Warning: there are some major spoilers ahead.
Many videogames are often talked about for being scary or unsettling, but as with many things, horror is a very subjective beast. What scares someone won’t phase another, and one person’s literal jump scare would leave others emotionless, totally unmoved.
When it comes to games, there are certainly some that are considerably better than others at producing scares and providing a disturbing atmosphere to keep you on edge, but often these games will only feature one or two genuine moments that’ll give you a fright.
I’m going to cover just some of the most memorable such moments I’ve personally experienced over the years, and hope you’ll also contribute with your own stories of terror. So, let’s begin, with a Nintendo classic.
Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Zelda series has been a favourite of mine from the first time it arrived on the NES, all the way to the latest titles. I’ve covered its brilliance many times in the past, but one aspect of the series that many don’t consider is just how damn creepy it can be.
I’m not talking about the obvious instances, such as Majora’s Mask, which is universally appreciated as the darkest Zelda of the series, I’m talking about the little touches that sometimes work themselves in that you just don’t expect. In particular, one moment I found that was pure brilliance in this regard was the very first boss of Ocarina of Time, Gohma.
Deep inside the heart of the Deku tree lurked this evil spirit or creature, which I knew I was going to face. I fought my way though the dungeon, solving puzzles and slaying spiders and lizard warriors, only to find myself in a large, empty chamber.
This was clearly the boss room. Not only did the door slam down behind me, trapping me in with the creature I’d have to defend myself from, but its large circular expanse stretching out ahead, punctuated with large columns clearly telegraphed the imminent confrontation. There was plenty of room for a huge creature to strut its stuff as it tries to step on a newly-minted Link, and I knew the fight would soon come. Or would it?
I waited, but nothing happened. I ran around, searching for something, anything to fight, but was left alone in the darkened space. I ran back to the door to see if I could get out – no joy. Was this a glitch? Was I supposed to be in the midst of a fight, and had something instead gone wrong? I didn’t know. Then, all of a sudden, a chill ran through my body – I hadn’t looked up.
Sure enough, on casting my gaze up using the first person camera, there is was. A bright, glowing eye was stuck to the ceiling, glaring down at me, and no sooner had I looked up at it, it rolled in its socket, and a mammoth creature dropped down with a loud thud. Battle began.
The fight itself was easy, and Gohma clearly has an appearance, or at least, entrance far more terrifying than its bite, but that’s not the point. The huge, unsettling feeling I got upon my realisation, which was then rewarded with a very real fright was brilliant, and is a master class in how real jump scares and tension can be done, even in a cutsey world like that of a Zelda game.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
Just as I’ve made no secret of my love for Zelda games, I’ve also made it quite clear than I’m a big fan of the Thief series, and I’ve also talked about Deadly Shadows‘ highlight level, the Shalebridge Cradle.
In my opinion, this is simply one of the greatest levels in gaming, and a great demonstration of gaming horror. It’s got it all – a creepy back story, a daunting location, atmospheric audio, and some of the most alarming and unsettling foes you’ll ever see (especially if you like Jacob’s Ladder and other, similar flicks). It also utilises many scare tactics, ranging from out and out jump scares, to far more subtle moments that get right under your skin.
The stories of the insane inmates who co-existed at one time with orphans (as the asylum was also an orphanage), tales of a strange grey lady, and all sorts of apparitions and strange manifestations still wandering the halls. Then there are those moments when you’re picking a lock and the lights start to flicker, signifying that something is approaching. Oh lord!
So, picture the scene. I’m in the midst of reviewing the game for a publication late one night. I’m sat there in the dark with headphones on to get the full, atmospheric experience. I’m about as unsettled as it gets, fully focused on the game, gingerly exploring this creepy asylum, listening out for strange noises, and paying attention for the slightest light flicker when – BAM! My wife grabs me on the shoulder, and I very nearly require a new pair of pants.
All she wanted to do was see if I needed anything, but the result was a fright of quite epic proportions, one that caused me to stop playing for the night, so I could find some composure. Such fun, and this would never have happened if Thief’s Shalebridge Cradles wasn’t so brilliantly crafted.
