Pixel-Fright-Us: Psychological torment

psychological horror feature

(Editor’s note: In celebration of Halloween, the Pixelitis staff is outlining 31 of their favorite horror games in Pixel-Fright-Us. The following games are not listed in any specific order.)

Sometimes the enemy within is far scarier than the enemy lurking in the shadows. But what happens when those enemies are one and the same? Psychological horror is a nebulous and unique evil, the type where monsters that come from troubled minds are often made manifest by some kind of supernatural force.

Be it a purgatorial towns that draw in tortured souls, the hellish dreamscapes of a teenage recluse or a cruel orphanage where the roles of adult and child are reversed; these are the locales that make up our worst nightmares.

Alan Wake  [Xbox 360, PC]

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The game: Alan Wake is basically a suspense novel in video game form. Remedy shows an unwavering commitment to the game’s storyline and the dark atmosphere that goes with it.

What makes it scary: It comes down to a mix between the atmosphere and the writing. While the game lacks any “jump scares,” everything about Alan Wake comes together to make the player feel tense throughout the experience. You’re rarely sure about what is going to happen next and Alan’s sanity (and by extension, your own) comes into question frequently. You’re given manuscript pages supposedly written by Alan that provide interesting foreshadowing to upcoming events.

The gameplay of Alan Wake is that of your typical third person shooter but uses some interesting mechanics based around light. Every enemy you meet is cloaked in darkness and must be given a healthy dose of flashlight before they can be damaged. That means that you’ll spend the game worried about your ammo and battery counts.  But the highest praise I can give Alan Wake is that after you’re done with it, you’re going to be begging your buddies to play it so you can talk about what the hell happened.

Scariest aspect or moment: The cabin. What happens in and around the cabin. Everything about the cabin.

- Ken Smith

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Silent Hill  [PS1]

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The game: The Silent Hill series is amongst the megastars of videogame horror. The early games had controls and gameplay similar to the Resident Evil series, but while Resident Evil‘s horror was rooted in gore and jump-scares, Silent Hill took the more sophisticated route. Not unlike the darker works of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, Silent Hill focuses on a town that severely enjoys venturing into the deep subconscious of its visitors. There is plenty of violence and jump scares to be seen, but the deeply horrifying moments of Silent Hill are often the more subtle ones. Images of a suicidal girl standing vacantly on a burning staircase or a man paddling aimlessly through the fog linger in one’s subconscious far longer than a zombie dog leaping through a window.

Though in retrospect, that’s scary too.

What makes it scary: While other games arm the main characters with guns and armor, Silent Hill protagonists are only equipped with makeshift weapons and their own nightmarish visions. Even if you manage to find a gun, the characters seem so inexperienced with combat, they barely know how to wield it. Objectively, the controls in the first couple Silent Hill games are weak, but it almost adds to the tension. If you’re surrounded by violent mannequins, struggling to get a well-aimed shot will send nervous shrills down your spine. Silent Hill will always have you feeling defenseless, alone, and on the edge of your seat. 

Scariest aspect or moment: Near the end of Silent Hill 2, the player learns that James might not have been the most trustworthy protagonist. And at this moment of clarity, James begins to lose his already flimsy grasp of reality. The hotel that he is in begins to fill with a muddy purple liquid, and the once fancy walls and architecture begin to rust and decay. Even doors stop working properly, and the player must adjust to the lack of rules that the game falsely comforted you with. Your friendly map is now your worst enemy as James is arbitrarily warped from hellish floor to hellish floor.

Not to mention the music in the background sounds like an orchestra being stomped on. It’s a grand finale that, like the rest of the game, shows you the true horror of having no control even over your own self.

- Stephen Hilger

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent  [PC, Mac]

The game: The modern masterpiece of the horror genre. This is the game that comes up in the “scariest game you’ve ever played” discussion in nearly every message board. Amnesia was developed by Frictional Games, who worked on the Penumbra series, and released in 2010 to rave reviews. The story focuses on Daniel, an English archaeologist who travels to the mysterious Castle Brennenburg to escape an ancient terror that is pursuing him. As you might imagine, the castle is not a friendly place and you must help Daniel figure out what happened and escape the castle.

