While not everyone’s cup of tea, video games with darker stories tend to become critically acclaimed best sellers. This is probably because the darkness of the stories can be layered with themes that expand the character and add to the character’s struggles within the storyline. Questions of morality, elements of fear, and survival against all odds are usually used to enhance the player’s connection with the main character(s) as well as other characters featured in the game.
For this article, the selections were chosen based on their elements of horror, survival, moral struggles, and setting. Another notable aspect is a change in the main character’s psyche or mental health. Consequence of choice is important as well.
WARNING: SINCE WE WILL BE TALKING ABOUT THE PLOT/STORY OF THESE GAMES, EXPECT MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
10. htoL#NiQ (Hotaru no Nikki)
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation Vita
- Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
- Developer: Nippon Ichi Software, NIS America
- Release Dates: February 24, 2015 JPN: June 19, 2014
In the year 9999, a girl named Mion awakens in a dark and confusing world. She has no memory of where she is or how she got there. With the guidance of Lumen, a firefly, she begins to gradually work her way upward, toward the surface. In her travels, she finds memory fragments, which reveal that she was once part of a normal family living in a normal world.
The dark, ruined world that Mion finds herself in is a hostile one, filled with traps and enemies who lurk in the shadows. Dead children can even be found as she climbs upwards. The only allies that she has are Lumen, a firefly, and Umbra, a shadow firefly.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Shiver Games
- Developer: Shiver Games, Lace Mamba Global
- Release Dates: October 26, 2012
In this game, you assume the role of Lucius Wagner, son of the devil! Contacted by your father, the devil, on your sixth birthday, he orders you to kill everyone in the Dante Manor, your family home. This is fulfillment of a prophecy of the Antichrist ruling the world. Each kill gets you souls, which you can use to upgrade your demonic powers!
Being the son of the devil isn’t all fun and games; as Lucius, you must use your telekinesis and mind control powers to kill creatively. Furthermore, you must make each death look like an accident; otherwise the police or a meddlesome detective might suspect you. Everyone -even your own human parents- is fair game. Expect to see lots of blood, gore, and mutilation as you follow the commands of Satan.
8. Spec Ops: The Line
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, OS X, Linux
- Publisher: Yager Development
- Developer: 2K Games
- Release Dates: June 26, 2012
Following the disappearance of the 33rd Infantry Battalion, a Delta Force trio of highly trained soldiers is covertly sent into Dubai on a recon mission to obtain their current status. Upon arrival, Captain Martin Walker, leader of the Delta Force trio, finds a complicated situation involving the 33rd’s loyalty to the United States Army. It is unclear whether they have gone rouge or not so Captain Walker makes a judgement call to disobey his squad’s orders until they have located and conversed with the 33rd Battalion’s leader, Colonel John Konrad.
The setting and story were influenced by Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness, as well as the 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Morality can be something of a luxury for a soldier, especially when your choices are between bad and worse. In the campaign for Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Walker will have to make choices which his squadmates will question, introducing doubt to both the player and the main character. Rarely are there any decisions in war that come easily and Spec Ops: The Line does an excellent job of translating this idea into the storyline.
7. The Last of Us
- System: PlayStation 3
- Publisher: Naughty Dog
- Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Release Dates: June 14, 2013
In 2013, the United States of America had an outbreak of a deadly fungus that turns humans into mutant monstrosities when inhaled into the respiratory system. Now, in the year 2033, most of the USA has been decimated by the effects of the fungus. The government has turned highly authoritarian and all of the remaining citizens who live in cities are constantly policed and scanned for signs of infection. Joel, a smuggler, and his smuggling partner, Tess, take a job from a rebel group known as the Fireflies. They are contracted to smuggle some unusual cargo -a teenage girl named Ellie- out of the quarantined city and into a special Firefly medical camp. A bit uncomfortable but in need of payment, Joel and Tess accept the job. Soon, they find out why Ellie is being smuggled out -she is immune to the infection.
