Do You Want To Play A Game?: Underrated Gems of Horror Gaming
This Halloween, you're inevitably going to watch a horror movie or two, and wear a costume, and eat some candy... unless you're one of those weirdos who thinks Halloween is about worshiping Satan or summoning Cthulhu or some other silly reason that makes me question your intelligence. Anyway. You'll probably do one or two or all or more of those things. If you're like me, though, you like to hit the lights and cuddle up to a controller for some quality time with a spooky video game. And for good reason: some horror games are goddamned terrifying.
But see, I feel like there are so many overexposed horror games now, thanks to annoying internet personalities like PewdiePie and, to a lesser extent, Markplier. Yeah, Five Nights At Freddy's and Amnesia and Outlast are scary and all, but I feel like they get too much attention. There are a lot of great horror games out there that deserve attention. I've already talked about this a bit with my Survival Horror 101 series, but in the spirit of the season, here are some great horror games that are overlooked way too much.
I'll be straight-up with you right now. In the absolute strictest sense of the word, Illbleed is not a horror game. Yes, it's scary. Yes, there's gore. Yes, there are finnicky controls that are basically the calling card of any 90's to early 2000's horror title. But Illbleed is also a bizarre, perverse farce of a game which is as disturbing in its content as it is in what it finds humorous. Player characters bleed geysers of blood and fall into surprising traps... while also playing murderous baseball against a man with a flamethrower devastated over the loss of his son, and helping a horny action figure rescue his sexy doll girlfriend who is literally named Sexy Doll. Oh, yeah, and this is all framed in the context of a contest that takes place in a horror-themed amusement park. Confused yet?
Illbleed is one of the most absolutely insane games I've ever played. I would say it makes cult classic Deadly Premonition look like a sensible, rational piece of entertainment by comparison. One moment, you're frantically running from an enemy and trying not to jack up your character's "Horror Monitor" (they panic and become vulnerable if this fills up too much.) The next, you're laughing at the campy gore, awful voice acting, and nonsensical plot that jumps from point A to point B with no sense of coherent progression. All at once, it's a depraved comedy and startling horror game. Really, there's nothing else like it out there, and if you're looking for something bizarre to play with some extremely open-minded friends, it comes highly recommended.
D2 is one of the most difficult games in the world to describe. Is it a horror title? Random encounter role-playing game? Hunting simulator? First-person shooter? Open-world snowmobiling experience? The answer to all of these questions is "yes." Instead of sticking to one or two formulas, late gaming auteur Kenji Eno decided to just take everything he could think of and throw it into a veritable melting pot of oddball design and questionable storytelling. The result was a twisted game that still has a pretty devoted cult following to this day, and for good reason. Eno's title is the closest gaming has gotten to a true David Lynch experience, in my mind. It's initially confusing, often disturbing, and has hidden depths that astute players will pick up on the more they apply critical thought to it.
The game itself, which follows Eno's digital actress Laura (previously the star of D and Enemy Zero, two Saturn games I can't afford,) is a freakish concoction that involves alien parasites, zombies, and... um, well, a scene of gratuitous oral violation that's a special kind of disgusting. Despite the clunky nature of shooting controls on the Dreamcast, everything works like it ought to, more or less, and the whole experience is terse, mysterious, and pretty damn freaky. There are plenty of decent-to-good horror titles on the Dreamcast, but few of them are as truly disturbing and weird as D2. If you can get your hands on it, it's worth a spin for anybody looking for an abstract body horror experience.
Rule of Rose (PS2)
If you're in the mood for something brooding, sinister, and vaguely pedophiliac (at least according to Australia,) Rule of Rose is one of the best titles available on the PS2, horror or no. Following a young woman who is basically forced to become a slave to a secret society of little girls, it's a slow-burning experience that creeps up on you as you play, only to come out of left field and shock the living hell out of you when you least expect it.
Some critics maligned the occasional monotony and weird subject matter of the game, but personally, I feel like that's part of the charm. You'll find yourself doing day-to-day tasks for the little cretins, getting lost in expansive hallways, and then BAM! You're locked in a room with a scissor-wielding maniac. On top of that, the plot is all kinds of "out there," especially for video games. Underage lesbian love stories, a society named after a red crayon, and a particularly harrowing parable about bullying in the context of some fucking fucked-up Lord of the Flies-esque shit that ends up going down. Did I mention all of this takes place on an airship, but also sometimes a house, kind of? And that there are ghosts? And zombies? And you save your game at scarecrows?
