Horror hit another boom in the 2010s, not just in movie theatres and on the small screen (with the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al.), but also on our consoles and PCs, giving horror gamers everything from vampires and stalkers to Lovecraftian monsters and good old-fashioned darkness to fear. It’s a decade that also saw that resurrection and reboots of some true classics, including the much-anticipated Doom.
While this list is populated with not-to-be-missed titles, there have been lots of other games I’ve found myself returning to time and again this decade. Often less sprawling, simpler outings such as 2013 indie effort Don’t Starve and State of Decay (also 2013) and its 2018 sequel.
On a final personal note, my absolute favourite game of the last ten years has been The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015), which could arguably occupy a spot on this list, with its monster-hunter plotline and 2016 Blood and Wine expansion, which told a tale of vampires. But since horror has been so incredibly huge, we’ll keep the scares pure… and in chronological order.
ALAN WAKE (2010)
Alan Wake plays against type by casting a novelist at the centre of its action-adventure plotline, which features the titular Wake attempting to solve the disappearance of his wife during their top to Bright Falls, Washington. It’s a mystery that seems to be connected to his most recent novel, which he can’t remember writing.
The game helped rewrite the rules about how video games were structured by taking an episodic approach, complete with cliffhangers and plot twists more typically seen on TV and in cinema. As the decade rolled on, we’d see the episodic video game really come into its own with titles such as Life is Strange (2015) and The Council (2018), among others. Alan Wake also brought some fun gameplay mechanics to the table, namely creatures that were invincible unless bathed in light.
Due to music licensing issues, the game was pulled from sale in May 2017 and is currently only available as a PC title in the Windows storefront. If you want to play it on a console you may need to seek it out used.
AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT (2010)
Indie developer Frictional Games made a big splash with their Penumbra series in the late aughts and continued that streak with first-person survival horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010. In the game, you’re Daniel, who is tasked with making his way through a supremely creepy castle. Stealth and puzzles are the order of the day here, but one can’t forget about one’s “sanity” either. To do so would be very dangerous, indeed. Daniel begins to lose it if he spends too much time in the dark or witnesses too much weird shit. And if you lose your mind, the monsters will get you. Just as they will if they see you.
There’s no shooting or bashing here; your only option is to run and hide, bringing a different kind of stakes to the survival horror genre.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was followed by a sequel in 2013 called A Machine for Pigs.
Written by screenwriter/director J.T. Petty (The Burrrowers, Hellbenders) and developed and released by Red Barrels, Outlast illustrates how indie studios began to level the playing field with the larger companies during this decade, often producing titles that looked just as good and were just as critically lauded as their multi-million dollar counterparts.
Like Amnesia, there is no combat mechanic in Outlast and gameplay heavily relies on stealth. As you explore a psychiatric hospital full of volatile crazies as Miles Upshur, you can only walk, run, climb, leap over objects, and hide. As with many games from this period, darkness is practically made a character, or rather an enemy, so you’ll need to watch the batteries on your in-game camcorder, which provides the majority of the illumination… or else.
PC Magazine said of Outlast that “it’s not an experiment in how games can be scary, it’s an exemplification.” That’s pretty apt.
THE LAST OF US (2013)
Lots of games have demonstrated that console horror can be knee-quaking scary, but The Last of Us proved it can also pack a hell of a lot of heart into its storytelling. The third-person action-adventure title, which won a raft of Game of the Year awards and went on to become one of the best-selling video games of all time, has players crossing a devastated USA teeming zombie-like creatures that have been infected by the Cordyceps fungus. (Fun Fact: This is the same fungus that served as the inspiration for the brilliant M.R. Carey book The Girl With All the Gifts and its feature film adaptation).
You play as smuggler Joel and later as Ellie, the teenager he’s escorting on the voyage, and much of the emotional weight comes from the relationship between these characters and the undeniable consequences of violence (even necessary violence). Unlike the previous two titles on this list, you very much get to wield weapons (long-range and melee) in The Last of Us, but one should not discount stealth and tactics either. It’s a dangerous world out there.
The Last of Us is additionally notable for its inclusion of LGBT characters in its story.
ALIEN: ISOLATION (2014)
It’s nice to be able to include a property linked to a film franchise on this list, as historically tie-in games have been nothing to write home about. Isolation is set fifteen years after the events of the original film and concerns Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda.
