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2014 in review: a great year for horror games

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While many folks feel 2014 was somewhat lackluster overall, it was a fantastic year for horror games.

In some ways, it felt like horror games, once so very much in vogue with the survival-horror style (think the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series) in the late 90s, have been making a slow-but-steady comeback in the gaming public's mindshare. Two of the best games of 2014, in any genre, were capital-H horror works (Alien: Isolation and P.T.), and developers working well under those budgets are consistently creating some of the most interesting work in the indie space, using horror tropes or horror themes as a catalyst.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the popularity of streaming and YouTube playthroughs are just about perfect for the horror genre — it's fun to watch other people get scared! Many of the spookiest titles on this list enjoyed long, happy lives in the eyes of the public on the strength of the game's life as a spectator sport, which has helped many smaller games gain the visibility they might not enjoy in other genres.

It's coming to get you

In terms of big-budget games, 2014's spooky crop was strong across the board. 2014 began with The Last of Us' Left Behind expansion in February and subsequent remaster on the PS4, which brought the game into its own. The Last of Us isn't a traditional horror game, but it has almost as many scares as it does deeply dramatic and melancholic moments, set as it is in a horrific, mutant-infested apocalypse, and it works well as an introduction to the "pure" horror games that would follow. Like P.T.

When P.T. was first released, it was a complete mystery. It was announced as a free download for PS4 users in August. Eager players grabbed it, and found one of the most effectively terrifying games released this generation. P.T. is a first person game where you walk the haunted halls of a "regular" old house. Well, haunted hall, singular; you loop over and over again through the same awful space as it morphs subtly around you, and the story — about a man who brutally murdered his wife and child — starts to reveal itself.

Sure, it turned out that P.T. was essentially a piece of viral marketing, to tease Hideo Kojima's upcoming Silent Hills. But it was such an effectively scary, weird, communal experience that people were still posting let's play videos, story analyses and how-to videos for months after its release. That's how deeply it got under horror gamers' collective skins, and became one of the coolest surprises of the year, in any genre. There are still nights where I wake up to get a glass of water, and I find myself avoiding a peek at the bathroom mirror, terrified that I'll catch a glimpse of "Lisa," P.T.'s ghostly apparition.

October 2014 brought with it two AAA horror games: Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within. The Evil Within is a high-energy, gore-filled action-horror game directed by Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame. Parts of the game are full-on batshit insane, including the introductory hour with the game, which has its protagonist go through a blood sewer, avoid deathtraps, stealth around a crazed butcher, and then survive a car crash as the city morphs and crumbles around him.

Alien: Isolation is about as tonally removed from The Evil Within as can be. It's a somber game of survival aboard a malfunctioning space station (filled with stories of blue-collar working stiffs getting screwed, and corporate greed taking over), where one deadly, terrifyingly real creature stalks you.

It has flaws, but Alien: Isolation is intensely scary, darkly beautiful and utterly authentic to the classic film it takes its inspiration from. It's a very rare — and brave — big budget game that has the guts not only to disempower the player and make them feel hunted, but to remain interesting and unique throughout.

Indie risks

Alien: Isolation almost shocked me with just how risky its gameplay was, for such a large game. Many of its sensibilities can be traced to smaller horror games that have been taking gambles with established gameplay norms, much of which can be traced to 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that had the unprecedented gall to remove combat from the equation and disempower the player. Risks of that kind were readily apparent in this year's smaller horror games, which, with their lower budgets and tuning for niche audiences, have the permission to be as radical — and weird — as they want to be.

Five Nights at Freddy's — and its sequel, which came out an almost-unheard-of mere months after the original game — is a prime example. It's sort of an FMV game (like the infamous Night Trap), where you play as a hapless night security guard at a Chuck E. Cheese ripoff populated by evil, murderous automatons. In both iterations, you need to switch from camera to camera to watch cheerful, robotic woodland creatures in order to track their movements, and try your damnedest not to get eaten by them.

The Terror Aboard the Speedwell, a text adventure that presents one of the best Alien-esque scenarios I've encountered, made one of the boldest decisions of any game this year. After a crew member is attacked by an unknown parasite, you can essentially make a decision that renders 90% of the game moot, and sets you down a very specific narrative path.

Daylight is a first person game, set in a procedurally-generated haunted asylum. The procedural generation was undoubtedly a cool twist, and there were plenty of ghosts and jump-scares, but the game's actual story proved rote. Where Daylight added in procedural generation, The Forest added other elements that were popular in 2014 games, namely, survival and crafting elements.

Among the Sleep innovated in a very different way, with clever framing. In it, you play as a two-year-old child navigating a nightmare world that they can't possibly understand. On a similar note, Neverending Nightmares is a horror game by way of personal narrative: an adventure game based on its creator's struggles with Obsessive-compulsive disorder and alcoholism.

There were countless other indie projects that arrived in 2014 that could be qualified as horror, including Curtain, a game that explored domestic abuse and Dust City, an exploration game featuring a number of warped worlds to peruse.

That horror — and horror tropes — are so popular with indie designers and small teams speaks volumes about why horror games are getting so much more interesting, at all levels.

Kind of creepy

A fair number of horror-influenced games came out in 2014 that weren't necessarily terrifying, but they added a great deal of texture to the landscape. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game about horror stories, with a gorgeous, haunted town, supernatural family drama and creatively-imagined puzzle mechanics to back it all up. In the game, you play as detective Paul Prospero, out to solve the central mystery of what, precisely, happened to Ethan Carter.

You also play as a supernaturally-gifted detective in Murdered: Soul Suspect, one of the most criminally underrated games of the year. In the opening moments, Salem, MA detective Ronan is killed, and you spend the rest of the game as his ghost, solving a central mystery as well as hanging out in an eerily accurate modern Salem, with a bunch of other apparitions with unfinished business. It plays off of classic ghost stories and dime store detective novel tropes even more effectively than Ethan Carter, and only its iffy stealth combat kept it from being a sleeper hit last spring.

Horror tropes continued to inform the narrative of Telltale's The Walking Dead, which released its second season this year (disclosure: one of the game's writers, Nick Breckon, is a personal acquaintance and co-host of a podcast I work on). You're likely familiar with the adventure series, which in this season put young hero Clementine front and center as a survivor of a horrific zombie apocalypse, and also, the smartest eight-year-old on the planet.

So, yes, 2014 may not have had quite as many blockbuster action games as in years past. But where horror was concerned, 2014 had the strongest crop in a long, long time.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.