I’m not a big fan of horror games. On the very rare occasion that I start up a horror game, there seems to be a chemical change in my body. The part of my brain responsible for going “holy mother of hell get me away from this scary thing” is muted. I expect to be afraid, and therefore I am more resistant to said fear. Maybe I’m not very good at getting into the horror game mindset. My brain is too busy knocking down all the hatches and preparing the engines of war against the oncoming ghosts and ghosts.
The times I’ve been most scared to play a game are when I don’t expect to be scared. And what better way to lull myself into a false sense of security this Halloween than to play an otherwise not-so-scary game, with just one particularly scary moment?
It turns out that there are many games that fall into this category. So I’ve compiled some suggestions for the very best if you’re like me. Some are good at scaring, others at making you face the psychologically terrifying consequences of your actions. But with each of the games below, you should expect a single moment of terror, a nasty, spiky rock of creepiness, in the middle of an otherwise calm sea.
And yes – I know your favorite example of this is missing from the list below. I never finished Half-Life 2, okay? I know, I know. That is the scariest thing about this post. Deal with it.
NOTE: heavy spoilers occur for each of the games below. You have been warned.
Batman Arkham Asylum: Killer Croc’s Lair
Ask anyone what the most memorable moment is from Rocksteady’s 2009 masterpiece Batman Arkham Asylum, and they’ll probably say: Scarecrow. It is understandable. It’s hard to forget trying to navigate the Scarecrow’s nightmarish realm in the dark and rain while avoiding the blistering gaze of a giant Scarecrow. But it’s still not the scariest moment in the game. That distinction belongs to Killer Croc’s Lair.
Towards the end of the game, Batman has to venture into the sewers where Killer Croc lives so you can collect spores to counter Joker’s Titan serum. The sewers are a confusing maze of similar twists and turns, and you have to take it all very slowly. If you rush along the floating platforms, Killer Croc will sense your vibrations and appear to instantly kill you. Instead, you always have to pay close attention to the motion sensor on the left of the screen and make sure you don’t send too many vibrations down to the monster below.
Every now and then, Killer Croc still shows up and attacks you, accompanied by violent panicked violins in the soundtrack. You have to hit Croc in the head with a Batarang before he reaches you and make him fall back into the water or it’s another instant death. It’s scary stuff, trapped in the murky maze below Arkham Asylum, having to take your time avoiding the one villain in the game that Batman can’t hope to defeat with brute force alone.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Darth Vader appears
Speaking of unbeatable villains. I felt a real sinking “Oh, fuck” moment at the end of Jedi: Fallen Order when Darth Vader showed up. I had finally defeated what I thought was the final boss of the game, and then… the iconic breathing started in the background. And I knew I was in real trouble.
It’s a surprisingly powerful moment when you regain control of Cal as he turns on Vader, because it highlights how incredibly superior you are despite everything you’ve been through and how much you’ve grown in power throughout the game. This is the ultimate warrior in the galaxy. He deflects your first lightsaber swings like child’s play before using the force to disarm you and toss you around like a rag doll. Fighting is simply not an option, and the game quickly helps you realize this as Vader begins to tear apart the fortress around you with his unimaginably strong Force powers.
It’s by far the best “you have no choice but to run” moment in any game I can think of. The cinematic feel, Vader’s terrifying figure and the oh so Revenge Of The Sith music playing in the background. It’s very easy to forget you’re playing a game and start panicking at the prospect of having Darth Vader himself hot on his heels.
Inside: The Huddle
Inside is a pretty disturbing game – as we’ve come to expect from everything Playdead produces. But the final episode of Inside really takes the cake. The story of a little boy who infiltrates an ill-fated facility of mind-control scientists reaches a rather gruesome body-horror-esque climax, when he jumps into a giant water tank and at its center finds a giant, living mass of paste-like flesh and grasping limbs.
The Huddle, as it’s called, quickly grabs the boy as he tries to disconnect him from the cables and holds him in place, pulling him deep into himself. From that point on, the player controls Huddle – a terrifying and overwhelmingly strong creature that breaks free from first the tank and then the facility, causing chaos and sending all the workers in the facility fleeing in terror in the process. It’s certainly not a jump scare, but it is psychological horror – much more affecting for many people.
