The best horror games from this decade nearly all revolve around the vanquishing of player control. The subversion of conventional tropes, physics, time, and abilities establish a basic lack of encouragement awarded the player. Uncomfortability prompts weary progression, and the most capable developers formulate a dire experience through basic functionality. The 2010s have been exemplary of the blossoming future for gaming, with Horror often serving as its greatest innovative influence. These proceeding titles are truly masterworks of the genre, and solidify an impressive and promising prospect for the entire medium. They are also plainly amongst the most frightening works ever composed.
20. Sylvio (2015)
Sylvio is a rare supernatural title which understands the significant connection between a place and the spirits which haunt it. A devilishly unique FPS, developer, Stroboskop’s paranormal investigation sim meshes amateur entrepreneurial work with ASMR-inspired terrors, transforming repetitive tasks into a sort of ritual for communicating with the rather restless dead. Scouring tapes — rewinding, playing them backwards, slowing down or speeding them up — is an enthralling and fittingly unnerving experience all on its own. However, perhaps what is most frightening is Sylvio’s assurance that these figments seem tied to the locations where they died, as though trapped by the circumstances of their deaths in an eternal fog of dissatisfaction. Death, as Sylvio appears to argue, is never as peaceful as we hope it to be.
19. Oxenfree (2016)
Not since Silent Hill 2 has grief been so thoughtfully illustrated within a game. In an era where cheap scares and lo-fi visuals plague the indie scene, Oxenfree excels at bridging the natural with the supernatural in the most sincere of storytelling methods. Character discussions flow with an organic pace, as heartbroken Alex meanders through the serpentine Edwards Island — a psychologically-rooted storybook limbo. The setting is the ideal representation of a woeful mind; denial syncs with time travel, voiceless longing is manifested within a crackling radio, a farewell embrace suggests the significance of companionship as a means of recovery. Oxenfree is a ghost story for the modern age, brimming with teenage wonder and remorseful connotation.
18. The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us is a portrait of determination in the midst of chaos and decay, equal parts gorgeous and grimly pessimistic. Hope rising amongst the ruined cityscapes of America. The distressing and almost cynical finale finds the eternally-grieving Joel unable to look past his own personal desires, rooted in tragedy, and forces players’ hands to disregard the good of humanity for his own best interests. And we do so, willingly, for the game constantly peruses the insights of human connection as the key to personal survival, most often through its monotonous rituals of calculated murder and vicious bloodshed. The act of killing becomes second nature (fitting for a medium so obsessed with detailing narratives through violence), a progressive action that brings reward, and at some point always becomes a satisfying act.
The game entirely revolves around survival for the mere sake of it: through scavenging, through stealth, through murder, and perhaps most intriguingly, through communication. Ultimately, a rather cold-blooded lie becomes just another form of preservation. The “Us” in the game’s title is subjective, just as it is for all people. And when the world begins to crumble around you, wrecking everything you hold dear, maintaining that “Us” in any form possible is the only way to keep hope alive. No matter the widespread costs. Which is about horrific an idea as nature gets.
17. Bloodborne (2015)
FromSoftware’s major titles have all been rooted in horror. Dark Souls especially tackles the genre through its deceptive worldbuilding and hopeless subtext. But Bloodborne fully embraces its predecessor’s inherent dread, sending players head-first into a Lovecraftian nightmare of frightful enemy design and ambiguous worldbuilding. Nothing is as it seems throughout the world of Yharnam, as deliberately suggested by Insight, the game’s innovative twist on the antiquated ‘sanity meter.’ Labyrinthine cityscapes, Gothic architecture, and lycanthropic body horror accentuate the horrors of the mind’s eye, slowly revealing the true terrific nature of the world surrounding them as the player delves deeper and deeper into their own perturbed psyche. But most telling is the game’s central combat mechanics: Bloodborne urges players to act offensive in moments where defensive maneuvers are normally acted out of impulse. The game forces them to fight back against their own instincts, to push further and reveal the blood-soaked reality obscured by a casual facade. The consequences are inevitably maddening.
