The horror videogame genre has been revitalized in the past decade. Once dominated by Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Fatal Frame, the rise of accessible tools and independent publishing has seen the formation of several niches and subgenres, from retrograde throwbacks to point and click revivals and survival horror standbys. Over the past ten years, some of the best titles were made by small teams or individuals, from the Mod DB community to the library of self-produced titles at Itch.io. If there’s anywhere the case can be made for “too many cooks spoil the broth”, it’s horror games. Some of the most effectively scary games you’ll ever play are touched by the fewest hands.
That said, the big boys of horror design still managed to impress. Remedy Entertainment stood out with some of the best-scripted in the business, and Resident Evil and Silent Hill both held their own. Nostalgia also played a large role in the diversifying horror game scene, drawing from 80s film and vintage visuals to evoke terror on a not-quite-new, but different, level. Meanwhile, we moved beyond the tired scope of haunted houses and asylums and expanded into new environments like spooky suburban neighborhoods, alien-infested spaceships, and secretive government facilities. With so many sources of new ideas and continuing expansion into other categories like dating sims and stealth co-op, horror games have established themselves as one of the most creative genres in games design. Here are our 25 favorites from the past decade.
25. The Blackout Club
“I play a lot of horror and stealth games in general, and though I expected to see a lot of conventions retread here, I was pleasantly surprised to find an experience that is not immediately easy to adapt to. What aspects are conventional seem to be used sparingly while providing a familiarity that acts as a vital frame of reference for players to anchor onto. It’s a good balance—I’m not completely lost, but I’m not over-confident about my abilities yet, either, and for now, that’s a good place to be. I like creeping around backyards and hopping fences like an alley cat and grappling onto the rooftops. It definitely evokes the giddy, secret thrill of being a kid sneaking out after dark.
It also challenges how boring stealth games can get by adding the unpredictability of other players. It’s one thing to memorize enemy spawns and pathing patterns; it’s quite another to have to adjust for players who might make a mistake or get caught. Since each mission cannot be finished until all players have assembled at the exit station, there’s an additional incentive to look out for each other and go back for anyone who has been left behind (which happens often, due to how easy it is to get caught by the Stalker). The game might not be strictly considered stealth per se, but as someone who prefers to use evasion tactics for as long as possible, I appreciate this added difficulty factor. It’s even better with all the little child-like flourishes (for example, if a teammate tries to “revive” you after a Stalker has put you under mind control, your character runs away and starts to tattle). It reminds me a bit of Sleep Tight, actually. The games are very different genre-wise but both of them turn common childhood fantasies and nightmares into a playable experience, and I love that.” —Holly Green
24. Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror
“Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror manages to breathe new life into a format that, as much as I love it, has felt stagnant for years. One major problem with point and click games is that the objects in your environment are only as interactive as they are important: either the only items that can be picked up and used are vital to the progress of a mission or puzzle, or they hold no significance outside of what they add to the player’s surroundings. Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror is unique in that it follows this well-established precedent, but then destroys it. What happens to Jaka during his [return home] depends entirely on the player; each idle action or interaction is optional. From the moment he crosses the threshold, he can be respectful of his deceased family and their former home, tiptoeing around sentimental and sacred items and ignoring signs of paranormal activity, or mouthy and disruptive, messing with the resident ghost’s belongings, insulting their trauma, removing protective talismans, and generally acting like a jerk. The relationship between experiencing supernatural phenomena and the player’s actions is very direct; the ruder you are, the more active the ghost will be. For that, it is one of my favorite new horror experiences.”—Holly Green
23. Alien Isolation
This title didn’t complete enchant our writer Javy Gwaltney back in 2014, but nonetheless, its commitment to the series’ signature sense of disempowerment won him over. “In spite of that slog, I’ll probably remember the good times I had with Isolation more than the bad. I’ll remember crawling through the vent with a lit flare, praying the monster wasn’t behind me. I’ll remember stepping over a corpse, my eyes glued to the dots on my motion tracker, ears listening to the walls. I’ll remember hiding in a locker, peering out at the monster as drool falls from its mouths and I wait for my chance to run. It’s also really hard for me to be too disappointed with a AAA game that’s actively opposed to being just another power fantasy game starring a man who shoots people for his country or himself. Isolation tries to do a lot of interesting things and is for the most part successful.”
