Though horror has long struggled to find critical acceptance in literature and cinema, its output has had no such trouble in the video gaming medium, at times earning universal high scores and even ending up on “greatest game of all time” lists. Neither have they sold poorly. The kind aggregators at GameRankings have provided the scores seen below (which, for detail junkies, are taken from the highest-rated version of that game), and give a clear indication that horror is well received when the audience is allowed to plunge themselves right into it.
10 Dead Space 2, 2011 : 89.1%
The follow-up to EA Redwood Shore’s tremendously successful Dead Space, Dead Space 2 puts players back in the armoured boots of engineer Isaac Clarke who, three years following the terrifying events on the USG Ishimura, finds himself aboard a massive space station that has become overwhelmed by the vicious Necromorphs he previously encountered in the Aegis VII system. For the sequel, the studio—now known as Visceral Games—ratcheted up the action and provided Isaac with extensive voice work, fleshing out the character more than the first Dead Space’s text logs allowed. Apart from its GameRankings rating, Dead Space 2 has scores in the high 80s on fellow aggregate Metacritic for all three platforms it’s available on. Brad Shoemaker of Giant Bomb noted that while the game “doesn’t do anything especially new,” it was still very well-produced, and he praised EA for taking risks with a newer franchise, saying the franchise would be an important legacy for the publisher.
9 Left 4 Dead, 2008 : 89.44%
While Valve had previously played around with zombie tropes in its Half-Life games—particularly the “We Don’t Go to Ravenholm” chapter in Half-Life 2—Left 4 Dead was the developer’s first entry to fully embrace the genre. Initially developed solely by Turtle Rock Studios, who had worked previously on Valve’s Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, the game was purchased by the larger company in 2008, according to an official press release. Left 4 Dead is a cooperative multiplayer game (though an offline single-player mode is available) that allows up to four players to team up and fight their way to safety through swarms of sprinting zombies and their variants—such as the bulked-up Tank, the swift and stealthy Hunter and the deceptively powerful Witch. The first-person shooter was widely well-received by the critical community, earning praise from major outlets like GameSpot for its replayability and Eurogamer and IGN for its personality. Left 4 Dead was so successful that Valve began work on a sequel, Left 4 Dead 2, not long after, and it was eventually released to similarly positive reviews just over a year after the first entry’s release.
8 Resident Evil, 2002 : 89.75%
If you’re not a horror video game fan, take a second to familiarize yourself with the Resident Evil name, as the franchise has spawned a few of the games on this list. But the game we’re currently discussing is not, in fact, the original entry in the series that was released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996, but the very much enhanced remake of it that Capcom put out for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002. While the Resident Evil Remake—which is colloquially referred to as the “REmake” in fan circles—maintains the plot, characters and settings of the original game, it features vastly improved character graphics, pre-rendered backgrounds, sounds and music, as well as additional locations. Capcom also relocalized all of the dialogue and had it spoken by professional voice actors—an indisputably positive change from the original’s notoriously bad lines and voice work. The REmake sold over 1.35 million copies, according to a company press release issued in 2011, and was universally acclaimed by the gaming press, with a 2012 piece by IGN saying that it was on par with current games in the series. Capcom eventually released a port for the Nintendo Wii, initially in Japan and 2008 and the following year in North America.
7 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, 2002 : 90.58%
Developed by now defunct studio Silicon Knights, which also made the GameCube remake of the first Metal Gear Solid game, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem jumps between characters and era while exploring phenomena surrounding the Tome of Eternal Darkness, an ancient book that can reach into the depths of space and time and summon all sorts of Lovecraftian evil. With Eternal Darkness, Silicon Knights introduced novel “insanity” effects that would reflect the player character’s mental well-being, which include fake glitches (like pretending the GameCube has just shut down) or volume effects (increasing or decreasing the sound without the player’s consent). Since its release, Eternal Darkness has appeared on numerous top ten lists and other rankings, and major publications such as IGN and GamesRadar have called for a reinvigoration of the franchise, be it a sequel or remake.
