Horror fans are a jaded lot. The first time you see a zombie gnawing on a screaming victim’s intestine, it’s scary, but by the time you’ve seen it happen 73,134 times, it kinda loses its pop. Sometimes, though, horror sneaks up on you, like the serial killer standing behind your desk. Right. Now. Sometimes the scariest stuff isn’t meant to be scary. Maybe because you haven’t seen it before, or maybe because your usual “you-can’t-scare-me” defenses are down.
None of the ten video games listed below are considered horror games, but they contain some of the scariest moments in gaming history. At least to me. It’s all subjective, man.
MINECRAFT’s “Hardcore Mode”
Yeah, it’s a favorite of children everywhere, but MINECRAFT can be the most terrifying survival-horror game imaginable. The scale and emptiness of its procedurally generated world is existentially frightening enough, but to turn the sandbox into a grueling, teeth-clenching terror experience, set the difficulty to “hardcore.” In Hardcore mode (as in life) Death is permanent. No restoring a save file. No respawns. So the stakes are way high.
If you stay on the surface, it’s pretty safe during the day, but to get those precious diamonds, you have to go underground. And that’s where the Bad Things live. When death means sacrificing a hundred hours of hard work, you’re lost in a dark cavern far from the comforts of your log cabin, running out of torches is more than an inconvenience, and the ominous “ssssssssssssss” of a creeper about to explode behind you is the most terrifying sound in the world.
The Existential Angst of KERBAL SPACE PROGRAM
Who knew a simulated trip to the moon could be so weird and scary? KERBAL SPACE PROGRAM puts you in charge of the virtual space agency of a race of little green Kerbals. It’s a complicated, wonky game, but it’s crazy fun if you’ve always wanted to plan a mission to moon, (actually, “the Mun” in Kerbal-speak.) When I was learning the ins-and-outs of KSP, I always assigned brave Kerbonaut Bill Kerman to pilot my ridiculously dangerous rockets. He never balked no matter how suicidal a mission seemed. So of course I chose Bill to pilot my first manned Mun mission. The rocket launched without incident, and after an arduous journey, Bill Kerman landed safely on the Mun!
As he took his first historic steps from the capsule, I realized I hadn’t planned how he could return to earth. The sight of my tiny, brave astronaut abandoned on a lifeless rock filled me with unexpected dread as I imagined his experience, staring at the distant earth, sentenced to eternity alone because I am the worst engineer imaginable. Kerbal space suits never run out of air, so Bill Kerman is still trapped up there, waiting for a rescue ship that will never come. I mean, I planned to mount an expedition to bring him home, but that shit is pretty complicated, and I got bored. After all, he’s not really trapped on The Mun… or is he??
Creepy Watson from SHERLOCK HOLMES: NEMESIS
This first-person adventure game lets you switch between playing as Holmes and his manservant Watson. When you’re Holmes, Watson follows you everywhere, but he doesn’t walk. He just sort of appears behind you. Turn around and there’s Watson, staring his blank stare. Waiting. Turn back and he’s closer. Maybe the game makers were trying to save the effort of building walking animations for the character, but for whatever reason, Creepy Watson turns an innocent adventure games into a spooky horror experiences. Check him out in action in the video above.
The Many Glitches of ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM
Epic RPG SKYRIM has more than its fair share of skeleton filled caverns and creepy abandoned ruins, but the real terrors of Bethesda’s massive game are its infinite number of glitches. Whether it’s monsters whose limbs suddenly grown spindly and huge, NPCs who twitch and gyrate after you’ve murdered them, or the sudden appearance of an endless void when you clip out of the levels, SKYRIM’s errors are scarier than anything the developers added on purpose. Case in point: Check out the video above of a terrifying faceless girl. <shudder>
The Hidden Caveman Family in HALO 3
Tucked away in a small cave in the Sierra 117 level of HALO 3, a family of cavemen sits quietly, awaiting the arrival of curious space marines. The father clutches a small teddy bear, and they all have the same face (that of a Bungie employee.) They don’t do anything but sit staring at you. Why are they even there? What are they thinking? Why aren’t they trying to kill you like everyone else does in HALO? It’s all just wrong.
The Phantoms of THE SIMS
Played like a normal person, THE SIMS games are the opposite of horror. These having-a-life-simulators are brightly colored, funny, and usually involve helping virtual people choose satisfying jobs and matching furniture. I played the first SIMS game for about eight minutes before I got bored. I mean, you can’t punch anyone. But then I discovered how to torment and torture my new virtual friends and it opened a world of possibilities.
I cast a friendly looking Sim as the neighborhood serial killer. Other Sims would stop by Clyde’s well appointed home, and he’d eat, make pleasant conversations over dinner, and then sadistically murder his houseguests. Sometimes, he’d invite them into his pool, remove the ladder and watch impassively as they drown. Or he’d simply wall his victims into a tiny shed and listen to them scream as they starved to death. All that was fun, but not long after Clyde’s first murder, the ghosts appeared. The game’s developers coded the spirits of dead Sims into the game to haunt their killers. I have to admit, the first time I saw one, I may have peed a little. More recent versions of The Sims offer new and innovative ways to kill — Sims can literally die of embarrassment now!– and a (very disturbing) community of virtual Sims serial killers has sprung up on the Internet. And I thought I was so unique!
Just About Everything In THE LEGEND OF MAJORA’S MASK
From the horrible-faced moon that continually gets closer to earth to remind you of the impending apocalypse, to its unsettling music, to its pervy mask seller, MAJORA’S MASK might be the creepiest game ever marketed to children. But there’s one element that is sure to be embedded in the psyche of anyone who ever played MAJORA at an impressionable age: The disturbing animation that accompanies Link’s mask transformation. Who can forget that terrible scream?
RED DEAD REDEMPTION’s Bird Men
RED DEAD REDEMPTION’s “Manimals” are another example of a programming glitch that’s way scarier than almost anything intentionally placed in a game. Somehow, the “skins” of animals and humans sometimes get mixed up in Rock Star’s epic Western, resulting in mutations that are more terrifying than Dr. Moreau’s worst nightmares. While the snake people, donkey women, and cougar men are scary enough, the worst of all for me, are the bird people. I mean, people can’t fly. Click the video!
The End of THE MATRIX ONLINE
To hardcore MMO players, turning off a game’s software is literally the end of the Universe, and while some games go out with a whimper, THE MATRIX ONLINE ended with an apocalypse. Before the servers were shut down for good in 2009, the game’s graphics were made to look as if the world was falling apart, and the angels and demons terrorized everyone in-game. At the very end, the diehards gathered together and watch their ‘toons disintegrate, dead forever. I hope the real apocalypse is this epic.
The Evil Piano in SUPER MARIO 64
This may be the greatest jump-scare in the history of gaming. In the middle of a cartoonish game, You/Mario are walking around an unsettlingly empty house. You happen on a room with a piano. As you approach the keyboard, glad to have something to actually do in this empty place, it suddenly sprouts huge teeth and chomps at you. It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s jump-away-from-the-screen surprising, like the best jump scares.