With the wealth of stories in science fiction games —not to mention the sub-genres they can cross over with— there are bound to be some that feature dark and disturbing content. Technically, sci-fi can refer to any story that features science depicted in a way that currently does not exist in real-life. In other words: fiction. With that said, a common genre popular in games today is sci-fi because of its nature to take players to amazing and original worlds.
Games like Mass Effect allow players to traverse the stars and explore the galaxy, whereas Killzone shows the gritty tale of a war between planets in conflict. In fact, sci-fi is so profusely embedded in gaming that established series like Call of Duty, which originated as a world war series, soon turned to the far future to satiate the interests of players.
But not every sci-fi game stops at imagining the future of exploration. Often, they enter dark territory. Evil artificial intelligence, advanced neural cyber-hacking, mutilated former-humans, space-time paradoxes, and unnatural body-modifications fuel the darkest stories in gaming. This darkness is also home to some of the most disturbing concepts in the sci-fi genre.
Many of the games featured on this list could also easily be considered horrific experiences in their own right. Each of them features varying degrees of sci-fi elements to tell their stories and expand their world. Some are grounded in reality, while others feature the deepest depths and horrors found in the cold vacuum of space. It should go without saying, but there are many spoilers here.
15 Dead Space
The second game in the series focused on elements of horrific psychological visions coupled with disturbing creatures. However, it is the original Dead Space —inside the walls of the U.S.G. Ishimura— that truly gripped players. As Isaac Clarke, an engineer tasked to restore the derelict craft, players encounter the chilling Necromorphs, which are mutilated zombie-like creatures with an unquenchable hunger for your flesh. Some of the most horrific scenes in Dead Space are Isaac's death animations, where he is torn apart by these nefarious monsters. Isaac also has to contend with visions of his dead girlfriend. Even his crew members are willing to turn on him, with no regard for the hero's life. The atmosphere the story is told in is one of constant foreboding. The simple act of walking past a body you believe to be dead, only for it to spring to life and attack makes Dead Space one truly disturbing tale that can unsettle even the strongest of constitutions.
14 The Last Of Us
It is a late night. Joel and his daughter, Sarah, are relaxing at home…and then they’re forced to flee as pandemonium erupts in their community. They don’t know it, but a fungal infection of cordyceps has spread onto people and has begun ripping society apart. When they believe they’re finally safe, Sarah is killed by a nervous soldier. This is the opening to the world of The Last of Us. It is brutal; full of hardship and strife. Not the most conventional sci-fi game ever made, but taking notes of a fungal virus in a post-apocalyptic world, and the through-line is clear. We follow the grieving Joel who has to escort a girl —Ellie— across the former United States in hopes of finding a cure to the virus. This story makes for an incredible journey filled with realistic characters while dealing with the emotionally-charged concepts of suicide, loss, regret, trust, and love.
13 Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This near-future game sets an alarming precedent for mechanical augmentation in humans. A potential look at our bright future. That is not only the background of the game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but also that of the company – Sarif Industries – where protagonist Adam Jenson works as the chief of security. Unfortunately, Adam never gets the choice to gain these augmentations after being brutalized in an attack that leaves his body in a desolate state. Soon, he becomes a reluctant cyborg with a vast array of enhanced abilities, which come in handy to take on the mysterious identities of his attackers. One fascinating aspect of this story is how Jenson —and society— walk a line between self-acceptance and self-loathing. This makes Deus Ex an introspective study of the world through the eyes of our protagonist. We are treated to activist groups against augmentations who stage riots, and companies banking on the exploitation of these enhancements to turn a profit. Some characters are nearly fully mechanized near the end of the game, thus making Human Revolution the starting point to a true division of mankind.
12 Prey (2006)
Being uprooted from your home and witnessing the brutal slaughter of your family at the hands of devious aliens is a bleak way to begin a game. That, however, is the foundation that Prey draws upon with Cherokee protagonist, Tommy. After his apparent death, Tommy returns to find his girlfriend, drawing upon the powers of his ancestors to aid in her rescue. Performing spirit walks and accessing a spirit bow, Tommy navigates the Sphere, the massive organic ship that intends to reap all life on Earth. The story, of course, draws a disturbing parallel to the real-world treatment of indigenous peoples of North America – treatment that, by and large, still exist today. Thus, it is fitting that Tommy is represented as a Cherokee in a game that celebrates and is respectful of that culture.Even Prey's level design allows the story to develop based upon the lore dispersed in the architecture of the Sphere and in the inhabitants you encounter. The fact that nearly every weapon and environment has an organic component to it adds a disturbing texture of realism to the confined corridors of Prey’s nightmarish setting.
