June 5, 2023

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The 25 best horror games on PC

In the immortal words of that author who wrote all them horror books for kids:...

In the immortal words of that author who wrote all them horror books for kids: reader beware, you’re in for a scare. We’ve spruced up our best horror games list for 2021, introducing a slew of newer games and classics alike, adding the best of the past few years so we’re bang up to date. Whether you want survival horror, action, creeping dread or gore up the walls, this list has you covered – even if you’re not a fan of jump scares. It is our way to keep a broad view of genre, but this list only has games that you can buy and play right now, so there’s no need to rummage through any second-hand stores in search of a lost copy.

There’s plenty to look forwards to in the future of scary games too, with horror afficionados Frictional Games yet to announce details of the game they’re currently working on, and Bloober Team signed up to a “strategic partnership” with Konami that has us very interested indeed. We’ll keep this list updated with the best of the best as and when new games are released that shiver our socks right off!

Remember, if your favourite horror game isn’t here, then it was probably number 26. Check out the full list below, and leave your own recommendations in the comments.

25. Little Nightmares

Little Nightmares remains one of my favourite horror games, despite some slightly dodgy insta-fail chase sequences. As tiny yellow-coated child Six you explore the bowels of what turns out to be the most horrible floating buffet imaginable, platforming over and under furniture that’s monstrously oversized compared to your diminutive form. The sound design in particular makes you feel fragile – the little slap of your bare feet on the floorboards, and the slow exertion of pulling yourself up to the top of a chest of drawers.

The lasting impression comes from how your enemies are, basically, just grownups. A strange taxidermist, a pair of horrible chefs. A beautiful lady who cannot abide mirrors. No jumpscares or buckets of blood here – Little Nightmares’ horror is scary grownups seen through a child’s eyes. The monsters you face have distorted and oversized features, like looking up at a nose or long, long arms from a height of about three feet. It’s the horror of sitting in the bottom of a dark closet and feeling things squeak and topple behind you, and hoping that it’s only your parents’ shoes…

24. American Election

Abigail Thoreau is hired to work on the 2016 election campaign for a candidate who an early dialogue option allows you to describe as “orange”. You’re to take her through the highlights of that, laced with several flashbacks to her earlier life.Abigail is the daughter of a racist arsehole and an immigrant – potentially Kenyan, making the opening segment where you’re pulled over by a cop for no reason all the more threatening – and her reasons for joining the campaign are up to you, but it should be obvious to even the most naive that it’s going to cost her more than it’s worth.

It’s not a story about a serial killer, a terrible beast of the night, or madness. It’s a uniquely unsettling experience of a different kind of danger. Almost everything is just implied. The threat of an abusive, manipulative person, an invasive power figure, and an all too real descent of society into something markedly cruel and unsafe. The kind of threat you can’t warn people about, because too many will never believe it until it happens to them, and too many are too invested in pretending not to believe you. Indeed, its sheer banality is half of why it works – this man is not special or unusual. Hundreds, thousands of him have always existed. It’s rare to see a horror story merge the personal with the terrible Cassandra-esque ordeal of seeing the rise of something much bigger and more all-encompassing. American Election does it extraordinarily well. It’s also free, so, y’know.

Disclosure: Xalavier Nelson Jr. was thanked by the creator of American Election for unknown reasons. Xalavier has written for RPS several times. Please stop working so hard, Xalavier, it sets a precedent for the rest of us.

23. Detention


A good horror story can teach you a thing or two, and Detention is not only a very good horror game, it’s also a game set in a time and place I knew very little about before playing. The player characters are students in a school, and become trapped there after-hours – but there’s more to worry about than the ghosts and ghouls stalking the corridors. Detention takes place in 1960s Taiwan during the period of martial law known as the White Terror and lands in the fine tradition of horror fiction that draws on anxieties and atrocities tied to specific historical, political and social realities.

It’s essentially a point and click game, though the side-on perspective and control scheme suggests there might be more in the way of combat or stealth. There is some sneaking, as apparitions stalk the corridors and rooms, but most of your time is spent exploring and figuring out which item goes where so that you can make your way through the plot. It starts with a school, but Detention will take you to other places. Darker, stranger and, at their worst, frighteningly believable.

