Some horror games are best played alone at midnight. Other ones are meant to be played in a room full of friends with a six pack of beer. Here’s a few of the latter kind.
I have never seen anyone more terrified playing a game than my roommate and his friends were, huddled around a laptop, after I showed them Slender: The Eight Pages. Five years after its release in 2012, this freeware flash game has been done to death. There’s Slenderman Halloween costumes, multiple sequels, and a plethora of kitschy fan content. This original game still has some bite, though, and more to the point, it’s easy to introduce to people who might not regularly play games. In it, you’re alone in the woods at night, trying to collect eight pages across the map. If Slenderman sees you—and he’s always pretty close by—you’re dead. That summer night in Chicago, I watched my friends all grip their beer bottles close to their chests, peeling the labels off as the designated player picked up another page. As they heard the static getting louder, indicating Slenderman’s presence, one of them started screaming, “You gotta chug! You gotta chug out of there!” Reader, they did not chug, nor run, out of there. They looked at Slenderman, and they fucking died.
Trivia games aren’t normally scary, unless you have trouble being on the spot, and your palms get all sweaty, and your heart is pounding, and you only realize after someone’s shouted the answer that you knew it, you fucking idiot. This game, from the Jackbox Party Pack 3, aims to bring that experience to people who don’t have a generalized anxiety disorder. It’s basically like your local bar’s trivia night meets Saw. If you get your trivia question right, you live. If not, you have to play games of chance with your other players, and you may “die.” You can still compete as a ghost, and even win after death, but being alive will give you an advantage. You know, just like in trivia competitions in real life.
This one actually is a playable slasher flick, and definitely gets more fun the more people you have to hash things out with. It’s a familiar set up: a bunch of horny teens are stuck in a remote cabin with a monster that wants to murder them. It’s also a game where you’re more or less forced to choose who will live or die. Every so often, the game will pause and let the players make a decision. Do you want to investigate a strange noise? Throw rocks at those wolves? Side with one character over another in an argument? All of the choices you make will have unexpected ramifications for your cast of characters, and sometimes result in their grisly deaths. It’s also got a star studded cast, including Hayden Panettiere, Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek and Peter Stormare, who devours the scenery.
Alan Wake is less a spookfest than a playable airport novel. Sure, the enemies, who are townspeople possessed by darkness, can be suitably threatening, but a friend and I passed a controller back and forth for this one for a simpler reason: the titular Alan Wake is a handsome dope. He’s a writer who’s gone to the remote town to work on a novel when, as it so often does in the horror genre, everything goes wrong and his wife goes missing. It’s a juicy set-up, made juicier by how little everyone can cope with their newly possessed neighbors. Everyone in this eerie town makes a truckload of dumb decisions, and you’ll find yourself yelling at the screen like any good slasher flick. Playing Alan Wake is like watching a season of a good-but-not-great horror tv show. Hell, it even has a Twilight Zone-esque anthology within the game itself. If you like watching horror movie in order to judge people rather than for the scares, this is as good as any Stephen King adaptation.
Playing Soma with another person isn’t really about the experience of sitting next to someone and screaming along. It’s more of an existential thing. The game, which takes place on an abandoned undersea science base, doesn’t have a ton of jump scares, though it does have a murky, unpleasant vibe. It also gets real close and personal with themes of human beings’ inevitable mortality, or even if our consciousness has any import at all. The real terror of this game is not knowing if the things you do are right. If you don’t have someone with you while you’re playing, you’re going to want to discuss this experience anyway. Talking with other people, experiencing something collaboratively over dinner or just a Skype call, can help you understand what’s making you afraid. The horrible trick of Soma is that if you think you chose wrong, those conversations help the terror grow.