You might notice that a good chunk of the games on this list aren't conventionally scary; they're more psychologically unnerving or disturbing (i.e., scary for grown-ups). Moreover, this obviously isn't a complete and comprehensive list of all scary games that ever existed, and, yeah, a bunch of you web-dwellers have probably played some (or all) of these. There's a merit badge for you down the hall. For those looking for something new or different to play, though, read on!
'Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth'
This atmospheric and unsettling game for the PC and the original XBox is still quite the nerve-wracking experience. It's one of the few games I keep putting aside for long periods of time because, when I do play it, my stress and anxiety levels skyrocket. There's something about playing through an H.P. Lovecraft story that somehow makes it that much more personally terrifying.
So while the name "Cthulhu" instantly conjures mental images of unspeakably large behemoths, it's really the locals you'll want to avoid in this game. A twisted cult, a dark mystery, grueling difficulty, plenty of disturbing imagery, and wonderfully unnerving sound effects make this horror game a must-play.
While the Resident Evil games are telling in how they constantly find a way to separate you from your companions, The Thing (a video-game sequel to the classic 1982 movie) invites you to have a whole squad with you whenever possible. You'd think that'd make things easier or at least less scary, right? Wrong. Not only are you more or less responsible for their mental well-being, they also might be infected.
The game plays up the paranoia factor to incredibly uncomfortable levels. Is your medic buddy, who's been fighting alongside you for several hours now, one of those... things? You never know until you do. The game features neat ideas like blood tests and trust mechanics â but nothing freaked me out like having a companion split in half and try to eat me. And I gave you my last gun, man! Damn!
'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream'
Based on the short story by Harlan Ellison, this cerebral and gruesome point-and-click game packs more genuinely disturbing stuff in it than most horror games ever get a chance to. The game tackles themes like rape, genocide, suicide, insanity, paranoia, and more.
The game is set in the extremely distant future, and each of the five playable characters is kept as a plaything by a twisted and resentful artificial intelligence called AM. Like Skynet in the Terminator movies, AM was created by man â and also destroyed man. These five characters are the only humans left alive, and they're doomed to an eternity of psychological torture in custom-made personal hells at the hands of a sick and hateful intelligence. Whoa.
This indie horror game by creator Kitty Horrorshow is incredibly unique, both in concept and execution. It's analog-VHS aesthetic brings to mind what we all found so scary about found-footage movies to begin with. But, a found footage game? You play a nameless character in a pitch black house. You can't see more than a foot in front of you, and you're left without much direction... this is how you start. No cumbersome story, no lore, no monsters.
The game has you finding cassette tapes in various rooms of the house and then returning to the tape recorder to play them. The messages themselves are interesting and unnerving but not in the traditional jump-scare way. The game ends unexpectedly â and you wonder if you missed something. So you boot the game back up, only to find that it has no save feature, but... wait a minute... things are... a bit different in the game this time...
I could write a whole article JUST on the concepts this game offers and why it's so freakin' terrifying, but you should probably just play it yourself. Here you go.
'The Static Speaks My Name'
There's no excuse not to play this mind-bending game right now, as it's completely free to download (not to mention, it wont' take up much hard-drive space). It's simplistic graphics don't take away from the deeply unsettling stories it tells, either. I only played through one section of the game, but there are many more to engage in.
I played as a man obsessed with a painting, one that he's reproduced over and over and over. I went about my daily business, noticing that I've boarded up my own house â trapping myself inside. The more I explored, the more unnerved I was. I was playing a very, very disturbed man. And, unlike most games which would put you squarely in the victim seat, this one simply doesn't. Within half an hour of gameplay, I had electrocuted a man I kept in a cage in my closet and then hanged myself. Yeah. Next segment!
Here's another game that subverts the victim/attacker setup as you play as James Earl Cash, a death row inmate given a second chance... but has to star in a series of gritty, urban, gladiator-esque snuff films. The better you kill, the better off you are. The game doesn't try to pass this off as stylish or fun, it's simply an experience. And a grueling one at that.
The game's difficulty is nothing to laugh at, and the gameplay is focused on stealth over reckless carnage. You stab, beat, and suffocate your prey to death, because if you don't... you die. While the game is full of violence, it's actually the concept that really gets under your skin and stays there. Unfortunately, I found it technically hard to play as well. I could never quite get the hang of the controls, and that's a big mark against an otherwise brilliant and disturbing game. Smile for the camera?
Manhunt 2 ditches the CCTV snuff aspect and places you in the shoes of Daniel Lamb, an amnesiac who is guided through his journey of bloody self discovery by a creepy assassin. The core stealth gameplay is more or less the same, but the setting and the story are just as disturbing â albeit a different flavor of disturbing. Still, Manhunt 2's very existence subverts the violence-as-entertainment genre by being as repulsive as it is engaging.
I know someone who called it a "murder simulator," and, y'know... he wasn't wrong. If that doesn't get under your skin as well, I don't know what would. Also, the game was originally rated AO (as in, "Adults Only"). That's a higher rating than Mature. The game had to be cut and censored JUST to get an M rating for a wide release. Damn...
Haunting Ground is a game I found out about only recently, in fact, and went to considerable lengths to get my hands on a copy. It's a PS2 exclusive but that shouldn't *ahem* stop you from *ahem* seeking it out. It's a creepy-castle tale about a girl who wakes up in a metal cage after a car accident that has messed with her memory.
It's overt sex appeal might seem worthy of an eye-roll at first, but the game incorporates it into the story in some unique and disturbing ways. This is in stark contrast to games like Resident Evil (specifically the later titles) that feature female characters in skin-tight suits for... no real reason. Not that I'm complaining, I'm just saying, it's refreshing to play a game that embraces its sex appeal and then gets messed up and twisted with it.
All that and you spend the first portion of the game running helplessly from a hulking man-child who thinks you're his play thing. Jesus Christ...
Why is Alien Isolation only getting an honorable mention? Well, because I said these would be games you might not have played â and it seems just about everyone has played this one. Even if you haven't, you've probably heard about it ad nauseam. So, what more can I add?
All the hype is true. It's insanely scary and nerve wracking. It's the closest thing to being in Alien that anybody would ever be comfortable with. The only thing stopping this game from being even more terrifying is the fact that you can save... and quit. And, the game doesn't even make that easy for you!
'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim' (Dragonborn DLC)
Sure, Skyrim itself is more like Lord of the Rings, but what if Lord of the Rings had been a book written by H.P. Lovecraft? What if it were Cthulhu instead of Sauron? Even with it's sword-and-sorcery, high-fantasy trappings, this DLC for Skyrim is certainly creepy.
If there weren't enough mind-melting visuals and terrifying, formless entities in the other Lovecraft game on this list, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It only gets an honorable mention because it's neither purely scary nor is it its own standalone game â but do a little digging in this world and you'll find plenty of psychological horror and cult creepiness to suck you in and keep you there. In fact, even the little seaside town in the DLC resembles Innsmouth to a degree... Hmm...