In yet another title that relies on stealth over combat (anyone starting to sense a trend?), players – as Amanda – try to figure out what has happened to Ellen, who is now missing. Boasting first-person gameplay and a storyline that takes you all over a space station and even out into the cold expanse of unfriendly space, Alien: Isolation comes closer than any of the previous Alien video games to capturing the mood and atmosphere of the films.
While reviews on this one were more mixed than those on a lot of the other titles included here, Isolation is worth a playthrough for its excellent art direction and sound design, and to just, well, spend a few days in the world of Xenomorphs and androids – especially if you’ve spent decades worshipping at the altar of the films.
Bloodborne, like the Dark Souls series, which it shares a developer and more than a few similarities with, is a game for players who like their action role-playing games really, really, REALLY hard, punishing, and unforgiving. If that’s you, then there’s no shortage of stuff to love in this critically acclaimed title from Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware. Where to begin? Well, the game is inspired, in part, by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker. The monsters are appropriately monstrous and the graphics gorgeous enough to capture them in all their repellant glory. The combat is frenetic and incredibly challenging. Dodging is required, as button mashers will be vanquished with extreme prejudice over and over again until they learn better.
Bloodborne took home numerous Game of the Year accolades upon its release, including commendations for its multiplayer elements. It went on to spawn a tie-in card game and several comic book miniseries.
UNTIL DAWN (2015)
Another game brought to you by the minds of horror filmmakers, Until Dawn was written by Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter) and Graham Reznick (TV’s Deadwax). It made perfect sense to involve movie folks in this project as it ultimately made us question the forms video games can take. Described as both “survival horror” and an “interactive drama,” Until Dawn has players controlling eight young people who are trying to stay alive until dawn.
Played in the third person, it was designed to be the video game equivalent of a slasher film, meaning that choices have consequences and there are many ways the story can unfold (to this end, the game makes use of a “butterfly effect” system). Ultimately, the fate of each character is entirely in the player’s hand.
Until Dawn is aided by its all-star cast, which includes Rami Malek, Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare, among others. In 2016, it was followed up with Until Dawn: Rush of Blood (developed specifically for VR), and then a prequel (The Inpatient) last year.
Frictional Games strikes our list once more with 2015’s Soma, another first-person survival horror title. Only this one is set in an underwater submarine research facility. There’s much that will be familiar to fans of Frictional’s earlier titles, in particular, the stealth, exploration, and puzzle-solving that comprise the core mechanics of the game.
Thematically an exploration of consciousness, the developers hoped to investigate “the nature of free will” and the effect of isolation on people. As a result, the horror here is primarily psychological. Not that that’s a bad thing.
For those who found the game too difficult, Frictional released an update in 2017 that allows Soma to be played in a “safe mode,” which makes you immune to murder by monster. But seriously, what fun is that?
Perhaps the simplest title of the bunch, indie darling Oxenfree is wonderful to look at, though about as far from a Triple-A spectacle as you can get. It’s narrative-driven but purposely devoid of cut screens. The game environment is something that’s been described as a “2.5D perspective,” with the characters appearing 3D and the settings 2D. It’s also strongly narrative-driven with its “walk and talk” mechanic, a fact backed up by its win for “Best Narrative” at The Game Awards 2016.
Other notable things about this supernatural mystery: You can’t lose. Though sporting multiple endings, they’re all just considered different branches of the story you’re playing out. It took no small influence from classic ’80s teen flicks, and sports a soundtrack by composer and electronic artist scntfc.
If you’re looking for something a little different, a trip to Oxenfree’s mysterious island with Alex and her friends is likely just the thing.
RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD (2017)
While most of video games’ biggest franchises have been shut out of this list, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard earns its place with its strong graphics and gameplay.
Players inhabit civilian Ethan Winters and must use a combination of combat and stealth as he searches a Louisiana plantation for his missing wife, who he’d previously assumed dead. This time the threat comes from plantation’s residents and an enemy called “the Molded,” which is a humanoid fungus(!). Please make note of my use of “stealth” a couple sentences back, as it’s vitally important: not every baddie in Biohazard can be killed, some can only be slowed down.
Long-time fans of the series lauded Biohazard’s return to true horror, and as a result, it ended up on many year’s best lists. If you’ve taken a break from the RE franchise, this is a damned fine place to jump back in, especially if you’re an early adopter of VR. For the particularly nostalgic, there’s even a Chris Redfield cameo near the end.