No doubt some of this will be familiar from previous posts, as the horror genre has a relatively small pool of stand-out games to offer. Regardless, here are some of my favorite frightening moments in game history. They aren’t specifically Halloweenish, but I think they capture the feeling that the holiday demands (at least if you’re a horror fan). I’ve tried to find specific, one-off moments as much as possible, but YouTube isn’t always forthcoming on this point, so bear with me.
These are all from games that I’ve played, and which freaked me out in various ways at the time I played them. Some may not hold up today, but they were moments in gaming history that demonstrated, to me at least, how digital media can be really terrifying. I present them in chronological order in the hopes of illustrating some of the leaps and bounds in digital scare-the-piss-outta-me technology over the past few decades.
I feel I should add, for you gamers out there, that this list is intended primarily for horror fans who are not gamers (which I suspect is the case for most folks reading this blog). This small sample will hopefully illustrate to non-gamers the potential of horror video games to be scary.
Plenty of horror games have been released that I don’t mention here, including a great many on PC; this isn’t because they aren’t scary, but because I haven’t played them. I’ve been primarily a console gamer since the beginning, and so I can’t comment much on PC games; but if you have additions you think should be on here, leave them in the comments. (I know, I know–no Dead Space. No Condemned. The truth is I only played portions of the Dead Space games, and none of Condemned. Maybe I should, but I’m not sure they fit the theme around here anyway.)
1) Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, NES (1987/1988)
This game gets a lot of hate, primarily because it changed the Castlevania gameplay formula to something less like mindless jumping and whipping and more like an action/RPG. Admittedly, pathfinding (i.e., figuring out what the hell you’re supposed to do/where the hell you’re supposed to go) was next to impossible at times, but I still feel that this was a great innovation. And such atmosphere. You played as Simon Belmont, scion of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters, whose job was to reassemble the corpse of Count Dracula (he hadn’t been killed properly the previous time) and dispose of him once and for all. You hiked around haunted wildernesses and creepy villages and gathered the supplies necessary to do this. The coolest part was the daytime/nighttime transition: the music changed, the palette darkened, and if you happened to be in a town (supposedly the only safe place to be), horrible green ghouls started rising out of the earth to haul you kicking and screaming down to hell. The game also had some really brilliant music, arguably the most memorable until Symphony of the Night.
2) Friday the 13th, NES (1989)
This may not seem scary now, but when I was seven and played it for the first time it scared the crap outta me. I’d never seen a Friday film, but I knew about it (at that stage I was still terrified of horror films), and somehow the knowledge of the relationship to the films, and the weird music and other creepiness of the game, really got under my skin. Did I mention I was seven? This is Jason’s first appearance, the part that really freaked me out as a kid.
3) Demon’s Crest, SNES (1994)
This is a brilliant and, I feel, often overlooked game from late in the Super Nintendo’s life. You play as Firebrand, an erstwhile villain from the old Ghosts ‘n Goblins games, in a world overrun by demons. Demons, in fact, are the dominant society, and humans are nearly extinct. Firebrand rebels against the ruling order (for reasons I’m not really clear on), and spends the whole game trying to become powerful enough to take them down. In this scene, which is the very very first thing that you do in the whole damned game, you fight (and freaking decapitate) an undead dragon. Bitchin’.
4) Resident Evil, PlayStation/GameCube (1996/2002)
Of course RE had to be on here. This was the cusp of the zombie craze–in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if RE was the spark that set the fire–and zombies still had the capacity to frighten. The idea is that the evil Umbrella Corporation has manufactured a virus which creates zombies, which are intended to be used as biological weapons (but of course that doesn’t go as planned). Improbably, the virus was developed in a secret lab in a mansion in the hills above the fictional Midwestern town of Raccoon City. You play as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, members of a special police force sent to investigate a rash of disappearances in the hills near the mansion. Turns out those hikers didn’t just fall off a cliff or something. This scene is more iconic than frightening, but it deserves inclusion here because of how wild it was to see something like this on a console game system. (This clip includes the original PlayStation scene, and the remade version from the GameCube.)
5) Silent Hill, PlayStation (1999)
Konami’s answer to Resident Evil was a demonic town in the American heartland named Silent Hill. For whatever reason, the first Silent Hill is the only one I played extensively (though I don’t think I ever beat it). I skipped 2 completely, which apparently is a travesty, because it’s widely regarded as the best in the series and one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in survival horror history. Something about the first game left a bad taste in my mouth (though fourteen years later I can’t explain exactly what that was), and I never came back to the series except for a brief stint with #3. I regret this, and one of these days I’m going to track down copies of all the installments I’ve missed so I can give the series its due. Anyway, in the first game you play as a guy named Harry, who is driving with his daughter Cheryl one day when they get in an accident just outside Silent Hill’s town limits. When you come to, Cheryl is gone, and you spend most of the game trying to track her down. Unfortunately, the town is overrun with demons, and it turns out Cheryl is actually the reincarnation (or astral projection, or something) of a psychic girl named Alyssa who suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the local cult. One of the most effective things was the use of fog to limit your sight distance, coupled with the magic radio you find whose static indicates the presence of monsters. You couldn’t see the assholes until you were right up on them, but you could hear the horrible static every time you got close. Super nerve-racking.