16. Alien: Isolation (2014)
Has there been a braver AAA release from this past decade? A slow-burn treatise on the nature of human survival, wrapped up in the most wonderfully faithful film-to-game adaptation ever constructed; it sounds too ambitious to exist. The result is more than successful — a haunting, innovative, subversive, often fumbling masterpiece in tension-building. Alien: Isolation primarily functions as a proponent of tactical progression, thanks to its array of underpowered tools and one-hit kills. But the most terrifying aspect is of course the Xenomorph itself: an overwhelming figure representing the most primal animal urges manifested deep within mankind. The Sevastopol station is both chilly and compact, shockingly modern in spite of its futuristic setting, and serves as its own sort of antagonist to be feared and exploited in the midst of an unstoppable force. Isolation does not so much as redefine the survival horror genre, but methodically realizes the full potential of its core conceptual efforts.
15. Babysitter Bloodbath (2013)
Scream remains a landmark horror film because of the manner in which it pokes Fun at conventions and tradition, and upon release somehow managed to also, ironically, revitalize the slasher genre. Wes Craven’s classic is frankly an ode to the horror film fanatic. While far less cynical, Babysitter Bloodbath has similar aspirations involving self-awareness, and it functions as a cunning critique of the critics themselves. By placing them directly in the shoes of an 80s horror final girl, the one-man band of Puppet Combo demands the player to prove their own worth. Like a great “Fuck you” to anyone who has ever yelled at the screen watching horror film characters make fatal mistakes, Bloodbath finally pushes the audience themselves into the ring.
Trapped in a suburban gauntlet of a carefully designed mazelike household, this 80s love letter has the essence of a fatalistic dreamscape, pushing the player in directions that pointedly spell out doom. It is an orchestration of deliberate menace, much like a film, and its cinematic aspects — the multiple camera viewpoints, the 4:3 aspect ratio, of course the VHS filter — only further illustrate the game’s ambitions to test its players’ abilities to survive. The protagonist, a young woman babysitting for two clueless middle class parents, is thrown into a nightmare of dire consequences moments before succumbing to the sinful allure of sex and alcohol. Babysitter Bloodbath is the perfect slasher experience because it sets out to punish the naive and terrified. Finishing the game fulfills the ultimate redemption arc, blessing its protagonist by poignantly rewarding their resolve. But blood will most certainly be shed in the process.
14. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
There is no more influential a horror release from this decade than this critical indie darling. Whereas previous games in the genre make sure to equip the player with at least some means of defense, Amnesia infamously strips away all sense of control, leaving players with nothing but their feet to flee. This method of communicating impossible odds at once sent ripples throughout the independent industry, inspiring countless successors and copycats alike to this very day. The Dark Descent remains a masterclass, however for its dedicated concentration on gradual pacing and subtextual menace alongside its more interactive frights. Horrific monsters stalk the cavernous Gothic landscapes of Brennenburg castle, but most formidable is what these creatures represent in the contexts of historical drama. The corruption of world leaders and the oppression of the common people are manifested within Amnesia‘s haunted setting, where the monsters roaming the halls serve to remind and condemn the protagonist, Daniel for his torturous crimes directed towards the lower class. The game functions as a riveting portrayal of grief and self-loathing, in which the playable character seeks redemption while simultaneously determining his very sins for which he is being punished. A cat and mouse game where the helpless prey is stalked by his own past, an embodiment of historical consequences as they finally, inevitably catch up with the naive and privileged culprits.
13. Detention (2017)
Few games so effectively trifle with expectations as Detention, one of the finest horror games in years. It’s game in which a pile of decrepit, forgotten desks implies the dehumanization process inherent in an oppressive school environment. A game in which every puzzle sequence and enemy encounter has impactful associations with the narrative. Classic adventure-style objectives evaporate wondrously. An early twist flips traditional gender roles on its head. Inactivity and feigned lifelessness are the only means of defense against violent apparitions. Environmental storytelling is rapidly becoming a preferred method of worldbuilding in this current era, and for good reason. There’s something so alluring, so truly haunting about reminiscing with a setting’s history, that it perfectly matches the ambient air of a horror title like Detention. There’s more motivation for the player to understanding the world around them, rather than to simply escape the game’s dreaded halls, placing emphasis on a purposeful and personal incentive to delve into its dilapidated past.
12. Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017)
The beauty of Doki Doki Literature Club! is most illustrated not through images, but words. So many, many words which Dan, lead developer at Team Salvato, has written, in which he pours his heart and soul into the authentication of his four extraordinary characters. Visual novels require a delicate attention placed towards language, and DDLC! proves itself one of the most effective, intense, and intelligent exercises in mounting tension ever devised across any medium. The game has become infamous for its subversion of tonal expectations, but the real girth of its effects lies in its examination of the player’s own intentions. In other words, DDLC! spots the audience’s next move from a mile away. It grasps an air of subtlety with efforts to raise a uneasy smirk on players’ faces, presenting a foreboding and isolating sensation that ripples throughout the body like a static shock.
When the shocks do come, they are earned through the progressive design. The concept of time essentially ceases to exist within the game’s construct, silently urging, begging the player to stay forever, as the young picturesque women begin mentally and physically breaking down on screen. Team Salvato have crafted a stupefying horror environment, a sort of virus infecting the PC, not unlike how depression/obsession/abuse infects the mind of its host. DDLC! flips the script on the cruel intentions inherent within most visual novels, at first promising a power fantasy to its audience, before eventually kicking the seat out from under them in one of the most heartrending moments in all of gaming. The screen itself becomes a conduit for the evolution of artificial intelligence, an immaterial being vying for love from a world that only wants to see it suffer.
11. Paratopic (2018)
Paratopic is a fever dream of nostalgic horrors. It shudders at the thought of moving backwards for the sake of retreating to some sort of comfort zone, to escape an unknown future. The low-fi, PSX polygons collide with a smooth operating engine to illustrate an environment both familiar and stupendously off-kilter, the lack of graphical complexity mirroring its subtle narrative ambitions and lack of player agency. Humanity is obsessed with feeling. Feeling nostalgia, feeling high, feeling comfortable. Paratopic explores Soma as the tragic undermining of all living men, constantly pushing us towards utter disintegration of the mind and body. Like a body collapsing in on itself, leaving nothing but a boxed mind full of static. It is at once a cinematic rupture a la Thirty Flights of Loving, and quickly loosens itself into an exploratory meditation simulator. It begs the question, Why am I here? Not only for the sake of Paratopic as an experience, but for games in general. Its horrors lie in the unknown, but more effectively in what could very well possibly happen, but likely will not. And that is the scariest aspect of all. Not the violent imagery on display throughout; but the sheer ambivalence of its gore. Why am I staring at a raven pecking at a corpse lying in the street? Because I can’t look away.
10. Stories Untold (2017)
Video games are such an ideal medium for the anthology series blueprint, it’s a wonder that a game like Stories Untold has taken so long to be dreadfully realised. In this culmination of four short stories, which all narratively intersect in the chilling, metatextual finale, the developers at No Code have perfected the art of audio-visual synchronicity, often literally separating the dividing line between game and reality — none more so hauntingly effective than during The House Abandon, the game’s finest sequence, in which the player’s own invisible avatar stalks them as they progress. Each chapter delves into a classic horror film scenario, overall offering a Twilight Zone scenario of ghosts, aliens, and even subarctic conditions, as a means of both appreciating the game’s many influences, as well as providing a sort of psychological evaluation of the horror fanatic’s mind.
The screen acts as a conduit for constricted terror, limiting the player’s view and control much akin to the inherent isolation of sitting at a computer. Through the game’s gauntlet of postmodern nightmares, the synth score, technological development motifs, and lifelike visuals serve as a bridge between our present and the past, identifying the horrors inherent in nostalgic bliss. Through obsessive media absorption, we begin to disconnect ourselves from the present day, an irony illustrated by the advancement of technology allowing us to bask in the glory days of old. Including, of course, the very game itself.
9. Knock-Knock (2013)
Ice-Pick Lodge have a history of bending their own rules to the whims of naturalistic purgatorial dream logic inherent in their titles. But Knock-Knock persists as its own wholly unique form of deceptive performance, a ritualistic game of cat-and-mouse turned hide-and-seek, which defines its logic with the clarity of a wicked nightmare. A two-dimensional space sets the stage for voyeuristic terrors which pervade the overcast eyes of authority with cunning brute force, clashing with the meek homebody protagonist trapped in a dizzying spiral descent into somnambulistic chaos. To refer to Knock-Knock as reminiscent of Lynchian horror would be a disservice to its very unique brand of Russian folklore-ish storytelling, which ultimately promises a light at the end of its very long, dark, and obfuscated tunnel, even as it refuses to make even its ‘happy ending’ any more clearer than the experience preceding it. No matter; what ultimately prevails is the game’s confounding assortment of ceremonial rules which govern a strikingly vivid array of happenings both monstrous and maniacal. The purgatorial stasis which snares the player on their perverted trek wondrously evinces a sort of religious sacrament, resulting in a manic voyage through the subconscious in search for some much needed rest from the mind itself.
