Even Outlast's trailer will give you nightmares.
There's almost too much to be scared of in games these days, and instead of survival horror burning out as a genre – as it appeared ready to, a year or two ago – it's only gathering steam. Outlast broke new ground by making the player character's body mechanics central to the action, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs isn't the retread of the Lovecraftian soil that it could have been. The first Amnesia: The Dark Descent (and that it was) was heart-stoppingly terrifying at points but pretty light fare as adventure games go, a bad sign for people, such as me, who thought Frictional's Penumbra games were smarter, more involving and ultimately scarier because of it. But Machine for Pigs is of purer PC stock than its shambling forebear, and Outlast, a PC first, seems entirely too frightening for the console children, even though it's coming out for the Playstation 4 in 2014.
Telltale's Walking Dead series was one of the most heartening moments in recent gaming history and a higher note for the medium than the AMC series was for television. Very few adventure fans really want to go back to Day of the Tentacle and lying about consulting walkthroughs. We've seen object-based puzzles taken to an extreme and the highs and lows they bring, and we should also remember that what's probably the most famous example (one word: babelfish) is a send-up, a totally absurd and pointless thing that lays bare how arbitrary adventure games can be. If you manage, in playing the 1984 Infocom classic, to insert the small, language-translating fish into your ear after it springs from a cruelly uncooperative, space age vending machine, then, hats off.
Walking Dead, more than the Monkey Island reboot series, seems to give us a reason that the characters are in 3D. Adventure is – in some ways – still figuring out what to do with the third dimension, and Dead's action and stealth sequences fit in neatly with walk and talk segments that have their own tension. You slug it up with the undead, sneak around behind them and lurk in the shadows, taking in entire scenes as the camera pans around or through or right up to some important detail. And not all of the suspense leaks out as the more traditional gameplay takes over. Where most games give you an eternity, Telltale's serial opus often imposes a timer on dialogue options and other choices. You're under the gun, and the consequences of your actions (or inaction) are often sickeningly graphic. Yep, that guy just got his carotid artery chewed out of his neck because of YOU.
Games may be the ideal medium for horror. Good, terrifying films are rare, and novels even rarer, but the immersive power of games unlocks a dark, dark door in the genre. Anyone who has spent some time alone with System Shock 2 or even Doom 3 has learned that they use a shortcut around the rational mind that's all but inaccessible in the psyches of most adults. Many hardened gamers have found themselves turning off the Amnesia games and walking outside for some sunlight and fresh air – and anything that compels a gamer to disconnect in the absence of boredom or immense frustration is a force to behold.
Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are available on Steam.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent and System Shock 2 are available on both Steam and Gog.com.
Ghostly crew members from System Shock 2.