Horror games are unlike any other genre. Instead of giving the player a power fantasy, making them feel good, or stimulating creativity, they often do the opposite. Horror games’ primary intention is to unsettle, create a feeling of vulnerability, and offer a thrilling experience, making them a unique gaming experience. While they’re certainly not for everyone, horror games offer rewarding experiences unlike any other.
And like the industry as a whole, horror games have evolved significantly through the years. The horror genre has been pushed and pulled in many directions over the last thirty-plus years and has gone a long way since the early 1990s. In celebration of the Halloween season, here are some award-winning horror games that have helped redefine horror games.
Alone in the Dark (1992)
Before there was Resident Evil or Silent Hill, there was Alone in the Dark. Known by many as one of the first survival horror video games, Alone in the Dark was released way back in 1992 – a full four years before the original Resident Evil. This game established many horror game conventions that are now considered staples for the genre, including 3D exploration and a limited inventory system. The game also featured non-linear level design, where the player must traverse a house that slowly opens up more.
On a base level, Alone in the Dark laid the groundwork and created the formula that future horror games would iterate upon in later years. It defined what a survival horror game was (and what it was possible of), and helped to kickstart the genre by introducing many conventions that were later built upon by bigger and better games. The game initially launched on MS-DOS but was eventually ported to Mac-OS, 3DO, and other platforms.
Alone in the Dark won several game awards from industry shows like the European Computer Trade Show Awards, and included Best Original Game, Best Foreign Game, Best Graphics, and more.
Clock Tower (1995, 1999)
The original Clock Tower was released on the Super Famicom way back in 1995, though gamers in the West wouldn’t get a taste for the series until its sequel– Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within– was released for the original Playstation worldwide in 1999 (known simply as Clock Tower in regions outside of Japan). But whether you’re referring to the Super Famicom original or the PS1 sequel, both titles did a lot of good for the horror genre.
Just like Alone in the Dark, the series preceded mainstream horror franchises, and established tons of horror conventions such as being very story-driven, having multiple endings, and an enemy that followed the player. Known as the Scissorman, this antagonist was the first case of what is now known as a roaming or stalking enemy, which is an enemy that follows the player around for the entire duration of the game. This was later iterated upon with characters like Mr. X and Nemesis in the Resident Evil games, but the Scissorman was the first example of this.
While it has been somewhat forgotten by many, horror video games owe a lot to the Clock Tower games – particularly the first two games for the Super Famicom and PS1. Several spiritual successors were created over the years– including Haunting Ground, Remothered: Tormented Fathers, and NightCry– with some more successful than others.
The Electronic Playground awarded it Console Game of the Year in 1999, praising the game’s atmosphere and level of challenge.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
It’s safe to say that horror video games truly hit their stride in the early 2000’s on the Sony PlayStation 2. Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame, and Siren all released at around this time and are held in high acclaim. However, Nintendo’s home console did have one noteworthy horror game release at around this same time, and it’s often forgotten by many gamers. The title Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was released as a Gamecube exclusive in 2002, later becoming a cult classic.
While many horror fans often flock to the Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, they weren’t the only titles that went on to inspire future games in the genre. No, Eternal Darkness was another highly influential title as well; the game featured one dozen different playable characters, an epic story that spanned literally thousands of years, highly engaging gameplay, and various story paths that changed the game in significant ways. But by far, the most interesting aspect of the game was how it delivered its scares.
Eternal Darkness featured a health meter, a magic meter, and (most interestingly) a sanity meter. The sanity meter, which lowered whenever the player got face-to-face with a monster or anything supernatural, affected the player’s game in weird and uncanny ways. And the lower the player’s sanity meter was, the more intensely it would affect the game’s world – with it even breaking the fourth wall at times.
