The Greatest Story-Driven Horror Games of All Time
Jump scares are for lightweights, gore is mere child’s play: the true horror aficionado knows that it’s in the telling of a story that a masterwork is separated from the mere also-rans. So saying, this list looks at six of the greatest story-driven horror titles in gaming history. These games have been chosen not only for how much they manage to scare on a moment-to-moment basis, but also for their ability to move players with their overarching narrative.
6. Silent Hill 4: The Room
Putting Silent Hill 4 in any ‘Top X’ list is always something of a controversial move. The marmite entry of Team Silent’s original quartet, the game’s noticeable departure from its predecessors makes it a love it or loathe it affair for many fans. Not helping it are some of the game’s design choices, from its copious backtracking to its unkillable ghosts and interminable escort quests. Yet for all that, Silent Hill 4 remains a case study in highly effective horror writing. It’s a great example of creating horror through subversion, taking somewhere where we should feel safest – our own home – and making it progressively more disturbing and outré. And when we finally find out what’s so special about Henry’s flat? Shudder.
Nothing any horror practitioner can conjure up is so dark as humanity’s own history. Detention is a 2D survival horror title released in 2015, and the first game developed by Taiwanese Studio Red Candle Games. The game follows Wei and Fang, two students who find themselves trapped in their local high school at night. Set during the oppressive era of Taiwan’s White Terror, the game takes an unflinching look at the cruelty inflicted on the country by the ruling KMT party. Telling its tale through the narrative of its young protagonist, Detention stands as a compelling example of how games can and should engage with real-world horrors.
4. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
While many often point to Amnesia: The Dark Descent for its popularising of the defenseless first person horror subgenre, its own sequel rarely gets as much attention. This is a shame because the story it tells is a devastating one in all senses of the word. More than its dimly lit factory corridors and porcine abominations, it’s the game’s final revelation that really hits home, delivering in one expertly crafted sequence both a searing indictment of the modern world‘s hubristic notion of progress and a mourning of humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil towards itself. Of course, it also helps that the rest of the game will keep you in a cold fear throughout.
Several years after releasing Detention, Red Candle once again showed themselves to be modern masters of horror with Devotion. In it, players take control of struggling father and screenwriter Du Feng-Yu, exploring his apartment as they try to piece together the story of his family’s tragic collapse. As moving as it is terrifying, the game tells a deeply personal story while also looking at modern Taiwan’s notorious problem with cults and other pseudo-religious organizations. The game had an extremely rocky original release after an easter egg mocking China’s dictatorial leader Xi Jinping prompted a fierce backlash that sent digital distributors scurrying to drop it. Fortunately, the game can be purchased from Red Candle’s website directly, and is more than worth the time of anyone who knows that pathos is a key element of good horror (or who just want to retroactively stick it to the CCP.)
2. Telltale’s The Walking Dead
Despite the zombie genre’s ongoing oversaturation, Telltale’s take on surviving the undead apocalypse still stands out as a masterclass in character-based storytelling. With smart dialogue, sympathetic characters, and harrowing choices, The Walking Dead reminds us that it’s the human element that’s the beating heart of the zombie story. While it sometimes felt a bit cheap to realize upon replaying that some decisions weren’t actually as impactful as they seemed, going through it for the first time is an emotional rollercoaster virtually without peer. And Kenny; here’s to you, man.
1. Silent Hill 2
It should come as a surprise to no one that even after 21 years Silent Hill 2 would still be at the top of a list like this. Never before or since has every element of a horror game – from the music to the environment, to the enemy design – come together so comprehensively to create an experience that tells its story as much through the atmosphere as dialogue and writing. James Sunderland’s hellish journey through the fog-laded streets of Silent Hill proves to be not just the stuff of nightmares, but also an achingly poignant tale about universal aspects of the human condition; love, loss, desire, grief, and remorse. Other horror games may come and go, but in our restless dreams, we’ll always know who rules the roost when it comes to narrative horror.