The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming.

The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time
Photo: Playdead

When people think of horror-themed video games, their minds often go to the survival-horror conventions popularized by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. Of being stuck in claustrophobic and menacing places, of running low on resources, of limping from an injury as some ghastly being drags or stomps toward you, following your trail of blood. To survive in the world of these games depends as much on how players use their unique skill sets as it does on how they learn to manage their nerves.

Yes, sometimes the effect of a horror game is not unlike that of a schlocky jump scare-athon, but horror comes in many shades across all mediums. For one, there are the action titles, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Bloodborne, that rely on the concepts of well-known horror stories, sinister and theatrical music, and well-above-average difficulty levels to intimidate and overwhelm players. And the terrifying logic of fever dreams, rather than the creaky old machinery of horror, can foist an otherwise non-gloomy series like The Legend of the Zelda into the realm of nightmares.

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming. But more than anything, the following selections represent what we believe are the most provocative, well-executed, and timeless examples of horror in the medium. Jed Pressgrove


25. Paratopic (2018)

Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic’s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Steven Scaife

Castlevania: Bloodlines

24. Castlevania: Bloodlines (1993)

The gothic-themed Castlevania games have always featured a wide assortment of iconic scary figures, from Frankenstein to the Grim Reaper to primary antagonist Dracula. But it wasn’t until 1993, with the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, that the series achieved a more chilling and disorienting brand of horror, with platforms that inexplicably drip blood, a boss that may arouse your unexpected sympathy when it begins to nervously clutch its beaten head, and a Leaning Tower of Pisa stage that imprisons the player in a state of hurried movement and vertigo. Visual tricks throughout the game ratchet up a sense of shock and confusion, culminating in a final level that defiantly cuts the traditional side-scrolling view into three uneven sections so as to scramble the positions of the main character’s body parts on the screen. A masterpiece of ambitious 2D game design, Castlevania: Bloodlines doesn’t need three-dimensional space to discombobulate one’s senses. Pressgrove

Parasite Eve

23. Parasite Eve (1998)

With its concise length, mixture of active time battle and survival-horror gameplay, and modern New York City setting, 1998’s Parasite Eve was a dramatic risk for director Takashi Tokita. Leaving behind the traditional adventurous spirit of the games that made Square famous as a company, Parasite Eve is marked by a melancholic and disturbing type of energy, as in its opening doozy of a scene, which starts with the Statue of Liberty looking as if she’s been struck by grief and ends with an opera performance that climaxes with its audience members bursting helplessly into flames. The game’s emphasis on gun resource management suggests a nod to the tension-building methods of Resident Evil, but the true terror in Parasite Eve lies in the emotional and psychological vulnerability of rookie cop protagonist Aya, who mourns her dead sister and whose source of supernatural power has an uncomfortably close connection to the evil feminine force that she must conquer.Pressgrove

The Last of Us

22. The Last of Us (2013)

Come for the zombies, stay for the giraffes. Dead Space fans will smile as they navigate claustrophobic sewage tunnels, Metal Gear Solid vets will have a blast outmaneuvering a psychotic cannibal, Resident Evil junkies will enjoy trying to sneak past noise-sensitive Clickers, Fallout experts will find every scrap of material to scavenge, Dead Rising pros will put Joel’s limited ammunition and makeshift shivs to good use, and Walking Dead fans will be instantly charmed by the evolving relationship between grizzled Joel and the tough young girl, Ellie, he’s protecting. But The Last of Us stands decaying heads and rotting shoulders above its peers because it’s not just about the relentless struggle to survive, but the beauty that remains: the sun sparkling off a distant hydroelectric dam; the banks of pure, unsullied snow; even the wispy elegance of otherwise toxic spores. Oh, and giraffes, carelessly walking through vegetative cities, the long-necked light at the end of the tunnel that’s worth surviving for. Aaron Riccio

Will You Ever Return? 2

21. Will You Ever Return? 2 (2012)

Jack King-Spooner’s singular vision of hell is grotesque and discordant, with bits of clay jammed together amid cut-out art, jaunty tunes, and squishy noises. Playing as the mugger from the previous game (which is bundled with this sequel in the Will You Ever Return? Double Feature), you take in infernal sights that, at first, seem impossibly goofy. There’s only one real jump scare in the whole game, yet the way this visual and aural assault oscillates between comedy, sadness, and ominous prescience accumulates its own disturbing, soulful power. Staring long enough at the jerky, claymation torture rooms sneaks beneath our usual resistance to traditional horror imagery, prodding at philosophical weak points we didn’t know we had. The mugger’s journey of self-discovery takes him through his own sins and fears, leading to a place of acceptance that emphasizes humanity’s ability to rob one another of the only things that truly matter. Scaife


