Alone, frightened, vulnerable. Horror games pull on every available human emotion to offer players the most intimate, haunting and atmospheric of experiences; experiences that only the survival horror genre could provide so incredibly well. While a large percentage of the video game community would argue that the genre has seen better days; the last 26 years have provided us with some truly great games to feast upon.
Whether we’re hiding out in the safe confines of a locker, trembling with fear beneath an old grotty mattress or simply flicking a light switch on and off to see what’s lurking out in the darkness; these titles are the pinnacle of modern day horror in video games and a major influence on what is yet to come in the future. So what makes a horror game so intense, so terrifying? They beckon us to explore our inner fears, to leave our comfort zone if even for just a few seconds before desperately sprinting back to the safety of that cold locker. They often hand us no weapons with which to fight our enemy, leaving us to rely on the ability to adapt to our environment, to remember if it was a left turn at the end of this grimy corridor or a right. They often give us no chance, no hope of survival, they want to pull and push us to our very limits, leaving us tilting on the brink of insanity. They are truly influential, pivotal to the survival of the genre and deserve to be recognised as such.
In a world where first-person shooters and role-playing games rule the financial roost of the industry, a few notable games arrive from a genre that longs to have its feet under the industries dining table. The following 9 games influenced others while terrifying us out of our tiny little minds.
Silent Hill 2 
When developing a horror game atmosphere is fundamental to its future success, without an eerie overtone, a horror game simply lacks a certain defining quality. Creating open mysterious areas of exploration capable of toying with the player’s mind was key to the very success of Silent Hill 2, a game whose development began back in 1999 before its release in 2001. KONAMI focused its attention on presenting players with endless roads and alleyways filled with a claustrophobic fog that would betray players minds, leading them to wander off course lost and confused with the town’s monsters waiting to strike. The combination of grained dreary visuals with unforgettable pieces of audio such as the endless crackle of a radio that would produce horrid static sounds whenever protagonist James Sunderland was in the vicinity of monsters, all came together to give Silent Hill 2 one of the most unforgettable and unsettling atmospheres in video games since the turn of the century, and that’s before we even meet Pyramid Head or psychotic nurses.
When you think of unsettling environments or settings for video games, one doesn’t quite strike fear through the majority of hearts like an insane asylum can. Mount Massive Asylum, Outlast‘s setting boasts constrict hallways and rooms that form the perfect surroundings for the terror that awaited reporter Miles Upshur upon the poor soul’s arrival at Mount Massive. From the off, Outlast restricts players to only a handheld camera for company, which could only be operated with the use of batteries and the cameras night vision capabilities to see the horrors that lie within. Much like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Red Barrels removed the ability to fight back against the game’s unforgiving enemies, forcing players to sneak, hide and sprint their way to freedom. By taking away any form of defence, the developer left players in a constant struggle for their lives, which only added to the intimate experience. Suffice to say we can’t wait for the arrival of Outlast 2 in 2017.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent 
Frictional Games’ Penumbra series enjoyed a bit of a cult following and acclaim due to their reliance on stealth and evasion rather than combat and use of physics puzzles, but it was with Amnesia: The Dark Descent that they’ve enjoyed widespread success. Amnesia was nothing short of a renaissance for the horror video game genre, showing that one could deliver a meaningful nonstandard experience and enjoy critical and financial success by crafting a game well. Drawing inspiration from old school horror such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula in terms of atmosphere and adding some Lovecraftian themes in the mix while removing the combat entirely, Frictional have managed to force players out of their comfort zones by punishing staying in the darkness for too long as well as wallowing in the light and drawing fear from tension and suspense rather than jump scares. Amnesia: The Descent is a masterstroke of horror development, with many studios looking to retrace its formula, even today.
Dead Space 
Electronic Arts aren’t exactly well know for delving into the horror genre, however back in 2011 all that changed thanks to troubled protagonist Issac Clarke and the sheer unrelenting terror that awaited the engineer and any soul brave enough to step aboard the infamous ghost ship – USG Ishimura. Dead Space represented both a commercial and critic success post release. A new dawn of horror for the mainstream gamer as players fended off horrible Necromorphs and other mutated monsters aboard the ill-fated ship. EA Redwood Shores had successfully developed a disturbing, nail-biting experience drenched in an intense atmosphere that left players continually on edge, yet always wanting more. Unlike, Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent before it; Dead Space offered players the chance to fight back against the inevitable onslaught of terrifying mutated enemies with creative weapons such as rotary saw and plasma cutter, allowing them to dismember and turn would-be attackers into pools of red mush on the floor, rather them than us right? Dead Space garnered many awards for its excellent audio and vision after its release, and while other games in the series fail to reach the standard of the original, the series remains synonymous with the survival horror genre.