The whole concept of a sanity meter has been done many times before, with noteworthy examples being the excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its sequels, but none have used the concept in as interesting or exciting ways as Eternal Darkness. Instead of spoiling what exactly the sanity meter does in-game, it’s better to experience it yourself. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem made quite a splash when it was released, with NAVGTR itself giving it several awards including Outstanding Sound Effects, Outstanding Story Writing, and Outstanding Original Adventure Game.
Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)
The Silent Hill series has done a lot for horror games over the years, with the original PS1 title laying the groundwork for psychological horror and its sequels iterating on the formula in amazing ways. Arguably, the Silent Hill series has done more for horror than any other video game series, with the series’ influence being seen in countless titles. Heck, even the demo P.T. influenced tons of developers and pushed the genre to new heights, and it wasn’t even a full game.
But one entry that is rarely discussed is the series’ fourth entry, Silent Hill 4: The Room. The game was Team Silent’s final project before being disbanded by Konami, and it is by far the most divisive of the tetralogy. While not as groundbreaking as the first game or as iconic as Silent Hill 2, The Room was the most daring and willing to try new things. The Room broke series conventions in several noteworthy ways including the elimination of an inventory pause screen in favor of a real-time item menu, the addition of unkillable enemies, and (most notably) the addition of a home area – the player’s room.
The feature that sets The Room apart from the rest of the series is its structure. The game opens with the player awakening in a room, suddenly trapped inside. A mysterious hole appears in the bathroom of the apartment. With no other options, the player is forced to crawl through the hole and enter another world.
A noteworthy aspect of the room is that it is presented via a first-person view, unlike the rest of the game which is played in the third person. This gives the player’s room a unique feeling versus the rest of the game. Throughout the game, your apartment serves as your safe zone – your main hub so to speak. You return to this room in order to heal and save your game, and it’s the only place in the entire game where you’re truly safe… until it isn’t.
As you progress, the player will begin to notice their apartment changing, with supernatural events occurring. Your room will become more and more haunted. You will lose the ability to heal. Your apartment, which was once your only safe place and area to heal, will instead harm you if you stay for too long. It betrays you, creating a great sense of hopelessness for the player. Series developer Akihiro Imamura commented on this, stating that “a person’s room should be a place of refuge and comfort. We felt that it would really be terrifying to become trapped in that sanctuary and to have that space gradually eroded through a succession of disturbing events.”
Similarly to Eternal Darkness, The Room enjoys messing with the player. In ways that won’t be spoiled here, the game consistently finds ways to play with the player’s expectations, throwing curveball after curveball. It truly experimented with established horror conventions in ways that hadn’t been seen before, and it is arguably the most terrifying game of the whole Silent Hill series because of this. While not without its flaws, Silent Hill 4’s strengths made it truly stand out and helped it redefine what a horror game could be.
After Silent Hill 4: The Room’s release nearly 20 years ago, the series never quite managed to reach the same level of success or acclaim. Fans are hopeful for the series’ future, however, as with the series being brought back via a remake of Silent Hill 2 and various other new projects. Silent Hill 4 was the last entry to receive critical acclaim, with it winning NAVGTR’s award for Best Use of Sound and getting nominated for GameSpot’s Best Adventure Game.
As the saying goes, less is more. This is absolutely true when it comes to horror, and developer Playdead Studios knew this when crafting its debut title, Limbo.
Many gamers will be familiar with Limbo, as the game made quite a splash when it was released over a decade ago onto Xbox 360’s marketplace, becoming the store’s third highest-selling game that year and winning tons of awards including Best Art Direction and Best Use of Sound from NAVGTR. At the time of its release, horror games had faded a bit in popularity, so Limbo felt like a breath of fresh air to many players.
Not only was Limbo developed by an indie game studio, which was much more rare at the time, but it was also a 2D side-scroller that featured a unique art style that hadn’t really been done before. The game almost entirely lacked color, featuring black-and-white visuals that harkened back to old Tim Burton films. It featured simplistic gameplay as well, with the only abilities in the game being running, jumping, and grabbing objects. The simplicity of both its visuals and gameplay emphasized the players’ lack of control and powerlessness over their surroundings – it created a grim atmosphere, where the player was at the mercy of their world. And few games had ever tried this before.