20. F.E.A.R. (2005)

Horror video games often generate tension by disempowering players, making weapons and ammo sparse. Not so with F.E.A.R., a nasty subversion of the first-person shooter that pits members of the elite First Encounter Assault Reconnaissance team—the kind of gung-ho militaristic dipshits who’d be unquestionably victorious in a Call of Duty campaign—against an army of telepathically controlled clone super-soldiers. Wreaking havoc across a city, the game’s enemies don’t act like standard video game baddies, boasting some of the best artificial intelligence in the medium: These paranormal soldiers carefully work together to stalk, hunt, and terrorize you, turning bland offices and industrial work sites into slaughtering grounds. But F.E.A.R.’s star is the omnipresent, army-controlling Alma, a distillation of the J-horror ghost-girl trope. The game’s little red-dressed, long-haired Big Bad is more dangerous than a thousand super-soldiers—flinging furniture, filling rooms with blood, forcing images of corpses into your mind. Nothing can stop Alma, and she keeps players on edge all the way through to the game’s apocalyptic ending. Aston

Little Nightmares

19. Little Nightmares (2017)

Few games so uncomfortably capture that feeling of disempowerment that comes with being small like Little Nighmares, a game where the player takes on the role of a tiny young girl named Six, trapped in the bowels of an enormous vessel patrolled by huge beasts that want nothing more than to feast on children. There’s no fighting back. Six must take advantage of her minuteness to sneak past and evade her overbearing captors, each one suggesting a child’s nightmarish impression of a real-world adult and rendered in styles that recall everything from Edward Gorey to Tim Burton to Czech stop-motion animation. A blind janitor, face obscured by peeled-off skin, stretches his creepy long arms across multiple screens as he feels around for escaped children. A disgustingly obese chef, nothing but quivering body fat, lumbers after his prey. The tension of escaping these monstrosities is palpable across Little Nightmares, and its imagery remains potent long after the ferocious climax. Aston

Amnesia: the Dark Descent

18. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)

In late August 1839, young Daniel awakens in a castle, with no memory of his past or how he got there. All he knows is his name, that he comes from London, and that something is hunting him. The only clue to his unlucky fate is a handwritten note, telling him he must descend into the castle’s inner sanctum to murder a man he’s never met, while being pursued by monsters that may or may not exist. While the bulk of modern horror games rely on startling us with cheap jump scares and loud noises, Amnesia: The Dark Descent doesn’t even allow players to see its bestiary; any time a creature is on screen, our point of view distorts, the monsters too disturbing to be perceived. Utilizing an impressive soundscape, the game further stokes our paranoia, with the creeping sounds of something always just out of view. Amnesia is a game that takes full advantage of the medium to not only tell a story, but to make one feel a man’s loss of sanity. Aston

Until Dawn

17. Until Dawn (2015)

I was devastated when, near the end of Until Dawn, I lost Sam. The refreshingly level-headed young woman provided a much-needed moral and emotional counterweight to the constant bickering and scheming by the rest of the gang blockaded in the game’s besieged mountain lodge. Yet, going back for another crack at saving her was never an option. For all of the trite, unsophisticated mechanics—a simplistic QTE here, a binary branching path there—forced by Supermassive upon their teen slasher in an obvious effort to keep fingers as busy as eyes and ears, their one crucial decision is both brave and brilliantly effective: refusing the player’s prerogative to a second attempt. Ever so often, it’s the cheapness of the reload that lowers the stakes and kills off immersion, especially in more narrative-driven games. Until Dawn works as effectively as a Scream marathon not because of its jump scares; these just punctuate the constantly rising tension produced by the awareness that a momentary lapse of concentration, a single mispress (your lapse, your mispress) can unceremoniously, and irreversibly, terminate a character you’ve grown fond of. It also serves as a reality check to horror fans blaming the body count on the mind-boggling stupidity of implausible characters. The blood on your thumbs means you’ll never be as haughty shouting advice to panicky teenagers at the screen again. Alexander Chatziioannou

