As effective as the scariest horror games are, I tend to find that many gamers best remember (whether they want to or not) the scariest moments from non-horror games. I can understand why. Whether you were suddenly scared while playing that otherwise beloved game from your childhood, or you were simply left muttering “Why?” after a jump scare in an action game turned you into a frightened kid again, the greatest scares in gaming often come when you least expect them.
So join me, if you dare, as I take a look back at some of the greatest gaming scares that came from the most unexpected places.
20. Singularity – The Camera
While Singularity’s sci-fi style occasionally utilizes vague horror elements, there is not much in the game that suggests it will be scarier than, say, Doom or Wolfenstein. However, developer Raven Software just couldn’t help but sneak a truly great jump scare in this underrated shooter.
A little later in the game, you’ll stumble upon an old camera in a lab. It’s easy to miss this camera or just assume it’s yet another one of the many random objects the game lets you meaninglessly interact with. Bother to interact with it, though, and it will spit out a photo of you with a terrifying creature standing right behind you. That’s odd, because, last you checked, there isn’t a terrifying creature standing right behind…
19. The Drowning Music – Sonic the Hedgehog
Water levels are awful in most games, and drowning is, generally speaking, not an ideal experience. As such, most games that hold the threat of drowning over your head during their water levels tend to be at least a little intimidating. However, the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog decided that general terror wasn’t high enough up the terror chain of command for their liking. Instead, they decided to really drive the point home by triggering this track whenever you are about to drown in the game.
Few video game sounds have ever captured the feeling of having a panic attack quite as well as that one. No child in the world needed to be reminded of the terror of watching poor Sonic drown to death, and no child who played Sonic will ever forget the horror of hearing that music come in at a time when they thought they were already panicking as much as they possibly could. Who knew that a 15-second audio clip could traumatize a generation?
18. The Krypt Monster – Mortal Kombat (2011)
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance introduced “The Krypt,” which was basically a vaguely horror-themed hub area filled with coffins containing various unlockables. We were told that 2011’s Mortal Kombat 9 would feature a more elaborate version of The Krypt. We were not told about “the creature.”
If you linger in The Krypt for a little too long, a mysterious monster will suddenly pop into frame and absolutely terrify you. There is no reason for this creature to exist and absolutely no indication that anything like this would possibly be in this game in the first place. Even though this moment is clearly a cheeky homage to the age of sudden internet jump scares, it is way more effective than it has any right to be.
17. Monster Doctor Octopus – Spider-Man (PS1)
The eternally underrated Spider-Man for PS1 seemingly ends with a boss fight against Carnage. Though there is always something a little disturbing about the entire Carnage concept, the boss battle itself is fairly standard. Soon after the boss fight ends, though, Cletus Kasady’s symbiote leaves its host and sneaks away to infect Doc Ock. What emerges is the truly terrifying actual final boss of the game.
You cannot harm the creation popularly known as Monster-Ock. Your only choice is to run away and hope that this…thing that is chasing you will somehow be killed by the suddenly self-destructing building you find yourself in. In its final moments, Spider-Man turns into a pure survival horror game that asks you to abandon any notions of defending yourself and simply run away as fast as you can. Though the game’s sometimes wonky camera enhances the terror of this moment, it’s certainly effective all on its own.
16. The Statues – The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 is filled with surprisingly disturbing and unnerving moments (looking at you Bloody Baron), but my vote for the scariest moment in this otherwise not intentionally scary game goes to a moment that many players probably missed.
Near Lindenvale, you’ll find a small church flanked by two small angelic statues. Head inside to loot a nearby chest, and you’ll turn around to see the two statues now staring at you menacingly from just outside the door. You expect to fight them, but they don’t attack and they don’t even react to your attacks. However, if you walk away from them and turn around again, you’ll now see that they’ve advanced on you and are staring at you like you owe them Crowns. This fantastic nod to a memorable episode of Doctor Who offers a surprisingly effective scare.
15. Max’s Nightmares – Max Payne
About midway through his quest for revenge, Max accidentally consumes a significant dose of the deadly fictional drug called “V.” While that drug may offer a brief hit of euphoria to some, Max has apparently skipped straight to the “bad trip” portion of the program. He soon finds himself walking through the dark along thin vein-like paths toward the worst moments of his life while his deceased child and slain wife scream in pain around him.