Rule of Rose is a rare psychological horror gaming experience, and well worth playing late into the night, getting creeped out with each bizarre plot twist. Good luck finding a copy, though. It'll cost you well over a hundred bucks, thanks to ludicrously low sales figures and a small print run.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GameCube)
I hesitated putting this on the list, because a decent number of people know of it... but then I looked at the sales figures for the game. While perhaps it's not as low as some other games on here (D2 isn't even on any charts,) it sold under half a million copies, and for a first-party Nintendo game, that's a little ridiculous. In fairness, that's most likely due to the fact that games like Eternal Darkness aren't exactly what video game enthusiasts come to the company for. Instead of bright, happy and adventurous, this is a title that's dark, grim and claustrophobic. An anti-Nintendo game, if you will.
Developed by Silicon Knights, who would famously go on to royally fuck themselves into irrelevance, the title follows a woman who winds up exploring the house of her murdered grandfather, only to uncover a series of increasingly bizarre Lovecratian horrors. Or does she? Eternal Darkness is a game that is expressly interested in messing with your head and blurring the line between reality and nightmare. It does this by not only making you question the sanity of the protagonist, but your own as well, as you'll find the game screwing with itself to screw with you. Controls will intentionally lock-up, you'll be goaded into deleting your save data, and your GameCube will "freeze," among many, many other tricks. While there are compilations online featuring all of these tricks, I'd recommend steering clear of them and going in fresh. Many of them are still just as effective today as they were then, especially if you're tired or a bit drunk.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is a lot of things. A horror game. A time-travel romp. A Lovecraft love letter. But above all, it's just a damn scary game that not enough people have played. Considering its relatively low price compared to other games on this list, it's well worth seeking out.
Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3, 360)
The popular opinion of the Silent Hill series is that the first three games were untouchable masterpieces, the fourth is a mixed bag, and everything after that was pure garbage. But see, I'm never one to just sit back and follow popular opinion. Personally, I think only two of the post-Team Silent entries in the series are actually bad games (Origins and Book of Memories, if you're wondering,) and that the rest are actually pretty good in their own right. But despite my love for the twisted and brilliant Shattered Memories, the last real Silent Hill game released on consoles is perhaps the most underrated out of all of them.
I was much more taken with Pendleton Murphy's mind-bending yarn of redemption than I ever was with Harry Mason's search for his daughter, or Henry Townshend's attempt to leave his apartment. From a narrative standpoint, I honestly think it's one of the best in the series, and features some really messed-up subject matter that's handled remarkably well. Not only that, but every is damn scary. The game world changes constantly, trying to throw you for a loop, and the combat (featuring breakable weapons) is visceral and tense. Add in a remarkable art direction and some memorable enemies, and you've got a pretty great horror experience during a console generation that desperately needed more of them.
Survival horror has been making a bit of a comeback recently, but barely any of the "big" survival horror games out there represent what I've historically loved about the genre. Classic survival horror games have, to me, not only been about scaring players, but making us mutter "what the actual fuck" to ourselves. Some of my favorite survival horror titles feature improbable plot points, absurd enemy designs, and a downright bizarre atmosphere that treads the "stupid" and "scary" line with finesse. In today's gaming landscape, I can think of no finer example of a game that does this than the patently absurd, yet absurdly terrifying, DreadOut.
Giant evil boars? Ghosts on motorcycles? Yeah, man, why not? In terms of pure weirdness straight out of a Dreamcast or PS2 horror title, complete with lovably awkward animation and voice acting, Dreadout hits all the right notes. It's also damn scary, with just the right balance of atmospheric tension and jump scares, all hitting you at once. There's even a Fatal Frame-esque (let's just kindly call it an "homage") aspect, with you being pretty much unarmed and having to survive by taking pictures. It's all very campy and dated, but in a lovable way that feels like it goes hand-in-hand with the pants-shitting terror that ensues in the two-part saga. If you're looking for a true diamond in the rough that hasn't gotten nearly enough love, check out DreadOut. Unlike most of the games on here, it's dirt cheap and on Steam.
Deadly Premonition (PS3, 360, PC)
Because no list like this would be complete without a game once likened to two clowns eating themselves. But seriously, start at 1:45 in the linked video, then go play this glorious crazy diamond of a game. Enough said.
Got any other underrated horror games you like? Played any of the ones listed? Let me know in the comments!