Technology: Horror games for Halloween

A movie or a book can be scary, sure, but video games have the unique power to really get inside your head. Somehow the combination of player agency and immersion give way to some of the most terrifying experiences one can have. Here’s a list of games that will be sure to keep you up for weeks:

“Dead Space” and “Dead Space 2”
In “Dead Space” you are Isaac Clarke, an engineer who has the unfortunate luck of winding up on a mining vessel filled with shrieking, undead monstrosities. In fact, he’s never more than a few steps from a dripping horror crouched in a ventilation shaft ready to stab at or around his vital areas. He doesn’t fare much better in the sequel.

As you may have guessed, “Dead Space” and its sequel aren’t really all that subtle. Really, it doesn’t need to be: this series prides itself on being a consistent source of nerve-frying tension and panic. You may be armed to the teeth with lethal mining tools, but that won’t save you when you’re getting flayed alive by a wet mess of bony protrusions and animosity.

The sequel is a bit more complete as a “game”, as it features tighter balance and more content, but either game will provide you with a good scare.

(Both entries are available for the PC, Xbox and PS3, though the PC port of “Dead Space” is notoriously poor.)

“Amnesia: The Dark Descent”
A complete 180 from the “Dead Space” roller coaster ride is “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” You play Daniel, a poor soul saddled with amnesia and stuck in a dark castle. While desperately trying to piece together the reasons for your presence there, you evade the horrifying creatures that stumble around in search of intruders.

“Amnesia” is unique in that it is primarily a stealth game where your natural ally, the darkness, is also your enemy. Staying in the dark drains your sanity and makes your character prone to episodes. So while you skulk around with a lantern and a bunch of matches, you’re attempting to balance how well you can see with how easily you can see.

What makes “Amnesia” scary, however, is your total vulnerability. You have no weapons to defend yourself with and the only thing that can guarantee you safety is a patch of darkness very far away from the shambling denizens of the castle. You are utterly helpless and your only option is to go forward.

(“Amnesia” is currently available on PC, Mac and Linux.)

“Silent Hill”
Harry Mason was traveling with his daughter Cheryl to the resort town of Silent Hill. When he is driving along the highway into town, he swerves to avoid a girl walking through the road and crashes his car. When he finally wakes up, he discovers that his child is nowhere to be found.

The granddaddy of surreal horror, “Silent Hill” is a lot like playing David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Focused more on unsettling you than making you jump, “Silent Hill” is a masterpiece of atmosphere. Literally everything in the game is tuned to make you uneasy, from a clanging industrial soundtrack to stellar art direction. The game is also nearly perfect in its pacing, with pulses of calm to counterpoint the onslaught of fear.

It may have ancient graphics, but they do more to add to the grainy aesthetics already present in the game. The blurry, foggy character of “Silent Hill” is intertwined with the low-fidelity graphics and just goes to show that this game is a classic which still manages to scare.

 (“Silent Hill” is available on the Sony Playstation Network and the original Playstation.)

And finally, the weirdest game on the list. Produced by Russian developers Ice Pick lodge in 2005, “Pathologic” is a game that has a very narrow appeal. You play one of three characters let loose in a plague-ridden town in a fictional countryside, trying to find the root of the sickness that is destroying the populace.

“Pathologic” isn’t concerned with giving you a good time. It is punishing and its goals are evasive–but that’s on purpose. “Pathologic” is a missive on cruelty and hardship, told with mechanics rather than words. This is a game where your supplies are threadbare and your chances as survival are very slim, even if you know what you’re doing. This might even be the only game where you are forced to steal simply so you can afford to feed yourself.

Even if you don’t feel like playing “Pathologic,” I highly recommend you read the write-up by Quintin Smith at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. A story told in three parts, it is as absorbing as any game. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

(“Pathologic” is PC only.)

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