The need to self-preserve is the deepest instinct in the human mind. Fighting against overwhelming odds to retain life is the central thesis to every video game ever made. But for Survival Horror, the idea is taken to its most extreme, often pitting players against unfair odds without the handicap of special abilities. While every gamer worth their controller has got their own definition of the genre, in our efforts to form a concise list of contenders, we had to narrow everything down to one rubric to grade on. Eventually we settled on the purist definition of Survival Horror: story and worlds designed for isolation, a more strategic take on combat, and above all, scares benefiting from a more subdued kind of intensity, rather than jump-out scares of most horror titles.
A tendency to a more guns-blazing, action approach to gameplay and design also invalidates The Darkness, The Suffering, the F.E.A.R. series, and Resident Evil 4 from consideration.
However, there are still a plethora of valid games vying for the title of the best in Survival Horror. Which games have brought out the philosophical fright, psychological anxiety, and squeamish little girls in us better than any other? Find out with our Top 10 Survival Horror games.
10. Dino Crisis
(PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC)Dino Crisis Intro
Like an interactive ‘Jurassic Park,’ Dino Crisis brought the terror of pre-historic reptiles into the living room, this time on the original PlayStation in 1999. A special-ops team is sent to explore a fictional island, and find a horde of hungry dinosaurs brought outside their time by futuristic technology. After being trapped on the island, the team begins a search for the method – and reason – behind this influx of ancient reptiles. While not the deepest or most original storyline, the game nonetheless remains engaging for its smart utilization of a universal anxiety, towards a creature that might as well be mythical to all us non-paleontologists. Tapping Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami as producer/director and branding itself as “panic horror,” Crisis had all the claustrophobic, corridors of an S.T.A.R.S. mission with the added benefit of a sound design full of ever-approaching dinosaur growls and scraping claws. The graphics have aged into a blocky mess, making your reptile adversaries look particularly mechanical (and creepier in an “It’s a Small World” kind of way.) But for it’s time, Dino Crisis was the best way to get a more personal ticket to ‘Jurassic Park.’
(PlayStation 2)Siren Intro
If it’s one thing any horror film fan can agree on, it’s that rural towns of the beaten path should never dabble in the dark arts. Siren placed characters in the remote mountain village of Hanuda, in the heat of an occult attempt to resurrect local ghosts known as Datasushi. Siren was a multiple-protagonist adventure that kept their characters connected through a sort of butterfly-effect, where the actions of one character may open the objective of another. Hanuda is populated by a cast of local characters, most of which will become possessed shortly after you appear on the scene. Where the game’s unique execution shines brightest is ‘Sightjacking,’ which allowed for characters to briefly see from the eyes of a possessed villager pursuing them, and it was extremely successful in keeping a sort of cat-and-mouse relationship at the heart of the gameplay experience. Sony Computer Entertainment’s Japan studio experimented with a then trailblazing technique of capturing real-life emotions from motion-capture actors and superimposing them to the facial models of the in-game characters. The entire game was bolstered by a dark, meandering tone, making this trip to the country one you’d never want, or could, return from.
8. Dead Space
(PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)Dead Space Trailer
Yes, Dead Space shares a lot of gameplay mechanics with Resident Evil 4. But before people start bitching at one’s inclusion at the other’s exclusion, there are some key differences that need to be explained. 2008’s Necromorphs-in-space fest did shoe-horn players into combat more than most games in the genre, but Dead Space also added a layer of strategy to said combat that made blazing your way through the derelict USG Ishimura’s demonized crew feel incredibly tense. Strategic dismemberment, as the developers at Visceral Games coined it, forced players to forget the headshot technique learned through years of zombie-killing, and instead blast of specific limbs in accordance to what breed of creature they were up against. The whole mechanic gave combat a tangible feeling of odds-stacked-against-you anxiety, while keeping a lot of high-energy action to appeal to a wider audience. All of the gameplay innovations still pale in comparison to Dead Space’s spectacular audio design, worth recognition for its pitch-perfect capture of a zero-gravity soundscape alone. The infested mining ship truly felt dangerous, with the metallic clunk of player Isaac’s heavy boots against the steel grating echoing against the ramshackle engine hull, giving both a sense of being hopelessly alone, and a step away from death. Inventive weapon and monster design put this outer space spook-opera over the top to become one of the best in a genre near-dead at its release. In space, no one can hear you…you know.