While the surprisingly difficult platforming this section forces you to endure is scary enough in its own right (those bloody paths are responsible for more deaths than every thug in NYC), this segment is genuinely terrifying. The audio of Max’s murdered family blaming him for their deaths is both viscerally unnerving and narratively disturbing. You’re just not prepared for something this dark to occur in an action movie power fantasy.
14. The Vortex Queen – Ecco the Dolphin
While Ecco the Dolphin is a surprisingly tough early Genesis title, most of the game is actually pretty chill. You are, after all, a dolphin navigating the prettiest oceanic environments that the console could render. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, that question is answered when you reach the end of the game and find yourself fin-to-face with the Xenomorph-like creature seen above. The Ecco team won’t earn many points for originality with that design, but they earn full points for deploying it at a time and in a way that is guaranteed to make you say “Holy shit.” This is one of the all-time best examples of a truly terrifying enemy in an otherwise peaceful game.
13. Creepers – Minecraft
Not that Minecraft needs much more praise, but I do feel like the non-creation elements of the best-selling game ever sometimes go overlooked. Yes, we all love looking at those wild things that the game’s most dedicated players somehow craft with the game’s simple (yet extensive) toolkit, but there really is a solid gaming experience at the heart of Minecraft that doesn’t get discussed enough. That’s especially true of the game’s incredible Survival mode.
Few moments capture the brilliance of Minecraft’s survival qualities quite like the first time you confront a Creeper. If you know relatively nothing about Minecraft, you will certainly be surprised to discover that these shuffling green creatures actually explode when you stand too close to them for too long. Even after you understand how Creepers function, though, you’ll never be entirely prepared to stumble upon one in some dark cavern and realize you only have a few brief moments to react before you lose nearly everything. There are proper horror games that don’t feature creatures as terrifying as Creepers.
12. The Hallway – Metal Gear Solid
I’ve written before about the terrors of Metal Gear Solid and how that revolutionary stealth game is also kind of a stealth horror title. Of course, Metal Gear Solid’s moments of pure horror are still few and far enough between to ensure that you’re never quite ready for them. That’s especially true of the game’s infamous hallway scene.
Relatively early into your Metal Gear Solid adventure, you’ll stumble upon a hallway of brutally slain soldiers. An already gruesome sight is made that much more disturbing thanks to everything that happens next. The door closes behind you, your radar is scrambled, indescribable sounds of cosmic horror fill your speakers, and a stumbling, dying soldier uses his last words to tell you that a “ghost” did all of this. It sounds absurd, but then you walk forward and discover a soldier twitching in the air seemingly held aloft by the blade of an invisible, Predator-like figure. Now, that’s how you set up a boss fight.
11. The Bunker – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Uncharted 2 definitely raised the bar for this franchise (and 3D Action/Adventure gaming in general), but I find that people are too quick to dismiss the original Uncharted as a lesser version of what these games became. Granted, there are some truths in that, but the original Uncharted is still an exceptional adventure that also happens to feature the franchise’s scariest moment.
It occurs when you explore an area known as “The Bunker:” an abandoned submarine base that was once seemingly the home of so much more than submarines. The atmosphere is certainly foreboding, but you soon learn that these seemingly empty halls house more than strange noises and foreboding shadows. Soon, a small army of zombie-like monsters descends upon you with a speed that will make you not want to play the game again until at least 28 days later.
While there are hints of such horrors throughout the game, this is the moment when Uncharted rips off the mask and lets you see what lurks in the dark. It’s also the moment the most “The Last of Us” moment in any early Naughty Dog title.
10. The Boy of Silence – BioShock Infinite
The original BioShock was a bit too close to being a proper horror game to quality for this list. While there are certainly horrors in BioShock Infinite as well, I’d argue that most of the game’s terrors are more philosophical and emotional than the kinds of things deliberately designed to scare you. However, the Infinite team just couldn’t resist sneaking one truly great scare into this divisive game.
After weaving into one of the game’s alternate timelines and entering a modified version of the Comstock House, you’re asked to complete the simplest of video game objectives: pulling a switch. As soon as you turn around after doing so, though, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a figure you’ll later come to know as one of the Boys of Silence. It’s a classic jump scare set-up, but it’s the design of the creature and that awful sound they make that will burrow their way into your brain.