Set in the quiet isolation of the undersea PATHOS II research base lies the depth and detail of SOMA, an intense first-person nail-biter fused with psychological horror. With a lore-ridden world, SOMA’s atmosphere is one of constant apprehension with a mystery that leaves the protagonist and players guessing the entire time. Small encounters with robots claiming to be human adds an extra layer to the mystery in the traversal of PATHOS-II. The story forces you to ask questions of your own existence and what it truly means to be human. This harrowing journey forces Simon to discover this for himself while dealing with a rampant A.I., its corrupt robots, and mutated humans. The ultimate treat in SOMA is to soak in the rich world through logs and audio recordings. These present the history of the facility up to the timeframe in which Simon and the player begin exploring it.
10 Quantum Break
Paul Serene invites best friend Jack Joyce to see his latest achievement: the creation of a time machine. Unfortunately, once it is activated, there is a malfunction with Paul inside. Soldiers appear with an aged Paul, who attempts to kill Jack on site. As a result of this, Jack develops time-based powers, and his journey to correct history begins. This story succeeds in showing a real-world parallel of how time can change your closest friendships, albeit in a dramatic and rapid manner. This backdrop is enticing, but the moments in which Quantum Break shines are in its junction points where the narrative can deviate along one or two critical paths, altering the characters’ relationships. Because of this, taking one action over another allows the player to experience each variants' many consequences, tearing friendships apart at their seams. In reality, we all have the choice to act or not when we see the opportunity present itself. Like Quantum Break, these actions can define who we are as people, making the game all too real, especially with the integration of a live-action show.
9 Metal Gear Solid
This breakout hit has players slither into the sneaking suit of Solid Snake, who is sent to Shadow Moses to neutralize a lethal special forces unit, threatening to nuke the United States. The pinnacle of this story is in the titular Metal Gear Rex, which is a walking mech, capable of firing nuclear weapons. It is in the real-life conversations of nuclear disarmament and the war economy’s nature of profit vs. power in the wake of near-future technology that it settles comfortably as a sci-fi classic. At its heart, Metal Gear Solid, is also the tale of two brothers, both the by-product of a cloning experiment of the legendary military leader, Big Boss. This family reunion paints a vividly disturbing picture of a possible future for the world that has already seen its fair share of conflict.
8 Gears Of War
Gears of War is set on the planet Sera and features a long-standing war between the Coalition with the overwhelming Locust Hoard, an enemy from the depths of their world. In the game, players follow the adventures of Marcus Fenix, a single cog in the war machine of the Coalition as he and his team attempt to fire a weapon capable of ending the Locust once and for all. The game features a rich ‘destroyed beauty’ aesthetic that embodies a once beautiful world plunged into war, reminiscent of the devastation of European cities during the second World War. Unfortunately, this mass destruction was brought upon more so by the weapons used to fight the Locust — like the satellite fired energy beam: the 'Hammer of Dawn.' The overwhelming and brutal force of the Locust merits the use of the destructive weapon. However, actually using them in the game draws a chilling comparison to the real-world use of nuclear weapons of the past. With all of these technological and monstrous terrors, the focus on brotherhood cements Gears of War as a solid war story set in a disturbingly realistic sci-fi world.
7 Alien: Isolation
Amanda Ripley goes looking for evidence of her mother in the wake of the classic Ridley Scott film, Alien. As the only property on this list that is based on a film series, it is understandable to be apprehensive, but playing the vast majority of the game crouched and hidden out of fear lends a much-needed perspective. Aboard the abandoned Sevastopol station with the violent Working Joe androids and a single alien, Ripley has to use all of her wits if she is to survive the next several hours. Told almost entirely from a first-person perspective, Alien: Isolation is a game that truly terrifies with its hide-and-seek mechanics while dealing with the alien. Even the androids prove to be very difficult enemies themselves. While the story adds little depth to the industry as a whole, Alien: Isolation’s secret sauce lies in its survival horror archetype and its incredible attention to detail to the lo-fi sci-fi aesthetic. The most impressive character then, is a tie between the alien and Sevastopol station itself as many of the best moments in the story occur in a tight corridor, avoiding the alien and trying to reach the next save station alive. The nail-biting tension is sure to frighten and disturb even when playing in the most comfortable home environments.
6 Halo: Combat Evolved
When the Pillar of Autumn makes a blind jump to escape the Covenant and encounter a Halo ring, it is easy to think of it as a paradise. Unfortunately, as the Master Chief peels back layers of this mystery over the course of the game, it becomes imminently clear that the ring is anything but peaceful. A lethal all-consuming parasite and a galactic superweapon capable of killing all organic life in the region require players to keep their wits sharp and shotguns loaded. Parasites in sci-fi are a common trademark, but the fact that this space-faring adventure withholds this information until over halfway through the game keeps its mystery alive. The whole narrative cements Halo as a modern classic. The Flood mutates the human and Covenant forces into mindless killers, whose only mission is to spread and consume as much organic life as possible. Imagining a life-form that has not only access to your body, but also your mind is a truly disturbing and invasive thought. Imagine if such a being existed today - particularly with the emphasis on privacy being a common prevailing topic in this digital age.