Most of the darkness in this story comes from its post-apocalyptic setting and a realization of just how much the world has changed. It may, in fact, be easier on Ellie not knowing what the world was like before the outbreak because she was born just a few years after it. But Joel remembers it all too well; his young daughter died in his arms on the night of the initial outbreak. Due to Ellie’s immunity, they have a small hope of manufacturing a cure, but a long, dangerous journey awaits them. It’s one filled with desperation and misery but one they must endure if they want to save humanity.
6. Heavy Rain
- System: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Quantic Dream
- Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Release Dates: February 23, 2010
Ethan Mars suffered a major concussion and went into a coma for six months after unsuccessfully trying to save his ten year old son, Jason, from a fatal accident. Two years later, the repercussions are still prominent in Ethan’s life as he struggles to move on from his son’s death, cope with his divorce, and get his life back on track. His state of mind is in such turmoil that he even begins to have blackouts, moments where he cannot remember what he was doing. During one of these blackout episodes, his other son, Shaun, goes missing while in his care, taken by the infamous Origami Killer. Ethan has only a few remaining days to find his son before he ends up like all of the other victims, drowned in inches of rainwater from the region’s heavy rainfall.
Heavy Rain’s noir feel is complemented by the addition of nearly constant rain, an atmosphere common in the noir genre. Overcast skies leave the player in a depressing and dim environment as Ethan is sucked into playing a twisted game (much like in the Saw franchise) designed by the Origami Killer in order to save his son’s life. Ethan’s mental issues along with extreme anxiety caused by the killer will leave him well acquainted with darkness.
5. The Walking Dead: Season 2
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, OS X, iOS, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Ouya, Android
- Publisher: Telltale Games
- Developer: Telltale Games
- Release Dates: October 14, 2014
After Lee Everett’s death in The Walking Dead Season 1, Season 2 resumes its story, this time focusing on young Clementine. She continues to travel with a group and, being quite competent for her age, becomes integral to its leadership. With winter fast approaching, the group will be tested in ways they could never imagine.
Moral choices can weigh heavily on Clementine- and when they present themselves, it comes at a crucial moment where the decision must be made in a split-second. Every time a moral choice is presented to you, the choice that you make can have a ripple effect and you may have to incur negative consequences for every option. Sometimes the choices come down to having to decide between food and security- two survival essentials that cannot co-exist with this decision. Other times, it will involve choosing who lives and who dies; in moments like this, nobody wins. Though only a child, Clem must face many horrors ahead.
4. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: January 24, 2017 JPN: January 26, 2017
Out of the blue one day, Ethan Winters receives a message from his missing wife, Mia, who has been presumed dead for three years. He tracks the source of the message back to a plantation-style house located in Dulvey, Louisiana. Inside, he finds that his wife has been imprisoned in the basement as some sort of test subject.
Ethan’s rescue mission quickly turns into a nightmarish ordeal in which not everyone can be saved and every minute is a frantic struggle for life. Darker parts of the storyline feature kidnapping, torture, cannibalism, murder, and mutilation. The DLCs include backstories for the Baker family and detail their downward spiral from a normal family into madness and cannibalism.
3. Metro: Last Light
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, OS X, Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: 4A Games
- Developer: Deep Silver
- Release Dates: May 14, 2013
Metro Last Light takes place in Russia, around 20 years after WW3. Radiation is still so strong on the surface that, in some areas, water will automatically boil. Artyom, the main character, is a Ranger in the Order, a faction fighting for Metro territory against the Reds (Communists), and the Reich (Nazis). A year ago, Artyom made the choice to launch a missile strike into the Garden, the place where phenomenal creatures known as the Dark Ones live. Reports say that he managed to kill all but one of them, just a child. Originally intent on finishing the job, Artyom changes his mind after speaking to the young Dark One, and they work together to stop a Communist plot that would kill thousands of innocent people.
