I’ve often mentioned how eclectic my video game tastes are, how I’ll pretty much play anything as long as the characters and storyline are interesting and manage to grab me. But I have to admit that of all games I play, it’s horror games that I struggle with the most.
You see, there are horror games that depend on cheap tactics to frighten you, and then there are those where you’re gazing behind you, not in the game but swivelling your chair, because the atmosphere gripped you so thoroughly you’re suddenly afraid the bad things will come get you at home. These are the titles or even sections that I can’t play for more than a few minutes at a time and saving as often as humanly possible.
It’s strange to me because despite the fear and the tension, I keep going, hungry to find the big reveal, the core of the story and its characters, or to at least find a payoff for the dread and the chill in my spine.
Looking back on the many games I’ve played, I wondered which video game scared me the most? Which game fell right under that category of “scaring the living crap out of me?” There are many games I’ve played in that Courage the Cowardly Dog way, and surprisingly some of the scariest moments in gaming for me have been in otherwise non-horror games, just having sequences that scared the living daylights out of me.
But, if I have to talk about the downright scariest ones, I’ll talk about two, one in a horror game and one outside of one.
For the horror games, it has to be the Project Zero franchise aka Fatal Frame, specifically the second one, Crimson Butterfly. Last year I made two purchases, one on the WiiU shop and another on Amazon, they were Fatal Frame 2 Wii Edition and a WiiMote and Nunchuck combo.
Fatal Frame 2 puts you in the shoes of one of two twins, lost not in a haunted house but a spectre-filled village. There are ghosts, apparitions and wraiths in every corner, in every house and everywhere in between. The encounters are harrowing, the backstories of the ghosts, the village and the villains are even worse and there’s an atmosphere of despair hanging over the entire experience. In Fatal Frame 2 you’re not merely exploring, you’re walking around full of fear, expecting the next door to lead to a confrontation with a poor lost soul from this village, or a sudden vision revealing a fragment of the past, or even worse, something that makes the sisters split up for a while.
Normally, in survival horror games there comes a moment I call the “armoury moment,” that point where you have every weapon available and more ammunition than you can use, and in the face of your hardware, the horror elements suffer or fade away, as you walk, confident in your ability to kill anything you encounter.
Fatal Frame 2, even with an upgraded Camera Obscura and having all the kinds of reels, never loses the scare-factor and you come to the end and credits just as frightened as you were when you first set foot on the village, perhaps even more considering how things ramp up when the really dangerous spirits set upon you.
On the otherwise-not-horror list is Thief 3: Deadly Shadows. Now, the Thief series has always had its creepy moments, but Garrett’s third adventure into The City turned that to eleven with the Shalebridge Cradle level, which on its own might be the scariest level I have ever played in a video game, even among horror games and even compared to the above Fatal Frame entry.
In the context of Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, Shalebridge Cradle is the site for the mission “Robbing the Cradle,” where you must infiltrate the abandoned Orphanage/Mental Asylum and rescue the soul of a little girl by disposing of things that allowed the almost living entity the Cradle had become over the years to remember her.
The level of Shalebridge Cradle completely changes the dynamic of the game. Instead of a stealth game for stealing from people, it becomes a stealth game to survive, to stay out of the way of the horrors found in the haunted building. The atmosphere is oppressive as nothing else in the world, and it’s the kind of horror scenario where even when you’re safe, and know to be safe, you still tiptoe around the place and save as much as you can. Hell, the level won awards for how scary it was!
In thinking of these games, and the many more that have scared me over the years, I begun to wonder if any of my fellow writers of this community of weirdos we have had a similar experience, after all, every gamer out there, even one who hasn’t played a horror game in their life will have a video game that scared the bejeezus out of them.
I wasn’t disappointed!
Hundstrasse had this to say: “Project Zero (AKA Fatal Frame by Tecmo) wasn’t a game I’d ever heard of when I flicked casually past it in the 2nd hand basket of Electronics Boutique back in the early 2000’s. Being a poor student and in a time before digital distribution and Steam Sales were a thing; rifling through pre-owned sections at the handful of games stores in Bath was pretty much a hobby on idle weekends.
I shudder to think of the excellent titles that I traded back in over those years, that’s the REALLY scary tale of gaming here.
