Video games like the recent Rainbow Friends sometimes go viral for being disturbing, funny, or totally out of the norm. Thanks to Tik Tok, YouTube, and influencers, these titles sometimes get more attention than they ever expected and in the horror genre in particular can take on a life of their own, much like Slender Man which started as an urban myth but went on to spawn movies, games and essentially, an entire franchise.
Viral horror games first started appearing in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, jam-packed with lore and scares that ignited conversations online. While they might have initially seemed like flashes in the pan, they ended up being memorable enough to stick with players for years.
10/10 Poppy Playtime (2021)
Poppy Playtime is one of the newest viral sensations to hit the streets, first popularized on Tik Tok and sending parents into spirals of fear. It has a lot of similarities to its predecessors, such as using childhood imagery in a spooky way. The game is most famous for its mascot Huggy Wuggy, but there are actually a variety of pursuers including the titular doll, Poppy, who lives in an abandoned factory.
Five Nights at Freddy’s and setting from Bendy and the Ink Machine. Thankfully, the game combines these elements well enough to create a memorable feeling all its own. While still new, the game has a loyal fanbase eagerly awaiting its episodic installments.There’s not a lot unique to the game, unfortunately, borrowing its aesthetic from
9/10 Baldi’s Basics in Education and Learning (2018)
Often shortened as just Baldi’s Basics, this game takes a stab at the educational video game genre. It bases itself on mid-90s PC games that attempted to make learning fun, which includes mimicking their limited graphics and pseudo FPS gameplay (similar to I.M. Meen).
The player is dropped into a school with their teacher, the titular Baldi. Players will then have to seek out several notebooks and, after finding them, answer Baldi’s questions. As they continue to collect notebooks and answer questions, the school will be filled with more horror elements. The aesthetic of edutainment mixed with horror was really memorable and earned it viral success on YouTube.
8/10 Yume Nikki (2004)
Yume Nikki debuted before the age of YouTube, but its esoteric nature helped it spread easily on pre-social media internet. The game stars a girl name Madotsuki as she explores the world of her own dreams. She can collect various objects to change her appearance and abilities, but the real star is the world itself.
The dreams depicted in the game are deliberately vague and unsettling. The game’s NPCs are frequently unexplainable, like a giant floating face, and feel randomly generated at times. The game includes a shock ending and the rest of the game’s content has led to rampant speculation for almost two decades, keeping it at the forefront of the viral horror genre.
7/10 SCP: Containment Breach (2012)
The SCP Foundation collaborative writing project centered around a world of anomalous artifacts is really popular right now. One of the first things to help break it into the mainstream was SCP: Containment Breach. This game saw the player control a D-Class, or disposable test subject during a breach. This is when an anomalous entity gets loose and begins wreaking havoc.
This game’s virality and memorability is somewhat attached to the larger fiction it’s based on, for sure. Its flagship monster, SCP-173, is perhaps the most famous of the SCP monsters, however, it does have a lot of flair all its own, using various monsters in concert to give effective and memorable scares. Its D-Class centered narrative was unique and went on to influence the writing project itself.
6/10 Slender (2012)
Out of all the Creepypasta characters, none is more famous than Slender Man. He’s made a lot of appearances, from the original photoshop to Marble Hornets to his own movie. His most famous outing has to be his horror game, Slender, which sees a player collecting notebook pages while they are stalked by the monster.
The game is pretty simple, but it came out in an era where jump scare horror was uncommon in games. This gave it a scary hook that made it easily go viral with plenty of games would follow in its footsteps, causing it to be remembered as the progenitor. It also received multiple follow-ups, but of them only Slender: The Arrival came close.
5/10 Outlast (2013)
Some games go viral because of their unique concept, and some games go viral because they’re just so darn scary. First-person horror game Outlast squarely fits in the latter category. This game about a journalist trapped in an abandoned mental asylum became a smash hit due to its bloodcurdling scares.
The game upped the horror by not having a visual indicator of health, and no way to defend yourself. When players couldn’t be sure of their vitality, it leads to far more tense moments. This caused the game’s dreary setting and terrifying characters like Father Martin to stick in the memory of players all the better.
4/10 Doki Doki Literature Club (2017)
Doki Doki Literature Club presents itself as a cutesy romance visual novel. The protagonist joins a club with four girls who seem to be competing for his affections. The game is secretly a horror game, though, as hinted by its title. “Doki Doki” is onomatopoeia for heartbeat, a sound which is cutesy in Japan but considered scary in the west.
The game is remembered for two aspects; its meta and mental health elements. One girl is aware that she is in a game and falls in love with the player and begins eliminating her competition whereas the other girls have mental illnesses which are played realistically and often tragically. These elements blindside the player after hours of gameplay, making for a memorable twist that caused the game to go viral.
3/10 Bendy and the Ink Machine (2017)
Bendy and the Ink Machine drew many comparisons to, of all things, Cuphead. This isn’t due to difficulty, but their shared 1930s animation aesthetic. Players in Bendy find an abandoned animation studio where magic ink was used to make cartoons.
Players are treated to vignettes of the classic cartoon-inspired Bendy. His cartoons appear throughout the game and all feel authentic to the 1930s, making it more shocking when they meet the “real” Bendy, who is a goopy monster corrupted by the same ink. The juxtaposition of the two helped this game become incredibly memorable and go viral.
2/10 Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Amnesia was a game that set a lot of precedent for horror in the 2010s. It was a game that only featured hiding from the monsters, bucking survival horror trends from the prior decade. That was controversial, but what wasn’t was its introduction of Lovecraftian elements into the horror genre. The game also featured a sanity meter that would deplete when looking at the monster.
Main hero Daniel wakes up in a mysterious castle with no memory as to how he got there. Quickly he finds some terrifying monsters lurking in the bowels of the castle and attempts to escape. The game is famous for its memorable lurker and underwater chaser set pieces. Playthroughs on YouTube of these scary moments caused the game to achieve viral status.
1/10 Five Nights at Freddy’s series (2013 – Current)
There are currently eight mainline titles in the Five Nights At Freddy‘s series with six spin-offs. The series has tons of fan media, thirty-two novels, and plans to release a movie adaptation. It’s gone far beyond memorable into the realm of major multimedia franchise. It all started with a game where the player was a security guard at a Chuck E. Cheese knock-off and went viral thanks to videos by well known Let’s Play YouTubers like Markiplier. `
The animatronics in this restaurant would come to life and viciously attack the main character. Players mastered esoteric but interesting security controls in order to survive the nights against the horde. Various sequels, including one released the same year, would expand the lore of the universe. A giant underlying mystery was created that discussing became extremely popular online, adding to the game’s viral appeal.