Five Nights at Freddy’s [2014-]
Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria isn’t the idea workplace environment for any would-be employee, the place crawling with animatronic characters that spring to life the moment the food joint’s doors close for the night. The mastermind of developer Scott Cawthon, Five Nights at Freddy‘s invites players to survive until 6AM, for the duration of five nights plus the extra night or two, and all for a ridiculously low wage packet, a win-win situation for most players right? The game that spawned an entire series and endless “Let’s Play” videos saw players trapped inside a security room with limited power, no real form of movement other than to turn on light switches, close and open doors and a direct feed to the establishment’s cameras.
Surviving the night as each character begins to slowly shift from their resting place in a bid to kill the player makes Five Nights at Freddy‘s one of the most intense indie games on the market today. To survive each night requires power, a source that drains alarmingly fast as players use its resources to keep track of every character, preventing them from entering the small security booth. Five Nights at Freddy‘s boasts a clever design scheme, utilising so little in order to create some big jump scares. The lack of any sounds adds to the game’s already palpable tension as players slowly trudge head towards 6AM, praying for the power to last a few seconds longer.
Until Dawn 
Not as intent on fraying the nerves of the players through scares or anticipation, but rather through bombarding them with do-or-die lightning reflex quick time events during frantic action sequences, Supermassive’s Until Dawn might just be the next evolution of cinematic horror. Taking a page from David Cage’s playbook of interactive movies and modelled after games like Heavy Rain, Until Dawn offered the slasher movie experience in a video game with all the tropes and archetypes one might expect, and a bit of a self-aware meta-humor to boot. The end result was a thoroughly enjoyable experience with dozens of possible variations based on choices made by the player along the way as the characters lived or died at their behest.
Alan Wake 
Remedy’s first attempt at a full-length survival horror game still bears their hallmark style of not taking things 100% seriously, as the dark tale of a troubled writer’s darkest fears coming to life is peppered with enjoyable comic relief characters and easter eggs that help to flesh out the world. A remarkable blend of Stephen King tropes set in a Twin Peaks homage, Alan Wake is the kind of compelling horror game that makes one need to binge. Its most interesting feature was using light as a weapon to weaken enemies, making them vulnerable to the precious few firearm rounds you’d find along the way. Well-written, well-executed, good-looking and thoroughly enjoyable to boot, Alan Wake is one of the gems of the previous generation of video games.
Resident Evil 4 
Resident Evil became a staple of the survival horror genre when Capcom’s zombie-filled franchise first began in 1996 and whilst Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil remains one of the linchpins of horror gaming even today, it was 2005’s Resident Evil 4 that elevated the popular series to new heights. Despite its numerous development troubles, most notably being cancelled and restarted from scratch on multiple occasions, 2005’s entry will go down in survival horror history for being one of the greatest video games ever made, and for many reasons. Resident Evil 4 had the perfect setting, swapping out the zombie filled Spencer mansion in America for rural Europe with an atmosphere few could emulate. Resident Evil 4‘s opening 10 minutes build up tension so excellently that not even a knife could pierce through it exterior.
Capcom also introduced an over the shoulder camera perspective for Res4 which only heightened player fears as Leon embarks on a search for the President’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious Cult. The very addition of an over the shoulder camera not only aided how we viewed the game but also vastly improved its controls, with players now able to aim properly to get that all important shot off on an incoming enemy, Resident Evil 4 revolutionised the way we would play horror games moving forward. Its perfectly weighted and constructed plotline successfully drew players in as Leon pushed further into the belly of the beast, encountering a large variance of monsters ranging from insane pitchfork wielding villagers to chainsaw-wielding maniacs to large-scale El Gigante and a whole bunch of crazed cultists all baying for Leon S. Kennedy’s blood. Resident Evil 4 remains a fantastic game. Roll on January 24th, 2017.
Slender: The Arrival 
The breakout success of Slender: The Eight Pages was for the better part down to the faceless horror in a suit that stalked players as they attempt to retrieve 8 pieces of white paper in a deep and darkened forest. Despite being a free-to-play beta, Slender: The Eight Pages was a unanimous success after its release in 2012 for PC and spawned a sequel of sorts with Slender: The Arrival in 2013. The creation of Something Awful, Mark J. Hadley and Parsec Productions took on new life under the guidance of Blue Isle Studios who took The Eight Pages and attempted to further flesh out gameplay for a longer experience.
Slender: The Arrival received a mixed to positive reception after its release for PC and then consoles in 2013/14 but Blue Isle Studios unquestionably succeeded in creating a tense and harrowing atmosphere as players armed with nothing but a flashlight took on the role of Lauren, a woman searching for her friend Kate after her mysterious disappearance. Constructed in a similar vein to The Eight Pages, players wander the game’s environments while being continually stalked by the faceless man in a black suit, known to have kidnapped many children in the area. At times, The Arrival‘s atmosphere borders on frantic and frenzied as players hurriedly rush to collect 8 pages throughout Oakside Park or retrieve red gas canisters while under constant attack to power generators in order to operate an elevator and finally escape. Sadly for all the good things it does right with its brilliant soundtrack, constant scares and tension-packed atmosphere, Slender: The Arrival did not overly extend its predecessor, leaving fans wanting a far longer experience.
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