I picked out Project Zero mainly because I hadn’t heard of it, but I was a survival horror fan so some kind of spooky house thing must be in essence Resident Evil, right? Well, I was severely mistaken, this wasn’t a borderline comedy take on cheesy horror. The first evening I put the disc in the tray I played for a grand total of about 20 minutes, including some pretty long pauses between lives. Over the next week or so I spent several similar heart pounding sessions trying to move forward with the game. Project Zero scared the hell out of me; the sense of being defenceless armed only with a camera was bad enough, but something about the floating ghostly enemies tapped into a seam of fear in me that I didn’t know I had. The girl with the broken neck specifically haunted me; I can remember pretty clearly the first time the orange filament glow alerted me that there was an enemy near. I pulled up the viewfinder and tried to work out what I was looking a before she spun around, neck snapped and head hanging inverted and awkwardly down her back. I jabbed at the buttons uselessly as she changed in and finished me off.
After that I put the game down for well over a year before finally beginning it again. Eventually I made it through, but only ever playing in short bursts. The weird part is that I enjoyed the sensation of being that scared (despite only being able to take it for short periods of time). I even went out and bought the sequel which turned out to be a much better game than the original, although didn’t scare me to the same level as the original.”
As someone who played both Fatal Frames, much like Hundstrasse, I can say we’re in a disagreement over which one is more terrifying. But maybe the enclosed spaces of the mansion were worse for him!
The Shameful Narcissist on the other hand had a much different root for her fears: “Metroid’s Mother Brain to this day scares the ever-living crap out of me, especially that ambulatory version of…well it’s hard to call that a “her.” Like that is a walking abomination; I can’t even look at pictures of it. I’m not fond of the original brain in a jar from the first Metroid game either.
Honourable mentions: Jenova from FFVII who is Mother Brain-like and Squeenix probably took some inspiration from that (along with The Thing and Lovecraft). The disembodied beating heart is serious nightmare fuel, too. In a similar vein Contra or Super Contra probably. When you have to literally go inside the alien to destroy its heart and Life Force for the same reason. Dead Space, too (I’m both terrified and fascinated by aliens it would appear), and finally SOMA but that’s for more psychological/existential horror reasons.”
When I asked what about these characters and elements scared her, this was her reply:
I’d say it’s both fear and disgust, but mostly fear. Jenova is a mind controlling parasite, and I think VII is brilliant for having a horror motif in a game that’s not considered horror. Metroid, too. I think it’s the combination of hostile aliens and body horror.
Following The Shameful Narcissist’s example, Kim from Later Levels shared her experience: “I’ve been a fan of adventure games since I was a kid and when a new point-and-click was released in the nineties, it was almost guaranteed I’d spend my pocket-money on it. It’s therefore no surprise that I picked up Shivers from Sierra Online when it came out in 1995.
It takes place in Professor Windlenot’s Museum of the Strange and Unusual, built by a mad scientist but never finished due to his mysterious disappearance. The player takes on the role of an adolescent dared by their friends to spend the night in the building but it isn’t so easy: for in 1980 two students broke in and unwittingly released the Ixupi, evil spirits who draw life essence from humans until they become trapped.
Looking back on it now, I’m surprised I was so scared to play it at the time. The storyline was the stuff of B-horror movies and the ending was predictable. The graphics are poor, it’s obvious when the Ixupi are going to appear and they don’t look all that frightening. Some of the puzzles were terrible and it’s a wonder I ever stuck with the game to complete it.
But combine Shivers, an overactive imagination and dark nights spent playing the it alone while everyone else in the family was asleep, and you have something which made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and kept me awake at night. I screamed when the first spirit appeared from among the ash within an abandoned fireplace, laughing it off afterwards… but I proceeded far more cautiously afterwards”
Lastly, Drakulus came and shared his experience and it surprised me to see it was another non-horror game causing him great fear: “After thinking this one over I’m going with Subnautica. It’s not a horror game, but man that game is scary as hell. When the sun is going down and I don’t have any gear on me except a crappy scanner it always freaks me out. Swimming around the ocean in pitch black darkness with nothing but unknown animal sounds all around me. Don’t even get me started with the background music that plays while I’m out swimming. Some times I have to stop and look around me to see if there’s something coming at me in broad daylight because of how excellent the sounds are in this game. I’m loving every moment of it, but it creepy as hell too. Being stranded at sea is not something I ever want to experience and this game hit the nail on the head.”
I find it so surprising that most of the people I spoke to found their most terrifying experiences outside the horror genre. Even in genres outside horror, my frightful encounters have been with games or segments meant to be scary, such as the experience I had with the Nancy Drew adventures.
Have there been games or moments in games to scare the living hell out of you? Let me know in the comments and make sure to check out my collaborators on this fun little exploration on what scares the hell out of us! They’re all amazing and deserve all the support in the world!