Sunday, July 4, 2010

Top 13: Best Horror Video Games

By Brian M. Sammons

As the resident game nerd here at The Black Glove, it falls to me to educate you all on the top thirteen horror games of all time. Not as easy a task as some of you might think. Horror games for me rarely horrify. The best you can hope for is either bloody fun, such as the LEFT 4 DEAD games which aren’t scary at all but damn fine zombie shooters, or creepy, moody, unease like the excellent SILENT HILL series. Very few games actually scare people, although some do, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them anyway. Just like the FRIDAY THE 13TH flicks, I never once found them scary, but God help me, I just can’t get enough of them. So with that little disclaimer out of the way, I’ll give you my picks for the best horror themed games ever, be they actually scary, fun, and just kick ass to play. Oh, and these games are listed in no particular order.

(1) ALONE IN THE DARK: this is the oldest game on the list and arguably one of the most influential. It singlehandedly gave birth to the Survival Horror genre. Ha, did you think RESIDENT EVIL was the first to do that? Wrong! It was AitD which beat RE by four years. While the graphics are, by today’s standards, laughably bad, all the Survival Horror staples are there; weird camera angles, third person 3D perspective, and stressing avoidance of combat whenever possible. This could be because this game was very heavily influenced on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and in Uncle Howie’s world, shooting monsters tends to just piss them off. So in a way, HPL is the source for most of the modern horror games out there. How cool is that?

Now the first ALONE game was Lovecraftian horror goodness to the extreme and easily makes my best of all time list. The game was fun from the get go, whether you were running from zombies, kicking the hell out of undying rat things, or reading books that will lift you into the air and snap your back like a twig (even the Necronomicon ain’t got nothing on that). However, all the following sequels are only but pale, pale, oh my God PALE shadows of the first one’s glory. The second game started off well enough, but then you ended up fighting pirate ghosts on an underground pirate ship straight out of THE GOONIES. Part three had you playing Cowboy and Indians and in one part you actually play a cougar who has to dip its paws into glue and powdered silver so you can have a scratch fight with a werewolf! No, I’m not kidding. There were two more games in the franchise, but they are so not noteworthy, that I’m not going to note them. And don’t even get me started on the Uwe Boll film of similar name. But if you ever get the chance to play this awesome, trend setting, HPL approved game then do yourself a favor and do it.

(2) RESIDENT EVIL: well since I mentioned this title in the previous game, I guess I’ll discuss it now. Let me be clear, I am not picking on RE, just stating the fact that it wasn’t the first Survival Horror game as many think it was. However it is a very good game and one with incredible staying power. To date there has been over two dozen RE games on every possible game platform imaginable, a series of novels and comic books, and a series of movies of varying quality , both animated and live action. That is a lot of stuff spawned from one pretty basic 3rd person zombie shooting game.

The frights in EVIL come from BOO! jump scares rather than mood or atmosphere. If you’ve played the original game all I have to say is “hallway” and “dogs” and I’m sure you know exactly what part of the game I’m talking about. The controls were, well pretty bad, and the acting, both voice over and a way cheesy live action intro, was so amazingly awful that it has actually reached cult status. While newer games in this series has improved the game mechanics and acting to some extent, none of them have reached the overall cool factor of the first gamer where you play a super cop exploring a creepy mansion chock full of booby traps, zombies, skinned Dobermans, giant spiders, and other cruel critters. The original RESIDENT EVIL is a great game and a classic worthy of that title.

(3) ALAN WAKE: From some of the oldest games to the newest, ALAN WAKE was a long time coming, over five years stuck in development hell, but boy was it worth the wait. Now I just wrote a chunky review for this game in last month’s Graphic Horror, and you can read it here. I will say this about ALAN here: if Stephen King, TWIN PEAKS and MAX PAYNE (the cool games, not the lame movie) all fell into a blender, this game would be the satisfying spooky smoothie that such a blending would make. If you have yet to play it, do so at once. Don’t have an Xbox 360 (as this game is an exclusive for the console)? Then buy one. Yeah, this game is that good.

