Sunday Conversation: What's The Scariest Game You've Played?

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
The end of October is upon us. With November looming, what can be described as the quintessential autumnal month for some closes out in grand fashion, as it does annually, with the scares, parties, costumes, and candies of Halloween. Adults and kids seem to love Halloween all the same, though usually for different reasons. For many, the horror genre is the best symbol of this scariest of seasons. Video games know no shortage of horror games, spanning decades past with plenty more having revitalized the genre over the past five years, especially. For Halloween weekend, in addition to our longform look at the undead that shamble all across the Xbox platform, we wanted to open up a discussion with the TA community regarding those terrifyingly memorable games we've all played.

We have all played them, right? Maybe not. As you'll see in our staff responses, not all are either brave or masochistic enough to venture into the horror genre, while others have had more than a handful of unsettling nights in the dark, headphones on, the world outside shuttered in favor of the creeping, lurking, someone's-in-the-room-with-me feeling that only scary games can provide.

Here are some of our picks for the scariest games we've ever played. What are yours?

Gabriel had his best scares aboard the Ishimura

That's not a trick-or-treating bag, is it?That's not a trick-or-treating bag, is it?

I'm not someone who gets scared easily. But last April's GWG offering on the Xbox 360, Dead Space, is one game which made me sit on the edge of my seat for the entire night, wondering if there are more monsters around the corner. And to keep that suspension up, I played it entirely in the dark to better immerse myself. Combined with the atmosphere of the game itself, it remains my scariest gaming night ever.

Andrew wrote a love letter to a long-running series

Classic don't look behind you momentClassic "don't look behind you" moment

From the start, Fatal Frame stood out as something unique in the then growing Survival Horror genre. The title eschewed the already established western style action oriented style and drew upon the rich heritage of ghost stories and legends true to its Japanese origins.
The player takes on the role of lone schoolgirl trying to discover what happened to her brother who was investigating the house two weeks earlier. Unarmed, the player enters the dimly lit, decaying and abandoned mansion. The player’s vulnerability and unease is palpable and from the first footstep on the creaking wooden floor, through to the very end, the feeling of dread and fear is without respite.

The crux of the game is the ghostly encounters, there’s over 100 of them, some benign but most malevolent. What makes the encounters more frightening is that not all ghosts are visible, their presence may only be betrayed by audio cues, a glowing filament, and a slight shimmer that’s barely visible in the poorly illuminated areas. On the Playstation 2 version, the dual shock would unexpectedly vibrate. The player’s only defence is the Camera Obscura which can be used to capture the deadly spectres. Each photo weakens the ghosts before they are captured, but herein lies the catch, the ghost can only be hurt when it is attacking and it only attacks when close to the player. It’s a simple mechanism, that forces the player to deliberately put themselves at risk to survive the encounters. Worse still, the player is never sure of the phantom they’re engaging until they’ve captured the first image and with the screen becoming the camera’s viewfinder, the images can be genuinely unsettling.

With ghosts being able to pass through walls and doors, there is never any certainty that a room is really empty. It’s insidious and plays on the player’s own imagination leaving the player feeling genuinely haunted by the malevolent spirits within the house. The constant feeling of vulnerability and unease is intensified by a storyline that gets grislier, bloodier, and more gruesome and disturbing as the game progresses.

Fatal Frame presented a much more psychological approach to the genre and managed to crawl under the player’s skin. I recently replayed it on the PS2, and whilst the graphics have dated it still manages to chill you to the bone.

Sam recalled some less traditional terrors before circling back to a classic

Look, Mr. Bubbles!"Look, Mr. Bubbles!"

Video games have a very unique way of being scary. Movies have never scared me because I find them predictable, but in a game, even if you see the thing coming, it's on you to deal with it. Not only are scary games even more terrifying, but any genre can force you to face some primal fears. I didn't grow up playing your Resident Evils and your Silent Hills - perhaps being a Haloween baby I'm somehow inoculated, but I've always found the undead more boring than chilling. My choices might therefore seem odd to some.

Drowning in Sonic the Hedgehog series is definitely up there. Those underwater levels are my nightmares made flesh. Rising sea levels, terrifying accelerated warning music, an ominous countdown, and the need for precise platforming... horrifying.

I also vividly remember watching my elderly, carefully-cultivated Sim burn to death, screaming, while the fire brigade, in some weird glitch, simply stood and watched. I can't think of many worse ways to go.

If I must choose a more traditional scare, though, it's probably BioShock for me. So many different types of fear rolled up into one there - the madness of man, hydrophobia, giant wordless enemies intent on killing you, losing your own mind and identity... stabbing yourself with syringes isn't exactly pleasant to watch, either. The stand-out moment for me, that still haunts me, was the moment you collect the shotgun and all of the lights go out... and everyone starts coming for you, the only warning being their deranged screams and the muzzle flash of your newly acquired weapon. Such a simple scare, but incredibly well implemented.

