In the spirit of the Halloween season, I thought it appropriate to visit some video games that did a really great job of creeping me out over the years. While my original focus was going to be solely on the 'scare factor' these games delivered, I realized games can take more than one approach to this. Some of these games utilize the more traditional 'jump-out-of-your-seat surprise' routine, others use the bizarre and unexplainable to mess with players' heads. Some are even almost wholly reliant on the atmosphere of the game's environments to convey the dark mood. In light of this, the list that follows is comprised of the top five games that I found to be the scariest, eeriest, or most haunting in nature.
#5 - Bioshock
This is a game that is more invested in delivering its narrative than it is scaring players. And what an awesome story it is. But the developers decided to have some fun with scaring the crap out of players just the same, at a few key moments in Bioshock. There are the generic situations wherein a Splicer will run around a corner and catch you off guard - the Houdini splicers are notorious for this, with their ability to teleport. But I found fighting Houdini splicers to be more tense than scary. The Spider splicers, on the other hand, are pretty creepy. They crawl on the ceiling of Fort Frolic, making a clink-clank noise with their hooks, and jabbering on about how they want to hold your Little Sister. Because of the multi-level layout of Fort Frolic and the fact that it's such an expansive area, you can't always see where these enemies are. A few of them go the extra mile and dress up in plaster, posing as statues until you turn your back.
The worst offender, though, is the Medical Pavilion. It's one of the first areas you explore in Bioshock, and is home to the crazed Dr. Steinman, who spends his days turning people into Picasso paintings. Watching him gouge a corpse before he introduces you to his other works is pretty disgusting. Meeting the other denizens of the Medical Pavilion will give you the heebie-jeebies. Most notably, a group of splicers shut the lights off and run circles around you. Another hides behind a casket, waiting to attack should you choose to approach it. Another medical member crawls around inside the morgue compartments, while one of his colleagues floods the Dentist practice with gas to temporarily blind you so that he can sneak up behind you, not attacking until you turn around and see his mutated face up close.
Though the game does contain some great moments to scare players, they are mostly limited to a few areas. Don't get me wrong - the points in question are very effective, and the crazed behavior of the splicers is in keeping with the overall theme of the game. But as a whole, Bioshock does not exude 'scary' like the rest of those on my list. With that said, on to number four!
#4 - Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4's setup is a great teaser of everything that will ultimately unfold. After a drive down a muddy, unpaved road deep in the forests of Spain, Leon is separated from his chauffeurs. From the sounds of things they have met an unfortunate fate, but Leon has to press onward to rescue the daughter of the President of the United States. He comes across a village of locals who are burning the corpse of one of the drivers, and the moment Leon steps past the fence line, they all swarm him, wielding sickles and hatchets. With limited ammunition, Leon seeks to barricade himself inside one of the ramshackle houses. As soon as he's blocked the door, the sound of a chainsaw can be heard as a man wearing a potato sack over his head makes Leon his number one target.
Few games start of as intense as Resident Evil 4. The survival-horror elements are retained throughout the rest of the game by limiting Leon's ammo supply at key points, and subsequently throwing seemingly insurmountable odds at him. This can be anything from a cabin where Plagas-infected locals spill in from every window on either floor, or trying to balance fighting an El Gigante whilst ensuring Ashley's safety. Aside from this tension, there are plenty of jump scares sprinkled throughout, from dodging the spear-tipped tail of Salazar's Verdugo to a flaming body suddenly erupting from behind a door.
Enemy designs ooze horror through plentiful variation. Sure, it's both bizarre and gross when a Plagas rips open the skull of one of the Ganados and begins to flail about its tentacle blade. But it's even more unsettling to deal with the borderline-invisible Novistadors that crawl around the castle sewers and puke acid all over Leon's face. Or the Garradors, who - though blind - will slowly walk about a room, waiting for Leon to make the slightest noise which will prompt them to charge, running their blades through his head. Or perhaps the creepiest of them all, the Regenerators, whose heavy, nasally breathing can be heard from a few rooms away, leaving players confused as to which door this nasty actually lies behind. Plus, Regenerators have multiple Plagas within their body that can only be pinpointed with a thermal scope attachment for the sniper rifle. And the time it takes to stop, zoom, fire, and reload cuts close to the time it takes the Regenerator to reach Leon once he's been spotted.
I would rate this game higher, but the longer you play Resident Evil 4, the more comfortable you get with it. It still maintains its identity, but the jump scares become less frequent and the tension amounts to more of an action-packed experience than a horrific one.
