first-person virtual reality immersion was the "best" way to play out that experience ... and scare yourself senseless.
The plot itself changes things up a bit, too. Far from the normal urban landscapes that players are used to, you play as Ethan Winters, a man who travels to a ramshackle plantation home in search of his missing wife. That plan quickly turns to shit as members of the home's Baker family (and Ethan's wife Mia herself) soon go on the offensive; these attacks are brutal, relentless, and literally in-your-face for VR players. But it's not just the inescapable violence that makes this title scary, it's the game design that adds one of almost every phobia afflicting folks out there. Claustrophobia? Check. Fear of insects? Super-double check. Fungal infections, being held hostage, mysterious creatures lurking under the lake ... the list goes on. There's not much room to breathe from one scene to the next as you attempt to not only escape, but to survive. And that's just the beginning!
"Welcome to the family, son." - Dave Trumbore
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