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

16. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1991)

In line with its predecessors, Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, this 1991 SNES classic imposes a horrific rulebook on an audience that’s accustomed to fairer winning conditions: All of the game’s highly challenging levels have to be completed at least twice for the player to even have an opportunity to face the last demon and taste the relief of victory. Until that fateful moment when the final evil has been beaten, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts dementedly toys with our stress levels by parading out macabre and tormenting obstacles, from ghouls that leave their unearthed coffins amid dramatic tectonic shifts to a vicious sea that rises to and falls from ridiculous heights as you stand on a pathetically small raft. Through sights like our hero, Arthur, losing his armor and abruptly having to run around in his underwear—a campy reference to the common nightmare where one’s sudden loss of clothes leads to embarrassment and shame—this intimidating work continually gives you the sensation of spiraling toward doom. Pressgrove

Yume Nikki

15. Yume Nikki (2004)

Madotsuki never leaves her apartment anymore, which means there’s little to do in Yume Nikki but sleep. And the horror of the game lies in how sleep really does feel like an escape sometimes; her dreams are so much more open, so much more colorful. The worlds loop endlessly, a lot of abstract backgrounds against ambiguously symbolic shapes. In a medium that so frequently gives itself over to dream sequences, Yume Nikki is one of the few games that may truly be considered dreamlike for its oblique locales that seem to lead everywhere and nowhere at once, to little apparent logic. Madotsuki wanders near-aimlessly, the imagery growing quietly more disturbing as it patiently lingers: the candles, the hands, the eyeballs, the body in the road, the face you might see when you turn out the light. Never truly explained, Yume Nikki captures what it means to feel lost, as well as the reticence of finding yourself again. Scaife


14. Oxenfree (2016)

The teens of Oxenfree all have histories, and so does the spooky island where they’re trapped. And whatever that history is, it’s ripping holes in the fabric of reality, causing events to repeat and people to act unlike themselves. Through its rich characterization and poignant exploration of loss, Oxenfree already elevates what sounds like an all-too-familiar premise, but the innovative dialogue system is what truly sets it apart. While walking around, protagonist Alex chooses her dialogue responses (or lack thereof), even interrupting people outright for some of the most natural, free-flowing conversations the medium has yet seen. Through this system, Oxenfree foregrounds its focus on character interaction in ways that many other games leave to an afterthought, drawing you further into their relationships as well as their desperation. Scaife

Condemned: Criminal Origins

13. Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005)

Though the multitude of run-down buildings in Condemned: Criminal Origins give the game its namesake, they’re not what makes the experience so disturbing. They certainly don’t help, with their low light and dark corners that always seem to conceal some awful secret. Rather, the most disturbing thing here is what you do to everyone inside, to these homeless people driven inexplicably insane by some outside force. Bestowed with the dubious authority of an F.B.I. badge and the desire to clear your name of false murder charges, you flail around with whatever is on hand: pipes, wood, broken signs, the butt of a pistol. One thing is as good as another for caving in someone’s skull while you hunt for some elusive serial killer. There’s no glamor in it, no graceful combos to turn this nasty business into an abstracted dance. There’s only you, scuffling around in the dark against the deep-seated phobias and insecurities of the human soul, feeling the tendrils of moral decay and deluding yourself into believing you can pull them out with your bare hands. Scaife


12. Inside (2016)

Anyone who begrudged Limbo for its noose-tight scripting and affinity for the macabre will find little recompense here, as Inside offers few opportunities to go off its beaten two-dimensional path, and most of those terminate with the child you control dying in increasingly grisly ways. When looking back on a game like this one, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to break it down to its most shocking scenes—a hotel sign here, a spider there. Many will flock to the web shortly after the credits roll to discuss these moments, anxious for someone to tell them what they all means. But while those set pieces certainly leave an impression (like the final one, which is as close to a statement of intent as Playdead will likely ever allow themselves), focusing on them alone does the rest of the game a serious disservice. Like Limbo, Inside is one of the few video games that reaches the level of allegory. What that means exactly is up to you, and one must play it first to find out. Steven Wright

Left 4 Dead 2

11. Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)

