Of all the ranking lists I’ve published (or ever will publish), this might be the most difficult and the most divisive. It’s certainly the one I’m most nervous about — that I’ve been putting off for a few years now actually. It’s time to let ‘er rip.
I would consider myself a pretty serious gamer, especially with horror video games, which I’ve attempted to catalog. I understand that I might piss some people off; I might miss some beloved titles, certainly ones that would make your list; and finally, I’m sure there are more hardcore gamers out there that have played more games than I and are better qualified to curate such a ranking list, but this list is mine; there are many like it, but this one is mine. I encourage you to share your own personal picks.
Some notes before we dive into the list:
- When I say scary, I mean scary. There are thousands of games that are thematically “scary,” but I’m talking about the games that truly cause you so much fright, that you panic, jump, get thrown into fight or flight, and have to go inside of yourself or shut your brain off to brave your way through. Games that force you to put the controller down and look away; games that force you to take a break.
- Some games are part of such a large franchise, that it’ll be more sane to simply rank them as an overall series rather than trying to quantify each individual game.
- There are some games that typically make the list on other sites that I simply haven’t played yet, and so for now, they will only receive an honorable mention. If after playing those games, it becomes clear that they deserve a spot, this list will always be subject to such updates.
Let’s get started…
Resident Evil Series
Resident Evil is likely the only AAA title to appear on this list. I don’t know what it is exactly about indie game developers, perhaps it’s in the freedom they have with creativity or the lack of budget required for more action/gunplay elements (which only make things less scary), but nearly all the titles on this list are by indie developers. Resident Evil stands out as a special exception in that despite it being hugely popular and well-funded, they still have creative room to reinvent themselves like was done in parts 4 and 7.
Silent Hill Series
Silent Hill may technically be in the realm of AAA titles, but it definitely feels much more indie. These games really embraced the weird and put you into some truly nightmarish scenarios, being able to delve more deeply into a fantasy world.
Manhunt is one you won’t often find on lists like this, but it deserves to be. Extremely difficult stealth games had already existed, like with Metal Gear Solid, but this was the first time I experienced this level of intensity in a horror setting. The AI in Manhunt was absolutely brutal. In most games where you have to make your way through levels, killing multitudes of baddies, they’re just kind of standing around, waiting for you to snipe them and run and gun them, with ease.
Here, you’re relentlessly being hunted, and if you make too much noise or are spotted, you’re as good as dead. They would sprint after you with incredible viciousness, and maybe if there was only one, you might have a chance to fight back. But, unlike cheesy Kung Fu movies (and most other games) where the bad guys are polite enough to take their turn, in Manhunt, as many enemies as there were on screen, they all came after you at the same time with full aggression. At the time, this was the closest thing I’d experienced to simulated violence and asymmetrical difficulty with opponents in a video game.
Layers of Fear
Layers of Fear is unique in that it doesn’t really have a strict universe with set rules. In other words, if the creators can imagine it, they can put it in the game. I describe it as the closest thing you can get to being inside an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie. No rules on the structure of rooms, landscapes, or physics, which allows for some pretty inventive scares.
Visage was a surprise out of nowhere. I was just about to write up this list when their PR team approached me to review the game. To my surprise, it made the list! Combining elements of P.T., Layers of Fear, and Emily Wants to Play, this game really brought some serious scares that were hard to work my way through.
Alien: Isolation was an extremely divisive game. Why? Because it was really fucking hard to beat, something I would put into the pros column, not the cons. Not since over a decade earlier when Manhunt was released, had a game’s enemy AI been so juiced up to FUCKING MURDER YOU at the slightest noise or line of sight. Also, games had been so easy and dumbed-down for so long, and more about a cinematic experience than challenging gameplay, I think many gamers were just soft and forgot how hard games used to be, something I missed terribly. There’s definitely been a trend of making games hard again that I’m happy to see.
Outlast and Amnesia Series
We have a tie! A tie? What are you doing? I know, I’m taking a big swing here, but they’ve really become so intertwined at this point, I would have to put them at the same level of terror. A decade ago, when Amnesia released in 2010 (3 years prior to Outlast), I definitely considered it to be the scariest game of all time. Then Outlast came along and muddied up those waters. Now, each respective developer of each franchise, is so clearly informed by the other that they’re neck and neck. In the space of truly scary games, it’s basically a Mac vs Windows type situation here.
Both games are very similar; you have no weapons; the only options you have are to run or hide, and in the most terrifying parts of the game, there’s no hiding; you just have to run!!! Scripted running sequences, where you’re running from a monster that you cannot defend yourself against (if it gets you, you’re dead), is the most terrifying, adrenaline-pumping experience in any video game, period, and these two games do it better than anyone.
Emily Wants to Play
Emily Wants to Play is the most indie game on this whole list, with a small wife and husband team. The premise? You’re trapped in a house with an evil little girl and her killer dolls, and as the title says, they want to play. That alone is probably all the explanation you need, but here we go. Like many of the “trapped in a house” games, which is perhaps my favorite genre of horror game now, you basically just have to figure it out… or die.
Each doll has its own round, and in that round, you have to figure out what the rules are, things like the lights have to be on, or you have to keep your back to the doll, etc. And the dolls are running around, giggling, playing tricks on you, trying to get you to mess up. And, if you do mess up… you hear the little fuckers running across the floor over to jump on you and kill you.
HOLY FUCK IS IT SCARY. It’s so scary, that I actually haven’t even been able to complete the game! It’s so scary, I have to drop the controller and look away. It caused me, someone who you might say likes to be scared professionally, so much anxiety that I just had to walk away. It became more fun to have family and friends try to play it (without warning them of course, hahaha), and watch them freak out in pure terror.
That’s it! At the time of publishing this list, I currently consider Emily Wants to Play to be the scariest game of all time! If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about and you have a different pick for scariest game of all time, please do me a favor and go play it first, and then come back before discussing. It might just change your mind.
- Five Nights at Freddy’s: This is the one I’ll probably get the most shit for, because I see it on lots of “scariest” lists, but I simply haven’t played it yet, sorry. I will though, and at that time, it’s certainly possible that it’ll make the list.
- P.T.: The playable teaser for Silent Hills, that was cancelled (but might now be back on), that I just never got a chance to play. Visage is a spiritual successor of it.
- The Last of Us: I might regret not putting this one on the list. Obviously, it’s an amazing game and I love it. Incredible story that brings me to tears, grand, adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and definitely a lot of legitimate scares, but I would say it leans more intense scary (action) than creepy scary.
- Dead Space: I might actually have all the games, but only played through some of the first game. The reason games like this (and Wolfenstein, Doom, BioShock, COD Zombies, etc.) don’t make the list, is because they’re so weapon-heavy. They’re more shooter than haunted house. Games like Visage wouldn’t be very scary if you could just machine-gun down the ghosts.
- Nightmare Creatures II: I’m pretty sure this was the first time I encountered an enemy with a chainsaw! Chainsaws are instantly terrifying. This game is awesome and still holds up as a fun and creepy game even today, and it’s one of my all-time favorites, but I don’t think it quite reaches the scare caliber of these modern-day horror games.
Did I mess it all up? Are there any games that are serious contenders for this list that I need to play? Let me know.
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