Location, location, location. It’s important in all aspects of life, but doubly so when trying to create media that evoke a certain atmosphere and emotional response. Take horror games, for example – it is the spooky season, after all. You can have the most revolting monsters imaginable, but will it really bring about a sense of dread in the player if you’re encountering them in a beautiful sun-dappled field of sunflowers? Unlikely.
Games have taken us to all sorts of exotic locales over the years, from the sordid inner workings of tormented minds to the depths of hell itself. But sometimes the scariest places are those you’ve been to countless times – here are a few of the locations that pop up in numerous horror games, along with some musings on why they still send chills down your spine even when they’ve become so familiar.
5. The Abandoned Asylum
Found in: The Evil Within, Outlast, Sanitarium
No-one really likes going to the hospital. But once you’re there, you’re usually pretty well taken care of by caring staff who are genuinely invested in your well-being unless you’re in a horror game, of course.
Pop culture adores a creepy abandoned hospital: for all that we rationally know that doctors are well-meaning professionals doing their best, there’s an often macabre fascination with immoral MDs, unethical experimentation and the lingering souls of abused patients. And there’s nothing that screams ‘horror’ (sometimes literally) like an abandoned mental hospital.
The whole second season of FX’s American Horror Story is set in an asylum, and every ghost-hunting TV show will inevitably feature an episode or two in a haunted psychiatric hospital. Games are no different: 2014’s The Evil Within kicks off with some mind-bending and horrifying shenanigans in Beacon Mental Hospital, and the entire plot of 2013’s Outlast hinges on hero Miles Upshur’s attempts to escape the horrors of Mount Massive Asylum. Even Batman: Arkham Asylum offers an intriguing inversion of this classic trope: by sticking to the shadows of the asylum and taking out mooks unseen, you can turn some sections into a horror game where you are the dreaded, unknowable beast that drives others to panic and terror.
So what is it about old mental hospitals that are so creepy and fear-inducing? Maybe it’s the quiet feeling of dread when you’re in a building designed to have people moving through it that is now completely bereft of any life. Perhaps it’s the sense of dark secrets hiding behind a benevolent facade: many older asylums purported to look after their patients and keep them removed from society for their own good while treating their charges inhumanely and subjecting them to horrifying ‘treatments’ behind the scenes. Is it any wonder that the idea that all that pain and misery could seep into the very walls of the building is such a popular one?
4. The Overrun Town
Found in: Resident Evil 3, Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill, Bloodborne, Half-Life 2
There’s a reason you’re told repeatedly that people don’t go to Ravenholm anymore in Half-Life 2. The once-peaceful mining town is now fallen to ruin, and zombies stalk the streets, moaning and whimpering in painful desperation. It’s beyond help, and so are you if you find yourself stuck wandering its neighbourhoods. We don’t go to Ravenholm.
The abandoned and/or overrun city is another frequent stop on the horror game express. Possibly the best-known illustration of this comes in the Silent Hill series, where the malevolent forces of the titular town stalk the protagonists through its strange streets, and the derelict buildings hide horrifying manifestations of their sins. But the idea pops up in all sorts of other games, too: the aforementioned Ravenholm is one of the most memorable and enduringly tense sections of Half-Life 2, and Resident Evil 3 and 4 have sections that see you running for your life through the roads of Racoon City and an ambiguously Spanish pueblo respectively, fighting off zombies, Tyrants and brainwashed villagers.
It’s an effective locale: the fallen town embodies both the unsettling deadness of an evacuated public building and the terror of running into an unexpected threat, writ large. It manages to creep you out with its emptiness while also promising that there’s definitely something here, somewhere – and you most likely don’t want to meet it.
3. The Creepy Old House
Found in: Resident Evil, Resident Evil 7, Layers of Fear, Gone Home, P.T., Phasmophobia
It’s a tale as old as time – there’s something horrible afoot in the neighbourhood, and it lives in a creepy old mansion. The Resident Evil series is the classic example for this one: in the original game Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield find themselves investigating a supposedly abandoned mansion that soon proves to be anything but, and in the critically-acclaimed Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the series returned to those same roots as protagonist Ethan is hunted through an old plantation manor by a singularly messed-up family.
More recently, we’ve seen several more contemporary takes on this classic horror setting. Hideo Kojima’s short-lived teaser for a new Silent Hill game, P.T., sees you traversing an endlessly looping corridor in a disarmingly normal-looking suburban house that gradually changes and deteriorates as you progress, while the homes you visit when ghostbusting in Kinetic Games’ Phasmophobia are similarly modern-looking.
The trope of the haunted house is an old one, and it is an effective one – it combines what should be familiar and comforting with an eerie and creeping sense of dread. For so many, a home is supposed to be a safe space, so how are we supposed to react if we hear an unfamiliar noise coming from the next room or see a light suddenly be unceremoniously snuffed out? Did it just get a little chillier in here? Probably best not to turn around, just in case…
2. The Haunted Forest
Found in: Slender, Until Dawn, Alan Wake
Picture it: you’re walking in the woods, there’s no one around, and your phone is dead. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot him: Shia LaBeouf.
OK, so Rob Cantor’s creepy and hilarious song about the provocative actor isn’t entirely serious, but he hits on a great sentiment: being out on your own in nature can be sinister as hell, and plenty of horror games are more than happy to remind you why.
Whether it’s the menacing game of cat and mouse in the various Slender games, in which you’re scrabbling around trying to find notes hidden in the forest armed only with a dodgy flashlight while the terrifying Slender Man stalks you relentlessly, the snowy mountain woods of Until Dawn as you try and fight your way out of a classic supernatural slasher movie plot, or the mind-bending and frightening landscapes of 2019’s Blair Witch, there’s nothing quite as unsettling as being out in the open when you know something is trying to hunt you down.
It might be the oppressive darkness, with even the weak light of the moon obscured by the canopy; it might be the eerie sense of being utterly alone in our modern ultra-connected age. Or it might be that you know deep down that however far and however fast you run, there’s nowhere to hide from whatever it is that’s coming for you.
1. The Space Station
Found in: Alien: Isolation, Dead Space, System Shock 2, Bioshock
It might seem somewhat counterintuitive that being in space – something that the vast majority of us will never, ever do – could be such a universally chilling and unnerving thing, but it’s clearly the case. Some of the most devastatingly scary horror games of recent memory have situated you on a space station or spaceship, navigating claustrophobic corridors and trying your best to avoid being dismembered, murdered or otherwise inconvenienced.
In 2008, Dead Space took the horror world by storm, putting you in the shoes of Isaac Clarke as he tried to survive on a mining spaceship overrun by the hideous Necromorphs, and in 2014 Alien: Isolation sent you off to the Sevastopol space station to be menaced and occasionally eviscerated by the eponymous Alien. Special mention must also go to System Shock 2, where you are pitted against an insane AI aboard a derelict space station, and its successor Bioshock, which mixes up the formula by situating you in an abandoned city/space station that’s actually deep under the sea.
There’s plenty that makes these games terrifying: the AI of the enemies, the viscerally Cronenbergian design of the Necromorphs, the crazed ramblings of Rapture’s inhabitants. But much of the atmosphere is down to the location: the loneliness and isolation of being trapped in a big metal box floating through the eternal expanse of space bring you all the anxiety of Slender’s creepy forest, but turned up to 11. Not only is there no help coming, but you can’t even escape yourself – even if there’s an escape pod available, who’s to say that thing sitting in the air vents is going to let you take it?