Psychological horror games might just affect the human mind perhaps more than films and books do.
Armed with the ability to make gamers dive deep and participate in every gory and horrific detail in games, game makers often have an edge over filmmakers and authors, and while the protagonists in games are just as fallible and vulnerable, the mental tension between gamers and their characters are often sky high.
The “horror” element in such games could be anything — otherworldly entities like ghosts and monsters, as well as hallucinations of the main character’s disturbed mind.
These characteristics differentiate a survival horror from a psychological horror game. For instance, Resident Evil is a survival horror game and does not belong to the genre of psychological horror because its principal protagonists are depicted as militarily trained and in complete control of their minds.
This brings us to Squid Game (2021), the acclaimed South Korean show, which has become a rage around the world. The Netflix original became the most-watched show on the platform within the month of it’s release. It depicts 456 seemingly helpless people who put their lives on the line for money. The games they play to win are those that children play for fun. However, the element of psychological horror in it is that they die if they lose these seemingly innocent games.
The show includes everything — from extreme mental pressure to betrayal — that many of the lead characters go through. But only time will tell if it will be turned into a real psychological horror game.
If you are a part of the millions of people who have made Squid Game a worldwide hit (and want to take this genre a few notches higher), here are 10 of the most engaging psychological horror games that will have your heart — and mind.
Limbo might’ve been released in 2010, but it continues to be a favourite among gamers.
The psychological horror game was created by Danish independent game developer Playdead, and follows a young boy in search of a young girl — presumed to be his sister — in a nightmare-like dimension that resembles hell.
Everything in this side-scrolling game is black and white, which gives it a German Expressionism and film noir vibe, according to reviewers. This style is perhaps the most striking feature of the game, and it’s one that lends an extremely ominous air of mystery and gloom to Limbo.
In the game, the player controls a little boy — the nameless protagonist who is nothing more than a black shadow with glowing eyes. He guides the boy through a strange dimension where threats are shrouded in darkness. The boy can die many times through the game, falling prey to booby traps, giant spiders and other shadow-like humans, amongst many other things.
To survive, the player must ingeniously use things like rolling boulders, traps and dangling ropes in the game environment to the boy’s advantage, as he starts his journey in a forest and moves into a town which has gigantic cogs before re-entering the forest.
The answer to why he is searching for the little girl and what happens when he finds her might shock some at the end of the game. Its open ending has, however, spawned a generation of gamers to build their own theories. Yet, the one common element in most is Limbo’s connection to death.
Developed by Swedish indie game studio Killmonday Games in 2015, Fran Bow is a tale that is depressing but will also give you hope.
The protagonist is Fran, a young girl in the early 1940s who goes into shock after witnessing the brutal killing of her parents and flees to the woods with her black cat named Mr. Midnight. She ends up in a mental asylum for young children but escapes to search for the missing Mr. Midnight.
Her goal is to reach her aunt’s place, but the journey is fraught with risks, especially because of the medicine that’s been administered to her, causing hallucinations. They transport her to a parallel dimension within the asylum and beyond where untold horrors are revealed.
Fran Bow contains both ghostly elements and ghastly scenes. A noticeable aspect is the revelation of what might be going on in the asylum through deft use of the parallel dimension. The point-and-click game requires players to solve puzzles, find hidden objects and switch between worlds for clues to progress. The artwork is equally impressive and contains Gothic elements that make the story’s World War II-era setting even more appropriate.
The psychological horror game finely weaves human failings with elements of Chinese traditional religion and a particularly brutal chapter in Taiwan’s political past.
Detention follows a young student of a high school called Greenwood in 1960s Taiwan when the country was under Martial law — a period known as White Terror. During this period, political dissidents were silenced by the authoritative regime and students were rounded up and thrown into prison for merely reading “banned” books.
The main characters of the game are a young girl names Fang Ray-xin and her junior Tseng Ching-hua, both of whom suddenly find themselves alone in their school, which is located in a remote part of the mountains. The school seems like a desolate building devoid of every sign of life.
Fang and Tseng must partner to find answers behind the strange things they see, including spirits and otherworldly beings. The story, once it becomes clearer to the player, is heartbreaking and horrific.
Gameplay is, however, the simple side-scrolling point-and-click. Its music, which fuses traditional Asian instruments with modern musical genres, is haunting. Detention is the first game developed by Taiwanese game developer Red Candle Games and was released in 2017.
It is one of the few games whose popularity led to its adaptation into an acclaimed film of the same name in 2019 as well as a Netflix series in 2020.
The second video game by Red Candle Games, Devotion, was released in 2019. Like Detention, this atmospheric horror game also touches great heights in gaming with its psychological fear-driven narrative, but it is not a sequel.
Its protagonist is Du Feng Yu, who lives with his family in a Taipei apartment complex in the 1980s. A series of events leads the family into the trap of a cult leader whose influence over the Du family members causes their downfall. From music to the game’s environment, everything reflects social and cultural elements of the period in Taiwan in which it is set.
While Detention reveals the horrors of an oppressive political regime, Devotion exposes the darker side of blind faith in religion.
Although the game isn’t political, it landed in controversy soon after its release when players found an in-game poster mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping by comparing him to Winnie-the-Pooh. The game was removed from Steam, and in 2020, CD Projekt Red’s storefront GOG also backtracked on its decision to sell the game. Thus, Devotion’s sales were initially restricted within Taiwan.
