Sometimes, the best horror is not monsters and maniacs, freaks and frights, but your own mind. In this article of 5 Best Psychological Horror Games I’ll explore some of worthy contenders you should play this Halloween 2019.
Halloween Horror Games 2019: 5 Best Psychological Horror Games
The mind is of course the source and nexus of all our fears, both fictional and real, and I wanted to focus on it, and how horror can bend the psyche in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. For this purpose, I wanted to choose games that didn’t treat psychological horror like another monster, as if the horror of the mind is something that’s no different than all the other manifestations that go bump in the night, that our minds create. In these games, creatures and creeps are used, but the real terror exists nowhere else than in our own heads, a part of our own selves. So, here’s five psychological games that may get stuck in your head…
Genre: Point & Click Adventure
Platforms: PC & Mac, Mobile
There’s no other kind of crazy like childhood trauma crazy, and there isn’t a rabbit hole deep enough that a girl could fall into to compare to the odd and otherworldly dark fairy tale that is Fran Bow. Taking on the role of the titular character, you play through the nightmare existence of the young girl Fran who has had everything taken from her, her home, her family, her cat, and her sanity, as dark forces of mortal and supernatural making seek to use her as an instrument of sinister machinations. Traveling through realms, time, and the intricate workings of the mind, Fran Bow journeys to find the truth behind the cause of all her suffering and loss, in a story that begs the question of what is truly real.
Gameplay consists entirely of puzzles and exploration, while incorporating some other mechanics to add to the complexity, such as switching between realities/times in order to solve various puzzles that you need to be in the right time and place to do. They were two, two puzzles that I thought were too far on the dumb side in how they’re solved, but most ranged from acceptable to clever to fun to complete. Aside from that, the story had me fascinated, the visuals had me creeped out, and the music was always adding an eerie air to every area. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Fran Bow, from the madhouse, to the morbid forest, to the mystical realms beyond the mind. Fran Bow is definitely a game to play if you want some insight into the darker facets of the more psychological aspects of childhood. To give the game an allegory of sorts to provide a sense of what it’s about:
when it comes to Fran Bow,
it’s all quite a show,
as the butterflies talk and the summer days snow.
As the cats bark and the pigeons crow
And the trees and wind play tic, tac, tow
As the little lost child wanders to and fro
With face alight with a murderous glow
As the madness in her mind begins to grow.
And her hand holds the knife and I scream, “oh no!”
If you find yourself wanting to give psychological horror adventure a go,
Then I wholly recommend the game, Fran Bow.
Genre: Survival Horror/Adventure
Platforms: PC & Mac, PS4, Switch, Mobile
Ever had a high school crush you felt regret about not asking out? Or an old friend you wish you never had a falling out with? Or maybe a test you cheated on and got away with, but the guilt of your actions still way on your heart if only just a little? Even if you had all three, you’d still have nothing on the main character of Detention.
Attending a Taiwanese school at a time of martial law, in a society where social dissent is grounds for severe punishment, and where loyalty to country or to friends is on opposite ends of the bargaining table, you can get a good look at just how guilt and heartbreak can burden the mind, both in life, and in death. This exploratory adventure title is another horror piece where the fear comes in a far more subtle form, not just ghost and ghouls (which also are there to kill you), but in the more complex nature of morality and duty. What would you do when your loyalties are divided, and your actions become life and death choices that you will bear the burden of? Who will you betray? Who will you hurt? And what will become of you afterwards?
Detention is a straight forward adventure title, primarily about exploring the dilapidated school that’s more than meets the eye, and finding the right tool for the job to continue while learning about the history and story, while mixing in a few survival horror elements in the form of malevolent spirits that you need to carefully stealth past, lest you soul end up their feast. Fear, despair, guilt, and more than a couple of morbid scenes, detention makes me never want to go back to school, ever again.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Platforms: PS4, PC, Xbox One, Switch
As someone who has had the occasional screaming voice in his head and vivid hallucinations that have at times genuinely made me question my sanity, this game showed me what those afflicted with more common occurrences of such things go through. The horror of Hellblade splits between the mundane strife of psychosis that many a person suffers from, and the Norse themed metaphysical embodiment of such madness. Delusion, panic, tangible torment from intangible forces. Hellblade made me feel constantly alone in its world, yet always feeling watched and followed, as if every danger, every enemy, every trial existed just for Senua, her own, personally created hell (or I guess I should say Hel).