(4) CLIVE BARKER’S UNDYING: another game with nods to H.P. Lovecraft (really, count how many make this list) and a heavy dose of Edgar Allen Poe, as seen through the rather twisted eyes of modern horror master, Clive Barker. In this first person shooter you play a 1920’s occult investigator named Patrick, a vet of the Great War with more than his share of ghosts haunting him. That alone gets this game some high marks from me. The number of games set in this era I can count on one hand. Oddly, two of those games make this list. In any event, Patrick travels to the Irish estate of his friend, Jeremiah Covenant. The ancient Covenant clan, much like Poe’s ill-fated Ushers, has more than its share or tragedies and secrets. Poor, bedridden Jeremiah is the last of his line and his not-so-dearly departed siblings are keen to drag him to their side of the grave. It is up to Patrick, with his familiarity of weapons and knowledge of arcane lore, to save the day.

UNDYING most relies on shocks to scare, but the jump scares are top notch and will make you jump a foot or more out of your seat. Additionally, the story is sufficiently twisted and warped as only Clive Barker can do it. While it is a bit more gothic than the usual Barker tale, there’s enough of his trademark touches to see his bloody fingerprints all over the finished game. One memorable monster is an artist who uses flesh and blood as his canvas, and the more warm and lively the canvas, the better. Now today the graphics are nothing to write home about, and the game mechanics, while pretty innovative at the time, has been redone and improved upon countless times. However, if you’ve never played this game, give it a shot. The creeps and the shocks are still damn effective.

(5) BIOSHOCK: While at first this may not seem like a horror game, and it’s not marketed as such, the first BIOSHOCK game had more creepy atmosphere and more shuddery moments than most games who claim to be frightening. And how could it not? It is set in an underwater city where something bad happened in the 1950s. Since then the place has been allowed to rust and rot, leak and flood. To make matters worse, it is populated by psychopaths who have become addicted to, and physically mutated by, a wonder drug called Adam. Now all these malformed murderers want to do is to kill you as painfully as possible so that they can suck the trace amounts of Adam out of your very veins. Few things get more terrifying than that.

What makes this first person shooter truly stand out is two things. First, it is gorgeous in its gruesomeness. The graphics are scalpel sharp and the use of light and shadow has rarely been better utilized in most films, let alone video games. The atmosphere of decay and madness is so think in the ironically named city of Rapture that you can chew on it. The other thing that makes this game one of the best games (as in all games, not just horror games) ever is the story. It is a solid, engaging, terrifying mystery that will surprise you on many occasions. I cannot say enough good things about this game. If you’ve never played it, do so at once. You are in for a treat. Even if you think games are silly and just “for kids” (despite the fact that the average gamer is 35) trust me; play this game if you can. You’ll love it. It’s as good as any movie or novel I’ve ever read. Yes, I mean that. This groundbreaking and very original game was followed by a fun and competent sequel, but sadly the story wasn’t as strong in it as it was in the first game. But damn, how could it be?

(6) ETERNAL DARKNESS: SANITY’S REQUIEM: This game came out for Nintendo’s “purple lunchbox”, better known as last generation’s Game Cube. Now maybe because of the system and who owned them, or maybe just because of poor marketing, but this game died a quick, unnoticed death. And that is a crying shame because it was AWESOME! Set firmly in the world H.P. Lovecraft created, although not specifically mention and of his alien gods or blasphemous tomes, you play as a series of characters, all linked by family bloodlines, spread over many different ages. This interesting and unique premise allows you to play a modern woman investigating the mysterious death of her beloved uncle, an ancient Roman centurion, and everything in between, including the dead uncle of the original girl. How cool is that?

