So I wrote a piece for Gameranx called Top 25 Horror Games of All Time. Not the most enthralling piece I’ve written, but then that isn’t the purpose of top x lists. I was given the assignment from my editor there and I managed to get it out in about 12 hours. It got lost in the shuffle so it was published about a month after I wrote it. But that is not why I mention it. I mention it because I wrote it, but I’m going to keep going on about it because when I was writing it, it brought to mind things I’d like to talk about. And since Gameranx is a more mainstream news/features publication the comment section isn’t a fit place to hash out these thoughts.
Of course it could be that I spend too much time and energy thinking about things that generally don’t deserve the amount or level of thought I put into them. On the other hand if that weren’t the case I would not be talking about video games at all.
Ignoring the supposed meaning of numerical ranks, I’m more interested in what I included and why. I could have just put 25 “scary” games in a list and left it at that. But I did research. I went out and found games that were left by the wayside in earlier generations and some I had outright never heard of. The research portion probably took more time than it did to write the thing multiple times over. The thing is, I was looking for games that were Horror games and not games with horror trappings. Games that scare and not startle as it were. (I hadn’t played everything on the list, but I think I can safely say thre are no top x list that calls itself of “all time” where the writer has played them all.) So I measured what was unnerving through the writing of what others had to say and some video of gameplay. Of course I used my own judgment on those that I have played.
In the comments people, for the most part, only list games I missed. But it’s an odd conundrum that by adding one you have to take one away. There are a finite number of slots and no one ever says this game or the other doesn’t deserve to be on the list. Other function of the top X list is that it can reveal titles people might not have heard of before and expose them to a new experience they might not have otherwise had. Of course that may be me being too hopeful. Still if you recommend a game to add I feel it only further enlightening to a discussion to say which does not deserve to be there. Then you get into a discussion of relative merit between games and why one meets certain conditions better than the other.
As I wrote in the piece :
Many games have scary elements in them, but then there are the games whose sole purpose is send paralyzing shivers down your spine. The games that stick with you long after you’ve turned your console or computer off and when you do coat you with an inescapable dread.
I also tried to convey in the short space I had what made the games truly scary. I don’t feel I succeeded on that point completely. Of course I’m not happy with the list, but then it’s a list and it could never really be final.
Undying, Phantasmagoria, Gabriel Knight and Bioshock all got mentioned. Two with question marks. I didn’t find Bioshock to be that scary a game. It had scary moments in it, but they were points that made you jump and weren’t elements that stood out. As the game went on, those elements seemed to disappear and over time you got used to Rapture itself, so it didn’t scare you either. I feel this has to be mentioned, because I placed System Shock 2 so high on the list. I put it on the list for two reasons. One, there was only one other example of tech horror on the list and I felt it was an under represented genre. Second, there’s something about the loss of free will and an oppression so thorough that even your resistance is not only planned for, but dictated by your oppressor that I find terrifying. The idea that nothing you do matters. Bioshock has many of the same executable tropes as System Shock 2, but the philosophical focus is on something different even with the lose of free will in there as a plot point. In essence I find System Shock 2 scary and not Bioshock.
Undying was a game I considered, but ultimately it was gore and horror tropes, but not actually scary in its own right. That was the problem with a lot of games. I didn’t want to put Dead Space on the list at all for that reason, but I knew I’d hear it if I didn’t. But Dead Space did do something in the cannon of video games that is over looked when it comes to explaining it’s scariness. Undermining expectations in dangerous situations is a staple of the horror genre and now that it is a franchise it is lost on us, but the original undermined what 20 years of gaming had taught us about shooting enemies, to go for the headshot. Now we all know and understand that you have to shoot the limbs off to kill the necromorphs, but at the time undermining the convention took some getting used to and that combined with the other elements made the game horrific.
I had heard of Gabriel Knight, but knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know it was a horror title. And as for Phantasmagoria, I saw it and disregard it for some reason. Probably space constraints. Or maybe it sounded too silly to be really scary.
There were many games that pop up in top horror game lists that I don’t understand completely. Portal, while yes could be classified as tech horror isn’t scary to me. It’s a monster story and a straight up monster story isn’t that scary. Plus, I never felt in danger other than the stupid green water pits. Resident Evil 4 isn’t scary either. Yes it’s a well made, well polished game, but it isn’t horror. There is nothing scary about it. It is a grotesque action game with enemies that occasionally sprout strange appendages. It’s not so much the agency the game affords me, but that it’s too competent with the agency that the danger is changed from a survival focus to a competition against the computer. It’s setting is also far too bright. All three of the major locals are horror trope settings: the isolated village, the Gothic castle and the abandoned laboratory. But they were backdrops, they weren’t places.
I bring this up because two other games handle the same sort of idea towards agency and resource availability but are actually scary. Condemned: Criminal Origins and F.E.A.R. both manage to be scarier than Resident Evil 4 by a wide margin. Both games are darker and give a much scarier feel. The shadows and unknown are a big part of the uneasy feeling they reproduce and these are settings that are otherwise familiar and would not be scary under more normal circumstances. They don’t get the advantage of the unknown, of the other that we do not experience in our day to day lives. Everyone has been in an office building or a narrow alleyway or a house. Not everyone lives or works in a Gothic castle. Again I think it’s the undermining that works to their advantage. F.E.A.R. give you far more destructive power than Resident Evil 4 as a FPS and during normal gameplay this isn’t an issue, it’s when you enter the nightmare that all your abilities are for naught. When that scary little girl shows up and the walls start bleeding there’s not a whole lot you can do. Condemned gives us the first person perspective, but makes us use melee combat that is so visceral you can feel every blow you take and dish out. Also, it upends the familiar and sends shivers down your spine by presenting the unnatural and terrifying in a house like YOURS. If you play in the dark the doubles the terror once you pack it in for the night.
I also want to mention Rule of Rose and Haunting Grounds as two games that are terrifying not because of any supernatural or extranatural events and they’re only about people, not monsters or ghosts, being horrible to you. There is something I find profoundly disturbing. Were they more polished (and I don’t just mean graphics) that allowed them to be more detailed and exacting in their representations I think I would have regarded them much higher.
Most of the games have some fantastical element to them, either in the supernatural, technological or psychological. It seems to be a running theme. Another running theme was the use of amnesia in the main protagonist. It is a form of helplessness that grants the player and character the same amount of knowledge and lends a bit of vulnerability to them. But it was getting ridiculous by the time I got the top 5. Quite a few of the games were adventure titles and there were quite a few more that I didn’t include. Nearly half the top 10 were Lovecraft inspired. And Silent Hill got three nods for three entirely different reasons.
I know arguing about numbers and positions is pointless and a fruitless activity and I probably have put more thought into it than it deserves. (The above is only a smattering of my considerations when writing it.) But I’d like to be challenged on it here. Garner some debate as to what makes particular titles more successful at being true horror than others. Was there some skewing in my choices, in what I value in horror in the list? What do feel I left off the list and why? What would you take off to replace it? History and being the first at something didn’t matter as much to me in some cases, but should it? That’s a discussion I’d really like to have.