This week’s question, which we’re visiting amid all the talk around the new Silent Hill and its bizarre teaser, comes courtesy of Gameological reader Christopher Arp:
I was recently bragging to some friends that I had never been truly frightened by a game. Sure, any game can make me jump with a loud noise or sudden visual. But deep, creeping fear? That’s less likely. Not even Dead Space—a game that creates suspense more than anything approaching terror—gets to me. But then I remembered an ancient, excellent PC game called The Dark Eye. Eyeless clay-looking characters? Playable Edgar Allan Poe stories? Bone-chilling voice acting? My bowels, they tremble at the memory. What games, if any, have terrified you?
I first watched Aliens when I was far too young, and H.R. Giger’s biomechanical phallus monsters have haunted my psyche ever since. When Alien Trilogy came out for the PlayStation in 1996, I was just 9 years old and eager for a chance to gun down the creatures that had been giving me nightmares. The game looked cruddy, even for its time, and it played awkwardly on the early PlayStation controllers. But the indistinct graphics and sluggish controls only amplified the feelings of uncertainty and helplessness that made the films so terrifying for me. Is that brownish-green blob just inside my field of vision a threat? If so, what could I even do about it? I went into Alien Trilogy hoping for a revenge fantasy, but I walked away more frightened of Giger’s creations than ever before.
I don’t care that every time something moves on-screen, it looks like it’s about to rip apart at the seams. I don’t care that the characters look like Duplo blocks covered in glue and mulch, or that Harry Mason moves like a sack of grape jelly and marbles. Silent Hill, the one and only original, actually scares me thanks to its technological struggles. Director Keiichiro Toyama made a game that conjured up the indistinct menace of bad dreams and then made you walk through it for fun. Since it was so hard to look at in the first place, Hill’s constant shifts between a fog-laden small town and an industrial oubliette were less distinct and harder to follow. Always too light or too dark, it genuinely made me feel lost and mad. Driving the effect home was Akira Yamaoka’s sound design, which even in 1999 made expert use of stereo sound to make it seem like there was always something horrible and hungry just out of frame coming for you. I literally couldn’t play Silent Hill without every light in the house on between the living room and my bedroom. I still can’t.
I was 14 when I acquired a PlayStation and collection of games from a neighbor who decided he didn’t want them anymore. I’d heard good things about Resident Evil 2 and popped it in one night. I was alone in my room since I was pretty sure my mom wouldn’t be happy to know I’d gotten my hands on something with an M rating. I spent just a few minutes wandering around Raccoon City blasting zombies like I was playing an arcade shooter. Then I realized that there was no convenient “reload” button. I was just out of ammo and surrounded. As the undead descended upon my character, the camera panned out to show me the look of utter horror on his face as he was brutally eaten alive. The death scenes look cheesy when I rewatch them today, but at the time I just couldn’t deal with it. I put away the game and opted for a less terrifying title.
I have my share of fears in real life—mostly boring stuff like heights and talking to anyone, ever—but only one carries over into video gaming: deep, dark water. I know how to swim, and I’m not afraid of drowning. I’m specifically terrified of being in a big body of water and not knowing what prehistoric monster is sitting right below me. Not every game with water bothers me, though. BioShock is fine, but Minecraft freaks me out. Recently, though, Grand Theft Auto V has scared me more than most. It has a few missions that required me to go underwater—sometimes at night—and I almost had to put on happy music and peek through my fingers in order to get through them. There’s nothing in GTAV’s ocean except a crashed UFO and sharks, but that’s enough to convince me to stay out of the water.
As hackneyed and dreary as they seem now, back in the ’90s it seemed like VCR board games were “where everything was headed.” They combined the fun of talking your friends into playing a board game with the excitement of having a TV on in the background that you occasionally pay attention to. The standout to this day is Nightmare, a game that played on tropes from horror films by casting the players as werewolves, mummies, vampires, and the like. As a preteen, I was excited by the mixed-media aspect, but as a kid who grew up on romantic comedies and didn’t understand the appeal of genre horror, the game terrified me. My friends would laugh and throw politically-incorrect slurs at the vindictive glowing face on-screen, but every crash of lightning and echoed child’s laughter made me jump away from the table with the whimper of an injured puppy. This is probably how I first started baking, as I would volunteer to make snacks, clean the table, take out the trash, or generally do anything other than participate in the game when my friends were playing Nightmare.