5 Mass Effect 2
A group of aliens known as the Collectors is abducting humans for their nefarious purposes, and only Commander Shepard has any hope of stopping them. To do so, Shepard makes a deal with the extremist group, Cerberus, who have very few moral boundaries they won’t cross to achieve their goal in cementing humanity’s place in the galaxy. Walking the line with Cerberus proves to be tricky. Many of your squad members recognize the gray area the group occupies.
Unfortunately for Shepard, the reason the humans are being abducted is even more horrific than anticipated. They are melted down and pumped into a metal shell resembling a human to create a horrific hybrid in the next stage of evolution for the cold and calculating Reapers. The idea of tens of thousands of humans being sacrificed in order to create this terrible life can send shivers down anyone’s spine. This is the darkest Mass Effect ever gets and definitely remains with the player long after it is beaten.
4 Call Of Duty: Black Ops III
What happens when not even your mind is safe from a malevolent A.I., seeking to evolve and spread everywhere? What if reality itself blends with your own distorted visions? With the help of each soldier coupled with a direct neural interface (DNI), battles are now cybernetically enhanced. But, with all of that power, there is a greater risk to have the technology fall into the wrong hands. In this case, the enemy A.I., Corvus, who infects the soldiers you are forced to hunt down is desperate to get their hands on it. The idea of cyber-hacking and mind-control has long been an established idea in sci-fi. The disturbing part of the game is found in a pre-mission text which hints that the game all takes place after your death near the end of the first mission. This notion completely reshapes the nature of the game into something that begs to be replayed. It also opens the door for a Call of Duty game to explore the broader themes of consciousness and perception vs. reality in this far-future setting.
3 Half-Life 2
In Half-Life 2, Earth managed by sinister beings from another dimension. You play as Gordon Freeman, who must stop the enigmatic Dr. Breen from sending a new invading force of combine to further enslave the world. Half-Life 2’s sci-fi setting is easy to spot with the ever-imposing Citadel in City 17. The abuse afflicted by Combine soldiers on ordinary citizens of the city is easily comparable to Nazism in the Second World War.
The truly disturbing part of the story, however, comes when entering the zombie-ridden town of Ravenholm. Zombies in Half-Life 2 are created when head-crabs attach themselves to the faces of humans and change their physiology. As a result, they become very fast, take more damage, and can jump out at you when least expecting it. They are the literal icing on the cake for a world occupied by beings from another dimension.
Perhaps one of the strongest and most imaginatively realized worlds in all of gaming, Bioshock is set in Rapture, an undersea city fuelled by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. That is: before it fell into madness. Playing as Jack, you are directed by Atlas, an ally, to take down the leader of the city, Andrew Ryan. Along the way though, Jack develops elemental powers —from excessive drug-use (called plasmids)— to take on the crazed inhabitants of this once great city. Eventually, Jack stumbles upon ‘little sisters’ protected by ‘big daddies’ and the moral conundrum of the game reveals itself. Do you harvest power from the little sisters, killing them in the process or do you save them from this parasitic mind-enslavement only to lose half of your reward in the process? This morality choice and the crazed nature of the undersea inhabitants is enough to give anyone a fright. The game becomes even more disturbing when it reveals that all of the suggested orders from Atlas have actually been mind-control on Jack. Even you as the player was even fooled into doing Atlas' bidding. Nothing hits closer to home than a game you play for entertainment suddenly makes you question the very nature of the game you are playing. That is an impressive feat.
1 System Shock 2
As a soldier saved from a cabin depressurization in the opening minutes, you are immediately thrust into a world full of tight corridors and the malicious A.I., SHODAN. Now you play by her rules if there is only hope to escape with your life. With infected crew littering the ship and expansive gameplay techniques at the player’s disposal, this game provides the nerve-wracking tension of survival horror. System Shock 2's setting is a cold, foreboding ship for SHODAN to lay out her evil scheme to destroy humanity once and for all. Being an amnesiac, the game is comparable to the best modern horror stories, where the fear of the unknown around each corner can keep you guessing until the very end. For this reason, the visual aesthetic the game is painted to keeps the player on edge in its tight corridors. This combined tension allows the player to navigate the world and discover why it is heralded as a visceral and disturbing sci-fi experience.