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We all know what makes a video game scary. Some games may scare us more than others, but the canon of the absolute scariest games ever made is gradually becoming more established. However, what makes a title one of the most disturbing horror games ever made?
There’s no one thing that makes a horror game truly disturbing. Some are so gory that you begin to wonder if you can physically endure them for much longer. Others get under your skin in ways that may not be immediately apparent until you find yourself having nightmares about them. The one thing all disturbing horror games share is the way they make you want to escape them at any cost. Of course, the best such games keep you hooked long after you know you should go.
Before we dive into this list, here are a few rules and pieces of selection criteria to consider:
- This is a list of disturbing horror games rather than disturbing games. The line between those types of games can be fine, but the basic idea is that this list doesn’t include otherwise non-scary games with disturbing moments.
- This list does not include poorly designed games that are only meant to offer cheap shock value. In other words, games that let you simulate tragic historical events or “barely there” browser titles generally weren’t eligible for this list.
- Finally, I tried to avoid major spoilers when possible. However, I would warn anyone who may be bothered by generally disturbing material to please look into some of these games a little bit before diving into them. Many of these games feature some incredibly troubling themes and content.
With that out of the way, prepare yourself for the most disturbing horror games ever made.
15. Silent Hill 4: The Room
While pretty much any of the Silent Hill games could have made this list (it’s kind of a messed-up franchise, in case you didn’t know), I think Silent Hill 4 is most deserving of this spot. It’s not the best Silent Hill (or even my favorite Silent Hill), but it is the most deeply disturbing entry in the franchise.
The thing that elevates this game above its companions so far as this topic goes is the “apartment” element of the story. The feeling of being locked in a room where your only escape is a portal to a truly terrifying world filled with unfathomable horrors was always disturbing. In these post-lockdown times, though, there’s something even more troubling about that basic concept.
14. Rule of Rose
Rule of Rose has always been a controversial game. Actually, this PS2 survival horror game was banned in the UK at the time of its 2006 release, and it was almost banned in several other countries as well. While some of those bans can be attributed to a lie-fuelled moral panic designed to score political points among “moralists,” there’s no denying that Rule of Rose is a deeply disturbing game.
The very concept of a survival horror title starring such a young playable protagonist is troubling enough. What really puts this one over-the-top, though is its commitment to making young Jennifer endure some of the most indescribable horrors you’ve ever seen in such a title. Rule of Rose falls somewhere between a Silent Hill game and one of those old gothic fairy tales where the kids are most certainly not alright. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a child battle the manifestations of their elaborate nightmares while their only companion (a loveable dog) is constantly in danger, this is the game for you.
13. Growing My Grandpa!
While there are quite a few indie horror titles that exist largely for shock value, I find Growing My Grandpa! to not only be one of the most troubling horror games on Steam but one of the most genuinely fascinating as well.
Growing My Grandpa! is basically a Digimon game by way of David Cronenberg. It follows a child named Adrienne who discovers that…something is growing in the basement of their home. Adrienne soon takes it upon herself to help the thing survive, which leads to an almost indescribable adventure filled with disturbing virtual pet mechanics, meditations on depression, and a few wild plot twists. This game is certainly gross, but like the best examples of body horror, there are some truly fascinating bits of social commentary hidden beneath this game’s icky exterior.
12. The Suffering
I’ve sung the praises of The Suffering before, and I’ll gladly do it again whenever possible. After all, The Suffering is a very rare entry into the “third-person horror shooter” genre. However, there are times when I think that this title’s more action-heavy gameplay makes it a little too easy to forget how disturbing it really is.
The Suffering is perhaps best thought of as Crime and Punishment meets The Shining. While any game set in the most nightmarish prison imaginable is obviously not going to be a good time, The Suffering goes a step further by forcing you to deal with the possibility that you may be the worst monster in that suddenly supernatural structure. There are images in this game you’ll never be able to forget, but it’s the slightly more subtle elements of the story that really burrow into your brain.
11. The Cat Lady
I could see some arguing that The Cat Lady isn’t a “horror” game in the most traditional sense of the idea, but I truly believe it qualifies for the purposes of this list. Besides, few will argue that this game is anything less than seriously troubling, regardless of which genre they ultimately put it in.
The Cat Lady tells the story of a lonely middle age woman who is days (perhaps hours?) from committing suicide. However, her plans are upset by a strange set of circumstances involving a few mysterious strangers. Any game that deals with suicide as openly and often as this adventure title does will always be disturbing, but that’s just the beginning of what this game has in store. Much like those nuclear panic movies from the ‘80s, this game is designed to showcase some of the worst scenarios you can possibly imagine. This is not an easy game to process by any means, though there is a kind of twisted beauty to the whole thing that makes this so much more than misery porn.
While there were very few “good” FMV games released during the ‘90s, most of the titles in that bizarre genre are memorable for reasons other than their quality. Phantasmagoria is one such title.
This FMV adventure game begins with a young couple moving into a potentially haunted house. That familiar premise (relatively speaking) soon gives way to what can only be described as a trip through the torture porn hall of fame. This game’s most violent moments were clearly designed to make you feel ill. They often achieve that goal. Much like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though, those already disturbing images and ideas are strangely made worse by the decidedly low-budget nature of the presentation.
At first, I felt kind of bad about including two gory FMV games from the ‘90s on this list. Ultimately, though, it was hard to part with either of those twisted, ugly journies that leave you feeling like you just played through a snuff film.