9. The Wallmasters – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda franchise is surprisingly full of genuinely terrifying moments (Majora’s Mask is arguably an outright horror game), which makes picking just one moment from the franchise quite difficult. Yet, whenever I think “horror” and “The Legend of Zelda,” I almost always think Wallmasters.
Wallmasters (and their cousins, the Floormasters) are giant creeping hands that love to strike from just offscreen. Though they’re a consistently creepy member of the franchise, they really came into their own in Ocarina of Time. The N64’s power allowed Nintendo to properly render the shadows that serve as their only warning as well as craft a truly disturbing crawling animation for these abominations. You could drop these things right into a Dark Souls game, and nobody would blink.
8. White Phosphorous – Spec Ops: The Line
Most of the moments on this list are essentially jump scare moments, and understandably so. After all, it’s hard to work a good bit of slow-burn psychological horror into a game that isn’t otherwise a horror title. That’s just part of what makes the White Phosphorous scene from Spec Ops: The Line so incredible (and incredibly disturbing).
A little later into the Spec Ops campaign, you’ll have the chance to use a remote terminal to eliminate a large group of hostile forces with mortar strikes. It’s a very Call of Duty-esque sequence that gives you a brief rush of satisfaction as you eliminate an overwhelming force. Soon, though, you survey the ruins of the attack and learn the horrible truth. Not only did that chemical weapon you so gleefully rained down upon your enemies cause them to die a brutal death (at least those fortunate enough to not still be alive), but you also murdered a group of nearby civilians who still wear the terror of their final moments on their charred faces. Though Spec Ops often conveys the horrors of war, no moment hits quite as hard as this one.
7. Ocean House Hotel – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Despite what its name may lead you to believe, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines isn’t really a horror game. It utilizes many horror genre concepts, but the vast majority of the game doesn’t exist to scare you. Hell, as a vampire in this game’s world, you are often the thing that people are supposed to be terrified of.
However, that entire dynamic is upended when you enter Ocean House Hotel. Modeled after the very best amusement park-style haunted houses, Ocean House Hotel is full of the supernatural fights that you’d sooner expect to find in a film like Poltergeist than a game like this. Yet, Ocean House is so much more than a collection of all-too-effective jump scares. Strange sounds often break the haunting silence in often unexpected places, and there is a disturbing story behind this location that awaits to “amuse” anyone who is daring enough to seek it out.
Though a few games on this list offer brief detours into the horror genre that stand in contrast with the rest of the experience, it’s the way this moment plays off of the “immersive” sim qualities of the title without entirely abandoning them that makes it special.
6. The Night Folk – Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar loves to make you think that you’re going to encounter something terrifying in one of their games (just take a look at the urban legends about the forest area of GTA: San Andreas), but they rarely actually put anything genuinely terrifying in their open worlds. Well, Red Dead Redemption 2 actually breaks that “rule” several times by forcing you to confront some of the most terrifying moments in any Rockstar game. Yet, none of those moments compare to the reveal of the Night Folk.
You can actually encounter the Night Folk in several different ways in RDR 2, but they all occur in the bayou: an already terrifying swamp area that resembles those ominous, but ultimately innocent, areas Rockstar loves to put in their games. While traveling through those uninviting lands, you may encounter a crying woman in white or almost run into a dead horse in the middle of the road. Many of these encounters are traps set by a group of psychotic, largely silent, possibly cannibalistic figures known only as the Night Folk.
Though the Night Folk may be most terrifying to those who put a little too much faith into the idea that Rockstar would never put such an overt piece of horror into one of their base games, even those who know to be on the lookout for the Night Folk will struggle to keep it together as a group of whistling, bestial figures come charging at them from the darkness.
5. Man-Bat – Batman: Arkham Knight
Though I was tempted to give a little love to some of the other surprising moments of horror seen in the excellent Arkham games, the fact of the matter is that it’s kind of hard to beat one of the most effective jump scare moments in any piece of media.
Anyone who played this game is all too familiar with this moment. Early in the Arkham Knight campaign, you’ll grapple onto a nearby ledge as you’ve done many times before in both this game and the previous Arkham titles. This ledge, though, is different. Perched atop this ledge is the creature known only as Man-Bat.
Man-Bat’s design is pure horror in the best ways possible, but it’s the timing of this sequence that makes it so special. This moment is built off of the kind of repetition that you only get if you save this moment as the payoff for an animation that you’ve seen play out countless times before. You’re not just relaxed watching Batman grapple towards another building; you’re practically bored by it. I can’t imagine getting through this moment unscathed.
