As Alien: Isolation has been unleashed upon us and breathes fresh life into the iconic Xenomorph that's been prowling around our screens in one way or another for 35 years, it seems the perfect time to take a look at some terrifying games that have delivered us a satisfying blend of science fiction and horror over the years. The science fiction and horror genres crossover so easily into one another it’s hard to tell sometimes where to draw the line between them. Two such expansive genres meeting has almost endless potential for the directions it can go in.
This is by no means a definitive list of the best sci fi horrors, everyone has their own fears that different games will tap into. Thats another thing that makes this genre so great, so much of it is subjective. What we may find so terrifying someone else may find laughable, and vice versa. Rather, this is a list of five truly great sci-fi experiences with than than chills to satisfy the most ardent horror fanatic.
Alien Isolation (2014)
Alien: Isolation is the game that inspired this piece so it seems like the best place to start. What Alien: Isolation has done is brought the xenomorph right back to it’s roots, to where it all began, and not just because she gets to hunt someone called Ripley again.
Whereas Alien games up until now seem to have derived their inspiration from James Cameron’s Aliens, the most obvious source to be fair, Alien: Isolation takes its inspiration from the 1979 original, doing away with the endless rounds of bullets, the MF1A Pulse Rifle and the gung-ho attitude of the colonial marines. Instead we’re delivered much of what we felt with Ripley on the Nostromo so many years ago. Isolation, unsurprisingly, is the overruling feeling here. Stuck on the space station Sevastopol with only a few aggressive survivors, equally unwelcoming androids and, of course, a creature designed to be the perfect killing machine left aboard. You really are all alone.
The few weapons you’re equipped with aren’t effective against the Xenomorph, and it’s quick to track you down should you attempt to let rip. This culminates to a feeling of utter helplessness, often leaving you no option but to just hide and pray for your survival. There really is no option to fight back. To add to this, developers The Creative Assembly designed the space station with the design of the Nostromo firmly in mind. Dark, dingy rooms, small corridors, and even the chunky retro style computers and hardware add to a feeling of claustrophobia. Alien Isolation has delivered us a great piece of sci-fi horror, not allowing you the option to attack when the flight or fight instinct kicks in, and not giving you many places to run.
Half-Life has left a legacy and created a long suffering fan base like no other game. The first time we got introduced to Gordon Freeman at the Black Mesa Facility was way back in 1998. I can still remember vividly the moment that the experiment goes wrong and you get transported briefly to the Xen, to glimpse the horrors that you’ll have to confront throughout the game. From then on in I spent the whole game debating whether or not I should continue.
Half-Life's most iconic alien being, the Headcrab, is a hideous creation, as are so many of the other regular beasts Gordon encounters throughout the game, with the barnacles possibly worst in appearance. They all looked nasty in 1998, Half-Life 2 made them even more disturbing to encounter. Just imagine how horrific they’ll look when Half-Life 3 come around!
Alien versus Predator (2000)
Alien vs. Predator is the first game in which I encountered both the Xenomorph and Predator and it’s stuck with me ever since. Without a doubt the most effective aspect to the three pronged campaign in this classic game was playing as the colonial marine. In some ways it was the anticipation that built up the most fear in the opening few minutes of the campaign. Probably playing this game probably several years before I should have been, it’s those moments I recall most.
Still, to this day the ominous beeping on the motion tracker sends chills down my spine. Such an innocuous noise in itself but a terrible warning that something terrifying is just around the corner. The other campaigns were far from comfortable as well. Even as the Predator armed to the nines, things weren’t straight forward, having to constantly be on the move, on the look out for marines or the Predator-Alien hybrids. Alien vs Predator didn’t give you a moment to take a breath and kept the adrenaline pumping throughout.
System Shock 2 (1999)
System Shock 2, the game that is hailed as the forefather to the Bioshock and Deus Ex series. Set in a dark cyberpunk envisioning of 2114, System Shock 2 improved on its predecessor in adrenaline and scares. The protagonist is a soldier, who awakens on board a spaceship to find the crew either killed or infected with a virus that turns them into killers, with a hive-like mentality. Already sounding you're in a spot of trouble, it gets even more disturbing when the voices of the infected crew, known as The Many, telepathically speak to the player in a bid to convince you to join their new level of existence.
Even with the admittedly dated graphics now, the final section of the game through the giant biomass of The Many is pretty revolting, akin to walking through a living sewer. If System Shock 2 were to be recreated with the visual standards of today it would be truly grotesque. The squelching sound effects with each step through these tunnels has lost none of its uneasy feel. The System Shock games were an early impressive entry into the sci fi horror realm, the legacy of games speaks for itself when looking at the AAA titles they have gone on to inspire.
Dead Space (2008)
EA’s Dead Space is one of the more recent titles to make it on to this list. Dead Space is the ultimate mish mash of sci-fi horror tropes, borrowing from a number of other titles on this list, along with a knowing nod to Resident Evil. This however doesn’t have a negative effect on the game at all, if anything the fact you can pick out its influences actually works well for it. Dead Space has lots we’ve seen before; a seemingly abandoned spaceship; a botched rescue mission; viral infection; reanimated corpses; a hive mind; mind altering visions; company men with ulterior motives. There is a lot here that seems very familiar. Saying that, if you’re going to take elements of other sci fi and horror bits of media, it’s best to use the most effective ones. Which is what Dead Space does to a tee.
Playing as Isaac Clarke you battle your way through the spaceship USG Ishimura against the reanimated corpses of its crew, attempting to destroy the hive mind controlling them. The reanimated crew, or Necromorphs, are a really disturbing creation that can move from being creepy to downright terrifying at lightning quick pace! What it lacks in originality Dead Space makes up for in effective visuals, well crafted disturbing monsters and a heavily oppressive aesthetic, helping deliver a haunting atmosphere. Spawning a sequel that matched its predecessor for scares (along with that dodgy third outing), Dead Space is a fine achievement in the sci-fi horror genre.
What Science Fiction-Horror crossovers over the years have had you looking over your shoulder whilst you've been playing? Throw your suggestions into the comments area below!