So, you want to get into the spooky spirit with a good ol’ fashioned horror game, but you’re a bit of a wuss, huh? We might not have t-shirts, but the club certainly exists and I am among one of its highest ranking members. Conceptually, I love horror. I think it’s a genre that explores the human condition in a way no other can, but engaging with it can be a bit challenging for me—particularly when it comes to videogames. I jump, I scream, I squirm, and try as I might, I quit out of that shit the second the going gets tough. However, through tumultuous trial and error, I’ve found some games that even myself, a certifiable wuss, can get through in one piece.
Starting from the tame and growing progressively more terrifying, here’s my list of the top horror games just about anyone can play and are easily accessible (sorry, Zombies Ate My Neighbors):
My sincerest apologies if this one gets your heart racing, but our list begins with the decidedly not-so-spooky Plants vs. Zombies. Developed by PopCap games back in 2009, in this strategic tower-defense game you play as a homeowner who enlists powerful plants to help protect you against an undead invasion. Through careful management of your money and “sun,” as well as learning the abilities of each plant and zombie, you can turn your flora into firepower and have some serious fun doing so. With clever plant names and abilities (cherry bomb, peashooter, wall-nut…), fun enemy types and a cartoonish look, this game is more silly than scary—despite the presence of zombies and some pretty high stakes.
Double Fine’s Costume Quest 2 is an action role-playing game where you take control of a group of trick-or-treaters traveling across time in an attempt to thwart the plans of Dr. Orel White, a crotchety dentist who wishes to end Halloween once and for all. As you explore both the past and future of your hometown, you interact with your environments through trick-or-treating, solving puzzles and engaging in turn-based battles. In combat, the costumes your team wears come to life and grant the children their powers, making for a fun and comical job system. While the dystopian future and creepy dentist trope could be slightly spooky for children, this game looks a lot like a Cartoon Network show, and, once again, is not very frightening. Really the only reason I’m throwing it above Plants vs. Zombies is because the gameplay is perhaps a bit more challenging, but the two are fairly equal in terms of creep factor.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 is an absolute blast and a real must play for the Nintendo Switch, especially during the spookiest month of the year. Once again, our boy Luigi is back at it with the ghost busting, but this time we’re leaving the haunted mansions behind and are headed to the luxurious Last Resort Hotel. Our story starts when—despite its ominous name—the Super Mario Bros. and their closest pals decide to cash in on an offer to stay at the hotel as valued guests. When Luigi awakens from a light snooze, he discovers his friends have gone missing and sinister spectres now roam the hotel halls. Through exploration, puzzle solving and vanquishing ghosts with his shiny, new Poltergust model G-00, Luigi obtains elevator buttons to explore the hotel’s various themed floors and take on the horrors that await. This is another game that is also incredibly tame, though it might be the first on the list that could get a jump or two from young audiences. Additionally, the gameplay might be a tad trickier, requiring some clever thinking from players to take down certain bosses.The great news is, the multiplayer aspect makes solving these puzzles much simpler, and turns it into a perfect first game for kids to play with the guidance of an older sibling or parent.
Alright, now we’re getting into the ages 10 and up games. Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve marks our departure from the happy, bubbly cartoonish look of the previous games on this list and our entry into something a bit darker. With Tim Burton-esque illustrations, desolate and dangerous environments, high difficulty and its emphasis on survival, this game is both creepy and stressful. While it might not elicit any jumps or screams, there are plenty of horror elements that make this game a perfect October play.
While this game is marketed at kids, I’m just going to be honest here and say it… it’s kinda scary, ya’ll. Whereas in the previous games on this list you are more in control of the situation, Dynamic Pixels’s Hello Neighbor is a survival stealth game in which you, at times, are being hunted down. The goal of the game is to break into your suspicious neighbor’s house, solve puzzles in order to reach his basement and discover what terrible, dark secrets lie down there, but while you’re doing all this you cannot be discovered by him. Sure, if you are found, there are ways of combating him and escaping, but it’s certainly not advisable to be spotted. Due to its first person perspective, it can be a bit disorienting, which adds to the game’s tension and creates an even scarier atmosphere. While the game isn’t graphic and younger audiences can certainly play it, it’ll make you jump. Perhaps quite a bit.
Okay, so while Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon isn’t necessarily horrific, it is absolutely a capital-h Horror game, boasting Lovecraftian elements and art inspired by a combination of illuminated manuscripts and comic book artist Mike Mignola, a creator highly regarded for his work in horror. (He created Hellboy.) It’s an intense and fairly strategic role-playing game, featuring turn-based combat and a stress mechanic that will either tear apart or embolden your party members. Rather than have a set party, you can recruit numerous characters—each with their own abilities, perks and flaws—as you mount expeditions to fight off the terrifying creatures your ancestors unleashed when excavating the family manor that has now fallen into your possession. With some mature themes, unforgiving roguelike elements and permadeath, this isn’t a game for younger audiences, and so whereas it might not get a good shriek out of you, it’s definitely worthy of its spot above the previous ones.
Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake seemingly aims to be a gamified Stephen King novel and is, actually, incredibly successful in doing it. Whereas the previous games on this list are lighter on narrative and focus more on gameplay, Alan Wake is all about the story. The game follows burnt out, best-selling author Alan Wake as he investigates his wife’s sudden disappearance during their vacation in the fictional town of Bright Falls, Washington. Using a flashlight and various guns, Alan must traverse the Pacific Northwest fighting shadowy apparitions wielding sickels, chainsaws and other sinister looking tools. The game has some frightening moments and enemies can sneak up on you out of nowhere, eliciting a few good jump scares. However, the game isn’t gory or downright terrifying—just moderately suspenseful. Overall, Alan Wake is a fun and action-packed, psychological thriller, filled with memorable moments and many, many jackets.
When Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was first released, it received nearly universal praise for the amount of work a team of merely 20 people put into the game’s motion capture, audio design and research into mental health prior to developing the game. The result of this hard work is a game that, in my opinion, triumphs in each one of these fields, and creates a work that is equal parts tense and emotionally gripping. The story follows a Pict woman in the 8th century as she makes her way to Helheim to ask the Norse goddess Hela to bring her true love back to life. This journey is not an easy one, as voices inside Senua’s head—called “furies”—attempt to demoralize her and various horror lurk ahead. The game has some fairly disturbing images, intense performances from its lead actress, Melina Juergens, and binaural sound that will send chills down your spine. Additionally, there are a few moments in the game that leave you scrambling in the dark or running from creatures that lurk in the shadows. For me, the story was so compelling I was able to power through even its most grim moments—but be warned they are plentiful.
Doki Doki Literature Club is an interesting game to talk about. It’s one I strongly feel is best going into with as little knowledge of what’s to come as possible, but contains content players should be aware of before they play, as it can be incredibly disturbing and triggering. Despite its name and cutesy appearance, Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club is not a light-hearted anime dating sim, but rather a psychological horror game that features jump scares, disturbing images and horrific deaths. Furthermore, much like Undertale, the game is metafictional, and frequently breaks the fourth wall in an attempt to unsettle the player. The thing that stops this game from being straight up Too Much to include on this list is it’s a visual novel, and in being such is a bit more on the rails and therefore is not quite as stressful as an action or survival game. However, this does not stop the game from being pretty goddamn disturbing. It’s an interesting experience for sure, but you might close your laptop feeling a bit shaken.
Jessica Howard is an editorial intern at Paste and the managing editor at gaming site Uppercut. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.