4. The Flood – Halo: Combat Evolved
Mission “343 Guilty Spark” comes at a crucial point in the Halo: Combat Evolved campaign. After enjoying only minor victories against the Covenant, you begin your search for Captain Keyes during a mission that promises to feature “the only enemy the Covenant fear.” Any sense of hope that promise offers is soon consumed by the realization that the enemy the Covenant fear is an aggressive parasitic alien lifeform that takes no prisoners and will just as soon murder you as it will the Covenant.
Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about the entire Flood concept. In the long run, I believe that the introduction of the Flood did slightly dilute the entire evolved combat concept that Halo was built upon. They basically turned the game into Doom. I love Doom, but Halo promised to offer even more than that.
However, if we’re talking about moments, then the introduction of the Flood is certainly one of the very best of its kind. There is nothing in this game up until this point that would even hint that something like this is coming. Even the foreboding atmosphere of this level doesn’t entirely give the trick away. Halo practically changes genres on a dime in this instance, and it is impossible to downplay or forget the moment that happens.
3. Ravenholm – Half-Life 2
“We don’t go to Ravenholm.” That’s the first time you hear someone mention the name Ravenholm, and it’s obviously meant to invoke a sense of dread. Of course, Half-Life 2 exists in a world of dread formed by the iron fist of oppression. You will almost certainly guess that Ravenholm is just another Combine stronghold.
You couldn’t be more wrong. Ravenholm is, in fact, a sort of breeding ground for Headcrabs and the zombie-like creatures they spawn. As you wander through this burnt-out hellscape, you soon realize that you’ve essentially wandered into an amplified version of a Half-Life 2-flavored Universal horror movie. Suddenly, you can’t take anything for granted.
Unlike the introduction of the Flood in Halo, though, which changed the nature of the game in questionable ways, Ravenholm’s secondary purpose is to showcase the power of your Gravity Gun and the game’s physics. It’s a brilliant showcase of one of Half-Life 2‘s deepest and most revolutionary features that doubles as a shockingly powerful example of horror gaming.
2. Robbing the Cradle – Thief: Deadly Shadows
Thief: Deadly Shadows isn’t the first game to suddenly take a shift into pure horror. For that matter, it’s not even the first game in the Thief franchise to pull that little trick off. So why is it ranked so high on this list? Well, nearly 20 years after its debut, Robbing the Cradle stands as arguably the pinnacle of a horror level in a non-horror game.
Set in an insane asylum built within the ruins of an old orphanage, Robbing the Cradle tasks you with solving an old murder mystery as you explore an area best left forgotten. In some ways, Robbing the Cradle is just an exceptionally well-executed example of some pretty classic horror ideas. Ghosts, mysterious noises without an obvious maker, and creepy puppets that patrol the halls and hunt you relentlessly. If this level were in a pure horror game, it would be a highlight of that experience based on the sound and lighting designs alone.
Yet, it’s the ways this level plays off of the rest of the game that makes it so special. After spending the rest of Thief treating the shadows like your best friend, you suddenly come to see the shadows as your enemy. You’ve stepped into a different game that you’re almost certainly not prepared to survive, and the experience is exhilarating.
1. Dark Bramble – The Outer Wilds
The Groundhog Day-like set-up of The Outer Wilds often forces you to explore mysterious new areas quicker than you would often like to in order to try to make progress an inch at a time. That set-up can often leads to moments of mystery and terror. Yet, the game never really fully embraces its horror side until you explore the Dark Bramble.
This planet’s persistent fog and thorny, protruding branches make it nearly impossible to navigate. Your only guide is the far-off sound of a harmonical seemingly beckoning you to safety. Well, that and a strange series of white lights that lead you to…something. Well, some of those lights do indeed lead you to safety. The others will lead you into the gaping maw of Anglerfish that can detect even slight sounds and will consume you as soon as they hear you.
The experience of discovering what Dark Bramble is and what awaits those who fail to navigate its treacherous trenches is as terrifying as any jump scare. What really elevates this area, though, is the horror of having to repeat the process until you (hopefully) solve the mystery of how to work your way through it. Any non-horror game can offer a quick scare. The Outer Wilds features an entire section that you’ll be scared to return to time and time again.