Most games can cover up their flaws with jaw-dropping visuals, slick combat, or boobies, but horror games don’t have it as easy. In fact, for a game in this genre to succeed there’s one thing it always has to have, and that’s a powerful atmosphere. An atmosphere is a compilation of a bunch of different things that makes the game stick with us long after we’ve played it. It’s also a little different for each person since everyone experiences their games differently from the next.
For me, atmosphere is how the game looks, sounds, and feels. For example, if I’m walking down the rusted, broken halls of a long abandoned down mental institution with only my flashlight to illuminate the path in front of me as I instinctively jerk the beam of light toward what I could’ve swore was a shadow or the sound of footsteps – that’s an experience I’m not going to forget any time soon. It’s the atmosphere, or all the little details that sets the game apart from the rest and helps immerse you into the experience. So head past the break to see the 13 most atmospheric games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and remember, these aren’t in any particular order, so please don’t freak out if your game is #5 while an obviously crap game made #3.
I didn’t play this game until a few years after it came out, but I wasn’t a huge gamer back then so I didn’t think to criticize unimportant things like its outdated visuals. Even if you’ve never played it System Shock 2 has probably had a very big effect on your life, if only because it inspired BioShock (more on that later). Much of the game is a blur for me but even a decade after playing it I still remember a single scene. SHODAN’s big reveal. After fighting my way through waves of monsters and finally reaching what I suspected to be a safe haven, only to be mocked like a child by an intensely bitchy AI was incredible. It solidified my love for the genre and over the years has quite possibly been one of the things that have made me so irritable, as I wait, possibly forever, for System Shock 3.
Silent Hill 2 will forever hold a special place in my heart as the game that popped my horror cherry. Anxiously walking through the thick fog that enshrouds the town, just waiting for my radio to start making a fuss letting me know something is nearby is an experience that no game has since been able to match. This series is unique in that it’s made up of two very different and distinct atmospheres: the foggy town of Silent Hill with the light, airy music, and the darker, twisted Otherworld, with the Akira Yamaoka’s trademark industrial clanks and grinding.
Even though BioShock is supposed to be a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, I will always think of it as this generation’s System Shock 2. Now, that’s not to say they have much in common, since they really don’t, what I mean by that is they were both so incredibly original (the fact that they each share twist endings helps). They’re also both largely story-driven experiences. From the minute I jumped into the bathysphere and dove into the cold, dark ocean to my first encounter with a Big Daddy, BioShock was a series of surprises and backed up by a haunting soundtrack and amazing storytelling.
When this game first came out people loved it. Now if you talk about it you’ll get one of two reactions: the more common one is “Is that the game with the girl from The Ring?” and the second is “Meh, that game sucked, it was too repetitive.” Yes, the game was painfully repetitious, but there’s no denying that it had an almost palpable level of dread that followed you everywhere you went. Seeing silhouettes of a little girl out of my peripheral, watching soldiers die in a flash by her fury, or walking into a room filled with mutilated corpses; F.E.A.R. was a promising start to a series that has since stepped away from horror.
Fuck, do I love this game. I’ve played through it a handful of times, introduced it to many friends with similar tastes, and to this day I can’t think of a single thing I would’ve liked to see done differently. The simple fact that you’re a girl searching for your lost twin sister in an ancient village filled with a startling number of ghosts could’ve sold me on the game alone. But the fact that the only way to vanquish these foes is by letting them get uncomfortably fucking close so you can have them say cheese before snapping a picture of them? That’s amazing. Too many games give you the option of keeping your enemies far away from you but Fatal Frame 2 made you get intimately close to them on many occasions.
Doom 3 makes the list because I consider it a precursor to Dead Space, in that it placed sounds and terror over everything else. Of course, Dead Space had stellar combat, far creepier enemies, and a more likable cast of characters, but still, they’re comparable because they made a choice that more horror games need to make. When games like Condemned or Resident Evil 5 are throwing in multiplayer components that aren’t really necessary just to make them more appealing to a wider audience, Doom 3 stuck to its guns, and its guns were filled with gore, scares, and a bizarre lack of light. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the series but if they take the same approach with Doom 4, I’m sure it’ll be a hit.
Fight the urge to whip out your pitchforks and torches when I tell you this, because I actually haven’t played this game. Now, you might be wondering how I could put it on the list. I can because I’ve watched someone else play through the entire thing, so that’s almost like I played it myself. If the reactions of the person I watched play this are any indication, Amnesia might very well be the scariest game ever made. It’s also one of the most atmospheric games of all time (if this list was in order it’d easily make top 3), because it wasn’t about fighting enemies. In fact, you really couldn’t fight your way out of a tough situation like basically every other horror game out there. Instead you had to be smart, resourceful, and quick on your feet.
I remember one section in particular where you have to make your way around a room that’s been partially flooded. You soon realize something invisible is in there with you so to keep from making noise you have to walk on the boxes. One slip up and my friend and I were screaming like little girls as he tried to clamor up on top of the box again. More games need areas like these.