Over a decade later, it’s clear just how influential Limbo has been, redefining what horror games could be. Loads of indie horror games today opt for 2D perspectives, with stylized art styles, as they are great formats for scaring the player. Taking power away, leaving users with few skills at their disposal, is a perfect recipe for horror. Limbo was one of the first indie games to accomplish that.
Limbo’s inspiration can be seen in other games like Little Nightmares, Lone Survivor, Detention, and PlayDead’s follow-up Inside.
It isn’t every day that you see a game demo get showered in awards, but P.T. isn’t your average demo. P.T. – or Playable Teaser – was released onto the PlayStation 4’s store as a free download in August 2014, without much explanation as to what it was. But upon beating it, players learned that it was actually a cryptic teaser for a new game in the long-running Silent Hill series – dubbed Silent Hills.
But as gamers know, Silent Hills was canceled, following Konami cutting ties with Hideo Kojima who was helming the project. The game went down as one of the most notorious cancellations of all time, with players still mourning the unreleased game nearly a decade later. The demo was even removed from the PSN store, effectively making it impossible for players to try the game without pirating it or playing fan remakes.
With all of that said and done, however, it seems that the project did not end when Konami canceled it back in 2015. No; much like Lisa from P.T., the game lived on far after its death, with many spiritual successors, remakes, and games taking clear inspiration created from it. Games like Visage, Hellseed, The Peterson Case, and more drew inspiration from the demo; even the long-standing Resident Evil franchise, which initially inspired the original Silent Hill for PS1, felt heavily inspired by P.T. with Resident Evil 7, a first-person entry that focused far more on horror over action.
So, what was it about P.T. that players liked so much? In short: it does more with less. The game is almost entirely set within a small, narrow hallway which the player walks through repeatedly. Like The Room did a decade prior, P.T. lulls the player into a false sense of security by setting itself within the room (or rather, a hallway) of a home. But as the player progresses, and re-enters the hallway over and over, elements change and become more unsettling over time. The game also never leans into jump scares to scare the player – instead, it establishes an atmosphere meant to slowly cause discomfort and unwelcomeness.
Though it seems unthinkable, P.T. redefined and influenced horror games more than most full-length titles have. Tons of award shows and news outlets granted the demo awards, including NAVGTR’s award for Innovation in Game Technology, Giant Bomb’s award for Best Horror Game, and Bloody Disgusting’s award for Scariest Game.
Much more recently, horror games have begun going in a new direction, with online co-op – and Phasmophobia is arguably one of the most successful recent titles to achieve this.
While co-op in horror games is technically nothing new (games like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space 3 came out over a decade ago), this new wave of co-op horror has emphasized the scares much more than the aforementioned titles, which were far more action-heavy.
For those unfamiliar, Phasmophobia is an online horror game where you and up to three others are thrown into the role of ghost hunters, where you investigate various haunted buildings and use your various tools in order to uncover evidence of a ghost without getting killed in the process. The game emphasizes teamwork, analytical skills, and fast thinking. Unlike older co-op horror games, where the co-op gameplay felt somewhat optional, it feels like an integral element of Phasmophobia. The game also could not have arrived at a better time, with it releasing in April 2020, right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Phasmophobia has continued to regularly receive new updates throughout the years, managing to keep a consistent player base, and it has gone on to inspire countless other co-op horror games including Devour, Forewarned, The Outlast Trials, and many others. This new wave of survival horror games feels like a new sub-genre in itself, and Phasmophobia is largely to thank for it. It won several awards in 2020, including The Game Awards’ prize for Best Debut Game.
Submit Your Game
The Game of the Year award is one of the highest honors that a game developer can receive. If your team has recently developed a horror game that it feels is award-worthy, then consider submitting. NAVGTR invites all developers to submit their games to its annual game awards. Nominate your game today.