The consequences are quite upsetting. What did the scientists hope to gain by creating such an abomination? How many people had to die for that to happen? How much does Huddle feel, or think? Was it controlling the boy all this time with its ambiguous mind control abilities, and that’s why the boy spent the entire game slowly traveling through dangerous areas and gruesome encounters, getting ever closer to Huddle who would absorb him into himself to escape? And what actually happens to Huddle at the end? It breaks away from the facility, rolls down a wooded hill and comes to a slow, spotty stop on the coast. And then the credits roll. What happens after that? Is it still alive? Did it get what it wanted? Is it just recaptured and put back in the facility? So many questions, and each one fills me with dread.
Mass Effect 2: The Collector Attack
Mass Effect 2 is fundamentally about creating and strengthening relationships with your crewmates. Years later we remember all the conversations we had with our favorite crewmates – Garrus, Tali, Thane, Wrex… Not Kaidan. But almost everyone else. This is why the late-game second collector attack on Normandy is so effective. At this point, these are your friends, your comrades. And you have to more or less see them slaughtered and carried away by the enemy.
At the time of the Collector attack, Shepard and his team are forced to use the shuttle instead of the Normandy itself for their next mission. So when the collectors arrive there is no defense against them. Joker, who due to his disability has great difficulty moving physically, is forced to stand up and try to escape under the player’s control. By doing so, the game forces both the protagonists and the player out of their comfort zone. Shepard and his team are not there to fight. Joker, the ace pilot, is forced to abandon the position where he is strongest and instead trudge through Normandy. The player is given control of Joker, rather than Shepard, and is therefore powerless to stop the Collectors. And as Joker limps forward, he sees all around him his crewmates being mowed down and captured by the enigmatic Collectors and their fearsome Praetorians.
Being completely powerless to stop your crew from being killed is not a familiar feeling in Mass Effect 2, which is why the Collector attack hits so hard. We got a taste of it at the beginning of the game with the attack that destroys the first Normandy. But then it was pretty clearly telegraphed that everyone was on their way to safety, and the only casualty was Shepard – which doesn’t really hit too hard since the player understands that Shepard obviously can’t actually be dead. But the latter attack is really very scary. It’s not a faraway ship attack, it’s a boarding and capture, you can’t do anything to stop it, and you really don’t know what’s going to happen to your friends and crewmates.
Grounded or Subnautica: Your Worst Fear
Survival games are among the scariest non-horror games out there. Survival takes a long time, and starting from scratch and building up your tools, skills, and home means that when danger comes knocking, the stakes are high. And your survival instincts really kick in. A lot of people talk about Minecraft being one of the scariest games they’ve played, because you’d turn up deep underground in a cave, your layer groaning with diamonds, and a silent Creeper or Enderman is right in your face. But times have moved on in the survival game genre, and Creepers aren’t the scariest thing out there anymore.
Whether Grounded’s or Subnautica’s jump scare hits you harder depends very much on what phobias you happen to have. If you’re an arachnophobe (like me) it will be Grounded. If you are a thalassophobe (also like me) it will be Subnautica. I’ve grouped them both because they both represent the absolute pinnacle of being scared out of your mind by a terrifying monster that suddenly appears out of the mist and charges at you with a roar.
In Grounded, it’s the sheer terror of being an ant-sized human armed with little more than a sharp twig, suddenly finding yourself being chased by a horribly industrious wolf spider eight times your size. In Subnautica, the first time you swim into the murky waters near Aurora, a chilling distant roar echoes nearby… before a giant, snake-like Reaper Leviathan scurries out of the inky blackness toward you. Anyway, a newer player can’t really hope to defeat such a creature, so your only hope (besides trying not to get wet) is to run or swim away. Easier said than done when both creatures in question are faster than you. It’s brutally scary stuff, and probably the best chance you’ll have to jump out of your skin at a non-horror game this Halloween.
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