22. Observer


Observer sounded dreadful when I first heard about it – dreadful in all the wrong ways. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the developer’s previous release, art-horror walking sim Layers of Fear, and initial press releases spoke of delving into unstable minds. Here, I thought, is a game that will lean heavily on tropes about the criminally insane and cliche ideas about mental illness.

How lovely it is to be proven wrong. Observer is smart science fiction first and foremost, with the horror emerging from the setting and characters. It’s a game about class, poverty, technology and bureaucracy that also has what may or may not be actual monsters. Mostly, it’s a visual masterclass though that uses its mind-hacking to conjure up scenes and distortions that are genuinely astonishing. And while it does eventually lose its way a little, it does so without turning to all those cliches and stereotypes that I initially feared.

21. My Father’s Long Long Legs

A screenshot from My Father's Long, Long legs - white text on a black background - describing the father in question leaping out of a deep hole in the floor with one bound

Michael Lutz’s short Twine game has the pacing and logic of a nightmare. The choices that you make cause the story to be delivered piecemeal, each morsel adding to the sense of wrongness that comes to a head in a sequence that pushes the Twine medium to its limits. How much can be done with text, a few tricks of layout and design, and a simple sound effect (not a screamer, not a jumpscare)? Enough to trouble sleep and keep the mind turning over impossible horrors and the insinuations that make feasible realities of them.

Many of the games on this list overtly discard their psychological trappings – eventually, the metaphor is shown to be an actual monster. Sometimes, the most terrifying reveal is the discovery that the man behind the curtain actually was a man all along. No wizard, no magic, no cult, no escapist fantasy. A hundred people might have a hundred interpretations as to the specific meaning of My Father’s Long Long Legs but most would agree that it’s a game that finds an absurd and lasting terror that is somehow recognisable. Fear of the known.

20. Sylvio

The protagonist of Sylvio aims a makeshift gun at a shadow in front of an abandoned Ferris wheel

The idea that electric voice phenomena – the voices of spirits captured in recordings – is a powerful one because the possibility of fragmented communication from beyond is both reassuring and terrifying. Reassuring to think that some semblance of the self still exists and might make the effort to leave messages for those left behind; terrifying to think that those messages might be warnings or threats, and that they are an ever-present part of the white noise and electronic waves that are the background to our lives.

Sylvio requires the player to gather recordings in an abandoned park, which is drowning in a creepy red mist that would make Silent Hill flinch. There’s a smart interface for manipulating the recordings on a reel-to-reel player, altering the direction and speed of playback, and there are puzzles to solve, some clunky and weirdly out of place, others sinister and satisfying. The game’s effectiveness comes from its willingness to resist shock, relying instead on a gradually increasing sense of dread that eventually becomes almost unbearable. In a game full of situations in which the player is straining to hear, how easy it would have been to startle them with a scream or a shout – instead, Sylvio relies on the power of its words and in doing so creates a quiet cocoon that, like EVP, is almost comforting until the penny drops.

19. Teleglitch

A top-down shot of Teleglitch showing a kind of spidery robot shooting a lazer

You can craft weapons but they won’t help and you can attempt to learn patterns and layouts, but the world will shift around you. Teleglitch, more than any other game on this list, uses its difficulty as a weapon to terrify. The visuals are lo-fi corruptions that still manage to communicate how awful your situation is, as every room and corridor swims with the hazy form of unimaginably horrible things. If your reactions aren’t up to scratch, you’ll suffer, and if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them over and over and over and over. Hell, even if you do learn from your mistakes Teleglitch will find new ways to confuse and confound you, and new things to confront you with.