I’m not one to propagate the growing trend of plying your audience with simple jump scares in order to tick the horror box on the check-list. The likes of Five Nights at Freddy’s have a massive fan base, which is great, but they’re just not my cup of tea. I’ve always preferred more suggestive horror, the kind that leaves a lot to your imagination. That said, I’m not immune to jump scares, far from it.
Take BioShock, for example. This is a game that’s not really a horror title, but it has its fair share of scares, jump or otherwise. Perhaps the most memorable for me are those scary as hell splicers found in Fort Frolic, the home of crazed madman, Sander Cohen.
At first, these bunny mask-wearing splicers, which are seemingly made of stone or plaster, are stood totally still, like statues. In fact, that’s what you’re led to believe. In reality, you always knew something was going to happen, though.
Nothing does happen, though, at least not in the way you expect. Then things change. You find a small shop called Sinclair Spirits, which is full of splicer statues posed in weird and wonderful ways. The creep-o-meter is already approaching overload, and it explodes when you venture into a flooded area to find a statue sat on a chair facing the corner of an empty room. Ohhh-kay then, you think, as you notice a Fontaine Futuristics weapon upgrade machine. Of course, you go to use it, and when you’re done, you turn around and promptly jump a few meters off your chair, as the previously seated splicer statue is now behind you, posed as a ballet dancer. It then starts to attack you, revealing the statue’s true nature, as a camouflaged crazy. Once you emerge out into the shop again, you’re even more unsettled, as the rest of the so-called statues are gone, nowhere to be seen (but not for long).
This is just one moment from BioShock that caused plenty of fright, made all the more effective as these particular splicers are some of the toughest in the game, so seeing their bleached frames scurry along the walls and ceilings is enough to make you break into a cold sweat even without the slow build-up reveal.
Batman: Arkham Knight
As previously warned, spoilers be here, and as the game is new, I thought I should warn you a second time, so skip ahead if you’ve not played it yet.
The latest example of a good old creep-out for me came from none other than the excellent Batman: Arkham Knight. Although PC players may have horror stories of their own with this title, mine revolves around the Joker. More specifically the game’s subtle use of mental trickery, which I remained blissfully unaware of at first, until I stumbled upon it looking for a Riddler puzzle.
You see, a core thread of the story here is Batman’s slow succumbing to the effect the tainted Joker’s blood is having on him (following on from the end of Arkham City), mixed with his new doses of Scarecrows fear toxin. This is used brilliantly to bring the now deceased Joker back as a figment of Batman’s fractured mind.
Obvious manifestations of this include appearances of the Joker, who taunts Batman every chance he can get, and hallucinations he experiences at certain points, such as flashbacks to the fate of Jason Todd, and the popular story, The Killing Joke.
However, as great as all of these events were, it was the small details that surprised me, and in one instance, actually gave me a bit of a fright. As you wander Gotham, you’ll noticed that billboards and posters often change to feature the Joker’s face, another sign of Batman’s mental state. This change also happens to some statues, which is where my incident came in.
Exploring near a lighthouse on Bleake Island for the solution to a riddle, I found myself looking under it, wandering around a small cave-like section that featured a large statue of a bearded man holding a sword. I looked at it again, and without even realising why, saw something was wrong. I looked away, and back. It was fine. Did it again, and was unsettled to see Joker’s evil grin smiling back at me. Creepy, to say the least.
The thing that made this so scary was how subtle the change was. Sure, if you’re looking directly at it, expecting the change, it’s not that bad, but as a surprise, when you’re not sure what you just saw out of the corner of your eye, the effect is pretty shocking.
I should also give special mention to the Batman statues later on in the game, but as I’ve already included BioShock‘s splicers, which had a similar effect, the Joker won this one.
Wow, where to even begin? I’m sure most readers will be more than familiar with the truly scary P.T. Created by Hideo Kojima as a playable teaser for the now cancelled Silent Hills, this is a real tour de force of horror gaming, and it could be argued that there’s no recent game more terrifying than this short demo. I’d certainly struggle to argue against it.
For me, it has all the hallmarks of a truly great horror story, and one that I found perfectly suited to my tastes in horror generally. It was creepy, weird, had a fantastically scary ghost, some superb audio use, and the whole time playing it you’re totally, unashamedly scared out of your wits.
