The video game medium is perhaps the most immersive of any art form, allowing people to participate in its execution rather than merely observe as one would with a book or movie. Players can shape stories and relationships, like in the Walking Dead and Mass Effect series, or discover new worlds, like in Hello Games’ upcoming No Man’s Sky, or even fear for their lives in horror games like Resident Evil or Outlast.
Like in the last example, immersion can allow players to experience feelings and sensations they normally wouldn’t. Take insanity, for instance. By placing players in the roles of unreliable narrators or generally mentally unwell protagonists, game designers can make them question what has actually happened in the course of a game and, if really successful, question their own state of mind as well. Here are a few of those “successes.”
7. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The fourth official entry in Hideo Kojima’s tactical stealth operations series, Metal Gear Solid 2 seems an odd candidate for a list of sanity-questioning games. Like the other games in the franchise, MGS2 features an at-times mind-boggling plot full of twists, turns and, yes, conspiracy theory on conspiracy theory. Sons of Liberty uses its own convolutions as a plot device, however, by having protagonist Raiden question where he is actually getting his orders from and whether or not the chaotic events around him are actually happening. Throw in a substantial amount of virtual reality, a healthy dose of presidents-who-aren’t-really-presidents, and an entire sequence in which Raiden is forced to run around naked, and you’ll be questioning your sanity whether you want to or not.
6. Doom 3
Doom 3 was Id Software’s long-awaited return to its flagship series. Released in 1993, Doom helped pioneer the first-person shooter genre, and with its guns, gore, satanic imagery and heavy metal soundtrack, few games at the time were as hardcore. While Doom 3 retained all of the iconic elements of its two forebears—even the heavy metal!—it was a tonally very different game, bathed in at-the-time very impressive shadows, revamping its monster designs to look even more disturbing, and pushing its previously-understated horror facets to the forefront. The game’s advertisements were keen to show off its updated zombies and demons, but more shocking—and more impressive—than anything else in the game were its few elements of psychological horror. Chief among them were several hellish auditory hallucination sequences and the Cherubs, the evil baby demons shown above. While the game received criticism for overusing jump scares and making the flashlight incompatible with weapons, its psychological horror sequences were justly praised.
5. Dead Space
Developed by Visceral Games (then known as EA Redwood Shores), Dead Space drew heavily on Paul W.S. Anderson’s gothic space film Event Horizon, not to mention the Alien series, and put players in the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who learns to his horror that an adrift mining ship is filled with wretched, vicious “Necromorphs,” parasitic alien zombies. While the game is understandably heavy on gore, it also features a surprising psychological undercurrent, and revelations at game’s end make both Clarke and the player question what has just occurred. EA’s risky sci fi horror game was so successful that it went on to become one of the publisher’s banner series.
4. Silent Hill 2
While the entire Silent Hill series is a benchmark of psychological horror in any medium, its second entry stands out for its emphasis on the mental over the supernatural. Largely disconnected from the rest of the series save for location, Silent Hill 2 gives players control of James Sunderland, a young widower who is drawn to the titular village thanks to a letter supposedly written by his dead wife. Rather than finding the quiet, lakeside locale he and his wife once visited, James encounters a ghost town devoid of any inhabitants save for a few fellow lost souls and multitudes of moaning, inhuman monsters. Receiving both praise and controversy for its sexual undertones and seemingly intentionally awkward control scheme, Silent Hill 2 packs more creeping terror into one game than Resident Evil has in over six. It was also the first in the series—and certainly not the last—to call the protagonist’s mental well-being into question. And though it’s over a decade old, it manages to be scarier than most modern horror games.
3. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Unlike many other franchises in the survival horror genre, such as Resident Evil and Dead Space, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent emphasizes the player’s utter vulnerability by removing weapons from the equation and forcing them to rely on stealth and problem-solving alone. You play Daniel, an archaeologist stripped of his memory and trapped in the bowels of a Prussian castle, from which he must escape while evading the lumbering, twisted beings within. Wielding little more than a lamp—which is fueled by a limited supply of oil—the player must take to hiding in closets and in the shadowy corners of rooms to avoid the beasts that pursue them. To complicate things, remaining in the dark for too long or staring one of the monstrosities in the face will chip away at Daniel’s sanity, impairing his vision and movement and causing him to hallucinate swarms of insects, some of which crawl across his face. By combining total vulnerability with the constant threat of mental instability, Amnesia is easily one of the scariest—and most mind-bending—games ever made.
2. Spec Ops: The Line
Ostensibly a reboot of the old Spec Ops series of budget tactical shooters, The Line takes place in modern day Dubai, where a massive sandstorm has wiped out all contact with the beleaguered city as well as the U.S. Army division ordered to evacuate it. You play Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a trio of elite Delta Force operatives that ventures into the city to find out what happened to its inhabitants. You discover a desolate war zone that sees local militia, American soldiers and CIA operators engaged in uncompromising guerilla warfare with one another. In time, even Martin and his comrades are consumed in moral turmoil, forced to make harsh decisions, and generally compromise their humanity. By game’s end, Spec Ops: The Line draws less from Call of Duty and more from Apocalypse Now, and it almost directly asks the player to consider why they are drawn to violent military games. It even uses the very framework of the game to this effect: loading screen messages such as “use SPACE to stick to cover” are replaced with “This is all your fault” as Walker indulges in more and more violence. For a supposedly run-of-the-mill shooter, The Line is perhaps the first to make its players want to step away from the television and computer and reevaluate their tastes.
1. Hotline Miami
A top-down, pixelated shooter/stabber that takes more than a few stylistic cues from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Hotline Miami is a disturbing, palpating acid trip of a game. You play an average Joe living in Miami in the sweltering summer of 1989, who receives assignments from an anonymous telephone hotline to wipe out the occupants of various Russian mob strongholds. As the protagonist, you shoot, slice and pummel your way through various safe houses to a pulsating synth score, earning points for style, brutality and risk-taking. But the protagonist’s bloody actions begin to take an aggressive mental toll on him, and soon even the player is encountering numerous visual and gameplay glitches that force you to wonder what actually happened and why you were so compelled to play along with the groovy carnage.