Tricky as it is, you’ll make progress eventually and that’s when the whole situation becomes even more agonising. You become used to treating life as a throwaway thing and then, suddenly, you’re carrying just the right equipment and confidence starts to rise, and you make the biggest mistake of all. You value your tiny doomed character and you start to think ahead. Not to a homecoming parade or even the next level, but to the next room and the one after. You start to believe that you’ve got a chance in hell and then the game reminds you that you are in hell and that hell doesn’t do chances. Teleglitch is like top-down Doom if Doom were about a terrified survivor of the Phobos incident rather than a rugged space marine.

18. Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2

Big budget horror rarely works well. The temptation to show the money on the screen works against the mystery and murkiness necessary for so much that frightens us. The original Dead Space threw everything at the screen – guts, extra limbs, hallucinations, cult religions, erratic sci-fi – and was content to see at least some of it stick. It was at the gun-happy end of the survival horror spectrum but it succeeded in creating a strong setting and icky, fearsome set of creatures to laser-carve into pieces. While the ‘tactical’ limb-lopping might have been slightly oversold, the combat was satisfying and there were some genuine scares.

Dead Space 2 went bigger. Protagonist Isaac Clarke found his voice (literally – he was silent in the original, bar his grunts of distress and stomp-sigh) and the action moved to The Sprawl, an enormous space station that lived up to its name. The new setting allowed Visceral to mix the familiar with the strange, as Isaac moved through residential quarters, shopping districts and everything else one might expect in a city. The Sprawl was an urban environment that just happened to be located in the vicinity of Titan. That helped to anchor the ridiculous excess of the game’s wilder setpieces but Dead Space 2 succeeds because of that excess – it’s loud, violent and paced like a theme park ride. There’s no subtlety but at least 80{79210becb378e50578f72f1b1dd234c2c3483bafde9b186c9fb58315cd686901} of what Visceral throw at the screen works.

17. Scavenger SV-4

A view of the planet in Scavenger SV-4, as seen through the grainy screen of a mining car on the surface

It’s ridiculous that this should be terrifying, really, since the whole premise is that you’re alone in orbit around the dead alien planet you’re remotely exploring with a drone. You couldn’t possibly be any further from anything down there, and it’s not likely there’s even anything hostile anyway. You have a limited time in which to pilot your little tracked drone around the surface, gathering artifacts and recalling it to the ship so you can analyse them. Your goal is to find enough data and/or goods to make as much profit as possible, for reasons that depend on your randomised backstory. If you stay for too long, you’ll contract a fatal dose of the radiation that’s bathing your entire ship.

It’s far too eerie. The radiation makes visibility poor, and the atmosphere and wind will repeatedly convince you there is danger nearby. You could strip out the microphone to make space, but then you’re left with nothing in your ears but your own breathing, and the faint, unsettling background noises of your ship. The invisible threat of radiation has never felt more oppressive in a game.

16. The Evil Within

The Evil Within

The Evil Within isn’t just a third-person survival horror game – it is every third-person survival horror game. It begins in madness and swiftly moves to gothic melodrama and Hammer horror. It contains apparently earnest science fiction concepts and places them alongside hammy mad doctor tropes that would make Kenneth Branagh’s topless Frankenstein blush. In one level it introduces invisible enemies that can only be tracked by observing their impact on curtains and puddles, and waves of dynamite-wielding enemies that assault the player and companions in a blood-drenched stand-off.

Throughout all of these tangents and experiments, the game retains almost perfect pacing, finely tuned stealth and combat mechanics, and a level of guts ‘n’ gore that could make Tom Savini slightly squeamish. What’s astonishing – so much so that it’s easy to miss – is that the game’s almost anthological format allows it to push against the boundaries of survival horror. Even as the end approaches, new ideas are being introduced and the DLC has continued that trend, playing with a defenceless protagonist and then turning the tables completely and popping the player behind the eyes of the box-headed antagonist. It should be a wildly uneven journey, given how much Tango Gameworks explore using the limited toolset of the survival horror template, but everything hangs together beautifully.

