Horror games appeal to a very specific subset of gamers. Even a gritty thriller tingles the hairs on the back of your neck in a way that can only be appreciated by some of us. While those who prefer a more benign experience scoff in derision, we crave the build-up of terror in a game as much as in a good book or movie. This month, we’re paying homage to those games which have provided us with the utmost in terrifying gameplay, even if only for a few moments of outstanding horror.
The team has braved grave dangers to dig up their five most repressed memories of gaming terror. After peeking under our beds in the dead of night and tremulously opening forbidding closet doors better left closed, we flaunt our brave manliness (or prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are nothing but pitiful girly-men – you decide).
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5. Out of Breath, Cornered in an Alley, Infected at Your Heels (Dead Island)
I know this is a brand-new game. And it does start off fairly predictable, what with the shuffling zombies on the beach and the standard supply-run quests. However, once you leave the posh beaches and glitzy poolside tiki bars of the waterfront hotel behind and enter the dilapidated town proper, ravaged husk of its former self that it has become, the picturesque, touristy vacation ends and the harsh realities of life settle in. The city is literally crawling with undead, and sometimes the only survival lies in swift flight. But the Infected run fast, damn fast. And when I was just as low on weapons as I was on health, four Infected screaming at the top of their lungs and closing in fast, and my stamina so depleted from running that I couldn’t scramble onto the dumpster that led over a brick wall and to safety, I knew I was totally screwed. Worse, I could hear my death coming as the sound of their raging yells grew louder and louder in my ears. With frantic button-mashing, afraid to turn and face my oncoming doom, I got to safety at the very last second – but as I hit the ground on the far side of the brick wall, my in-game character wasn’t the only one breathing hard and wide-eyed.
4. The Taken (Alan Wake)
I get that Alan Wake wasn’t for some, but I personally loved this moody, atmospheric thriller. There was just something about the small-town, woodsy feel of the logging community, and making my way through the woods, the campgrounds, the lumber mill, and so forth was excruciatingly frightening on its own already. But I experienced true terror every time the trees started moving wildly in the wind, casting moving shadows everywhere, and quiet whispers and other unnerving sounds would ramp up and crescendo into a wild hurricane of noise, all without a breath of air actually stirring. Knowing that I was about to face another wave of shadowy Taken coming at me with their axes would always make my pulse go haywire.
3. The Flooded Morgue (Bioshock)
While Bioshock is stuffed full of atmospheric locations, it was one of the very first areas of the game that taught me to respect the developers’ ability to scare the pants off me. While hunting down the crazed surgeon, Dr. Steinman, I paid close attention to all the disturbing messages smeared on walls, and the menacing surgical paraphernalia scattered everywhere. In my mind, I was already creating scenes of medical torture and poor, twisted souls scarred beyond recognition by the good doctor’s efforts to make them “beautiful”. Eventually, the search leads to the partially flooded funeral home. It’s bad enough when you see the Shadow of a Splicer, hacking away at a corpse on an operating table. But as you approach, the lights go out, leaving you alone in the dark with dead bodies and a maniac. Suddenly, all the lights mercifully come back on; but the Splicer’s gone, and you barely catch sight of one of the cadaver drawer doors slowly swinging shut, as something is moving inside it. It was one of the most frightening (and well-done!) scare sequences I’ve ever played, and I still look back on it with a fond shudder.
2. The Rope Hallway (Fatal Frame)
This has become my new “dog hallway from Resident Evil“. Personally, I already think that J-Horror is some of the most cerebrally disturbing stuff on the planet; the Fatal Frame (Project Zero for you Europeans) series delivers exactly what Japanese Horror always hooks me with. The game is dark (the characters are in almost complete blackness for most of the game), deathly silent, and the scares are chillingly slow paced. One of the first rooms you’ll have to make your way through (I use that phrase deliberately, since I basically had to be forced to even step foot into this damn place!) is known as the Rope Hallway – named so for good reason. The thick ropes hanging from the ceiling in the narrow space seem odd at first, as does the mirror placed at the far end. But on subsequent visits to this room, both the mirror and the ropes are revealed to hide sinister and chilling secrets, and in a mansion full of evil spirits, never did I feel as vulnerable as when I was pushing through the Rope Hallway.
1. Back Aboard the USG Ishimura (Dead Space 2)
Isaac Clarke spends the whole first game in the Dead Space series trying to get off the damn ship, so when he spots it’s ominous shape aboard Titan station late in the sequel, it’s a bad omen. Eventually, Isaac is forced to make his way back aboard the derelict ship. This is a beautiful example of how a game builds anticipation and stretches your frayed nerves to the breaking point. As Isaac carefully makes his way through the once-familiar corridors and rooms of the ship, tarped in dead plastic sheets and littered with abandoned equipment by salvage crews, the ambiance builds terrifyingly, with ghostly whispers and screeches heard as if from a distance. You know something will happen, but the game makes you wait for it, building suspense, leaving a trail of disturbing text and audio logs of the missing salvage crew to heighten the sense that there are bad things waiting just around the corner. And when the shitstorm finally breaks, it breaks hard! This is easily the most tense I’ve ever let a game (an already terrifying one at that!) make me feel.