You’re always on edge, waiting for what might happen, and when something does, you’ll make noises and exclamations you never thought you could whilst playing a game (at least when not exaggerating reactions for YouTube). Underneath this thick layer of terror was a complex and devious puzzle to be solved, which most did via the medium of the Internet, and as much as I want another good Silent Hill, the simple story of P.T. and the amount it left to our imagination was just blissful on its own. What of my major moment, though?
For me, the creepiest moment of P.T. wasn’t the jump scare of being attacked, the baby in the sink, or even the dangling fridge, it was the constant feeling that someone is behind you. The footsteps, raspy breathing, and the sights of reflections in the mirror got the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, and this unsettling feature really made P.T. very special. I can only hope Kojima and Del Toro’s newly confirmed willingness to work together still brings something similar to this glorious demo.
System Shock 2
System Shock 2 is another game that often appears on many numbered lists, not only as a damn fine game in its own right, but also as a scary thrill ride. The claustrophobic horror of being stranded millions of light years from home on a space ship infested with alien/human hybrid creatures and ghosts works brilliantly, and throughout it uses all sorts of tricks to get you.
For me, though, the real moment that got me was the stunning revelation mid way through that you’ve not been following the orders of Janice Polito, the last remaining survivor (aside from Tommy and Rebecca). Instead you’ve been doing the bidding of psychotic and megalomaniac AI, Shodan. This was a plot twist echoed later in BioShock.
As you’re expecting to finally meet Polito you enter her office only to find her dead. Surely, you’ve not been talking to a dead person, or even a ghost, have you? Nope. As the room’s walls slide away from view, they reveal the ominous green gaze of the powerful AI, Shodan, who’s been pulling your strings the whole time. Egad!
It may not be a scare in the traditional sense, but the way the twist is handled, and the sequence is delivered makes it no less chilling. What’s more, from this point on you know that you really haven’t got any real allies left, as you just know Shodan is hardly the better of two evils. It’s more a case of two equally evil forces, and you stuck in the middle. Oh well.
Styled more as a Gothic horror than its spiritual sequels, Demon’s Souls was also the first Souls game we played, and with it came a new kind of terror, the kind that made us constantly afraid of venturing down dark corridors lest we end up dying some grisly fate, or fighting a newly discovered foe, which we were sure would brutally murder us. It turned usually stalwart warriors into dribbling cowards hiding behind huge shields whilst gently stepping slowly through its macabre worlds. Yes, it was awesome.
However, nothing the game itself threw at you could match the level of fear you felt when the dreaded message that you’ve been invaded appeared. In an instant you froze, sweat manifested on your brow, and your careful, diligent progress through the area could be for naught, as a merciless, and often better equipped player would waltz in to your world in order to kill you, at any time.
It didn’t matter how experienced a gamer you were, or how good you thought you were at the game, the arrival of another player almost always provoked a feeling of panic, as you quickly raced to equip the best weapons for the job and find a suitable location to get the drop on your would be assassin. Of course, this fear would soon turn to rage at the sight of the much-hated Scrape Spear, but that’s another story.
I’m going to finish with one of my all-time favourite survival horror games, the original Silent Hill. I know most prefer the second game, but the original has always been my go-to for the series, as I feel it has the most psychological, and genuine horror content.
Right from that chilling opening scene in the alleyway, to the school infested with ghost babies (in the unedited version), there are so many elements of this game that get you. For me, it’s the audio, especially in the school. In particular, there’s the phone call from Harry’s daughter, Cheryl, a chilling effect to be sure. Then there’s my favourite, which comes whilst exploring the many hellish halls of the alternate world. You enter a room that’s totally empty. There are no foes or any threats, nothing, save for random banging noises. That’s all there is, noise, and it’s scary.
Any fans of the original The Haunting will know what I mean here. The banging is coming from some unknown force, you never see it, all you can do is imagine, and that’s often the most fearful kind of horror. Few story tellers can come up with anything scarier than your own imagination, and that’s why this kind of simple trick works, and Silent Hill is a great example. Oh, and it’s also a game that gave me a morbid fear of air raid sirens, which persists even to this day. Thanks for that.
Now it’s your turn – add some of your own scary gaming moments in the comments, if you’re so inclined…!