We’ve always loved Halloween. Whether as a kid dressed up in a cheap, plastic Chewbacca costume to score candy, or as an adult dressing up as Slenderman in the front yard to scare the crap out of some kids, this season has always been a favorite of ours. One of the things we love to do most during the lead up to Halloween is to play some of our favorite spooky video games. Gaming has a long history of delivery shrieks and creaks, and the two of us have our own personal favorites, but we wanted to know what games other people liked to play late at night with the lights down low. So we asked some of our game developer friends to share their favorite fright fests with us.
Allen Murray (The Outer Worlds, Destiny) – DEAD SPACE
“To me, this game was such a delight to play. It captured the horror and paranoia of the original Alien, mixed with the occult – and not in a cheesy way that DOOM embraces – and combined with wonderfully constructed level design and art direction. You had jump scares, you had scenarios where you were horribly outmatched and had to run instead of stand your ground and the twist on shooter gameplay was inspired. After so much learned behavior from FPS games where headshots were critical, they flipped the script and made headshots some of the least lethal shots you could take. The lack of straightforward weaponry and instead forcing you to use a mish-mash of engineering tools to dismember horrific enemies was bloody fun.
Ultimately what I loved about this game was that it was focused. It stayed true to its roots and focused on really polished gameplay in a new setting. I still come back to it from time to time for design inspiration.”
Richard Rouse III (The Church in the Darkness, The Suffering) – SILENT HILL 2
“As you might imagine for the guy who designed and wrote The Suffering, I’m more a fan of horror games on the action side of the spectrum. Left 4 Dead is a great example of a game that can be pretty terrifying in the moment, but not because you don’t have firepower. The original BioShock is probably the most scary of that series, and I think people forget its gruesome scares. A favorite for me is the Splicer with the baby carriage who runs at you screaming “Baby and me, baby and me!” But of all the “not horror” scary first-person shooters, the original Half Life feels like it gets left out of these conversations far too often, just like Alien does on the film side. But how could a setting with a creature called a “Head Crab” not be considered horror? In addition to all the scary set pieces, I also love the feeling of unescapable oblivion that pervades the game’s backstory and plot. The fact that the tale of the Half Life episodes never got completed means they ended on a particularly sad note, making the story all the more its own kind of melancholy.
But when most people talk horror games they’re often referring to games that spend all their efforts purely on terrifying the player, and that usually involves them keeping the player weak. Among some modern picks, I’ve had some good scares in both SOMA and Dead Secret. Going back a bit farther, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth might be one of the more unsettling games that more people should check out. But I’ll have to go with a well-regarded classic for my favorite weak-protagonist horror game: Silent Hill 2. Playing that game on the PS2, it was the perfect use of that hardware, with effective rendering techniques that turned graphical limitations into a distinctive style, including that thick, super-close-in fog that the creatures kept shambling out of. Not only was the game good at scaring you, but worse still was looking into what those twisted creatures represented. Who could ever forget Pyramid Head?”
Mike Mika (#IDARB) – MONSTER BASH
“Halloween is my favorite holiday, hands down. I get nostalgic for Ben Cooper masks, Scar Stuff makeup, and plastic vampire teeth. I can talk for hours about the pioneering horror films of Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Of which BOTH films had Atari 2600 adaptations), but it’s the classic horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein that lie at the foundation of my obsession. That’s why my favorite “scary” game is Monster Bash by Sega, an arcade game I discovered on a chance visit to a local mall when I was ten years old.
The game consists of three levels, the first takes place in a castle. You must light several candles to activate a magic sword while avoiding bats and the granddaddy of all vampires, Count Dracula himself. With sword in hand, Dracula retreats and you have a limited time to hunt him down and plunge the blade into him. The second level takes you to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, where you use the same strategy to defeat the Monster, only now you must also contend with a pack of ravenous werewolves. For the final stage, the game goes off script and introduces you to Chameleon Man, who can only be defeated by activating specific buttons that change the color of the background.