#3 - The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
I know what you are probably thinking: 'how in the world can he rank Majora's Mask higher on the scary-scale than Resident Evil 4?' Well, it's a different kind of scary - frankly, I think the terms 'haunting' and 'eerie' are more appropriate when describing Majora's Mask. It's also much more consistent than the jump-out-and-get-you moments in Resident Evil 4.
Majora's Mask is the darkest of all the Zelda titles. It's also one of the most depressing and twisted games I've played in general, regardless of genre or date of release. The game presents you with a daunting task - stop the moon from falling and subsequently crushing all the inhabitants of Termina. Oh yeah, and you only have three days to do that, so get crackin' or everyone's going to be pummeled into the ground. As you meet each character and help them in both the main story and sidequests, you relate to them and begin to genuinely care about their individual stories. It's one thing that I've always found Zelda games to be great at. No one will be spared - not even young Romani, who will be abducted by aliens if Link is unable to defend the ranch. Even though the moon falling is the work of Skull Kid, I still felt like I would be guilty of not saving everyone if I failed to complete the game.
In Ocarina of Time, Link became friends with the sages and Shiek, all of whom proved strong in their own distinct ways. Though Link had to rescue each from a sort of slumber or imprisonment, they aided him in his quest to stop Ganondorf. In Majora's Mask, the heroes of Termina - Darmani the Goron and Maiku the Zora - both die. Each of them teaches Link a new song before passing on to the afterlife, and leave him with transformation masks. Link is essentially wearing the faces of a dead Goron and Zora, which is about as gross as it is disturbing.
From the ominous chanting in the Stone Tower Temple, to the bizarre twangs at the Great Bay Coast, to the downright stomach-churning sounds that carry across Ikana Valley, the soundtrack does more than its fair share to emphasize the haunting nature of Majora's Mask. It is a perfectly creepy marriage to the dark color palettes exhibited in the game's dungeons, and the designs of enemies like the monstrous fish Gyorg and the grim-reaper-inspired Gomess. The atmosphere of this game seriously creeped me out as a kid, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't still find it disturbing today. I mean, have you seen Link's Elegy of Emptiness statue?
(Fun fact: If you look at the mask on the cover of the game cartridge, official game guide, or even a Google image of it, Majora's gaze follows you no matter where you are standing.)
#2 - Limbo
Limbo is a curious case. It is largely a throwback to old school platformers, and relies heavily on puzzle mechanics which are clever and challenging. The game itself is not terribly long. What makes it so creepy is little more than the art style. Were it not for the classic horror black and white filter, enemies would appear as other humans much like the protagonist. Monsters would be visible from a distance, and players would know where to jump to avoid spike pits and bear traps.
But then, the game would lose all of its atmosphere. Frankly, the story is completely up to interpretation, not delivering any voice work or text boxes. Players are meant to believe there will be some sort of prize at the end of the road - the gray, darkening road. The ending is melancholy and open-ended, while the journey there is marked with grotesque insects and humanoid figures that seem hell bent on your destruction. Traps riddle the forest floor, and one flick of the joystick could mean the difference between staying afloat by aid of a box and drowning. Limbo utilizes the most simplistic approach to horror, and it works incredibly well.
#1 - Silent Hill 4: The Room
Where Silent Hill 4 surpasses the competition with flying colors is every unexplainable element therein. Giant two-faced baby monsters chasing you through corridors, tentacles rising up from the floor to grab your legs – it’s all so alien and bizarre that one can’t help but respond with instinct, running away at the sight of these creatures. The fact that you are only allotted the use of certain objects as weapons doesn’t help the situation either. I mean really, are you going to charge headlong at those two-faced baby monsters with a lead pipe? I don’t think so.
But the horrors are not limited to the different Silent Hill portals. Each time you return from your… ‘adventures’ (for lack of a better term), there’s something new and out-of-place in your apartment. It might be the upper half of a human torso sprouting out of the wall above your bed. It might be a bleeding bag in the fridge that emits sounds similar to a cat. It might even be a bunch of crying baby fetuses that have somehow manifested themselves inside of the walls. Even if you do your best to avoid these more obvious scare tactics, you might witness a disembodied head fall by your window. Or perhaps Robbie the Rabbit is staring you down through the hole to the neighbor’s apartment.
The game couples dark fantasy elements with an art style that performs a balancing act between gothic and industrial. The soundtrack often aims more for odd, inexplicable noises than actual music. All of this topped off with the fact that you are alone and trapped like a rat for the entire game perpetuates a sense of serious tension and anxiety. The fact that, more often than not, you have no idea what to make of things makes this the single scariest video game I have ever played.