15. Lone Survivor

The protagonist of Lone Survivor stands outside a decrepit store with a sign reading GUNS & AMMO

Lone Survivor initially looked like a 2d Resident Evil but as more details emerged, it started to resemble a 2d Silent Hill. That lone developer Jasper Byrne managed to shake off both of those reference points and make something that stands alone is impressive enough, but that Lone Survivor is funny and heartbreaking as well as frightening is astonishing. No game other than Hotline Miami has a soundtrack so important to its mood and overall composition. Whether it’s the improbable jazz filtering through a rotting and apparently uninhabited apartment building or the click of fingers in a Lynchian dream lodge, Lone Survivor’s horror takes place in a welcoming sea of synths.

The plot demands to be unpicked and although there is a fairly strict structure, replays reveal fresh ideas and the player often has control of the pacing. Some scenes are gruesome but there’s a warmth to Lone Survivor. Not everything is lost, even when there seems to be nobody left alive, and despite the monsters, gore and corpses, the eventual horror is touched by sorrow rather than disgust.

14. Amnesia: Rebirth

A dark and ruined room illuminated by matchlight in an Amnesia: Rebirth screenshot.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s water monster captured the imagination of every horror fan who was paying attention. In 2020, Frictional Games squared their horror circle with Amnesia: Rebirth. It’s wider in scope, containing not only capsule versions of the haunted house experience to be found in The Dark Descent, but claustrophobic tunnels and sweeping alien landscapes – and, in a surprise for the series, bright sunshine as well.

Though it cracks a little under the weight of wrapping up the complex, history-spanning story of the Amnesia games, Rebirth is Frictional showing off everything they’ve learned in the last decade. Locations in Rebirth have many layers, and with this Frictional prove they can scare you whenever, however, and with whatever they want. Though there’s no water monster this time, the same effect of an ever-present threat, unseen but potentially everywhere, is achieved with monsters that tunnel through the walls. It’s also a story about body horror and a threat coming from within, as much as it’s about the monsters without, and as such you can never really relax even in the moments that you’re supposedly safe.

13. The Ghost Of You

A screenshot of the text horror game The Ghost Of You, describing the protagonist feeling something prickling at the back of their neck... do they turn around, or not?

The Ghost Of You is an interactive horror story in which you play as a woman called Libretto. She’s recently bereaved, and has been, to coin a phrase, through some shit. The prologue has her invited to a concert by a close friend who she’s not seen for a long while – Libretto has pushed everyone away in her grief, and even going to the concert hall is a bit of an ordeal for her. It turns out more than one reunion is on the cards, as she suddenly runs into her ex-girlfriend, whose heart is clearly as broken as her own.

It’s foreshadowed, so not a total surprise, but the horror in The Ghost Of You descends with shocking violence. The people at the concert go through absolute hell, and it’s down to you to guide Libretto through the night and try to escape without losing the people you love.

It quite soon becomes a sort of multiple choice adventure game, in which you pick a path through the building, decide what to say or do with any survivors, and how to avoid or escape danger. Though gruesome, it never feels exploitative or pornographic – even an optional vein of slightly warped eroticism depending on some of your interactions is an interesting and thought out subplot.

12. Resident Evil Village

Resident Evil Village

Another year, another new Resident Evil game on this list. Resident Evil Village (sort of Resi 8, in number if not name) follows on from protagonist Ethan’s antics with the infinitely horrible Baker family in Resi 7. A year on, and Ethan finds himself up against the denizens of that village, which is full of werewolves, yes, but conveniently also has some big baddies each in their own grim house.

It depends what kind of horror you want, of course, but while the favourite child Resi 4 does have some inspired creepy sections, especially those Regenerators, the latest has one of the most frightening creatures ever to grace the series. That monster is separate, too, from Lady Dimitrescu, who become a pop-culture phenomenon (owing mostly to being very tall, among other things) in a way few characters in any medium manage. And Village also continues the tradition of doing really, really horrible things to Ethan’s hands. Though the other tradition established in 7 – that of the game ceasing to be a tense survival horror and becoming more of an action-shooter in the last quarter or so – Village really does have some of the best level and enemy design you’ll meet in a Resi game.

