PC gaming, due to its open, ever-evolving platform, has the benefit of the largest video game library around and naturally, that means it’s home to some of the best, most diverse, PC horror games of all time.
Some have been pioneers, some have flipped the established rules on their head, and some have brought horror games and the medium itself to a whole new level. There’s so many to choose from and making a condensed list is far harder for PC than it is any other format, but damn it we’ll try!
So here’s the PC horror games that most deserve to be in any collection. A mix of old and new(ish) that represents the best examples of where horror has been shaped on PC.
The setting is a key point in building the right atmosphere. Bioshock is a game that expertly builds its otherworldly atmosphere with one of the most iconic locales in video game history; the undersea city of Rapture.
So much of the story behind this decadent city’s fall from grace can be found in its design, and the result is a fascinatingly macabre tragedy that unfortunately for you, isn’t quite done yet. The way shadows fall on the wall, the manic, hushed rambling of the Splicers (humans mutated via self-inflicted genetic monkey business), and the guttural roar of an enraged Big Daddy are just some of the intimidating and scary moments that dog you as you delve deeper into the still-decaying city.
Bioshock may well be remembered for its twists and quotable dialogue, but Rapture is what makes it one of the most compelling PC horror games of all time.
F.E.A.R. is almost a laughably typical mishmash of pop culture movie concepts wedded to a digital form. Essentially this is a John Woo movie smushed together with turn of the century Asian horror and while you can be cynical about that, it doesn’t stop F.E.A.R. from being a truly interesting horror with a massive action bent.
While the original is not necessarily the best, it is the purest form of its concept, and that concept leans into its horror a bit more. It’s also a pretty decent shooter, one that deserves a better standing in history.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Not enough games are about the cat and mouse chase for a serial killer, and far fewer are as unflinchingly brutal as Condemned: Criminal Origins.
You play as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, out to capture a serial killer who has framed him for the murder of other serial killers. Of course, the suspects being killed are all connected to investigations our agent has been involved with, so he’s looking especially guilty. You’ll be looking for evidence, dusting for prints and fighting off dangerous criminals
What makes Condemned tick is its sickeningly crunchy melee combat. The game’s first-person perspective is used to great effect as weapons such as rusty pipes and box cutters do some disturbing damage to foes. Throw in the twisted hallucinations Thomas is increasingly afflicted by and things somehow take an even darker turn.
Its investigative path is a frustratingly linear one, but there’s enough meat on Condemned’s bones to flesh it out beyond this. There’s few PC horror games as visceral as Condemned.
The 7th Guest
At this stage, 7th Guest may be something of an acquired taste, but if you truly want to sample a slice of important vintage PC horror games, then this is an essential title to get your hands on.
One of the first video games on PC to be entirely on a CD-ROM, 7th Guest puts you in the befuddled shoes of an amnesiac wandering a mansion, trying to piece together your own past, which is naturally just a touch on the grisly side. What follows is almost a prototype for what Resident Evil would be, as it featured live-action scenes and a variety of puzzles.
The game was so packed full of video for its 1993 release that it required two whole discs. That didn’t stop it doing gangbusters and pushing the CD-ROM drive into popularity alongside the like of MYST.
7th Guest is not as scary as it once was, but it’s such a fascinating and ambitious product of its time. You owe it to yourself to experience it as an enthusiast for PC horror games as it helped to shape PC horror games for years to come.
American McGee’s Alice
While these days the most disturbing things that concern Lewis Carroll’s creations are films that feature Johhny Depp, there was a time where former Id Software developer American McGee really twisted the world of Alice in Wonderland into a grotesque work of art and we got some pretty beloved games out of it.
McGee’s own eccentric and dysfunctional upbringing would serve as inspiration for this dark sequel to Carroll’s novels. Alice loses her grip on reality after her family is killed in a fire, and after a lengthy spell of catatonia, she returns to Wonderland. Because Wonderland is a product of Alice’s mind, it has mutated into a hellish mirror of itself, so none of the inhabitants are quite as she remembered them.
American McGee’s Alice was, even for the year 2000, a tad too mechanically straightforward to attain classic status, yet the combination of sumptuous visual design and an inspired musical soundtrack helped it gain significant popularity and a solid fanbase.
System Shock 2
Any extended conversation about Bioshock is likely to land back on the game that it owes a huge debt to; its spiritual forefather System Shock 2.
Ken Levine and Irrational Games had a significant hand in both, and if you’ve played Bioshock, but not seen fit to discover its parentage via this 1999 sci-fi masterpiece. You are aboard a starship in the not too distant future and are tasked with stopping the outbreak of a genetic infection (that’s had a nasty effect on the crew).
There is combat and exploration fused with RPG elements (a novel fusion at the time) as you creep around the cyberpunk-inspired halls of the ship. System Shock 2 is part action RPG and part survival horror and it’s easy to see where its legacy has led in the last 19 years.