It’s a dementedly surreal experience I rarely find another game captures quite so emotionally, or accurately, and this coming from a man who recently had an all too vivid dream of his chair being made of flesh and screaming bloody murder at him and somehow woke up sitting in front of it (sleep walking mixed with lucid dreaming is a hell of a thing). Psychological disorders are something rarely touched by video games, and even when they are, rarely so life like. I don’t expect this feeling about Hellblade to be shared by all who play it, but for me at least, this gave at time a spine crawlingly relatable experience to dealing with the unreal that feels so real it becomes a questioning of your senses and existence.
As for gameplay, it’s a far more conserved hack ‘n’ slash, leading the player to deal with one to three enemies at a time rather than throwing a small army at you. Attacks and enemy abilities are varied enough to offer a bit of tactics in combat, and the strikes are visceral and impactful. There’s also a good deal of puzzle solving that tingles but never strains the brain, though I personally did not care for the find the rune in the environment puzzles. Not hard, but more tedious than entertaining. Also, the limited death mechanic did keep a feeling of tension in every situation I could die. I never died due to combat, but I did fall victim to a glitch and died twice. Despite this, I had far more fun than not, and the problems didn’t do enough to kill the otherwise overall despairing and traumatic story of Senua.
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita, Switch, Mobile
More depressing and psychologically taxing, but still scary in its own way, Distraint focuses on the psychological downward spiral of a man whose job is to ruin people’s lives. Okay, that’s a pretty strong way to put it, but to the man himself, it’s all too true. His job is to repossess properties from people who, for whatever reason, can’t pay up or are forced to relocate.
The game focuses on the growing internal conflict between his desire for money and status in his company, thus becoming a soulless husk of a human being for the sake of the all mighty dollar. His inner humanity only wishes to help those he has force out of their homes in any way he can, even if it’s just to do something that can give them small comfort. As he goes from job to job, his mind begins to torment him with metaphorical manifestations of his psychological burdens, the guilt, the regret, the fear, the hunger for success. It beats him down endlessly in a story that shows the macabre world of business he’s pushed into, and the equally morbid mess his mind becomes. His actions and the people around him begin to tear it down until there’s nothing left of the man he once was, or rather, nothing left at all.
It starts out only mildly depressing and dark, but soon takes a ninety-degree downward turn straight into suicidal proportions of despair, as you take on a tour of the most gruesome facets of the human mind and soul. Destraint is a game that makes you realize for all the monsters and madmen we typically think of when we imagine things that induce pants wetting terror in us, the greatest monster, the greatest source of fear in our lives is the one wearing a regular human face just like ours. One that puts on a nice business suit you’ll never have enough money to buy, having complete and utter apathy for his fellow man. Your boss whose mood determines your future at the company, and thus your entire life and worth in the world. Your bank, which has more power over your own money and property than you do. Your coworkers, who will gladly trample all over you for a chance at taking a step up on the corporate ladder. And your government, your economy, and your civil leaders, who are content to let it all happen while reaping in all the profits.
So yeah, that’s Distraint, taking the mundane fears and horrors that embody the day to day lives of the average Joe and conveying them in the form that truly captures just how vile and morbid the very nature of it all truly is.
Library: Penumbra: Overture, Penumbra: Black Plague, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, SOMA
Genre: Survival Horror
Platforms: PC & Various console releases
Penumbra, Amnesia, Soma, three titles that I had to include under one name. With two games under the first moniker, two under the second, and one under the third, that’s five horrifying games to delve into, and have you questioning your perception of reality. These title slip into the sci-fi, with supernatural eldritch monstrosities lurking in the shadows, both of your mind, and of the dark room you’re in. These kind of horrors are the ones that are there when your back is turned, and your guard is down.
Each game puts focus on survival through wits and stealth over direct combat, while exploring decaying, ruinous buildings littered with dark secrets and unholy creatures. It’s a battle for your sanity as much as for your life as you uncover more about the waking nightmare you find yourself in. Though all titles are certainly terrifying, I prefer Amnesia and Soma to Penumbra due to the lack of combat in the latter title, which is quite clunky in function and practice. However, I would still recommend all titles for those that want to feel uncomfortable in the dark.
Note to PC users: Know that while all these games can be purchased from you’re preferred Digital distribution storefront, all of Frictional’s games, (with the exception of Amnesia: The Dark Descent), can be acquired DRM-Free from the Humble Bundle’s Humble Monthly via their Humble Trove, along with a litany of other titles and the monthly’s premiere games. It’s only 12$ (U.S.) for one month, and any games downloaded from the trove can be kept forever after the subscription has expired as long as you actually downloaded them. Without a doubt the best deal available if you’re looking to purchase the entire Frictional Games library.
What horror games do you think are perfect for a halloween playthrough? Do you agree with this list? Let us know in the comments below.