11. Knock-Knock

The protagonist of Knock-Knock, a pale-faced boy with a widow's peak in his hair, holding a candle and standing in a room with tiled walls, full of bottles

Ice-Pick Lodge’s Kickstarted game about the horrors of waking nights wasn’t particularly well-received by critics, but what do they know? Structurally, it’s a game that feels like escaping from a box to find oneself inside a slightly larger box – a puzzling Lament Configuration of a game – and that isn’t the most rewarding experience. However, all things move toward an end and Knock-knock is no exception. It’s a game that seems to take place in the moments between sleeping and waking, and it’s never clear which state you’re moving from and which state you’re moving toward.

Knock-Knock begins in the confusion of a night-walker’s cobwebbed world. Sounds are exaggerated or muffled, seemingly at random, and every object and space is heavy with meaning. Or at least heavy with potential meaning. In this house, at this time, turning the hands of a clock accelerates the night, pushing the world toward the relief of a new day. Avoiding the worst apparitions – be they motes in the eye or the brain – is essential, but a frightful encounter will only elongate the night rather than ending it, violently or otherwise. Knock-knock is not an artful abstraction without rules – it places strict limitations on the player and leaves him/her to push at the boundaries until rules are discovered.

10. Left 4 Dead 2

A player aims at a zombie clown that lunges at them in Left 4 Dead 2.

The basics of Left 4 Dead are brilliant – the AI director mixing up the threats on each attempt, the desperate rush to save a fallen companion, the red rain that follows the BEEP BEEP BOOM of a pipe bomb. Back when Left 4 Dead 2 was part of a daily diet, it lent itself to all kinds of invented survival scenarios, games within games that sometimes required mods but more often simply required other players willing to experiment with odd, self-imposed rules. Even now, it’s still one of the best co-op games you can play today.

One of the beautiful things about both Left 4 Dead games is how clearly the developers have indulged their love of horror films. They don’t show that love through the pastiche of a game like Blood or the endless references that might have prevented them from building their own believable world – they show it in the specific details of set-pieces and environments, and in the terror of the witches (the more horrifying thing among the regular horror things that you become accustomed to). If you play for half an hour, there will be tension, excitement, triumph and terror.

Putting the actual shooting and surviving to one side, Left 4 Dead 2 earns its place in the pantheon of greats thanks to the beauty of its environments and the way that it uses a place as a theme. I love that the familiar musical stings from the first game have been recreated, Southern style, and that an organ adds a delirious quality to The Passing’s horde attacks while a banjo frantically attempts to keep up with the panicked drums of Dead Center.

9. Condemned: Criminal Origins

The first person horror game Condemned Criminal Origins - the protagonist is looking at a murder scene, the victims staged at a macabre dinner table

Condemned is a game about the hunt for a serial killer that very swiftly becomes a game about beating people to death with a plank. Whether we’re supposed to laugh at how rapidly the investigator becomes a murderer, knee-deep in the corpses of unfortunates, isn’t entirely clear. The entire game is pitched oh-so seriously, never seeming to acknowledge the campy potential of its ludicrous ‘everyone-is-now-an-angry-murderer’ plot. There’s something about dead birds and shards of metal, but Condemned is best enjoyed as the best horror-melee game in existence. Whatever else it might, it is certainly that.

Is there a dingier setting in gaming? Condemned’s city is like a metaphor for the societal pressures that grind the underclass into the dirt and the gutter. Except it’s not really a metaphor at all – it’s an entire game in which people are physically ground into the dirt and the gutter. Nobody seems to enjoy fighting or killing – the primary antagonist aside – but almost everyone you meet is compelled to grab the nearest blunt object and pummel your skull until your brains fall out of your nose. The atmosphere is relentlessly oppressive, so much so that some people are likely to switch off, numbed by the unchanging grime long before the end. That’s understandable. For those who can tolerate the single note that plays throughout, Condemned is a rare thing though – a horror game in which the combat emphasises the terror rather than diminishing it.