The Reds have engineered a virus mutated from a strain of Ebola and have introduced it the neutral station of Oktyabrskaya. After infecting innocent men, women, and children they planned to overtake the station city under the guise of containing the outbreak of the virus, if not for Artyom’s intervention. Even though the Reds were not able to infiltrate the station, many civilians still died from the effects of the virus. After the child uses his telepathic powers to communicate, Artyom realizes that the Dark Ones were not humanity’s enemy but potential allies; and that because he didn’t understand them, he almost wiped out an entire species. In one ending of the game, Artyom dies defending station D6 from the Red Army blitzkrieg in a conflict similar to the Battle of Thermopylae.
If you listen hard enough, you will even hear lore about the other, non-aligned stations that exist further out in the tunnels. Rumor has it that they enslave their own children and practice cannibalism.
2. Condemned: Criminal Origins
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360
- Publisher: Monolith Productions
- Developer: Sega
- Release Dates: November 22, 2005
While investigating a murder attributed to a serial killer nicknamed “The Match Maker,” Agent Ethan Thomas of the Serial Crimes Unit is framed for murdering two police officers. Now hunted by the boys in blue, Ethan must utilize his remarkable investigatory skills as well as his extraordinary sense of intuition to catch the real murderer in order to clear his name. In the midst of this, he is witness to supernatural events taking place in the darkness.
While hot on the trail of a serial killer, Ethan must explore some places that you would not want to be alone in: rundown subway stations, a trashed department store, a derelict high school, etc. If that’s not enough to creep you out, the game takes place entirely at night and every location is filled with amped-up junkies, psychotic thugs, demons, mutants, and oh yeah, the occasional serial killer. During the investigation, Ethan’s intuition forces him to have hallucinations in which he sees the criminal events unfold in his mind. His unique insight allows him to deduce that there is another serial killer, dubbed Serial Killer X, serially killing other serial killers! For an overwhelming majority of the game, Ethan must investigate crime scenes completely alone. Enemies come at you full force from every nook and cranny. At the end of the game, the player is presented with two choices- either kill SKX, or spare his life. No matter which ending you get, the results are the same, as Ethan Thomas continues to suffer at the hands of his demonic tormentors.
1. DEAD SPACE 2
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
- Publisher: Visceral Games
- Developer: Electronic Arts
- Release Dates: January 25, 2011
Three years after his ordeal on the Ishimura, Isaac Clarke is institutionalized in an insane asylum on a space station called the Sprawl. He suffers from intense delusions reminding him of his dead girlfriend, the Necromorphs, and of his encounter with the enigmatic artifact known as the Marker. Isaac awakens from his delusive state to find that the Sprawl has become infested with Necromorphs! In order to escape, he must relive his nightmarish experience by fighting his way to freedom with help from a mysterious woman who claims to be able to cure him of his delusions.
Upon exploring the station, Isaac finds himself plunged back into the horrific experience he overcame in the first game. Isaac struggles to keep his sanity throughout the game as his dead girlfriend, Nicole Brenan, appears to him in scary, vivid hallucinations and tries to deter him from making it off of the Sprawl alive. He still feels incredible guilt over her death, as he was the one who convinced her to serve on the Ishimura in the first place.
In conclusion, some of the entries on this list deal with very heavy topics. Although not apparent at first, the ability for the player to make certain choices within the stories can bring up many philosophical questions. What is morality and why does it matter? Is murder still wrong even if it is for the right reasons? Can people really change? Are second chances worth giving? The fact that these kinds of questions are coming up at all is evidence of how far video games have come since the days of Pong. But it’s these dark stories that can make people fall in love with video games in the first place.
Also, if your name is Ethan, you are probably thoroughly freaked out right now. Three items on this list- Condemned: Criminal Origins, Resident Evil 7, and Heavy Rain- all feature a protagonist with the name Ethan! Coincidence? Yes, we think so. But you never know…
What are your favorite games with the darkest stories? What Rated E game would you like to see given a dark reimagining? Be sure to comment down below, we’d love to hear your thoughts!