The best thing about this game, in addition to well written story spanning thousands of years and non-too-subtle nods at Lovecraft, is the fact they while you play, your character will slowly start to go crazy. How this insanity affects you and your characters differs over time, but man is this effect used well. I won’t give any of crazy bits away, but at times you will honestly think that this game is messing with your head. ETERNAL DARKNESS is best played walking the fine line between sane and insane. It is a great game for any horror fan and a must play for acolytes of Lovecraft.

(7) THE SUFFERING: what’s more terrifying than getting sent to a maximum security prison for the brutal murder of your family, a crime you may or may not have committed? Well what if that prison was haunted by creepy monsters that were living embodiments of all the violet ways you can die within prison walls? Yeah, that would be scarier.

Essentially that’s the story behind this game, but just like Frankenstein, there is more here than the sum of its parts. The silly-named protagonist, Torque, in third-person-shooter play has to dodge some truly unique looking monsters and piece together his amnesiac memory to discover if he is, in fact, the murderer of his wife and child. Along the way there are plenty of jump scares, some creepy misdirection, and lots of good atmosphere, but the undisputed star of this game is the sound and audio design. No joke, this game sounds freaking scary! And if you play it in surround sound, as you really should, you will catch yourself looking over your should time and time again. Sinister whispers come from you left, insane cackling titters on your left, in front of you, behind a closed door, you hear some horrible thing shambling about, and then suddenly screams of bloody murder assail you from behind. Simply put, a game has never used sound to this amazing level before or even after this game. Easy on the eyes, if you like icky monsters, but a treat for your ears, THE SUFFERING is one not to be missed. While a second game in this series came out a year later called, THE SUFFERING: THE TIES THAT BIND it was only ok and nowhere near as good as the original.

(8) DEAD SPACE: this sci-fi horror third person shooter did nothing new, however everything it did, it did so expertly. Set in the far future, a mining vessel finds an alien artifact and then all hell, not literally, but close, breaks loose. You play not as a battle-hardened space marine but as a simple miner named Isaac Clark, who is forced to face the horrors of reanimated, mutated, alien things, while looking for the love of your life who is lost on the doomed spaceship. Through the majority of the game you are all alone with a handful of mining tools and lasers as your only defense against the monsters that are very hard to kill…or re-kill, as it were. Because of this, DEAD SPACE introduces the concept of “strategic dismemberment”. Just blasting away at a baddie is not enough, you must use your lasers and cutters to hack away at the things’ arms, legs, and heads in an attempt to immobilize the gibbering horrors before they can peel your face off and make lampshades out of it.

This game looks stunning, has an amazing sound design, is gorgeously gross and gory, has a great atmosphere of isolation and creeping dread, solid game mechanics, unique and truly frightening monsters (the first time you see the “babies” you will shudder), action packed boss battles, great characters, an excellent story, and one hell of an ending. Everything, and I mean everything, about this game is perfect for horror fans. This game is a must have.

(9) PHANTASMAGORIA & GABRIEL KNIGHT: I put both of these series together because they are from the same company, Sierra Entertainment, and have similar game mechanics. Further they are both great, but for different reasons. Also, it allows me to add another game to this list. Trust me, just picking 13 of these babies was hard.

PHANTASMAGORIA was one of the first games to rely heavily on Full Motion Video (or FMV). The story was nothing new; a woman and her beau buy a haunted mansion in New England and bad things start happening almost immediately. What made this game stand out was the amount of video in the game, the fact that you didn’t move an animated, cartoonish character on the screen, but a digitized photo of the lead actress, and all the great, gooey, gory bits once the evil in the house is released. When this game came out it was (in)famous for two reasons. One, because it was one of the most expensive games to be made at the time and two, because of all the controversy about the blood, gore, nudity, and adult material, including a rape scene, that this game had in it. Up till that point, and really, for some people even till today, video games were seen as stuff made for kids, so to have all that adult content in a “kiddie game”…wow! At its heart PHANTASMAGORIA isn’t a great game. It’s a simple point and click adventure, the likes of which Sierra made famous with KING’S QUEST and others. However I love this game to pieces because it is like a great, goofy, and gory horror B-movie where you control the protagonist. It was followed by one sequel that was ok, but nowhere as goofy-cool as the original. If you never played this game and you love bad but fun horror movies then you’re missing out.