7. Parasite Eve
(PlayStation)Parasite Eve Opening Trailer
Sometimes the weird can be just as effective as the morbid. The controls in Parasite Eve were a bit hack-kneed even for its time, and Squaresoft attempted to bridge the line between this game and its prequel novel by loading the game up with cutscenes, but what is there when you finally get control is fascinating, absorbing, and engrossingly odd. Here’s a briefly summation of the introduction, for an example. You, Aya, are attending an opera with your date as an actress steps onto stage. Without warning, the entire audience spontaneously combusts: save for you, your date, and the actress, who morphs into a winged beast and flies away, loudly proclaiming herself as Eve, despite being famously known as Melissa. That’s the tone the game pretty much carries throughout. Being the tough police officer you are, you take up the case of finding Eve and the answers to a mysterious string of deaths across 1997 New York. Combining survival horror aesthetics with core turn-based RPG gameplay was an odd choice that didn’t lead to many outwardly scary moments, but what it did allow for was a nervous and constantly twisting narrative that kept the player guessing, and never quite allowed them to be sure of their abilities and what they would come up against next.
6. Condemned: Criminal Origins
(Xbox 360, PC)Condemned: Criminal Origins Gameplay Trailer
Hobos are scary as hell and we all know it. Before the sequel came and messed with the mood, the original, Condemned: Criminal Origins, brought punching the homeless into refreshing virtual legality, by making them crazed maniacs attempting to do the same to you. Ethan Thomas, a special agent framed for murder, must avoid police detection while tracking down the true killer in the seediest regions of town, where former addicts and the downtrodden blindly attack you with almost viral rage. The downtrodden moved with intelligence and resourcefulness, using advanced hiding tactics and any number of blunt objects to get the jump on Ethan. The melee system was an absolute blast, and save for the minor control quibbles, weapons had weight and felt powerful when used. But what stood out for most gamers was the sound design, arguably among the best of any video game released to date. The crunching of a bum’s face as it meets your wrench is gruesomely satisfying, and the atmosphere did wonders with urban architecture, turning the lower levels of an apartment complex into an unnerving haven for monsters just a step away from normal. You’ll never give out change again.
5. Clock Tower
(PlayStation, PC)Clock Tower Opening
If chosen to name a video game genre that would never be scary, many would have point and click adventures on the top of their lists….and they would be wrong, so very wrong. Clock Tower is a testament to one-frame fear, making a game that doesn’t need to have scenes cut in thirty different ways to create an optimal atmosphere. Jennifer Simpson has to search the haunted Clock Tower mansion, after her friends seem to disappear one by one into the night. Once she begins her search, she is stalked (slowly) by a demented psychopath with giant scissors, who always seems to be just in the next room. Most of the game’s characters work under complex motivations, betrayal and lying being routine NPC goals. The main draw of game is that you have practically no chance of survival in direct combat, any attempts at confrontation result in death or panicked retreat. Players instead must hide in everyday objects around the mansion, most of them not offering a solid guarantee of safety. Clock Tower promoted a poetic sense of dread, where a large dresser that appeared so blasé in your first walkthrough of a room could become your only saving grace the next time around. The game hasn’t aged well, but there is still terror to be had when the Scissorman enters into a room a split second after you’ve managed to hide.
4. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
(Game Cube)Eternal Darkness Opening
Never, never, mess with a gamer’s memory card. It wasn’t enough for developer Silicon Knights to make an episodic story with huge leaves taken from H.P. Lovecraft novels, no, they had to go and create the most singularly creative thing in all horror games, the sanity meter. Only when this meter filled up would the player know real fear. Never mind that you in the midst of battling undead creatures from a long-dead civilization hungering for your flesh, your sanity meter is full, so now your screen goes black. Or maybe the volume meter will appear out of nowhere, and lower the game’s soundtrack one bar at a time. Or maybe your character’s head will fall off. No explanation, no effect on gameplay, but you’ve been decapitated and a torrent of blood is comically spouting from your neck. And if you pick up the head, it’ll recite Shakespeare…I’m not kidding. The worst is when you try to save on your system, and a fake error message pops up and tells you that, oh, hey, sorry, your entire system is dead. Fountains of gore, creepy little girls with long black hair, hordes of zombies? That’s fine—but tell us our game machine is broken? Not cool Eternal Darkness, not cool.
3. Fatal Frame
(PlayStation 2)Fatal Frame Intro
Fatal Frame is a truly creative title in that the only way you engage an enemy is through the viewfinder of your antique camera. To destroy any one of your ghostly foes, you must get close enough to get a decent shot, without being close enough to be privy to many attacks. As Miku, all you want to do is find your missing brother, but all you uncover is his antique camera in an infamous mansion steeped in rural mystery. Now, trapped inside that same mansion, you must snap your way out and still try to find your vanished sibling. Combining all of the languid beauty and sharp style of J-Horror and old, rich Japanese architecture, the game unfolds like a wonderfully paced novel, told through the pen of some experienced paranormal writer. The series has remained strong through its sequels, and for those willing to give the time to allow the admittedly slow narrative pace pick up its speed, Fatal Frame relinquishes a spookily beautiful experience.
2. Resident Evil 2
(PlayStation, Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, PC)Resident Evil 2 Leon Intro
Inevitably connected to the genre it helped popularize, Resident Evil 2 promotes the facade of a straightforward third-person-zombie-death-dealing-shooter, only to reveal itself to be a game almost solely based on running for your life. Many games have tried to imitate (see the Sega Dreamcast exclusive, Blue Caliber for specific details,) but few have come close. The game was the best at creating a sense of massive, impending enemy forces (a good deal more than the original with its updated graphics engine) all fighting to get to you and sate their hunger. Despite following its predecessor almost to the letter, Resident Evil 2 comes out ahead in the Survival Horror ladder due to its inclusion of the PS2’s Dual Shock mechanics, hidden minigames, weapons that were actually worth unlocking, and a much more gruesome game over screen, showing your character being devoured for the first time. The story is thin, but the characters are passable, and hardly anything beats the rush of a slow chase scene, your character groping his stomach in pain as he limps away from the horde after him. The face of horror, and gaming in general, has never been the same.
1. Silent Hill 2
(PlayStation 2, PC)Silent Hill 2 Opening
You can fight against zombies. Nazis, aliens, demons, and ghosts can all quickly fall under your arsenal. But when an entire town appears set in your destruction, customizing its hideous inhabitants to best aggravate your psyche, you’ve got to have some serious survival skills. James Sunderland returns to the titular tourist town at the written behest of his three-years-dead wife, Mary. Searching for answers, James enters into a town steeped in occult mystery and symbolism, coming across grotesque abominations that represent the darkest recesses of his mind. Dotting the foggy landscape are fellow humans that were drawn to Silent Hill, each seeing the town differently and each sporting volumes of psychological and emotional derangement. But what truly sets Silent Hill 2 apart in the horror creed is your main antagonist: the town itself. Regularly switching from an ambivalent foggy hamlet to a chaotic, violent otherworld, the highest hope you have is to merely survive the onslaught long enough to gain a glimpse into James’ troubled mind. Bolstered by an impressive presentation – for a PS2 launch title – the monster designs reeked of simultaneous attraction and repulsion: each enemy containing something demented and familiar about them. The game also sported a melodious soundtrack that mixed metal cacophonies with seductive ballads for exquisite ambiance. Silent Hill 2 still teases the minds of all who play it with its rich detail and intentional lack of answers. Once you’ve played it, you’ll never stop talking about it. Silent Hill 2 perfects the act of survival to near poetry; it is, quite simply, the finest survival horror game ever created.