Oh Siren, how I miss you so. I haven’t played this game since it first came out but I distinctly remember it being a lot like Silent Hill but even more terrifying. You never really knew what was going on other than you had to hide from the people, or things that were hunting you. To aid in hiding you had the miraculous ability to jack into the sight of nearby enemies, using the joystick to tune into their frequencies. This was creepy because it practically put you in the shoes, or at least the eyes, of the things that you were running from. It didn’t help that on many occasions I would jack into an enemy’s sight only to see them creeping up behind me. Now that was fucking terrifying.
I’ve talked about this game a lot so I’m not going to get all mushy about it, if you want that you can read my review of the game. Instead I’m going to focus on why it makes the list, because it truly does deserve a spot. If you know anything about the game you know it was made by Suda 51 (No More Heroes), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil), and composed by Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill). That alone is pretty impressive. But if you haven’t played the game you probably don’t know how incredibly unique and beautiful its take on Hell is. There aren’t many fiery pits here, oh no sir, instead there are bright city streets and massive half naked women whose bodies you have to walk across. It’s raunchy, hilarious, and surprisingly beautiful. Oh, and as always, Yamaoka’s music is orgasmically good. I suggest playing the game with the sound nice and high.
Too many people, including myself, overlooked this game when it first came out. Sanity’s Requiem is a really cool horror game with an outstanding story spanning several time periods. Even if you’ve never played the game there’s a very good chance you’ve heard of its sanity effects, where if you start to gain some crazy weird shit starts happening to you. If you’re unfamiliar, think of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Scarecrow tricks, because they were most definitely inspired by this game. This is one of those games, like Metal Gear Solid, that broke the fourth wall by making you think something was wrong with your TV, and when it wasn’t doing that it was making the walls bleed or flipping the environments upside down so you were walking on the ceiling.
Anyone who says that Demon’s Souls isn’t a horror game clearly hasn’t visited its Blood Swamp level, filled with lakes of poisonous blood and massive man-faced caterpillar monsters. And if that’s not terrifying enough then try to play a game that will punish you for dying by making you lose about an hour’s worth of progress. Sure, that type of unforgiving gameplay doesn’t appeal to most people but Demon’s Souls rewards your sticktoitiveness by introducing you to one beautiful environment, cool weapon, badass spell, or unforgettable boss fight after another. I love this game because it’s like a grown-up’s fantasy RPG. Or, it would be, if said grown-up was a sadomasochistic freak, which I most certainly am now.
If Doom 3 is the last generation’s Dead Space then Alan Wake is this generation’s Silent Hill, and if that’s true then that makes me 2011’s Jesse Eisenberg, which can only mean Jesse is now 2009’s Michael Cera. Wait, I think I lost my way there. What I mean by that is Alan Wake invested a ton of creativity into making the world you explore feel as alive and evil as possible. My favorite thing about it is actually the way the forest looks and moves as a sort of warning that enemies can start coming at you at any time. I knew I was in trouble when a wind would suddenly pick up and start moving the trees. That was always creepy.
My only issue is that I can’t say I ever fully comprehended the story – I know it’s about an author who’s surprisingly adept with a gun and who wrote a book that he can’t remember writing, but now that book is his only salvation from the darkness that wants him dead, but thankfully he also has a floating Big Daddy that’s on his side, giving him useful tips (incoherent run on sentence? Check.). I’m willing to forgive it since I love everything else about the game. I mean, sure, it’s a little strange, but people said I was strange and look at where I am now, writing about weird stuff on a horror site. Suck it high school teachers who said I’d never amount to anything.
Dead Space 2 took everything the original did right and made it even better. The lighting, sounds, combat, visuals, story, characters, enemies, literally fucking everything was improved in this game. I was afraid time would be taken away from developing the single-player so they could work on a multiplayer but even if that is true I can’t tell, because this game blew my mind. Dead Space 2 has hands down the best lighting and sound design I’ve ever seen/heard in a game and really, that’s where half the scares are. Sure, you’ll occasionally piss yourself when something scary jumps out in front of you or creeps up behind you but many of the real thrills come from far off noises and moving shadows.
Unlike the first game where you crashed into a ship where the infection had happened long ago, Dead Space 2 violently throws you into the shit as it’s hitting the fan, and that was a fantastic idea on Visceral Games’ part. I always wanted to see what it looked like to watch someone transform into a Necromorph and by golly, did they deliver in that department, and in the first ten minutes no less.
So that as they say, is that. And by that I’m of course referring to the list I just wrote, ya know, the one you just read. Well, I suppose you could’ve skipped to this closing statement but really, what’s the point in that? That’s like having an out of body experience during sex only to come back when your partner’s finished and they want to cuddle. You missed the fun. Err, anyway, you know what you should do now? You should comment, because in case you’ve forgotten we’re still giving out random shit to comments, and even if you don’t like free stuff (you freak), I still like it when you berate me for having such idiotic ideas. But you know what? I could’ve written an article entitled Top 13 Things I Hate About Duke Nukem Forever, but let’s be honest here, there’s no way I could whittle that down to just thirteen.