We suppose anything that conjures up different worlds can be scary. Like the static on the television screen in Poltergeist or the portrait of the eponymous Dorian Grey, video games sometimes evoke an unsettling feeling of gazing through the looking glass. What lies on the other side? Well, in the case of a beloved GameBoy title like Pokémon Red, a creepy little place called Lavender Town, full of soft-grey shrines to the dead, synth bells that sound unstuck in time, and well, wandering ghosts. And that’s not even to mention the spirit of a dead Pokémon mother that stalks you throughout the town. Yes, reader, video games can be spooky as hell.
Pokémon Red, however, is not a horror game—though it’s certainly appeared in a lot of our nightmares over the years. There are games that feel, perhaps unintentionally, haunted, and there are also games that go out of their way to scare the shit out of you. We’re paying tribute to both kinds. We don’t discriminate. We love the creepypastas about Mario 64 as much as we love getting murdered over and over by a salivating Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. Because, especially during this time of year, a harmless thrill goes a long way. And if you need a good fright tonight, look no further than this list of our favorite scary games.
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Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
One time a film teacher told me that the simple act of watching The Exorcist could potentially invite dark spirits into your home. I feel similarly about Majora’s Mask. It is a cruel, evil video game. The world in the game is ending. Everyone in the town is going fucking nuts, but not in a fun way. They’re like, actually sad. Nihilistic. Becoming depraved. And the most evil part of the whole thing is, there’s a psychotic little boy torturing the townspeople with a mask from hell that is summoning the end of times. Imagine playing this as a 10-year-old kid. It’s no wonder the game has inspired one of the most famous tales of internet folklore ever. —D.N.
The Last of Use Part II (2020)
Oh god, is this game terrifying. Yes, the zombies—with all their fungal nodes and mushroom-shaped mutations—are meant to terrify. But the human story at the core of this sensational title is even worse. The terror of violence and the fragility of human life that are on display in The Last of Us Part II kept me up, wide-eyed, for nights on end. Unlike its predecessor, which is frightening but not traumatic, Part II is the sort of game you wished you never played. Once you reach its grizzly, razor-edged ending, you will certainly never forget what you experienced. It is an all-time classic, and a devastatingly frightening one at that. —D.N.
Pokemon Red & Blue (1996)
The ghost-laden stage of Lavender Town is by far not the only thing that scared me about Pokémon as a child. You have got to admit, there is just something deeply weird about those early Pokémon games. Part of this one has players interact with a lost Cubone who mourns the death of his mother (he wears her skull on his face). But nothing was scarier to me than the “MissingNo” cheat, where you completed a strange string of tasks that involved talking to an old man, buying rare candy, and surfing up and down a weird island to catch what may as well have been an actual ghost. An aberration in the code of the game, MissingNo stood for “Missing Number,” because the game would glitch and produce a character that was not actually programmed. That sounds like it makes sense enough, but weird things would happen when you caught MissingNo. Like, if you kept the Pokémon with you for a while, it would start to mess with your game. Misplaced soundtracks would play at odd spots. The names of your other Pokémon would get all fucked up. I’ve never seen an actual ghost in my life, but I imagine the feeling of holding onto MissingNo is pretty close. —D.N.
Alien: Isolation (2014)
Survival games aren’t always scary. There’s not anything inherently frightening about performing the menial tasks of day-to-day human existence. But Isolation is about so much more than survival. As you play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, this awfully punishing game pits you toe-to-toe against an almost all-powerful A.I. beast on a desolate spaceship. The Xenomorph actually learns from your behavior in the game, and it adapts, too. After a zillion Alien movies, the monstrous extra terrestrial doesn’t terrify like it used to—but in this game, when you have nowhere to run, Xeno is as scary as she was in 1979 when she first dropped into movie theaters from the ceiling panels. Too bad no one can hear you scream. —D.N.