6 Limbo, 2010 : 90.68%
Limbo stands out on this list for being more a puzzle game than a work of survival horror like Resident Evil or Dead Space, but it is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing games ever released. Bereft of much of anything in the way of context or exposition, Limbo puts you in the shoes of a mute boy who traverses an absolutely unforgiving landscape in attempt to locate his sister, having to avoid traps, spear-wielding fellow children and one giant spider. Developed by Playdead and released on a variety of platforms, it is rendered entirely in greyscale and largely in silhouette, and uses a combination of disquieting imagery and ultra-low sound frequencies to unsettle the player. While its length and sudden, unresolved ending were sticking points for some reviewers, Limbo has received largely 8s, 9s and similarly high scores since its release, and some critics, such as Chad Sapieha of the Globe and Mail, have used it to argue for the acceptance of video games as an art medium.
5 System Shock 2, 1999 : 92%
With System Shock 2, Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games brought an Alien-style mixture of science fiction and horror to the video gaming medium. As an unnamed soldier, the player awakes on a faster-than-light spaceship that has become engulfed in madness and mutation during its first interstellar journey. Utilizing conventional weaponry and role-playing elements, they must make their way through the ship, stop the chaos at its source and ultimately battle SHODAN, a malicious supercomputer who reprises her role from the first System Shock game. While System Shock 2 did not sell well enough to save Looking Glass from its eventual closure a year later, it is regarded as one of the scariest games ever made and, in fact, one of the greatest games ever. Its style of gameplay would also majorly influence Irrational’s later projects BioShock and BioShock Infinite.
4 Resident Evil 2, 1998 : 93.13%
The second game in the series on this list, Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 elaborated on the survival horror format of its predecessor, giving both playable characters their own branching path and series of events and introducing new weapons, monsters and viruses. Zombies were also in abundance, of course. Receiving generally positive reviews upon its release, Resident Evil 2 is regarded as one of the best entries in the series, if not the best, over a decade and a half later, as noted in a retrospective piece on Retro Gamer.
3 Resident Evil Code: Veronica, 2000 : 93.79%
Though not officially assigned a number, Resident Evil Code: Veronica was the fourth major entry in the Resident Evil franchise. Players took up the mantles of siblings Chris and Claire Redfield, who were protagonists in the first and second games, respectively. Originally released for Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, the game garnered praise from many gaming publications, including IGN, GameSpot and GamePro. An expanded version, Code: Veronica X, was later released for the PlayStation 2.
2 The Last of Us, 2013 : 95.04%
Naughty Dog made their name with relatively light-hearted affair such as the Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted series. Their most recent game, The Last of Us, is anything but light-hearted. Drawing on post-apocalyptic sagas like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it follows human survivors Joel and Ellie, who are forced to fend for their lives with limited weaponry in a world plagued by fungal zombies and ruthless bandits. The Last of Us was one of the most critically successful games of last year, earning solid 10 out of 10s from IGN, Eurogamer and Edge and ending up on many year-end lists. An additional story sequence in the form of downloadable content was released in February.
1 Resident Evil 4, 2005 : 95.85%
The fourth inclusion of Resident Evil, apart from being GameRankings’ top-rated horror game, completely revitalized the franchise and majorly influenced the third-person shooters that would follow. Resident Evil 4 did way with the static, largely pre-rendered backgrounds of earlier games in the series and adopted an over-the-shoulder perspective, as well as placing emphasis on action over ammo conservation and enemy avoidance. Though fans of the series initially came close to revolting against changes made to the franchise’s formula, Resident Evil 4 garnered astounding praise from a wide variety of publications. Critics applauded its improved controls, voice acting, and weapons system, and Edge magazine would eventually name it the second greatest game of all time. Just goes to show a little shake-up every once in a while can’t hurt.