Fear is in the eye of the beholder
Have you ever played a game that made you--and only you--feel creeped out? I'm not talking about horror games or games designed to scare you. I'm talking about games that all your friends, classmates, and anonymous forum posters found completely banal, but left you with a noticeable sense of dread. Maybe all it took was a piece of music, or an enemy design you found especially disturbing. Or maybe it was the lesser details, details that made a game feel weird.
I posed this question to the GamesRadar staff, and found a few souls brave enough to recount their fears. For me, I can think of several: Ecco the Dolphin, Myst, Majora's Mask, even Secret of Evermore (hey, that opening title crawl set a dark tone for the game). These games should have been a fun, magical experiences. Instead, they made me anxious. But there's one that stands out from the rest. One that, for me, drew a hard line between goofy fun and sheer terror. I'm speaking, of course, about...
Maxwell McGee -- Mega Man Legends
The underground dungeons in Mega Man Legends always freaked me out. Above ground, this 3D action platformer is filled with bright colors, goofy enemies, and chipper music. But exploring Legends' underground dungeons has an entirely different feel. The music is no longer light and bubbly. Now it sounds like something out of Resident Evil. And there is the constant *CLANG, CLANG, CLANG* of enemy footsteps on patrol. When I was younger, I'd usually hear an enemy before seeing it, but sometimes I wouldn't be able to locate it right away. Instead, the enemy would spot me first and break into a mad dash, making this horrible racket as it charged towards Mega Man.
WHAM! Suddenly, I'm tackled from off-screen and almost drop the controller in surprise. Only then would I get a good look at Legend's unsettling enemy designs. Some have a humanoid shape, but with elongated, spidery limbs. Several enemies also have what I thought was a vent or gap made to look like a thin, exaggerated grin. It isn't enough that these enemies--called reaverbots--look scary, they're happy about it too.
Lucas Sullivan -- Duke Nukem 3D
People don't typically think of Duke Nukem 3D as a survival horror game (or something that 13-year-olds should be playing, but I was living dat shareware life, baby!). Yet between blasting Pig Cops in the chest with a shotgun and looking at pixelated posters for porn parodies of Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act that I didn't comprehend, I experienced terror in the streets of alien-infested L.A.
Back in the olden days of FPS, health packs were everywhere, but there were usually little tricks to earning back bits and pieces of your life total. One such method was drinking from a water fountain (or toilet, if you're feeling adventurous), which would slowly replenish your HP at one point per second. There I was, drinking from a faucet when suddenly, an errant noise caused me to panic, spin around in shock, and unload the entirety of my Chaingun clip into... nothing. Turns out, I was frightened to death by the sound of Duke swallowing water. If only those Pig Cops knew what a yellow-belly my Duke was, he'd be the laughing stock of the universe.
David Houghton -- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Forget the House of Skulltula. Forget the Redeads. Those things arent 'the scary bits' of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Theyre merely the rotting cherry on the festering terror-cake. The final, overt acknowledgement that the once cheery, winsomely fantastical land of Hyrule has become a seething, slithering, nightmare-realm of lurching terrors and perverse, malformed dread.
Something happened to the Zelda universe during the transition from 2D to 3D. Somewhere along the way it got disfigured, its chirpy atmosphere becoming diseased and indefinably sinister, its bright-eyed, cartoon inhabitants becoming twisted and freakish. Maybe it was the low polygon count, maybe it was a desire to distinguish the Zelda series more clearly from Mario now that they shared a camera perspective. But either way, Ocarina of Time--all of Ocarina of Time--is a quietly sinister, haunted theme park of a place; its every heroic victory belying a chasm of dark, skittering horror. The only place that isnt at all unsettling is Kakariko Village, and thats located right on the edge of the hallucinogenic nightmare of The Lost Woods. And as for Hyrule Field? It turns into a Goddamn zombie apocalypse every night and no-one bats an eyelid.
Connor Sheridan -- Body Harvest
Laughing skeletons. DMA Design (you may know it as Rockstar North these days) just had to put laughing skeletons in Body Harvest. They didn't jump up and attack when you pressed the Use button on them ("Nee-hee-ha-ha-hah" was all they would venture from the floor of their ancient Greek tombs) but it didn't make a damn bit of sense. Little else in the game touches on the supernatural--you come to fight space bugs and save humanity. Why do the skeletons have such an acute sense of humor?
It was a perfect storm for anxious little Connor, who had a phobia of skeletons and was already tweaked from playing through the overworld. When I turned on my N64 last summer to give it another try, I was able to appreciate the rare sense of tension that intermittent alien invasions, a mounting civilian death toll, and sparse music cues imposed. But back when Body Harvest was new, I wasn't quite so appreciative of the knotted stomach. Maybe DMA thought a chuckling corpse here or there would break the tension as an absurd little memento mori? Instead, it straight up broke me.
Henry Gilbert -- Donkey Kong on Game Boy
Sometimes you can get so very invested in a game that even the smallest of touches can get a reaction from you. That's how I was with the remake of Donkey Kong for the original Game Boy. In 1994, I played the game obsessively, mainly over a family vacation in Florida. On the hours long drive down, before bed, and at basically every other free moment, I played through the 100 different levels of that game. I was nearing the treacherous end during the drive home when I let out a shriek that shocked the rest of my family in the car.
The close of the game saw Donkey Kong grow to massive size, with his face and fists filling the screen. I was slowly learning his patterns, but out of nowhere I was being chased by his hand as he slammed it down, killing me in one hit. "Hand! Hand!!!" I shouted when I saw it, startling my parents, followed by some brief laughs at my expense. But I didn't care, because now DK had me spooked. I didn't know what else he had in store, and it'd be a few more hours of driving before the credits rolled and I could finally relax.
What do you fear?
So what game freaks YOU out, and nobody else? Was there something specific about the game that tipped it over the edge for you, or just a general sense of unease? Share your stories in the comments below. It's always interesting to see how two people can have a completely different response from the same game.
And for more great scares, be sure to check out The biggest games of 2014, reviewed by H.P. Lovecraft and CHEAP SHOT! Gaming's most unnecessary jump scares.