Kevin confessed his avoidance of the entire genre

Just one of the countless pulse-pounding moments Kevin has successfully avoided in his life.Just one of the countless pulse-pounding moments Kevin has successfully avoided in his life.

I'll admit, I'm not fan of the horror genre. In fact, I actively avoid it. The closest I've come to horror in the last decade is stuff like FEAR Series, where you are enough of a badass that you never really get scared - it's just unsettling. To me, there's no joy to be found in horror.

So I'm going to take what is perhaps a different approach to this. The game I've been the most disturbed by, felt the most fear of, is definitely Myst. If you haven't heard of it, it's an old adventure game where you use a book to travel to an island and eventually other worlds. There's apparently characters and an ethical dilemma as well - but I didn't know that. You see, I played Myst as a kid. It wasn't a game I was logically able to handle, and I couldn't solve the puzzles. So the game devolved from an adventure game to a game where I was stuck on a strange island with no one on it. I spent hours wandering around trying to figure out how to proceed and couldn't. It was eerie, it was lonely, and frankly it was absolutely disturbing. The simple puzzle adventure turned into a nightmare where I was trapped without hope of escape.

....and maybe that's why I don't like horror games!

Mark looked down the lens and could barely stand what he saw

I've always hated doctor appointments.I've always hated doctor appointments.

I'm a lifelong horror fan, no matter the medium. It's always been a part of who I am. So I've been really excited to see everyone's contributions to this talk on the eve of Halloween. I thought long and hard as to which game scared me the most, but ultimately I kept coming back to one answer: Outlast. The first-person horror upended the logic of horror titles by giving you no way to defend yourself and demanding via its primary game mechanics that you would often have to stare down the horrors at the end of a corridor or opposite you in the blackened bedroom, praying you aren't seen. Kevin was right. Horror games that equip you with too much firepower lose a lot of their emotional resonance. Outlast solves this problem by going all the way to the other end of the spectrum.

Yeah, maybe it's a lot of jump (see: cheap) scares, and it isn't my favorite horror (that'd be Silent Hill 2). Still, no game has left me so unwilling to play it some more the way Outlast has. Seriously. Look at my gamerscore for it. I finished both the story and the prequel DLC on PlayStation 4. But since I got it again on Xbox One nearly a year ago, I've yet to finish the main game's narrative. I simply haven't been able to pull myself together enough to commit to it again. It's stressful, unrelenting, atmospheric, and leaves me feeling helpless. Thankfully these are all the right adjectives for a horror. I just wish I could regain the will to face Mount Massive Asylum once more. Someday...

Chewie sang praises for one title near and dear to many genre fans

You know, if you flossed more regularly this wouldn't happen.You know, if you flossed more regularly this wouldn't happen.

I started with horror at a terribly early age when my parents inadvertently got me a VHS of the movie Troll way before I was old enough to legally (or at least, morally) watch it. This led to an obsession with the gruesome that included watching late night horror movies (often on a school night) in my room and getting more wildly inappropriate films on video, from Hellraiser to Halloween and The Thing to Braindead (Dead Alive). Despite my cinematic proclivities, however, I didn't really get into horror games until 1999 when I grabbed Silent Hill on PS1.

From the moment the amazingly atmospheric score kicked in during the opening, I was hooked. The world building is sublime, with murky foggy streets hiding hideous creatures in a thick mist that, with the blare of an ominous air-raid siren, gives way to a nightmarish rust-filled parallel world similarly filled with hideous creatures. You're enticed to follow the clues to track down your daughter and uncover more of the town's mysteries, but more often than not you just want to stay in the nice cosy safety of this monster-free classroom. Then your radio starts crackling, a fantastic panic-inducing audio cue that danger is near and pants may be filled. The odd, stilted dialogue even somehow adds to the surreal, dreamlike tone.

The game is full of references to classic horror and sci-fi films and literature so the makers clearly know and love their inspirations, including Stephen King's The Mist, Twin Peaks and Jacob's Ladder. I'll never forget the sequence towards the end when the world truly descends into madness, geographical logic takes a nosedive and you stumble on poor Lisa. Sure, the sequel is arguably a better game, expanding on every key element of the original and introducing one of gaming's most iconic creatures in Pyramid Head, but it's this game that I will always view with fondness...and terror...creeping, choking terror.
These are just our picks, of course. What are your go-to games when you're twistedly looking for a scare? Happy Halloween to all celebrating! Stay safe, guys and girls.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.