Horror and monsters have always gone hand-in-hand, from creature-feature movies to popular survival horror games such as Resident Evil or Silent Hill. The monsters are added to present a threat to the player and to intimidate them with their terrifying appearance and demeanor.
But not all horror games always contain the obvious threat of a monster or the monsters there are not real. These games must rely on creating a sense of tension and atmosphere, which can build enough suspense for players to imagine all manner of monsters lurking behind every corner they turn and every door they open.9 The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
The first entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology brought players to the SS Ourang Medan, a ghost ship purported to hold treasure called Manchurian Gold onboard. The hapless protagonists are boarded by pirates, and forced to search for the ship. They crash right into the side of the Medan which the pirates board but not after taking the distributor cap to ensure they can’t flee on the Duke of Milan. The protagonists hatch a plan to recover the cap and flee, boarding the ship themselves.
The game is anything but smooth sailing as it quickly descends into a nightmare. The crew begins to see what appear to be ghosts haunting the decks that set about trying to kill the protagonists, but eagle-eyed players might have spotted a detail early into the game that throws their existence into question. The Manchurian Gold that is onboard is a bioweapon that induces hallucinations in its victims, and the crew was fleeing from and attacking one another.8 Anatomy
Anatomy is a clever indie horror game that garnered quite a few fans in the horror community due to the well-written dialogue, and the atmosphere that smothers players in dread. There is a subtle story beating at the heart of this game that slowly unfolds as the player walks from room to room, pressing play on the cassette tapes that are set up that tell a tale of each specific room, likening them to a part of the human’s anatomy.
The descriptions of the room continue to grow darker and more threatening, and the atmosphere picks up, which is helped by the eerie silence, first-person perspective, and the VHS-like quality of the graphics. Even with no apparent monsters sharing the house with the player, it remains a spine-chilling and intimidating experience.7 The Complex: Found Footage
The Complex: Found Footage is another game inspired by the infamous creepypasta ‘The Backrooms’. Most games feature the horrifying creatures that are said to roam these backrooms in search of hapless victims that found themselves trapped in the liminal spaces of damp yellow carpet. The players are then forced into heart-racing chase sequences in which they must run and hide, or fall as another victim to the backrooms.
However, The Complex has a different take on backroom games. It completely ditches the idea that the backrooms are populated by anything other than the player, even though there are hints of life, such as a head that peeks around a corner during one scene, and a house that contains a backpack. Instead, the player will roam through the various segments of the backrooms, accompanied only by an ever-present feeling of dread.6 Layers of Fear
Often cited as the king of walking simulators, Layers of Fear follows the tale of a tortured artist as he walks through the hallways and rooms of his stately home, where strange things occur that hint towards his crumbling sanity. As the game progresses the painting of his wife, who was once his muse, devolves into something monstrous and otherworldly. The tragic story of the painter and his family slowly unfolds throughout the game.
Layers of Fear brings horror in the form of hallucinations that visit him as he explores, all elevated by a rich atmosphere and sound design that keeps players full of suspense at all moments. And while no real monsters are haunting the hallways, the very real threat of death certainly maintains the feeling of danger that monsters normally bring.
Horror rooted in reality can be the most terrifying horror of all, as it confronts people with the frightening notion that there is a chance this could happen to them. Fears to Fathom plays to this notion, as its episodic game features real-life stories taken from Reddit about people who have survived encounters such as strangers breaking into their home, which is the story of the first episode.
Players will be tasked with making a series of choices throughout the game which will decide the fate of the main character. Playing through these purportedly true stories sheds light on the horrors of humanity, proving that humans themselves are capable of monstrous deeds, and the fear that they can invoke is as real and palpable as what a monster could.4 Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope
This entry in the Dark Pictures Anthology took players into the gloomy, eerie town of Little Hope after bus driver John crashes while driving four students on a class trip. The five intrepid explorers decided to explore the city in hopes they can find help within its misty confines, but they quickly find more than they bargained for as spirits of people killed during the Salem witch hunt begin to relentlessly hunt them down.
But, a surprise twist at the end reveals the truth behind these terrifying spirits–none of what John experienced was real, not even the students that were onboard the bus. Similar to Man of Medan, the threats the player saw were false and the result of one’s mind, though in the case of Little Hope the hallucinations as a result of survivor’s guilt brought on by a house fire that killed his family.3 Penumbra: Requiem
When it comes to horror, Penumbra games are well known for the levels of terror brought on by the dilapidated surroundings and the monsters that dwell in them, from the rabid dogs in Overture to the alien-like infected in the Black Plague. However, Requiem does away with monsters entirely, posing danger and fear in other more creative ways.
The gameplay focuses more on puzzles and exploration rather than being stealthy around enemies, but the tension of Requiem is palpable, keeping players in a constant state of suspense. With the very real danger the environment poses, Requiem manages to deliver scares even without the presence of a monster.2 Manhunt
Manhunt is another game that brings home the message that humankind can be the worst monsters of all, capable of some of the worst and most brutal actions, sometimes with no motivation other than they like to conduct themselves in such a manner. Manhunt reflects this ideology by placing death-row inmate James Earl Cash in a series of snuff films to earn his freedom and save himself from the chair.
Players must employ stealth and skills with weaponry to kill the other inmates, all the while his actions are being recorded on camera. With players able to use any manner of weapons from guns to plastic bags, Manhunt doesn’t shy away from gratuitous violence, with the horror element coming from the dark manner of this material, and the fact that James is being forced to tap into dark parts of himself for freedom.1 Stories Untold
Stories Untold has games within games, bringing meta-madness and horror in the form of mostly text-based games. In most scenarios, players will interact with a computer of some kind, be it a home computer to play games, or a terminal in a lab used to perform experiments of some kind. There are a total of four stories to play that mostly revolve a James Ation, and hint that he is trapped in a coma, and experiences these adventures as part of a coma dream.
Though the overarching story of James’s coma and Jennifer’s passing are tragic, there are elements of horror sprinkled throughout from some of the text that players read on the terminal, such as glitching text and the terminal seeming to show signs of some kind of sentience. These all help to deliver a sense of foreboding that is sure to chill spines, especially in later episodes.