“Like Paratopic, Concluse proves that while game design is often obsessed with “pushing the envelope” mechanically and visually, abandoning certain styles and techniques the minute the technology allows us, that doesn’t mean those methods are no longer useful, or that the games they’re used in are any less valuable. Rather, they can be repurposed and used perhaps even more effectively than they were before. Everything old is new again, and in the case of Concluse, that is a very good thing.”—Holly Green
“Paratopic takes place from three different perspectives in a surreal dystopia where media is contraband and rumors suggest the government is selling electricity to aliens. It sounds bizarre, and it is; in fact, singling out any detail from the game feels dishonest, as it can only really be understood or enjoyed in context. The game first caught attention months ago for its visuals, which quickly built up hype as being distinctly unsettling. Its dated polygons are tinged with a distorted color loss that makes it feel like a well worn VHS tape losing key data with every viewing. Combined with the way it rapidly switches between tangentially connected (but equally indecipherable) plotlines, and those long drives along a darkened highway peering five feet into the night, the game feels almost Lynchian. Which I suspect is the best endorsement I could ever give anything.”—Holly Green
“A major highlight of Faith is its remarkable use of negative space to create a foreboding atmosphere, making its old school computer game minimalism a smart artistic choice rather than one borne of necessity. In it, you play a young priest who returns to the scene of a ritual gone wrong to find out what has become of a fellow clergyman. Those of you who lived through the 80s will find the game’s dark themes of Catholicism, possession, and occultism familiar—and still every bit as temptingly scary as they were all those years ago. Play this if you really enjoyed The Exorcism and Poltergeist (and be sure to stick around for all five endings).” —Holly Green
19. Doki Doki Literature Club
“Doki Doki Literature Club is very self aware. As a dating sim, it almost has to be. Generally, the characters in a game of this genre, not unlike a harem anime, are assembled for a shared purpose: to possibly date you, the player. It requires your interest, but also your participation, both cultivated and groomed through the direct dialogue and ensuing conversation with your potential, and virtual, paramours. But more than that, Doki Doki Literature Club violates the silent contract of dating sims, and almost all games everywhere: it acknowledges the nature of its existence. It’s dark, at times bleak, and dabbles in the surreal. Its premise is poised heavily on letting the player know they, the fictional girls of the titular literature club, are wise to your presence. In fact, they know their very being relies upon it. At any time you could stop playing, or even erase their character file altogether. But please don’t. They love you.“—Holly Green
Knock-Knock is one of those rare games that is completely unafraid to alienate the player with its weirdness. Its logic makes very little sense, it doesn’t state outright what the game is about or how to play it, and it has the surreal tone of a waking dream. How fitting, then, that Knock-Knock is something of a comment on chronic nightmares. As Carli Velocci wrote in 2013, “Knock-Knock goes beyond a simple horror game in this sense. Depicting the insanity and hallucinations that befall people with little sleep makes the player feel a little unstable. Whether or not you become frustrated with how the game is played is overshadowed by the fact that you’re probably supposed to feel wary of the events going on in the game. The repetitiveness then becomes the sad tale of insanity in the traditional sense—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
17. The Evil Within
“The Evil Within may be rough around the edges in presentation and execution, yet it is rich in not just recreations of great horror moments from years past, but also in the introduction of new, memorable ones of its own. Traditional survival horror games aren’t likely to spring back into relevance on the back of what The Evil Within accomplishes. But its ultimate impression—that of a savvy Greatest Hits-styled overview of the genre—may inspire new ways of thinking about what it is exactly we loved about horror games in the past.”—Reid McCarter
16. Pathologic 2
“Pathologic 2 is a deeply weird game, with a Mayakovskian cast of characters, plopped into an apocalyptic Bertolt Brecht play set deep in the Russian Steppe. And while the actual gameplay maybe disappointing or frustrating to some (it was to me), I can’t help but be compelled by a game so enthusiastically bizarre.”—Dia Lacina
15. Resident Evil 7
“Resident Evil 7 is so anxiety-inducing, I had to get someone to come play it with me. And I’m glad I did, because the game is probably best experienced in pairs. Its story is told in fits and starts, providing several opportunities to theorize about what is actually going on. Being a first-person horror game, there’s a lot of time spent avoiding enemies and slowly creeping down hallways, and we spent a lot of that time between story beats hollering about what the game’s story was even about at that point in time.”—Cameron Kunzelman
Some may not feel that Prey, which is more of a thriller, actually qualifies as a horror game—our writer Cameron Kunzelman didn’t when he played it in 2017. Nonetheless, its rich atmospheric tension is enhanced by its deception and creates a spine-tingling sense of paranoia: “The opening few minutes of the game are quickly revealed to be a lie (well, some of it), and over the course of the hour that I played I had the distinct feeling that many people and entities that I was going to meet over the course of the full game would be either lying to me or giving me half of the information that I needed so that they could manipulate me. Moreover, the theme of deception is embedded in the bones of the game, as the sole enemies that I fought over the course of the demo were “mimics” who would attack me, jump past, and then “hide” as objects in the game. The player turns around and they have to do some quick thinking: Was that phone there before? What about that box? Any of them could be a mimic now, and danger is in every situation. It’s a paranoid existence for the immersive sim player, which is really just a set of mechanics that means you’re going to spend a lot of time rummaging around and picking things up to solve your way through the game.”
13. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
“When I think about the gameplay of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, how Senua comes to work with, and not against, her intrusive thoughts and distorted perceptions, the words self-acceptance come to mind. While some may see it as a horror game, I also like to think of it as a love story, one that explores the power of finding someone who does not have to fully understand you in order to know who you are. Notable for its sharply intimate knowledge of Celtic and Norse traditions, its simple but satisfying combat and its innovative depiction of psychosis, it is impressive how the game manages to marry these three aspects and still deliver a well-scripted action game that achieves a balance between its puzzle elements, cut scenes, and action sequences. Despite the despair in Senua’s story, her father’s abuse, the alienation of her village and her doomed fight to bring her lover back from the dead, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is hopeful. It suggests there is still a meaningful life to be lived even if your perception of the world is so dramatically different from other people. And I find that encouraging and beautiful.”—Holly Green