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What makes it scary: What doesn’t? The setting, the story, the sound design, the gameplay–everything falls into place to create a perfect storm of fear. The player is helpless, which is usually the case in the major scary games, and placed in a hostile environment. It’s dark so merely running away from danger isn’t always the greatest idea especially due to the game’s sanity meter. This mechanic is what really drives the experience. When your sanity meter is high, your vision blurs and you start to hallucinate. You lower the meter by making progress in an area or standing in a well lit area and raise it by looking at a monster or standing in darkness. This creates the perfect catch-22: the best way to get away from harm (a monster) is to harm yourself (darkness).

Scariest aspect or moment: The prison. It’s about halfway through the game and until that point, there was a decent amount of “safe spots” in each area. By that, I mean there was somewhere you could run that was well lit, even if you hadn’t been that way before. Well the prison is totally black and nearly every light source has to be provided by you. If you were too lenient with your Tinderbox use earlier in the game, you will hate this area because there will be large parts of this area that you will have to navigate with no light whatsoever. And you’re being followed the entire time.

So that’s great.

- Ken Smith

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Rule of Rose [PS2]


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The game: Children can be frightening little terrors. Especially when they bully each other and threaten to kill each other if they refuse to comply. Rule of Rose, an Atlus game from the PS2 era, harkens back to the days of young childhood–that awkward time where most children (myself included) desired to fit in and wanted to be liked by the popular group.

You play as a timid 19-year-old girl named Jennifer who chases a little boy into an abandoned orphanage full of creepy children who are part of a clique named the Red Crayon Aristocrats. Appeasing these little orphan lordlings is of the utmost importance, amidst the terror that is fighting off these fiendish goblin-like creatures.

With a dog companion by Jennifer’s side, you discover what brought her to this orphanage and try to fight your way through the nasty hellions who stare at Jennifer with nothing but contempt.

It’s almost like Mean Girls set in the British countryside, with a healthy dose of unimaginable torture and horror.

What makes it scary: The thematic setup of children as your main antagonists. Nothing says torturous like mischievous little children tying up dogs, stabbing butterflies with forks and calling you a filthy little girl. The torment is astronomical. It makes you feel equal parts outraged and frightened. There’s also the matter of these random tiny goblins (what else to call them) that you have to fight off with a FORK.

And ONLY A FORK.

Scariest aspect or moment: The opening scenes where you’re forced to go around the side of the house in order to keep chasing the little boy you’ve lost on the bus were probably among the creepiest things I had seen in the game. It has every terrible horror genre mechanism thrown in. Drafty house, lots of doors, a candle lit room and a recently dug grave.

All with the accompanying lilt of laughter from children hiding behind said doors…

Why do all creepy children have to be British?

- Karen Rivera

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Yume Nikki  [PC]

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The game: Often when one tries to describe their own nightmares, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint what made the dream so unearthly terrifying. For a while, I had this difficulty too. Until I played Yume Nikki.

The game itself takes place almost entirely inside the subconscious mind of Madotsuki, the young female protagonist. While exploring her own dreams, the player will mostly be witness to extremely surreal landscapes such as monochromatic deserts, Earthbound-looking homes, and the lonely sands of Mars. Most of the game’s content is randomly determined so each player will have their own unique and disturbing stories to tell. The fact that the player never knows exactly what is going to happen, even after hours of exploring, is simply terrifying.

What makes it scary: I think haunting is the best word to describe the game. Madotsuki is a victim of her own dreams, yet she is never in any immediate danger, and she can always wake herself up. The game, when it feels like it, unleashes a plethora of disturbing images and characters onto the player but they’re not the biggest threat.

Your worst enemy, in Yume Nikki, is your lack of foresight and control. Your basic, intuitive human instincts are reduced to zero. I remember walking along one path to the right for minutes and minutes. It was going nowhere and the game was clearly looping textures. “I’ll just turn around,” I thought to myself. And then the game was suddenly different. New textures and different music. Those factors themselves aren’t scary, but the fact that my own sense of direction was proven false unnerved me for the rest of the day.

Scariest aspect or moment: I could go on to describe other key moments that scared me, but like a nightmare, it’s best as a personal experience. Just download the game and we’ll talk later. You’ll need the comfort.

- Stephen Hilger

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Author: Pixelitis Staff View all posts by

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