6) Resident Evil (GameCube version, 2002)
Lisa Trevor was an unbelievably frightening, invincible zombie who chased you relentlessly through a significant chunk of the GC remake of Resident Evil. You would get into the next room and think you’d be safe–this was over ten years ago and normal game logic still said that enemies couldn’t follow you to new rooms–but then Lisa’d be there and your shit would be totally free of its earthly confines. Maybe she wasn’t really chasing you–maybe she was just programmed to appear in specific locations. It’s been about ten years since I played the remake and my memory is a little foggy. But it created a sense that she was after you, and it was terrifying. The story was she was the guinea pig for all the early trials of the various zombie viruses that Umbrella developed, and the combination of viral strains somehow made her effectively immortal. The really grim thing was that she was just a little girl, and as she slowly went mad from the super-viruses floating around inside her, she became unable to recognize the people closest to her. Eventually she killed her own mother, believing that it was an imposter wearing her mother’s face. To rectify this, she took the “imposter’s” face and wore it like a mask. The viruses caused Lisa’s body to mutate in horrific ways, and the face she wore as a mask fused with her body so that now she is just a walking bucket of scary.
7) Fatal Frame, PS2 (2001)
My favorite horror franchise is scary from start to finish, and narrowing it down to a single scariest moment is impossible. (I actually had to fight to prevent myself from filling this list with moments from the Fatal Frame series.) In fact the truly scary stuff comes from the gameplay, when you’re in control and something unexpected happens. It’s difficult to translate that feeling to short video clips, though, so instead I’ve just chosen a couple of memorable moments. The premise: in an isolated mansion up in the mountains, a horrible ritual was performed in which a shrine maiden was sacrificed in a truly brutal manner in order to prevent a gate to hell from opening. It was performed successfully for many years, until the lady to be sacrificed made the stupid mistake of falling in love with some guy (gross!). She was no longer free of worldly attachment, and so the ritual failed. This was a century or so ago. In the present, you play as Miku, whose brother has gone missing–coincidentally in the very place where all this crap went down. There’s magic, reincarnation, and plenty of ghosts who try to kill you. Your only weapon: a magic camera that has the power to cleanse evil spirits. In this scene, the primary antagonist, Kirie, creeps up on you Ringu-style.
8) Fatal Frame 2, PS2 (2003)
This is from the second game in the series, and I suspect this, too, is not an accidental Ringu reference. The plot is directly connected to the first game, but in a confusing way in terms of chronology. Here, you play as Mio, who gets lost in a place creatively called the Lost Village with her twin sister Mayu. The village has a past very similar to the mansion from the first game: ritual to prevent demon stuff; ritual failed; ghosts happen (it’s actually really compelling and super terrifying, and the similarities in setting make a lot of sense in the context of the larger narrative). As in the first game, your character finds a magic camera (turns out their creator made a whole bunch of them, thank god). In this scene, which is fairly early on, you encounter a woman who tried to hide in a kimono box to escape the demons. Lesson 1: boxes will not save you from demons.
9) Fatal Frame 3. PS2 (2005)
Okay, three games from one franchise? Is this cheating? The third entry is also connected to the previous two narrative-wise, but in a more convoluted way. Your character, Rei, whose fiance has recently died, suffers from survivor’s guilt, which causes her spirit to get sucked into a place called the Manor of Sleep every night. There you, yes, discover a magic camera and a bunch of angry ghosts. In this clip the ghost Rei fights is of a woman named Kyoka. Kyoka’s story is that she pined away for a man she fell in love with, who promised to return and never did. She waited for him, and every day she brushed her hair, because he always told her how beautiful it was. Eventually she went mad and brushed her hair until it fell out in clumps. She nailed the clumps of hair to the wall beside her mirror, because that’s what you do in these situations. (Start the clip at about 0:45, when you can see Kyoka’s mirror and the hair stuck to the wall.)
10) F.E.A.R. 2, PC (2009)
F.E.A.R. is a first-person shooter franchise–not normally my thing, but there’s a major horror component, so I made an exception. But I’ve never been a hardcore PC gamer (not because I dislike PC gaming, but because I’ve generally lacked the hardware to handle current releases). I’ve only played the officially retconned Perseus Mandate and F.E.A.R. 2, but both were pretty freaky. The premise is, in the near future, an evil corporation has attempted to harness the powers of a little girl named Alma, a powerful psychic. They lock Alma up for years and years and years–she dies in captivity–and use her DNA to create psychic soldiers which can be controlled by other genetically-engineered soldiers with more of Alma’s gift. Unfortunately for everybody, Alma doesn’t stay dead. Or, I guess, she does, but she is really pissed about it. The games are a really fascinating blend of scifi action and supernatural horror (and as a fan of both genres, I very much approve). In F.E.A.R. 2, you get to see both child Alma, and adult Alma (her ghost is pretty schizophrenic), and adult Alma wants to get her freak on. Seriously.