5. Faun on the Brain (Rise of the Argonauts)
There once was a game called Rise of the Argonauts, which was one of those games I picked up pre-owned when nothing better/cheaper was available to me. I never actually played it, except for one day when it was snowing outside and I wanted to stay warm. That whole day was dedicated to the game, and although I didn’t complete it, I did pretty damn good. Needless to say, I’ve never played it since. There was a point in that game where, if my memory serves, you investigate this mysterious island where there is a faun playing the panpipes (I’m guessing his name was in fact Pan), and he takes over your mind, filling it with messed up images and controlling your character. It wasn’t so scary, but it was certainly weird, and quite chilling.
4. Night of the Undead (Call of Duty)
Zombie mode has become a major part of the Treyarch side of Call of Duty, and obviously when it first came out, it was all anybody could talk about. Late one night, after completing the campaign and still wanting more (before my days as an online player), I tried Zombies for the first time. Nacht der Untoten, or whatever that first map was called … that was some eerie level design. I didn’t like not knowing where I was, or even what to do, and when the zombies started pounding on the doors and breaking through windows, their eyes glowing in the night, well, let’s just say I promptly turned off my Xbox and decided I’d save Zombies for a time when I had company…
3. Bat-Signal on the Kryll (Gears of War)
In the original Gears of War game, in the Nightfall missions, you encounter a scary and intimidating Locust enemy called Kryll, who will completely obliterate you if you dare to leave the safety of the light. They’re almost like bat things (in fact, the whole darkness restriction to their movement probably makes them very much like bats) and there is no way to kill them beyond those few minutes you’re driving the Laverne with the UV turret mounted on the back. It’s a scary few levels, where you dare not walk out of the safety of streetlights…
2. Separation Anxiety (Pokémon Yellow)
When I was but a young boy, Gameboy Colour in hand, and Pokémon cards were cool, I obviously wanted to see what the games were like. In Pokémon Yellow, in between kicking butt in the gyms, and wondering why I could not catch anything better than Rattattas or Pidgeys at the start of the game, I walked boldly through Mt. Moon. Keep in mind I was very young, and when I got to the other side of Mt. Moon, at that part where you jump down the hill and then can’t get back up, I got very upset and scared that I’d never get back to Pallet Town and see my pixelated mother again. It’s not cool to admit, but I got very attached to my character’s mother.
1. No Mercy (Left 4 Dead)
I’d never experienced zombies in a game until I played Left 4 Dead. I know what you’re thinking: “Tom! You may be under twenty, but that does not justify a lack of Resident Evil in your life!” To those people, I say… Sorry, I guess. But Left 4 Dead was my first brush with the undead. I remember being absolutely enthralled by the game, and very excited when it came in the post on release day. Going to school that day was a hard thing to do, but I thought about it all day, and obviously played it as soon as I got home. No Mercy was the first map I tried, and as if the game knew how likely it was that I would crap my pants, the first thing it did was send the entire horde after me in that confined corridor you walk down at the very beginning. I don’t think I’ve jumped so high since.
5. Licker in Interrogation (Resident Evil 2)
As something of a horror afficionado I tend to malign and dismiss the jump scare. Typically it’s a trite way of giving the audience a jump without trying very hard, and typically they’re a one-shot deal: they don’t really work twice. However, there’s one in Resident Evil 2 that manages to scare the hell out of me every time I play it. There’s an interrogation room in the police station with a one-way mirror. You enter and exit it a few times in the game with no incident and then OHMYGOD a licker busts through the glass and attacks the hell out of Leon. This is the only moment in the entire Resident Evilseries I’ve ever really found frightening.
4. The Whole Experience (Silent Hill)
Silent Hill. The first one. The whole thing. This is one place where I think the aged and grainy graphics and fog hiding the draw distance actually help out with the effect, something the later games don’t capture as well – that, combined with Akira Yamaoka’s low-fi industrial/noise soundtrack, give it a feeling – no, better yet, a miasma of horrific atmosphere. From its empty buildings to fog-covered streets and rust-covered underworld, Silent Hillis one of the most terrifying games ever.
3. T-Rex (Tomb Raider)
While the original Tomb Raiderhas plenty of creepy barrows and dark corridors to explore, nothing in the game freaked out 8-year old me quite like the T-Rex in the Lost Valley. Sure, there were raptors earlier in the level, but this is the first time in the game you saw anything quite so big and threatening. And yeah, it could kill Lara in one bite. Unfortunately, Anniversary reduced this terrifying scene to a well-lit quicktime event. In the original, this wasn’t really a boss fight. You could avoid it if you wanted to. And were comfortable with a T-Rex stomping around a level you had to backtrack across and through.