What sets Left 4 Dead 2 apart from similar first-person shooters is its core ethos of co-operative gameplay: If you don’t work with your three partners, you’re toast. You and three other survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic must fight against the hordes of the undead that now reside where America’s middle class once thrived. The game’s manic zombies (shades of 28 Days Later) will quickly overwhelm your team, though you’ll frequently encounter creatively grotesque “special” zombies that present unique threats like trapping and dragging individual players away from the group, or blinding players unlucky enough to be vomited on. Left 4 Dead 2 immerses you intently into its world by way of thrilling gameplay, character dialogue, and environmental storytelling, punctuated with rich detail and world building (will the plight of Chicago Ted ever be resolved?). Custom campaigns and add-ons made the game endlessly replayable, enforcing its status as a modern classic. Aston


10. Devotion (2019)

Building from their prior creep-out, Detention, Taiwan-based developer Red Candle Games’s foray into first-person horror with Devotion is even more awash in cultural specificity. Set mainly in a wondrously detailed Taipei apartment, the game traces the evolution of that small space over time. Its furniture, photos, and decorative trinkets change places through the years, from the birth of a child to the growing rift of a marriage. Though it deploys Taiwanese folklore to restrained yet truly frightening effect, you don’t have to be familiar with the culture to be unnerved at how precisely Red Candle calibrates an eerie dreamspace. The developers morph the everyday detail of something like Gone Home into an absorbing nightmare of spatial trickery, with themes of subjugation and ambition that feel as universal as its various frights. That the game will perhaps forever be associated with the censorship that saw it removed from sale due to pressure from the Chinese government is unfortunate, because it’s a vital work of East Asian horror in its own right. Scaife

The Binding of Isaac

9. The Binding of Isaac (2011)

Two titles are more responsible than any other for turning these last few years of gaming into the era of roguelikes. If Derek Yu’s Spelunky is the indisputable prodigy, the preppy Ivy League candidate parents love to show off to neighbors, then Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is the problem child, the surly metalhead most likely to snub the guests and stay in the garage smoking pot and listening to Slayer. It’s a game sprinkled with visual references to terminal illness, substance abuse, abortion, religious fanaticism, and matricide—one where digging into sunflower-colored turds can net you some cool treasure and passing gas is a viable mode of offense. Yet the core mechanics operating behind this repulsive and fascinating façade are no less impeccably engineered than Spelunky’s. Chatziioannou


8. SOMA (2015)

Perhaps no other game on this list is as flawed as SOMA: A redundant first act, a collection of laughably inept enemies, and an array of technical issues congeal into a rather unfavorable first impression. Still, as everyman Simon Jarrett descends into the depths of a seemingly empty underwater research base, forced unease is gradually replaced by silent awe at the haunting beauty of this new environment and the journey expands inwardly to reflect his own growing self-awareness. The whole process stands as a metaphor for something that becomes clear soon enough. But just like our oblivious protagonist, we’re too busy disregarding the piling evidence, even while too fascinated to abandon a quest that will inevitably lead us to the truth that already resonates in the scale, the emptiness, the sheer unfathomable fortitude of an alien world utterly indifferent to our existence. There’s no god waiting at the end of Simon’s dark night of the soul, only a simple, unbearable realization on the nature of being. That, and the darkest, most shocking twist in recent memory on any medium. Be patient with its faults and grateful for its cruelty: SOMA will cleanse you. Chatziioannou


7. Bloodborne (2015)

Though always a shining example of artistry, level design, and tiny, beautiful, emergent moments of story waiting to be found out in the world, FromSoftware’s Souls series remains better known to most for its unforgiving difficulty than its accomplishments in world building. Bloodborne is an earnest, powerful attempt to change that. The essence of the series remains, with its deliberate (albeit slightly faster) approach to combat, brilliantly labyrinthine stages, and crowd-sourced help or hindrance composing the core of the experience. This time, however, the ruined, diseased world of Yharnam, the increasing psychotic delirium of its people, and the incredible fever-dream terrors around its every corner cannot be ignored. This is Lovecraft by way of old-school Cronenbergian body horror, a place that will consistently, effectively distress and disturb with just as equal measure as it will consistently and effectively kill you. Yharnam is a place where you can witness every friend and enemy desperately praying to God, and the game takes a vicious glee in pointing out that this deity is on the wrong side. The term “survival horror” will never be more accurate for another game than it is for Bloodborne. Justin Clark