The GABRIEL KNIGHT games (there are three of them) were also point and click adventures, but what set them apart was the writing. The creation of author Jane Jensen, the GK games had great, fully fleshed out characters, they were filled with real world occult and supernatural plot elements, had tightly written mysteries at their core, and were more often than not funny as all hell. The first GK game was a third person pint and click adventure with animated characters and Gabriel, a struggling writer and bookstore owner who learns he comes from a long line of monster hunters, was voiced by Tim “the Sweet Transvestite” Curry. The story was a compelling murder mystery set in New Orleans with shadows of Voodoo. The second game took Gab to his ancestral home in Germany, and was all about werewolves and medieval history. It also jumped on the FMV bandwagon that was all the rage at that time, so the game dipped a bit into B-movie territory. The final game went back to being fully animated and having Tim Curry reprise the role of Gabriel. This, sadly final, GK game was set in France and was about a search for the Holy Grail with vampires tossed in for good measure.

(10) F.E.A.R.: on the surface, F.E.A.R. (which stands for First Encounter Assault Recon) appears to be just another testosterone filled first person shooter with macho guys, big guns, and dudes in tactical gear shooting at you. And to be sure, this game has all that. It also had, at the time, the best AI program for ruing the bad guys in any shooter. You opponents will take cover, try to flank you, perform tactical fall backs, call in for reinforcements, use grenades and flahbangs to flush you out of defensible positions, and other real world military tactics to their fullest advantage. Fighting in this game was never dull and no two battles were ever exactly the same.

However, good shooting mechanics aside, the reason this title makes it onto this list of great horror games is because it came out in 2005 when Japanese horror movies were all the rage. Because of that, this game introduces you to Alma, the typical “creepy little girl ghost/thing with spooky powers and long, black hair hiding her face.” So for being a shooter with great AI that embraces J-horror it gets some points, but if that was all this game had then it will wouldn’t be on this list. Why it is here is because it utilizes all the tropes of Japanese “evil little girl” movies perfectly. You never know when Alma will appear next and how she’s going to mess with your head. That anticipation builds dread and paranoia, two things that go great with any horror experience. The surreal images and freaky images your poor solider character is assailed with time and time again is just spooktastic frosting on this F.E.A.R. cake. If you are a fan Asian horror films, or just first rate shooters, then you’ll enjoy this game. It was followed by a competent sequel and a third game is soon to be released.

(11) CONDEMNED: what sets this game apart from others on this list is its very good hand to hand first person combat system, something that usually doesn’t work well in First Person Shooters, a baffling and original mystery revolving around serial killers that was sustained throughout two games, and some of the creepiest, most atmospheric locations ever in any video game. The first game, subtitled CRIMINAL ORIGINS introduced you to the poor protagonist, a FBI profiler named Ethan, on the trail of a sadistic serial killer. That alone was scary, but then you add in the psychotic bums that want to kill you, the drug addicts that like to carve on their own skin, the strange unexplainable bits like things made out of black oil attacking you, the mystery of why birds are dying all over town, you getting framed for murder, a couple of other serial killers with their own twisted MOs who have suddenly gone missing, lots of nightmares and hallucinations that haunt you throughout the game, and then place all that in the creepiest, eeriest deserted hospital, abandoned school, rundown apartment complex, or condemned department store ever, and you have a game that will send shivers down your spine all night long. And don’t even get me started on the mannequins. No joke, this is one of the few games that actually made me physically jump out of my seat, not once, but twice.