8. Until Dawn (2015)
The greatest trick Until Dawn ever pulls is convincing its audience that it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. In reality, the game is a calculated tour de force of storytelling, prompting twists and turns only the most mindful of players will ever predict. Decision-making is a rapid-fire investment, and Until Dawn wants you to understand that going with your gut is not always the smartest move. Shades of paranormal activity evolve into serial killer territory, later ultimately culminating in something a bit more monstrous. All without skipping a beat, the writers maintain this ever-revolving hallway of familiar situation types with incentive to wax irrational. Encouraging the ludicrous, so to speak, as a means of both critiquing our collective allure towards horror tropes, as well as showing appreciation towards them. Survival is all about knowing where to look. But perhaps what Until Dawn most sincerely explores is human insecurity. How we shape our personas into untruthful fiction, as a means of coping with our greatest of collective fears: alienation.
7. Duskers (2016)
There is a deeply disturbing sterility to the cold interface of Duskers. Pitch-black as space itself, and almost entirely silent save for the haunting thrum of computer machinery and digital tones pervading the empty aperture; Tim Keenan’s incredible solo debut considers the ever-dissipating line between reality and simulation, directly confronting our relationship with technology as the world begins to crumble around us. The brilliance of Duskers lies in how very little the player actually sees, offering suggestive terrors in a manner indebted Alien (a la tracking the Xenomorph with the motion tracker). Few games offer as menacing of thrills as frantically typing inputs to save one’s drones from being sucked out of airlocks; or hastily securing compromised rooms without having to sacrifice resources. But perhaps most disconcerting is the magnificent way in which Duskers simultaneously offers liberation and eerie restrictions in order to complete vital, conservatory tasks — in Keenan’s own words, the manner in which, “technology enables us and technology constrains us.”
6. INSIDE (2016)
The illusion of control remains INSIDE’s most dedicated thematic irony. Video games often serve as a means of empowering the player, to escape a reality in which social structures define their every move. Playdead’s masterpiece profoundly constitutes the horrors of modern collective ignorance and hierarchical governance within the contexts of a side-scrolling puzzle game, most insidiously inferring that complete freedom means the surrender of Life itself. With each death, of which there are plenty, the player grows more and more weary of failure, serving as a reminder of the oppressive nature of the society from which they most certainly appear to be fleeing. The boy heaves and huffs as he so determinedly runs forward, down an ironically guided path, seeking some form of salvation. INSIDE’s most daring and cynical message seems to imply the impossibility of escape, a message that hauntingly reverberates throughout the entire game, right down to its gut-punching finale.
5. SOMA (2015)
A simulation is structured around creating a fissure which separates the simulated from the applicant experiencing it. The ghost in the machine is a figment desperately seeking its own form of identity separate from the simulation governing its existence. SOMA‘s greatest achievement is the way in which the developers at Frictional Games utilize their chosen medium to effectively simulate a very human story, within the contexts of a virtual constructed universe. Simon Jarret gradually peels away at his replicated flesh throughout, transforming both physically and mentally as he slowly comes to grips with his counterfeit existence. His voice and backstory present a distinct divorce between protagonist and player, establishing SOMA as a mortal simulation that questions the validity of Simon’s own humanity.
Players begin in a recognizable apartment, then follow along with the protagonist as he volunteers for a radical scientific project, eventually awakening in a dark, deteriorating undersea laboratory where the dead roam the halls as hulking robotic replicants. The proceeding venture eagerly and dreadfully philosophizes on mankind’s limitations, and obsession with technological development, sending its audience to the very depths of the sea to wrangle with the ghosts of a ruptured Earth’s past. Equal parts horrific and relievingly lighthearted, the ambitious storytelling presents a profound response to the modern generational anxiety surrounding social media manipulation. SOMA revels in its bleak perspective on the simulation as a deceptive and defective mode of personification, right down to its unforgettable toincoss finale, which brilliantly doubts the impact of every step you’ve taken to reach it.