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

6. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is about confronting our own powerlessness. You come to know people and places with an intimacy that few video games can claim, and you especially come to know your continued failure to save them. The moon obliterates the town of Termina again and again, and the people gaze upward to accept their fate as Link looks on, caught in the cycle of his own defeat. You can intervene and provide brief moments of respite by beating side quests, but the people never step out of line on their march to inevitable death. The small victories are just that: small in the face of what’s to come. You must eventually play the ocarina to restart the time loop, and you must eventually watch those victories evaporate as you move incrementally forward, powerless to save them all. Though you finally come to the solution and break the time loop to save the world and its people, you accomplish this only after so many failures, only after seeing death through the eyes of so many. Scaife


5. Anatomy (2016)

As you walk around a dark house listening to tapes, Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy taps into an instinctual, almost childlike terror. It locates that long-ago feeling where you wake up in the middle of the night and stumble to the bathroom as quick as you possibly can, eyes forward, trying not to think about the darkness around you. The game hisses into your ear that nowhere is safe, escalating its glitchy imagery until the smallest abstractions give way to something truly frightening, a gut-level unease that rattles your soul. On-screen messages ominously alert you to where tapes are located until the words grow distorted, until the house itself seems to warp unnaturally around recorded messages that deteriorate as they play. Everything about Anatomy burrows into your head: the devices that won’t shut off, the sweating meat thing, the windows that aren’t there, the gnarled textures and the grotesque portraits. This house has teeth. Scaife


4. Doom (1993)

An ominous metal riff immediately trumpets a distinctive brand of intensity in the first level of id Software’s Doom. From there, the game more than lives up to the implications of its title, as the player wades through cold corridors, battles demon-corrupted human bodies, and sprints across deadly ooze. With loads of secret rooms containing precious items, Doom also welcomes you to comb an environment that seems alive, especially when you, after being lulled into complacency by the allure of an empty area, become the victim of abrupt and devilish traps, like an entire wall that slides down to unleash a menagerie of aggressive demons behind you. Because you can only aim straight ahead with a gun or chainsaw, the game forces you to take advantage of the protagonist’s running and strafing abilities, but the speed of your movement can be as discombobulating as it is enlivening. All of these aspects, more so than the game’s graphic violence, cement Doom as a horror masterpiece that transcends the first-person shooter label. Pressgrove

Pathologic 2

3. Pathologic 2 (2019)

Pathologic 2 is a hand around your throat. Few games have so vividly bottled despair and desperation, asking you to cast aside any and all preconceptions about what to value in a video game as you examine what you’re willing to hoard and what to peddle to save your skin. And fewer still do it with such overpowering, nightmarish style, at once theatrical and dreamlike. To be sure, the game, from the Russian-based Ice-Pick Lodge, requires some getting used to, but with the difficulty modifiers added since its initial release, the only real obstacle toward learning the nuances of its world have fallen away; the modifiers make it much easier to get into the game, without compromising the sense of place or misery. Pathologic 2 is a game built to cut you open and show you your soul, brimming with so many thrilling turns away from traditional game design that if it doesn’t become an instructive text, the medium will only be poorer for it. Scaife

Silent Hill 2

2. Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Silent Hill 2 is a game about grief. The story is simple: A widower is drawn toward the eponymous town after he receives a letter from his dead wife, who asks that he meet her in their “special place,” a hotel off the shore. In Silent Hill he finds terrible things: monsters, demons, all glimpsed hazily through a shroud of impenetrable fog. But worst of all he finds the truth. This isn’t a game about battling creatures or solving puzzles; those elements hang in the background like the ornamentation of a bad dream. In Silent Hill 2, you find yourself asleep, and the game is about needing to wake up. Calum Marsh

Resident Evil 4

1. Resident Evil 4 (2005)

In Resident Evil 4, your mission to save the president’s daughter from kidnappers quickly goes south, stranding you in a rural village surrounded by crazed villagers infected with something very, very bad. The game offers no guidance as to how to react or escape, leaving you in a state of anxiety as Leon Kennedy attempts to flee only to be quickly cornered and overcome. The series’s transition here from the stationary camera of the previous games to a fully 3D environment was a major step forward for third-person action games, but the sense of uncertainty that wracks the player throughout the lengthy narrative, of being made the center of a horrific, frenzied nightmare, is what made this game one of the most profoundly discomfiting experiences video games have ever seen. Aston

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The 10 Best Albums of 1984

Next Story

Review: Nioh 2 Frustratingly Fights Against Its Own Framework