P.T. is the rare case of a horror game that has actually become scarier with age. Developed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, this free-to-download title was only available for a short time on the PlayStation 4 online store. It was the duo’s “playable teaser” (get it, “P.T.”?) for their upcoming sequel to the Konami Silent Hill franchise, which ended up being scrapped, resulting in P.T.’s untimely demise. After that, Kojima famously parted with Konami following creative disagreements, and so P.T. lives in a sort of limbo, only available to those who downloaded it at the time—or on the many playthrough videos that have surfaced online. This, I think, is why P.T. stands on its own in the horror genre. The immersive single-player, which has you wandering around a haunted house filled to the brim with ungodly terrors, has grown into something much bigger, much scarier than it ever could have been had it not been taken away so quickly. Today, it’s become something of a campfire story. —D.N.
Porky Pig’s Haunted Holiday (1995)
I found this game, as many of us from later generations have, through emulation (don’t ask me how). Going down a list of games from the era, I was struck by this one’s wild title. What the fuck is a Haunted Holiday? Turning on the 1995 game, it seemed clear almost right off the bat that this thing was fully, deeply demented. The opening titles read, “As Porky Pig is looking through Holiday brochures to plan his upcoming vacation, he drifts off to sleep and finds himself in a Haunted Haunted [sic] Holiday Nightmare.” What follows is as inexplicable as it is disturbing. You fight leprechauns in a black and white world where only you are in color. There are chains and spikes and you’re not wearing pants. You collect cupcakes. I need to know the creative process behind this game. What happened here, folks? —D.N.
Big Fun in Furbyland (1999)
Furbys are the closest thing on earth to actual demons. They are nearly immortal and harness so much power that we are mere insects to them. I don’t think we have to go any further than its title to understand that Big Fun in Furbyland was a shitty PC game; the tag line on the box read “Dah doo-ay wah” and showed a close-up of a Furby with dead, soulless eyes. The “big fun” to be had in Furbyland was just a series of minigames where Furbys barked orders at you, maybe, or cast curses on you, who really knows. It was not fun, it was just scary, and we need to stop the Furby uprising. —C.S.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)
Resident Evil was known as a horror-action hybrid series with tank controls. Then, Resident Evil 7 took away your ability to feel like an action star but kept all the horror, and wow does it send more fear running through me than playing as Hollywood stunt agent Leon Kennedy ever did. Don’t get me wrong: I love the early Resident Evils, and Resident Evil 4 is one of my most-played games, period. But the more cool and confident the protagonist, the less scary the game. This one sees Ethan Winters looking for his wife in an all but abandoned plantation now infested with a cannibal family. It is dirty, nasty, and horrifying. The game also features a VR mode, you know, for those who want to experience hell. —C.S.
Cat in the Hat (2003)
This possessed game followed the best horror movie of 2003, the live-action Cat in the Hat. Starring a polygonal humanoid Michael Meyers as the Cat and turning the weird CG/live-action cast from the movie into full CG renderings for the game, the nightmares never stopped. Cat in the Hat was super busy, confusing, and dogged by Meyer’s quips, haunting even the toughest gamers. —C.S.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
Mario games are not meant to be scary. But that doesn’t make them any less other-worldly. This game has inspired creepypastas and urban legends for decades now. People believe every copy of the title is, somehow, personalized to the person who owns it. There are myths that an entire human brain is simulated in one of the levels. In one creepypasta, players say 64 can give you a stroke if you venture too deep into the castle’s basement. I think it’s because there are mysteries about this game that, despite years of hacking and code-mining, people just cannot solve. Like, why is there an inscription in the castle’s courtyard that says, “L is real?” Why do the Toads claim that their friends are “trapped in the walls?” These weird bits of folklore continue to elude gamers to this day, and now that the game is back as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, we’re bound to get a new batch of folklore all over again. —D.N.
The Sims 2 (2004)
In The Sims 2, you could brick up a room and kill your Sim family. You could summon the Grim Reaper and have him haunt their every step. You could make your Sims live out their worst fears, and then you could neglect them entirely. And I did all of these things! But the scariest part of The Sims 2 was how quickly you could accumulate piles of cash (hello, cheat codes), build a glorious mansion full of richly ornamented rooms with obscenely luxurious accessories, and then become utterly bored with your Sims once it was completed. You’d stare at your boring dumb Sims and hate their boring dumb lives that you were tasked with protecting, even though it was so boring and dumb to do so. Capitalism is empty and isolating, friends. Good thing we learned that chilling lesson young. —Sarah Rense
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