8. Darkwood

The protagonist of Darkwood examines, in torchlight, the body of a woman tied to a strange, worm-like growth coming out of the floor

Boasting some of the best lighting in a top-down 2d game you’re ever likely to see, Darkwood makes the shadowy corners of a room, or the spaces between trees, absolutely terrifying. Things skitter into view, go bump in the night and then latch onto your face or leg, and chew right down to the bone.

Don’t be fooled by the screenshots and videos into thinking this is a crafting/survival game with horror elements. It’s a narrative game and a surreal nightmare that borrows from RPGs, roguelikes and survival games but feels distinct from any particular genre. Really, deep down, it’s a pure horror game, with all of its design focused on unnerving and startling its players. It’s also in the rare group that might make you recoil from the screen but also has enough quiet dread to creep back into your mind late at night when you’re far from the screen in a far more insidious fashion.

7. Stories Untold

Image from Stories Untold of a TV with the text

The House Abandon alone might have been enough for developers No Code to earn a place on this list. Originally released for free, it’s a superb spin on parser-based interactive fiction, putting the player in the shoes of somebody playing a game which is maybe about somebody playing the same game. It plays with perception, expectation and interaction in ways that made us smile as much as they made us shudder. It’s scary, but it’s also delightfully clever.

But there’s much more than The House Abandon here. One of No Code’s founders, Jon McKellan, previously worked on Alien: Isolation and some of that game’s DNA has carried across with him. It’s the love of old-fashioned interfaces that make up so much of Alien’s retro-future that you’ll see in the other tales that make up Stories Untold. Each has its own mode of interaction and loosely fits into its own sub-genre of horror. Consistently surprising, genuinely unnerving, and wholly unique, this marks No Code out as one of the most exciting young studios in the world.

6. Alien: Isolation

The alien poses in an Alien: Isolation screenshot.

Has a game ever recreated the look and feel of a film as accurately as Alien: Isolation? If so, I haven’t played it. Creative Assembly’s FPS horror masterpiece isn’t just a generous portion of stealth and scares, it’s a superbly detailed trip into the world that Ridley Scott and his team brought to the screen three and a half decades ago. Everything from the creature itself to the individual posters and pieces of machinery that fill the Sevastopol has been crafted to fit with the design principles that made the Nostromo such a fascinating and enduring location.

This is a vision of a future populated by ordinary people – working Joes, you could call them – who just so happen to make their living as part of the crew of gargantuan spacefaring vessels and stations. Within that world, Isolation is a story about a horrific alien that seems to be made of knives, acid and a phallus tearing through the population of a science fiction facility. It is also the story of a woman who has lost her mother, searching for answers. And then again, it’s the story of a corporation in decline, of power plays and the victims of financial competition. That it manages to tell all of those intertwined tales while also delivering one of the most tense and terrifying system-driven games of this or any other year is a remarkable achievement.

Isolation is an unforgiving game. Unfair even. The alien will kill you, again and again and again. That’s the nature of the beast, though, and would the game feel like an authentic Alien experience if every encounter didn’t come with the risk of a swift demise?


A piece of key art for the sci-fi horror game SOMA showing a robot looking in a cracked mirror and seeing a sad woman in the reflection

Soma (styled as SOMA) was the difficult second album for Frictional after the hype of Amnesia, and it turned out to be another an enduringly fabulous horror game. Though it’s also a sci-fi game, using futuristic tech, and an AI with a very rigid interpretation of what it might mean for humanity to ‘survive’, to explore the idea of self, the conclusions it comes to and the ideas that it makes you examine are frightening. They are enduringly scary. They are scary in a way that will keep you up at night weeks after you play it.

Stuck in an undersea science facility, decades after everyone you knew and loved has already died, you find it haunted by fusions of man and machine that are as sorrowful as they are frightening. They whisper snatches of half-remembered thoughts to themselves, or else are unaware that they’re a human mind trapped in an automaton – they see their metal hands as flesh and blood. And in this context, the walls seem alive too. They seep water and black good. The metal doors and hallways feel like they’re watching you – after all, haven’t you seen metal screaming? And most horrifying of all is the gradual revelation of what has become of humanity – both the species as a whole, and yourself.

