If there’s one genre that games do better than just about any other medium, it’s horror. Terrifying as as a book or film can be, there’s nothing quite as gut wrenchingly terrifying as being thrust into those nightmarish scenarios for yourself.
Whether it’s creeping down dark corridors, hiding from hideous monsters, or counting out those last few shotgun shells and desperately hoping they’ll be enough, videogames have the ability to put you in some seriously tight spots.
One quick disclaimer about this list: it’s undeniably skewed towards more modern fare. That’s partly because you’re more likely to be able to track down a copy to play for yourself that way, but also because as gaming’s tech has advanced, so have our expectations, and it’s tricky to find older titles truly terrifying any more.
Oh, and right now we’ve partnered with PC game retailer GOG.com to give away five copies each of Little Nightmares and Outlast 2, two of the most recent horror games to make our list. Make sure to enter now – both competitions end at 11pm BST on Sunday 30 April.
After years of slightly ropey films, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the legendary xenomorph just couldn’t be scary any more. There’d been too many shoddy sequels and misjudged mash-ups over the years, and even the much-maligned prequel Prometheus steered clear of the acid-blooded beast.
That’s why Alien: Isolation was such a welcome surprise. A masterclass in building tension, it proved that the xenomorph is still the scariest thing on any planet by going right back to Ridley Scott’s original film (quite literally in the rather excellent DLC).
You play Amanda Ripley, daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s franchise star, as you navigate the dilapidated Sevastopol space station, which is ever so slightly overrun with horrible aliens. You’ll have to sneak and hide as the beast prowls the station for you, with a trusty motion tracker to guide your way.
While you gather a few weapons along the way, they won’t do much more than slow the xeno down, so you definitely don’t want to stand and fight. They’re more helpful against the station’s other occupants: terrified survivors and malfunctioning androids, all of whom pose a threat. But don’t make too much noise fending them off, or you’ll attract a certain something your way…
Sure, it goes on for a few hours too long, but that only proves that you can have too much of a good thing. And Alien: Isolation is very, very good indeed.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
There have been an awful lot of Resident Evil games over the years – a lot more than just the numbered main series entries – but few have stood out quite as much as Resident Evil 7.
After a series of increasingly action-packed (and decreasingly popular) titles, Capcom had to find a way to shake the series up. Its answer was to simultaneously tread new ground through a shift to a first-person perspective and a stride even further away from its staples; while going back to the series’ roots with a contained mansion setting and some seriously scarce ammunition.
You step into the shoes of Ethan Winters, who finds himself in a secluded Louisiana farmhouse looking for his missing wife, Mia. Once there he encounters the seriously sinister (and supernatural) Baker family. They’re nigh-on un-killable, which means that as much of the game is spent running and hiding as it is spent fighting back.
Occasional videotape interludes let you play through past events from someone else’s perspective, while the mansion is filled to the brim with the sort of arcane, object-based puzzles that the early Resi games loved so much.
It’s not subtle about its influences, and towards the end the action starts to amp up a little too much, but this was a great return to form for one of horror’s veteran franchises.
Read more in our Resident Evil 7 review.
The adult world is probably an unsettling, confusing place from a toddler’s perspective, which seems to have been the inspiration behind Little Nightmares, which proves you don’t have to go gory to inspire fear.
You control Six, a young girl in a bright yellow raincoat, as she navigates a world that sometimes feels like a tanker ship, sometimes a house, sometimes a restaurant, and always sways alarmingly from side to side. Along the way you’ll come across a series of creatures that look like they crawled out of Jim Henson’s worst nightmares.
You’ll have to sneak and hide as you try to get past them, doing your best to ignore the snorting, snuffling noises, or the way their eerily long arms creep along the floor, while you try to get through a world built for people much bigger than you.
What’s most unsettling is sometimes just how eerily domestic it all is. Kitchens and bedrooms take on a new, uncomfortable weight, while even the monsters are only ever seen going about routine, mundane chores.
The platforming is sometimes a little ropey, and the environmental puzzles aren’t up to the level of clear inspirations Limbo and Inside, but the world of Little Nightmares is destined to get right under your skin.
What if, right, you took Resident Evil, set it in space, turned all the zombies inside out, and then made you slowly dismember them to progress?
Welcome to Dead Space.
Not only are its Necromorph enemies among the grisliest, grossest put on screen in any game yet, Dead Space also subverts the long-running genre convention to aim for the head, by instead encouraging a different target: the limbs. You have to use your array of weapons to slice through every appendage you can find, trimming your opponents down until there’s not enough of them left to fight back.
Beyond the gnarly body horror, Dead Space also boasted a few welcome innovations, like dropping the HUD and incorporating it into your character – ammo counts appear on the guns, and your health is illustrated by the neon bar running down your spine.
The eerie sci-fi setting is also just as well realised as the monsters that roam it, the decrepit, damaged corridors and control rooms proving the perfect counterpoint to the organic nightmares within.
Dead Space spawned a couple of sequels, but for our money the first game is the one to beat, and it still holds up brilliantly a decade on.
If there’s one common theme to the best modern horror games (and much of this list, really) it’s the reduced emphasis on combat, with games stripping away players’ ability to fight back and forcing them to run, hide, and hope for the best.
There aren’t many games that take the style as far as Outlast 2 though, which gives you literally no way to defend yourself against the many, many people and things that will try and kill you across the course of the game.
You play an intrepid investigative cameraman trying to rescue his wife from the clutches of an assortment of crazed cultists. That camera is the crucial element though – not only can you use it to film vital story moments, but you’ll need to use the night vision mode to see in the dark, and the microphone to locate unseen enemies – all at the cost of valuable battery power.
The game leans a little too hard into the dreaded damsel-in-distress trope, and you could never accuse the scares of being subtle, but Outlast 2 is almost unbearably intense, and totally terrifying.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
The oldest game to grace our list, 2002’s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem makes the grade in part because there’s still never been another game quite like it.
As the game begins, you play as Alexandra Roivas, a young woman exploring her family’s Rhode Island mansion as she investigates her grandfather’s murder. But she’s far from the only character you play as: you’ll spend time as a Roman centurion, a Cambodian slave, a Franciscan monk, and more in a story that drops in on an assortment of different time periods spread across the globe.
That’s not the only innovation though. Fighting your way through hordes of Lovecraftian horrors across time and space takes its toll, and each character will begin to lose their mind as the game goes on. That manifests in the form of hallucinations – blood dripping from the walls, visions of your own corpse, sinking slowly into the floor – all the usual stuff.
At times it even gets meta, with flies appearing to crawl across the inside of your TV screen, or even (cruelly) popping up an error message to tell you that your entire save file has been corrupted.
It’s a bit tricky to get hold of now, and you’ll need a Gamecube to play it, but trust us – it’s worth the effort.