The sequel; called BLOODSHOT, continued where the first game left off, with Ethan more the worse for wear after his previous nightmarish adventures. Now a drunk and kicked out of the FBI, Ethan is still haunted, and hunted, by mysteries he does not fully comprehend. Oh there’s also the serial killer form the first game, the one Ethan was sure was dead. Could he be back, or is the new murder a very talented copycat? Also returning are the psycho bums, incredibly creepy locals, especially a deserted toy factory, and the intriguing mystery that thankfully gets explained in this outing. This game was a worthy sequel that was great all the way up till the end, where things take a decidedly sci-fi turn and become kind of silly. That little misstep aside, both of these games are great, creepy, fun.

(12) CALL OF CTHULHU: DARK CORNERS OF THE EARTH: while a lot of games on this list borrow, oftentimes heavily, from H.P. Lovecraft, this is the only game directly based off of his work to make this list. Sadly that’s because it’s the only good game based directly off of a Lovecraft story, and even it is not perfect. Now don’t get me wrong, the story, which is loosely based on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, with a few bits borrowed from a handful of other HPL stories, is top notch. The folks at Bethesda who made this game are big Lovecraft fans, nearly all their games have nods and winks to Lovecraft, and that love shows in this title big time.

Set in the “classic” Lovecraft era (the 1920s – 1930s) you play an investigator with limited hit points and arsenal, so the game focuses on hiding, sneaking, and running away from the big scary monsters rather than blasting them to bits. This change on the first person genre reinforced the hopelessness and horror so important for a good Lovecraftian story. As for horror, this game scares the crap out of you with atmosphere, creepiness, dread, sudden shocks, and sanity smashing monsters. Lovecraft fans, this game is simply a must play…that is, if you can overlook some so-so game mechanics. That’s right; the one drawback to this otherwise perfect game is how it plays. Now it is perfectly serviceable, but it is sometimes clunky, and some of those “clunks” come at the most frustrating times. Nothing like having your controls screw you over while being chased by a dozen cultist looking to sacrifice you to Father Dagon. Still even with that flaw, this is a unique, scary, and very Lovecraftian game experience. In short, you need to play this game.

(13) SILENT HILL: at the start of this article I said these games were listed in no particular order, but it could be argued that I saved the best for last with this title. If you were to make that argument, I just might agree with you. To be sure this series has had its share up ups and down, but that’s to be expected over a coarse of 11 years, 12 games, a bunch of comic books and novels, and a very boring, bad movie. However when SILENT HILL gets things right, like it did in the original game, and especially in the best of the series; SILENT HILL 2, it does horror gaming almost better than anyone else.

Silent Hill is the name of a small tourist town beset by evil. The nature of the evil sometimes changes from game to game, but what remains is the third person play style, a focus on avoiding combat whenever possible, well fleshed out characters, creepy locations, very adult themes, and the most unique and disturbing monsters in any game, usually based on the twisted sexuality and psychology of the protagonist. Oh and there’s one more thing these games offer, loads and loads of atmosphere. While every other horror game up to the time the first SH game came out relied almost entirely on gross-out and jump scares, SILENT HILL, while having those too, focused on atmosphere as a way to build dread and unease. Limited vision, strange noises, incredibly creepy music, and odd events aplenty all put the player on edge from the moody start of the game to the often baffling ending.

Another great thing about these games is that only very rarely are concrete, black and white answers are given to the many questions they raise. While this may aggravate some, it also leaves a lot up to the individual interpretation of the player. I love the fact that the game designers have that much faith in the intelligence of their fans to do that, where so many other games, movies, and even novels, often feel the need to spoon feed the answers to their audience.

All of the SILENT HILL games have good stuff to offer, but the first three in the series are easily the best. While old and kind of graphically outdated by today’s standards, their incredibly creepy stories remain effective and unblemished. Those looking for serious chills, and not offended by some truly twisted ideas, should seek these games out as soon as possible.

--Brian M. Sammons