2. Shoggoth Attack (Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth)
Then there’s PC game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Like most of the best horror out there, it relies on suspense, a gloomy mood and a creeping fear that builds as the game progresses rather than jump scares. In this case, you’ve been wandering through a gold refinery and are making your way through one of the halls when a shoggoth breaks down the door behind you. A shoggoth, for those unaware, is a monstrous pile of living flesh and organs, and it doesn’t chase you like a bipedal monster does – it engulfs the room behind you, becoming a wall of roaring, gibbering flesh behind you as you struggle to get doors open quickly. I was wearing headphones. That thing was loud. I had to lay down afterwards, my nerves were totally shot.
1. Chrysalid Invasion (X-Com: UFO Defense)
X-Com: UFO Defense is harrowing enough normally, going into dark, unknown locations with the chance your troops will be massacred by aliens at any turn. The Chrysalids take this up to eleven, beheading and turning your troops into zombies which will eventually become Chrysalids themselves. When this happens I say screw the citizens of wherever the hell I’m fighting.When it comes to Chrysalids, they’re better off dead. Just pull out and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
Honorable mention to the Game Over screen in Zelda 2. That laugh and Ganon’s shadow on a stark background…creepy. And anything involving Emerald Weapon in FFVII. HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOUR SUB!
Rexly Penaflorida II
5. Yao Guai Ambush (Fallout 3)
I am not really one for horror. Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I despise horror because of the fact that I am easily scared. Fallout 3 gave me a startle when I just so happened to be walking through the Wasteland in the middle of the night. I kept hearing Three Dog warning people to not feed the Yao Guai, but I never really saw one…until that night. I was ambushed from behind by TWO OF THEM! I freaked out, brought out the Fat Man and went down along with the two beasts. Not a bad way to go, if I do say so myself.
4. Spider Splicers on the Ceiling (Bioshock)
I finally got around to playing Bioshock for the first time this month and I thought that there was nothing in it that would scare me. WRONG. Of all the Splicers that had to exist on Rapture, who in their right mind created the Spider Splicers? The fact that they can use ceilings is just scary. My worst encounter with them had to be me stupidly running into a room and not looking around and eventually finding out that there were three Spider Splicers right on top of me. Thanks a lot.
3. The Smoker (Left 4 Dead)
Left 4 Dead had its share of Infected, but none freaked me out more than the Smoker. One minute I have a shotgun and shooting zombies left and right, and the next I start being dragged by some dude with a long tongue. That is not nice and not fair. It is almost like the Smoker is saying, “Oh, you are killing my brethren and they are not even making a dent in your defenses. Let me just stick my tongue out at you and freak you out for a minute.” Not cool, man.
2. Necromorphs (Dead Space)
The first legitimate horror game that I ever fully played through was Dead Space, and to this day it is one of the only few horror games that I would love to play and trust me, that list is really short. Pick any event in the game where a Necromorph comes out of a vent, ceiling or sneaks up behind you. Now imagine me almost crapping my pants during each time that happened. Need I say more?
1. An Hour of Gameplay (Amnesia: The Dark Descent)
A friend of mine had Amnesia: The Dark Descent for the PC and I thought I would give it a try for an hour…worst hour of my life. My heart was pounding and I played the game with my eyes half open and the sound as low as possible, but still barely loud enough for me to hear what was going on. I am usually good at sneaking around, but not when the thing that I am trying to avoid is some monstrosity that is going to rush at me if it sees me. That and the fact that the game gave hallucinations once in a while really terrified me. The fact that I am even writing about this freaks me out now. I am going to stop now before I faint from fear.
5. The Lost Paradise (Bioshock)
While the Splicers dropping onto you from the ceiling are bad enough, the slowly building realization that everything has collapsed in this once paradise works alongside the crackling music and the cracked walls keeping out the vast ocean that just sets me on edge.
4. Waking or Dreaming? (Alan Wake)
While I’m not one for jump scares, the strange doubt that perhaps you really are hallucinating everything around you and are unable to differentiate reality from fiction as they blend together created a psychological suspense for me. That and the suddenly inhumanly fast ‘bosses’.
3. Despair and Powerlessness (The Darkness)
As may be noticed at this point, I care little for jump scares, and more for psychological imagery. The Darkness hits a few points including a sense of despair at your circumstances, powerlessness, and having that which you love the most destroyed in front of you, which worked to both hook me on the game and set my nerves on edge.
2. The Dream (Max Payne)
In one stage, Max is in a fever dream, with the crying of an infant one of the major sounds. The floor wavers and disappears at points, dropping you into an endless void, sending you back to start again, slowly creeping through.
1. Living Nightmare (Silent Hill)
This is one of a very few games I’ve simply not been able to complete. Intentionally designed scares including the thick mist that blurs anything past about ten feet, the eternal crackling of your radio, screeches of unknown creatures from the distance, the limited amount of restoration; on top of this the unintentional difficulties of the control scheme just made it feel as though I was in a horror movie, always unable to react in time even when the danger was slowly approaching from far away.