4. Power Drill Massacre (2015)
Out of the darkness and into the white. There is no more prolific nor consistently creative a horror game developer working right now than Puppet Combo (AKA Ben), and Power Drill Massacre remains his bloodcurdling masterpiece. The psycho killer romp is at once a glorious recreation of 80s-B-movie-style tales, wonderfully toeing the line between sex and violence; death enacting a vivid climax, severing the escalating tension with a blood-soaked hunting knife. The game forces its voluntary guinea pigs to lose themselves in the labyrinthine halls of its abandoned factory. The unstoppable killer is let loose to roam unpredictably, recalling the randomised antagonist of Slender, only with a far more gruesome appetite. Death after death, the mounting screams and impenetrable gates closing the player in dutifully offer up a most unadorned challenge: Survive. Polygonal terror for the post-VHS era, slathered in an unmistakably modern demeanor.
3. Pathologic 2 (2019)
Far more than a standard remake or sequel, Pathologic 2 expands upon its predecessor with the showmanship and bravura of a naturally carved mountain landscape: equally dense to the touch and smooth as stone. Plague has seized the game’s dreadfully otherworldly community with the forceful grip of a witch doctor’s grasp on human mortality, providing the player the singular task of saving as many people as they can. Or no one; the choice is theirs, however much of a choice it really is in spite of the hoops they must jump through to succeed at any given moment. But not everyone can be saved, which forces the player to make hasty decisions, often to the detriment of others. Pathologic 2 is a game in which Death and Disease loiter around every corner, donning curious masks and spouting philosophical musings at listeners whenever they come near, normally for the mere sake of bewilderment in a time of mass hysteria. Deeply theatrical and conniving in its meticulous design, the game’s true horrors stem from Ice-Pick Lodge’s commitment to pondering the human condition: How willing is one to struggle through an experience that appears to be deliberately working against them?
2. Anatomy (2016)
The tapes are falling apart. Kitty Horrorshow’s gorgeous masterwork is an exceedingly-realised exercise in metaphorical horror. The interiors of a suburban home become a nightmarish realm akin to a human body, complete with a brain, arms, legs, intestines, even a voice. Horrorshow dutifully considers the sentience of a household, redefining the term ‘haunted house’ as seemingly-effortlessly as she deconstructs typical PC gaming conventions. VHS horror is the prime motivation behind Anatomy’s dire pacing, the deterioration of a recorded tape reflecting an aging human body’s own gradual decay, and each time the game is rebooted one can feel the cracks in the walls ripping ever so further and further apart. The game’s finest moment recalls a collective fear of the unknown, the notion that our most comfortable surroundings have the ability to suddenly turn on us. The dark basement is the abyss down into which one does not stare, but that which stares into them.
1. P.T. (2014)
There is not a single more groundbreaking nor impactful game release from the 2010s than P.T. The deceptively simplistic title is a radical deconstruction of narrative storytelling conventions and gameplay mechanics, perhaps even moreso than the original Silent Hill games. By only allowing the player to walk and zoom in through a first-person perspective, Hideo Kojima and his mysterious team are demanding them to look closer, to observe, to see what you’ve done, you monster. Repressed memory causes a psychological influx, the mind turning against itself, and the ghosts of this machine are the grieving recollections of past sin. A rotting woman, a demented fetus in the bathroom sink, liquor bottles scattered all over the floor, eyes, eyes, so many eyes staring. Every layer of P.T. is drowning in metaphysical context, pushing the limits of what a storyteller can accomplish with environmental implications alone.
It presents a horror story for the internet age, where solving puzzles prompts insight through communal investigation, with startlingly innovative results. By stressing the damage wrought by the nameless, faceless protagonist, whom which Kojima places the player directly within the shoes of, the game becomes a psychological assessment examining the remorseful individual’s longing for recompense and redemption. But P.T. denies forgiveness; and with each venture through its now-iconic, dreaded hallway, this purgatorial nightmare draws closer and closer to a reality that implicates mindful immorality. The future of gaming has never seemed so bright nor alarming.