In March 2021, Red Candle Games launched its own online store from where the game can be purchased.
Like many other psychological horror games, Sanitarium begins on a mysterious note. Since the game was released in 1998 before many games in the genre, it can be said that it is one of the first to have such an opening.
The game’s principal character is a man, who is a patient at an asylum and has lost his memory following a car accident. He is called “Max” but is unsure if that is his real name and tries to make sense of the inexplicable happenings around him.
“Max” travels between different worlds from the asylum in his attempt to find answers as fact and fantasy intersperse in his story. In his quest, he encounters deformed children, insane patients, monsters, and mythical gods, amongst other beings.
The game was created by DreamForge Intertainment and published by ASC Games. French game developer DotEmu released the game on Android and iOS in 2015.
Observer is set in 2084, in a near-dystopian cyberpunk world devastated by a “digital” plague and war. A corporate-funded police force, comprising neural detectives, tap into the minds of suspects to carry out convictions depending on what one is thinking. Thus, they are known as Observers.
The main protagonist of the game is Dan Lazarski, an observer. As he enters the minds of dangerous criminals as well as victims for clues to solve a case that is personal to him, Lazarski begins questioning his reality.
The game was developed by Bloober Team and released in 2017. An extended version, known as Observer: System Redux, was released in 2020 through 2021 on various platforms.
Designed like a traditional Japanese role-playing game, the environment and characters in Omori are pixel-art style. The graphics are refined to a point where the mood in the story can be gauged from the colours on the screen.
The psychological horror game is about four friends, all of whom can be controlled by the player. Omori seems to be one of the friends but is the dreamworld version of a character called Sunny.
There are a lot of interactions between players. They face challenges such as battles in the dreamworld where each player takes turns to attack and is emotionally affected in return.
The smartly built game doesn’t even appear anywhere close to horror for some time. However, it eventually reveals who Omori is and how every decision in the game can lead to any possible outcome.
Omori deals with suicide and depression — two serious themes that make the game not suitable for everyone.
The game was designed and developed by Omocat, a pseudonymous American graphic designer who has a range of merchandise featuring her artwork. She worked on the project for six-and-half years before releasing it in late 2020 to critical acclaim.
The Last Door (season 1 and 2)
A cryptic message from an old friend brings Jeremiah Devitt to a manor in this game set in Victorian England. As he tries to unearth secrets in and around the manor, following the mysterious death of his friend, he finds himself realising the reason why he was called to the manor.
The Last Door has two seasons, each containing four episodes. Devitt is the main protagonist and the playable character in the first season. The second season follows Dr. Wakefield, Devitt’s psychiatrist, who tries to find out what happened to Devitt in the first season and thereby discovers a terrible secret that connects the human world to another dimension.
Visuals are pixel-art style but deliberately presented in low resolution to enhance the air of mystery in this game, which has been compared to Lovecraftian horror. The Last Door was developed by indie studio The Game Kitchen. It was released episodically starting in 2013 and ending in 2016.
Buy both seasons here.
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is considered the best game in the Silent Hill series. It gets all the elements of a good psychological horror game — from story to graphics and gameplay to music — perfectly right.
Launched in 2001, the game focuses on a man named James Sunderland who receives a letter from his supposedly dead wife, Mary, imploring him to come to the town of Silent Hill in Maine.
Silent Hill, which is covered in fog, has several monstrous creatures roaming about. Searching for answers to his deceased wife’s letters, Sunderland encounters a few living people. As the game progresses, everything becomes more complex, and he starts doubting his mind and the people he met.
Silent Hill 2, which is the second instalment in the series, has multiple endings, each depending on how the game has been played. The game was developed by Team Silent and published by Japanese video game and entertainment conglomerate Konami.
Buy Silent Hill 2 Director’s Cut here.
Try the enhanced version here.
Investigative journalists often put their lives on the line to reveal something that people must know. In the real world, an exposé by an investigative journalist can topple governments. In the world of Outlast, an investigative journalist is on a dangerous mission to unearth terrible secrets at a psychiatrist hospital located in the mountains of Colorado and run by the transnational Murkoff Corporation.
Released in 2013, the game’s main character, Miles Upshur, enters the Mount Massive Asylum after he receives a tip-off about strange happenings and experiments taking place inside it. He finds bodies everywhere and must explore more before escaping from the place.
Armed with just a camcorder that can function like a night-vision camera and incapable of attacking, Upshur has to dodge insane convicts who have been experimented upon as well as an inexplicable entity during the mission.
The following year, developer and publisher Red Barrels released a downloadable extension titled Outlast: Whistleblower. It centres on the software engineer who gave Upshur the lead in the first place. The extension is both a prequel and a sequel to the main story, and thus has a definitive ending.
Though both Outlast and its extension appear more like survival horror, a 2013 Venture Beats report says that Red Barrels worked with real-life neural psychologists to understand how insanity affects humans. This helped them define the behavioural elements of dangerous inmates that the player characters encounter at the asylum.
While the game uses jump scares to create thrill for players, the absolute helplessness of the characters in both versions coupled with the atmosphere of a decrepit asylum, whose dangerous inmates are running amok, has turned Outlast into one of the best psychological horror games of our time.
(Main and Featured images: Red Candle Games)