The game offers spooky sound effects and a haunting soundtrack, accompanied by very classic horror-inspired art and design. It also helped that my first encounter came on a brisk autumn day way back in 1983 when the leaves had turned and fallen and my little mind was filled with the irrational fears of monsters lurking about in my suburban utopia. My memory of it sits nicely in a small compartment of my brain next to the Fall Guy, Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica Halloween episodes. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.”
Sam Barlow (Telling Lies, Her Story) – ALIENS
“My favorite scary game, or at least the one that scared me the most was the Aliens game on the 8-bit Amstrad CPC. The whole game took place in the control room from the movie with you watching the video cameras of the marines as they explored the ship. You had to switch between the marines and issue orders, or directly control them. It was tense as all hell. Whenever an alien turned up, you’d hear the ping on the motion tracker and then have to jump to that marine and try and shoot the alien using very jerky crosshairs — you were likely to die.
If the game got too much — and it did! — you could pause which would close the blast doors over the screen and give you a moment’s respite. The game was a work of art and the frame of the control room clearly anticipated modern games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and even my own ‘desktop thriller’ games.”
Ian Milham (Dead Space, Battlefield: Hardline) – SILENT HILL
“I don’t know what lead to me playing Silent Hill. I must’ve bought it or someone must have loaned it to me, but honestly, I have no idea how it made it into my PlayStation. That itself is a horror trope, the artifact of mysterious origin that just shows up unannounced. I had been developing games for about three years by 1999 when it came out, and I think I was seeing what various 3D character control schemes were out there.
I didn’t feel much about it at first. Those controls were awkward, the graphics weren’t exactly convincing, and there wasn’t much story. But a while in, I found myself completely gripped by the mood of it. The controls and graphics were meaningless in the face of that fog, that radio hiss, and everything else that made up the unrelenting tension of Silent Hill.
Years later, when we were making Dead Space, I would remember how Silent Hill accomplished so much by being confident and letting the mood and tone do the work, and how powerful suggestion can be.”
Alex Beachum (Outer Wilds) – THE SWAPPER
“My favorite scary game is SkiFree, a 1991 game about our own looming mortality that was later echoed (to great effect) by the 2015 horror film It Follows. SkiFree lures you in with fresh powder and blues skies* before confronting you with the bleak reality of your situation: you are going to be devoured by an abominable snowman, and there is nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t matter how fast your slalom time is. It doesn’t matter how many jumps you land. Eventually, inevitably, your time is going to run out, and with that knowledge tugging at the back of your skull, what does it even mean to ski free?
*The game is presented from a top-down perspective, so this is somewhat speculative on my part.
And my actual favorite scary game is probably The Swapper, which is a puzzle platformer about the existential horror that arises from copying yourself. Soma (by Frictional Games) touches on very similar themes, but I really love how The Swapper’s core mechanic of self-duplication perfectly weaves into the horror of the narrative, to the point where I was almost too unsettled to use my copy ability towards the end of the game.”
Benjamin Rivers (Worse Than Death, Home) – SILENT HILL 2
“My favorite game of all time, period, is Silent Hill 2 — I still think it stands as the greatest horror game ever made. It deftly combines a personal plot, excellent gameplay, unparalleled atmosphere and sound design that still shines to this day. It’s also a lot more minimal than you might think — play it a few times and you realize how few sound effects it uses, how sparse the puzzles are, and how simple its structure is. But it’s orchestrated just right, which is why it’s left such a lasting impression.
The original Fatal Frame (on PS2 and Xbox) is also one of the best in the genre. It can be a little punishing at times, but its unique theme gives it a personality all its own, and its genuinely oppressive atmosphere is truly terrifying in a way none of its many sequels ever replicated. It extracts every bit of blood from the “haunted house” premise, and its progression unfolds like a beautiful, deadly flower.”