Harvester opens with a man waking up in a small town he’s never heard of with no idea of how he got there. The almost Pleasantville-like quaint nature of the town soon unravels as our hero gradually begins to understand the nature of his situation. Harvester includes a scene in which smiling children eat their dying mother, and that’s not even the worst thing it will force you to witness. The whole game is definitely a bit corny (I said it’s a ’90s FMV title), but bad writing and bad acting won’t erase the images it forces into your brain.
I know I just used that “snuff film” comparison an entry ago, but it’s kind of hard to talk about Manhunt and not bring that idea up again. After all, the premise of this game revolves around the idea of entertaining a twisted “director” who isn’t satisfied with the murders you commit unless they’re as violent as possible.
As I’ve previously discussed, Manhunt really is the rare game that forces you to question how much you crave violence in a video game. It’s hard to get over the realization that your own pursuit of increasingly violent murders is really about your own amusement rather than the necessity of the situation. Manhunt 2 is the more violent game of the pair, but I have to give credit to the original in this instance.
7. The Mortuary Assistant
The newest game on this list, The Mortuary Assistant recently got a lot of attention from those YouTubers and streamers that love to overreact to scary games. However, I have to say that I not only find this game to be genuinely terrifying but deeply disturbing as well.
The Mortuary Assistant stars a…well, a mortuary assistant who is called into work late one night under mysterious circumstances. The game’s Five Nights at Freddy’s set-up leads to the usual jump scares, but this title has so much more up its sleeve than a few cheap thrills. Indeed, some of the most troubling things in this game are those more quiet moments when you’re able to manipulate corpses in ways that don’t always respect the dead. This game leans into the inherently disturbing nature of its subject matter in ways that will likely shock you.
While certainly one of the more popular games on this list, don’t let Outlast’s bigger budget and better presentation values give you the wrong impression. This is easily one of the most disturbing horror games ever made.
Outlast (and its exceptional DLC) throws you into just about the worst scenario imaginable with no real way to defend yourself. Even worse, you kind of have to stare directly at the things that frighten you most in order to ensure that they can’t see you. That’s scary, but what really makes this one special are the ways this game goes out of its way to show you the troubling consequences of getting caught. It’s one thing for something to catch you and end your game. It’s another thing for that thing to catch you and mutilate you.
5. Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club has been on a pretty weird cultural journey. In 2017, this “game” (it’s closer to a visual novel) came out of nowhere en route to earning its cult classic status. In recent years, the growing familiarity with this title’s true nature has led some to wonder whether or not it’s really that disturbing.
Even after you realize that this game is most certainly not what it seems, though, Doki Doki Literature Club can still find ways to shock you. The only things more disturbing than this game’s overt horror elements are the very real tragedies that trigger this title’s legendary genre shift. This is the kind of game that forces you to buckle in and go for a ride that you are likely not prepared for.
Detention is really that kind of game that forces you to draw a line between “scary” and “disturbing.” Parts of Detention are certainly scary in the traditional sense, but this isn’t really the kind of game you play when you want a good jump scare. Instead, Detention is the kind of game you play when you want to test the limits of your ability to process some heavy and unnerving material.
Set primarily in a Taiwanese school that is about to be rocked by a typhoon, Detention deals with horrors both universal and more specific to the culture it portrays. As the game goes on, we gradually learn the more overt supernatural horrors this game initially presents are really just a gateway to the even more disturbing personal problems and historical atrocities that form the heart of this title’s narrative. This isn’t always the most enjoyable game, but it is a work of art.
There are actually very few horror games that utilize an isometric perspective, and I think Sanitarium shows us why. It’s incredibly hard to scare players in that “jump” kind of way when you allow them to see so much of the areas around them. Truth be told, this game isn’t even that scary. As noted above, though, the difference between “scary” and “disturbing” is sometimes an important distinction to make.
While many games play with the idea of making you question your sanity by forcing you to separate the real from the unreal, Sanitarium arguably gets the most mileage out of that concept. There are points in this game when you’ll really start to question which (if any) of the game’s worlds you’re really in. This game is just a masterpiece of surrealist storytelling that grabs you with its incredible premise and striking style before making you question how far down the rabbit hole you’ve fallen.
Despite riding a pretty sizeable wave of hype for such a small game, Agony turned out to be a pretty disappointing overall experience. However, I’ve yet to meet a person who has played this 2018 title and doesn’t consider it one of the most disturbing games ever made.
Agony is all about a lost soul trying to survive a journey through Hell. While a trip through Hell is never a good time (and this title’s atrocious gameplay doesn’t help the experience), this game’s vision of Hell is one of the most disturbing that I’ve seen in any medium. Even if you brush aside this game’s stunning amount of unbelievably gory scenes (which is not an easy task), you’re left with its almost Hellraiser 2-like vision of a labyrinthian version of the underworld. This one is really quite the endurance test.
1. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The name of this game (a title it shares with the Harlan Ellison story it’s based on) should give you an idea of what kind of experience it offers. Then again, nothing can really prepare you for what this 1996 adventure game expects you to suffer through.
Many games on this list are designed to disturb you through a nearly constant onslaught of troubling images and ideas. The thing that makes this game so special is its variety of disturbing images and ideas. Just when you think you’ve acclimated yourself to this game’s scares, it forces you to go through some entirely different (but equally troubling) scenario. Torture, psychological horror, surreal imagery…nothing is off the table in this game that often refuses to offer even the slightest hint of hope.
Despite being the kind of game that forces you to slowly wade through the personal hells of some cruel characters, I actually highly recommend this title. It’s genuinely clever and endlessly creative. Just know what you’re getting into.