I spend a lot of time playing video games late at night with a headset on so as not to disturb my neighbors and a sleeping significant other who has one of those “normal” jobs with “regular” hours. The immersive experience a headset produces has many benefits. I love hearing the sneakers squeaking on the court in NBA 2K14. As a guy who watches most horror films through his fingers, though, such immersion is also cause for some serious anxiety, and no game amped that feeling more than Dead Space 2. I shrieked when a steam valve exploded as I walked by it early in the game. I freaked out as a legless alien crawled out of a dimly lit bedroom. Then I refused to move my character, too afraid to explore any more of the ship. I never finished it.
There’s a good reason why Amnesia: The Dark Descent became the genre-reviving phenomenon that it did. It’s everything a pure horror game should aspire to be, cleverly (or sadistically, depending on your perspective) using the video game requirement that players push onward toward horrors and danger to keep the experience moving. Its dusty castle is home to a handful of ego-shattering encounters, but it was a run-in with an invisible water-dwelling monster left me trembling. This thing lives in a flooded basement. You can’t see it, but it also can’t see you. If you dare step foot in its water, though, it comes charging, its invisible arms flailing and teeth gnashing (at least, that’s how I imagine it) until you clamber onto dry land with the water frothing and rippling where the monster stands behind you. The thing is, you can safely hang out on a barrel or a crate for as long as you want, but eventually, you’re going to have to go in the water. It’s all right. The creature will wait.
There are as many dank, rust-stained, underlit dungeons in The Last Of Us as any horror game, but it’s the daytime levels where the scariness really affects me. Inching through an airless sewer with a flashlight that only works well enough to show the thing that’s about to bite my face off frightens me, of course, but that’s an instinctual response. When the horror persists in the light of the day, I get deeply spooked. To rifle through an abandoned house lit by wan daylight for supplies and finding a note that obliquely references a family’s horrible end, or using something as mundane as the deck of a split-level ranch home to hide from a small herd of the game’s mushroom-zombies gives me all the fatalistic feelings. The unsettling design of those mushroom-zombies helps. Victims in an advanced stage of infection have faces bifurcated straight in half by an explosion of fungal growth. They give out guttural clicks and chirps and generally just make me tense and achy trying to track them all as they shuffle around, mindless of the remains of human civilization they crunch underfoot.
I’m not one to deliberately seek out horror in my video games, never finding a lot of joy in recreational fear. Sometimes, though, horror sneaks up on me in otherwise innocuous places. That was the case with The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game that terrified me when I first played it as an adolescent. It was the atmosphere, the body horror transformation sequences associated with putting on the masks, and most of all, that damn moon with its cartoon grimace. The juxtaposition of the moon’s silly face with the real threat of the world’s end still makes me antsy. After a lot of deep breaths, I once let the three-day cycle reach its dire conclusion so I could see what would happen. It scared me so badly I turned off the console before it finished.
The first minute of the arcade game Sinistar resembles other space shooters of the early ’80s. Your tiny ship avoids asteroids and fends off a host of attacking aliens while drifting in the outer reaches of the universe. But all of that changes when, out of nowhere, appears this… boss thing. The best way I can describe it is a demon face plopped on top of a Life Saver candy, which sounds rather lame, but the appearance isn’t really what makes Sinistar so terrifying. It’s the voice. Sinistar doesn’t just speak to you; it taunts you constantly with its tinny robotic tone that sounds like hell stuffed into a circuit box. “I HUNGER!” or “RUN, COWARD!” it intones, while rushing at your vulnerable ship to eat it like an after-dinner mint. The first time I heard Sinistar roar with anger, it made me want to evacuate my 8-year-old bowels onto the arcade floor. As an adult who has consumed an incredible amount of horror-themed media over a lifetime, not even the most creepy-looking eyeless doll holding a bloody meat cleaver can faze me anymore, but hearing Sinistar’s voice still sends a chill down my spine.