4. Anatomy


The less said the better when it comes to Kitty Horrowshow’s masterpiece, which uses elements of found footage and lo-fi visuals to create the only piece of horror fiction that has ever made me want to leave my own home and sleep in a hotel for the night.

It’s short, though it has only just begun after the first playthrough, and I challenge anyone to play it in the dark, wearing headphones, alone. There are no sudden frights but if you’re amenable to its particular sense of dread, Anatomy will actually steal sleep from you.

3. Pathologic

A screenshot from Pathologic showing a yellow landscape - yellow sky, yellow grass - with a squat stone home in the background and a makeshift scarecrow in the foreground, dead rats hanging from its arms

Pathologic is unique. It almost seems reductive to describe it as a horror game, but if not horror then what? Set in a diseased town whose districts and major buildings are named after parts of a human body or biological functions and extractions, Pathologic doesn’t place the player character at the centre of things. You can move toward the centre of things, in an attempt to keep yourself alive or to discover the city’s secrets, but the game never panders to you.

The story of the city’s death takes place over twelve days and can be experienced from three different perspectives. Brilliantly constructed, the setting and story are among the most literate and intelligent in gaming, and that they can be experienced piecemeal is testament to Ice-Pick Lodge’s ability to exercise the unique qualities of the medium. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Pathologic advanced interactive storytelling in ways that few games ever have. Or at least it would have done if anyone had been paying attention, or had been able to emulate its finer qualities.

2. System Shock 2

System Shock

System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made, whatever the chosen category might be. Few games, whether set in the depths of dungeons or the depths of space, have captured the claustrophobia that comes from existing in a space surrounded and infiltrated by death. You’re never allowed to forget that a skin of metal separates you from extinction and that the interior spaces that the universe is pressing against from the outside are filled with corrupted and corrupting organisms.

That sense of dread and doom makes Irrational’s masterpiece one of the greatest horror games and, as a sci-fi horror RPG, it is unique. Shock 2 is a first-person survival horror game, but it’s the use of RPG mechanics such as inventory management and character development that allow it to retain its power on repeated visits. There is no other RPG so tightly designed, so terrifying and yet so open to experimental play.

The cyborg midwives, as their name suggests, are the most horrifying creatures in any game. Even monkeys have become agents of fear within the coffin-ships of Shock 2. Oh, and there are spiders. Of course there are spiders. It’s the freedom that you’re given to approach those enemies that makes them truly horrifying, though. That the game gives you so much agency allows you to feel like the agent of your own destruction, and that you are never railroaded makes it easier to believe that the things that lurk in the dark have as much freedom as you do.

1. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat

The landscape of STALKER, a statue of a man holding up a flaming torch in the foreground, a crumbling building in the background, and strange blue light in the cloudy skies

Let’s be clear – Call Of Pripyat could sit in the top spot on many lists, but this is as much its rightful home as any other. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are often spoken of as immersive simulations, and as first-person games that transcend the shooter bracket. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are about exploration, encouraging you to dig deeper until, like the dwarves of Moria, you unleash terrible things. And those terrible things are far more terrible than the inhabitants of a haunted house or a derelict spaceship.

Everything flows naturally from the world. If you need something, you find it within its place and if you are required to do something then you consider, observe and approach. This is a world that is dying and yet in which you can live, for a few hours at a time, building relationships not only with the people but with specific places and features. It is a real place made fiction, as much by the historical events that shape the games’ mythology as by the games themselves.

At their most harrowing, the creatures of Pripyat are the final barrier that stands between you and an understanding of the world. There are anomalies that fuse bone and boil blood, and those can be accepted and circumvented with a little ingenuity. There are blistered buildings and the skeletons of a society, and those too can be accommodated into our understanding with a shudder and a sidelong glance. But the things that lurk in the darkest, most claustrophobic corridors and tunnels of the Zone do not allow the mind to linger upon them. They are horrors in the truest sense – entities that behave in a repugnant fashion and that are simply unacceptable. They should not exist and cannot exist. But once they have been encountered, they will always be there, just beneath the surface. Just behind the walls.

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