Nowhere is that more evident than in it the reveal of the crazed AI SHODAN. Even if you know next to nothing about System Shock 2, you’ll likely have seen the striking image of the AI construct, resplendent in circuitry. SHODAN’s manipulation of the player is an iconic moment in gaming history and highly influential on the plots of several high profile games that have come since.
The game hasn’t aged all that well, even if it does remain playable. The proposed remake of the original game is taking its sweet time, however, so this and the recently updated 1994 original, are the best ports of call.
System Shock 2 may have had its own impact on video game history (horror-tinged or otherwise), but Sierra and Valve’s Half-Life is arguably even more important.
The misadventures of Gordon Freeman at Black Mesa sees a portal to another dimension opened, spreading strange and hostile alien life throughout the underground research facility. Mute scientist Gordon Freeman looks to escape the chaos and proves himself to be a dab hand at combat along the way.
The early hours of Half-Life are where it gains its horror badge. The buzzing intermittent light in the facility has the possibility of hiding the facehugger-esque Head Crabs, but its what they create when they latch on to a human host that really gets creepy.
Visually-speaking, Half-Life is obviously a tad dated, but in terms of how it plays? It more than holds its own and remains an immensely tense and enjoyable experience right up until that ill-fated final act.
Oh and there’s a sequel, but who remembers that?
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl
The haunting real-life Chernobyl seems like a smart place to set a horror of any description given the radioactive disaster area holds plenty of its own myths and legends to begin with. GSC Game World certainly made good use of it for 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, throwing a variety of horrifying mutants and perilous survival in an almost alien environment that happens to be grounded in reality.
S.T.A.L.KE.R. really kicks your backside when it comes to survival. Not only do you have to struggle against the mutants (which include invisible and psionic monstrosities) and the radiation, but there’s strange anomalies, potential starvation and bleeding out from injuries to contend with. This isn’t the most pleasant experience then, but the harsh brutality of this world is exactly why it gained a following with players seeking a more hardcore survival horror.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, unfortunately, got upstaged by the return of Fallout, but the Chernobyl-set series is still a PC favorite for many. It even got a spiritual Battle Royale successor in Fear The Wolves.
The easy option here would be to pick Doom II: Hell on Earth, but frankly, that should already be on everyone’s PC/console/kettle. 2004’s Doom 3 is here however because it’s a different beast. One that revels in slow-burn tension and scares and it’s among the best examples of PC horror games around.
That was the major criticism of Doom 3 upon release, that it was too slow for a Doom game, and to be fair, it is for most of the time. The thing is, Doom 3 is actually very effective in its application of trudging horror in its opening hours. The clang of pipes, the threatening mutter of something unseen, the undefinable shape in the darkness, all this and more help ratchet up tension and paranoia to excruciating levels.
When you do see something, the grotesque Hell Beasts are a massive step up in visual design from Doom II. The John Carmack-created engine and its impressive lighting system accentuate their grisly looks while the disconcerting soundtrack provides added menace.
Doom 3 is not the best in Id Software’s near 25-year-old series, but it is the most ambitious departure, and more often than not, it works.
Left 4 Dead
There have been many offshoots from Valve’s Source engine post-Half-Life 2. Among them are the insanely popular Counterstrike, the critical darling Portal, and a co-op multiplayer horror that became an instant classic.
Left 4 Dead sees four players teaming up to escape a nightmarish zombie apocalypse (back when zombies weren’t in every other horror title) by working together and strategizing.
The great thing about Left 4 Dead is that it nails the undependable nature of co-operating under stress. Acts of boneheaded bravery and weaselly cowardice are a common occurrence when the pressure piles on. If your team can’t keep their cool and avoid panic then chaos soon reigns and your blood is spilled (and the shouting matches can begin). There’s a dynamic personal story to each game of Left 4 Dead that so many multiplayer efforts have tried to emulate since.
Many PC horror games play on the fear of solitude, Left 4 Dead plays on the fear of deceit and cowardice.
Penumbra: Overture/Black Plague
The first two episodes of Frictional Games’ Penumbra PC horror games series set up so much of what modern indie horror became and that alone makes them an essential part of any retro horror collection.
Overture sees a Phillip, a physicist who follows his dead father’s letter to Greenland and ends up trapped in a mine, forced to live on the spiders that occupy it.
This ordeal begins to deteriorate Phillip’s mind and things go more than a little sideways. It’s a clunky first try at the Frictional psychological horror template that would evolve into Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, but it’s fascinating to see the building blocks in action.
Black Plague improves on the template and kicks off at the point Overture ended, with Phillip returning as the protagonist. This time he’s in an abandoned base full of the undead and the threat of an ancient Inuit entity. It’s a fine slice of creepy psychological horror, and as with Overture, it’s not shy about tackling mature, darker fare.
Neither game has aged well mechanically despite being just over a decade old. That shouldn’t prevent you from ‘enjoying’ two of the biggest head-trips you’ll find in the realm of PC horror games.