There are people out there who’ve never been frightened by a game. No matter how many sudden scares a game throws their way, no matter how much work its creators put into crafting an atmosphere of isolation and dread, no game will ever elicit a reaction more severe than a sudden jump and a laugh from them. And they can’t understand why or how anyone could be scared by anything as hokey and silly as a videogame.
article isn't about those people. It’s about those of us who’ve delved headfirst
into horror games, giving ourselves over to the immersion only to regret having
gone to the slaughter so eagerly. It’s about those of us who’ve had to walk
away from a game just to work up enough courage to continue. And it’s also about
our editorial staff, who – as Halloween draws ever nearer – have dug deep and laid
bare the faintly humiliating moments when games managed to scare them shitless.
Pokemon doesn't have any jumpy scare moments, and it certainly isn't big on blood and gore. Instead, Pokemon's horror is of the more psychological variety. In the original Pokemon Red, when I entered Lavender Town for the first time, something immediately felt a little off. Lots of Pokemon towns have themes, like Cinnabar Island's Fire-type theme, or Pewter City's Rock-type theme, so there's nothing especially unusual about Lavender Town's emphasis on Ghost-types. It soon became clear, though, that things had gone too far.
Above: It's no wonder that Lavender Town inspired one of the creepiest urban legends in all of gaming
The music alone began to subtly eat at my psyche. As I ascended through the Pokemon Tower, dodging ghostly Pokemon disguised as humans along the way, I imagined Death itself was watching the Game Boy screen over my shoulder. At the time, seeing all the Pokemon trainers wailing in torment over the graves of their dead Pokemon companions was more sad than anything, but something about the town's eerie fixation on death coupled with the unsettling, discordant looping audio track really stuck with me long after I'd become the league champion.
Wait, aren’t I the guy who said that "scary games are never scary?" Yes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be incredibly creepy, gory and disturbing. My favorite survival-horror moment is all of these adjectives at once, and while it didn’t give me a nightmare or phobia like movies, television and even books have, it did give me quite the unexpected, unusual shock.
You enter a hallway. You hear banging from the far end, as if someone is rhythmically knocking on a door. You hesitate to approach the sound, because you’re sure a monster will jump out at you in predictable Resident Evil style, but instead you discover a harmless, solitary man, facing a wall. Slowly and patiently smacking his head against said wall. Committing suicide with that wall since, no matter how rudimentary or painful, it’s the very last chance at escape he has from the horrors that surround him. That now surround you. And of course, even though he’s been at this task for hours, possibly days, he finishes the job just as you get close enough to witness the final, skull-crushing blow.
Forget creepy, gory or disturbing. The best thing about this Dead Space moment is that, with its demand that you approach the scene of your own volition – and at your own pace – it’s only possible to pull off in an interactive medium like videogames.
As a self-proclaimed scaredy-cat, it’s impossible for me to play any kind of game that even hints at anything remotely terrifying. Because of this, my scariest gaming moment revolved around watching two of my old roommates play Fatal Frame III: The Tormented in complete darkness while I cowered on the couch. Fatal Frame, known for protagonists whose fastest speed is an achingly slow trot and a camera “weapon” that requires that you stare your enemy in the face, pulls no punches with the scare tactics. You can’t run, you can’t hide, but you sure can take a great portrait!
Going against all good sense, there’s a portion of the game where you’re required to enter a crawlspace underneath a moldering traditional Japanese home. The reactions of the players in the following clip are pretty much spot-on to what my roommates and I felt during the same sequence. I slept with the lights on for at least a week.
I always rankle at people who scoff at stories like these and say games can never scare them, because – as much as the current generation of horror games has been kinda limp – there are plenty of times when I’ve been not just startled by, but actually frightened of a game. And while basic manliness dictates I should be ashamed of that, the fact is that I absolutely love being scared shitless by games. I have ever since I was four years old, when the ancient 3D Monster Maze (an early first-person game that stalked players with a blocky T-Rex) terrified me to the point of nightmares.
Above: Trust me, if you were a preschooler in 1982, this would be PETRIFYING
Years later, while playing Ecco the Dolphin on Dreamcast – fucking Ecco the goddamn Dolphin – I got a serious case of the heebie-jeebies when the massive Great White shark boss showed up, to the point where I actually had to put down the controller, turn off the TV and walk away. (Eventually I overcame this fear by repeatedly hurling Ecco into the beast’s mouth until I’d gotten used to seeing it.) Not long after, Silent Hill 2 got me spooked to the point that I had to actually make an effort just to go further. And don’t even get me started on Fatal Frame II; there’s nothing like being forced into a claustrophobic, slow-moving first-person view when surrounded by terrifyingly quick J-horror ghosts.
Probably the biggest scare I ever got, however, was from Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a game that delighted in messing with players’ heads in startling and disorienting ways. As terrifying as things like seeing my character decapitated on entering a room (only to find out it was a hallucination), there’s one moment that stood out as more terrifying than the rest: finishing the fourth chapter, only to see this:
Bear in mind, Eternal Darkness was published at a time when abrupt cliffhanger endings that teased sequels were an emerging trend in videogames, and for a brief second, I was horrified that the game was over so quickly. Because monsters, ghosts and sharks are one thing, but a game that ends halfway through its story with a bullshit cliffhanger? That’s real.
Fortunately, it was just another of Eternal Darkness’ many, many vicious mindfucks, and the game continued for another eight chapters of soul-wrenching terror. Thank God.
The first Condemned got some recognition just for being one of the few playable 360 launch games, but most ignored the sequel to the horrific FPS, which is too bad. There are plenty of spooky moments in the game, but none are better or scarier in their simplicity than when you’re stuck in a rundown cabin with a fucking bear! You hear the roar first, and you’re already spooked before you’ve even seen what’s left of the corpses of his previous kills.
You walk around the empty cabin with your flashlight, just waiting for it to strike, but you continue to just hear it nearby. When you finally spot the monstrous creature, you’re constantly running for your life from the deadly beast looking for any chance to escape. The build of intensity as mystery turns into a seemingly endless sprint for survival gets your heart racing in a way only games can pull off when everything falls into place just right.