Opinion: Top Ten Terrifying Video Game Moments
NB. This article contains spoilers.
While researching and writing a book on the history of video game horror last year, I was eager to seek out, and in many cases revisit, some of the most frightening moments in the history of the medium.
In my opinion, the following ten examples embody the most effective, enduring and downright terrifying horror gaming of all time. Whether unsettling, shocking, horrific, disturbing or all of the above, they certainly live long in the memory and imagination, long after you’ve clicked the ‘off’ button…
Tower Of Babel – Doom (1993)
Probably the most memorable and nerve-wracking set-piece from id’s landmark horror FPS, the Tower of Babel level introduced us to the gigantic (and near-invincible) Cyberdemon, a thoroughly mean, hulking son-of-a-bitch with a rocket launcher for an arm and a relentless, bloodthirsty urge to track you down wherever you were hiding.
The level took the form of a large, circular arena dotted with pillars and broken-up by a few small power-up rooms in its centre. The Cyberdemon would march relentlessly around, searching for you, while you hid, fled, dodged and generally panicked, trying to get off a few shots whenever you could.
Most jolting was when it occasionally back-tracked to surprise you, circling around in the opposite direction to before, and you’d round the corner only to come face-to-face with the monstrosity. Particularly terrifying was the piston-like, industrial sound effects of its strides – which probably echoed long into the night in a great many gamers’ nightmares.
Watch the Tower Of Babel level here:
The Scissorman – Clock Tower (1995)
Like many horror games, scrolling 2D point-and-click title Clock Tower had the player explore the mysterious house and grounds of an ominous, creepy mansion, but its most inspired development was to offer sustained threat in the shape of Bobby Barrows, the ‘Scissorman’, who made an unforgettable entrance after a marvellously paced, slow-burning build-up.
At regular intervals this deformed, leering child would appear to menace the player, pursuing you doggedly from room to room, and in order to thwart him you would have to interact with the scenery to find an appropriate hiding place – and, at certain points – frantically hammer a designated ‘panic button’ on the D-Pad in order to avoid a bloody fate. While that great detractor of real-time events Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw might term this a ‘press X not to die’ mechanic, it was nonetheless effective at adding to the nerve-wracking experience.
Effectively casting you as the ‘last female’ in a Slasher movie-style experience, Clock Tower made use of point-and-click mechanics in real-time to create a hide-and-seek horror experience. You had no means of fighting back against Bobby, and were forced to use your wits to survive. Though the game went on to spawn a number of poorly-received 3D sequels (and a mooted film which has long been stuck in development hell), its biggest contribution to horror gaming was probably the addition of a relentless, recurring antagonist – a device that would be utilised in the future by a number of high-profile horror games.
Watch the slow-burning build-up and shocking arrival of The Scissorman here:
Hunters! – Resident Evil (1996)
Of all the many monstrosities lurking within Capcom’s devilish house of horrors, it was the hideous, screeching Hunters that most curdled the blood. Fast-moving, agile reptilian beasts that possessed the shocking ability to whip off your head in one vicious swipe and could even survive a point-blank bazooka blast to the face, their horrifying screeches were teeth-gnashingly unnerving.
It was the sheer shock you experienced when the game introduced them for the first time that was so extraordinary. Having just defeated a gargantuan boss in the shape of Plant 42, you returned to the familiar interior of the Umbrella mansion feeling suitably smug – only to be suddenly met by a startling cut-scene from the point-of-view of a clearly ravenous creature as it raced through the places you had just been, literally following in your footsteps, finally gripping the door handle of the very room you had just passed through and stepping out right behind you.
Panicked like never before you turned to blast the wretched creature, stunned at just how much damage it took before finally going down. And within a short few moments, the awful truth dawned on you. It had brought a good many of its friends along for the ride, and the house was now overrun with the loathsome beasts.
Watch the unforgettable arrival of the Hunters here:
Twisted School – Silent Hill (1999)
If previous survival-horror games had tended to rely on tactics such as suspense, panic and the general threat of attacks to evoke unease in the player, Konami’s Silent Hill ploughed far deeper into raw, psychological territory, making use of environments and events that were designed to toy with commonplace fears on an almost primeval level. Its primary concern was to find and exploit the most pervasive sources of unease: fear of the dark; fear of loneliness; fear of death; and, perhaps most importantly, fear of the unknown.
The game’s most memorable and feared location was probably the school. Its dilapidated environment of pitch-black corridors and decaying classrooms was unnerving in itself, but then came the creeping, deformed Halflings – which might have been demonic children – lurching out of the shadows. You stumbled around this abominable building in almost total darkness, your way lit only by the dim glow of your feeble pocket-torch, and only when you solved a crucial puzzle did Silent Hill unveil its greatest and most sadistic piece of trickery.
The school visibly transformed into a rotting, mocking husk as it shifted to the dark Otherworld, and you realised with abject horror that what you had experienced was just a taster of the main-event yet to come. The previous scenes had simply been the normal school – and even worse terrors within its hellish, parallel-reality version still lay in store…
Watch some gameplay from Silent Hill’s devilish school here:
SHODAN Reveal – System Shock 2 (1999)
In the original System Shock you took on the role of a computer hacker pitted against a manipulative, hostile and alarmingly advanced Artificial Intelligence known as SHODAN: a self-described “perfect, immortal machine” whose impressive degree of sadistic trickery was matched only by her contempt for human life. Still, she was defeated at the climax of the game. Wasn’t she?
The extraordinary System Shock 2 opened with you, a nameless soldier, awakening from stasis aboard a spaceship to be greeted by the surprisingly calm exposition of crew-member Dr Polito, who explained via the intercom that you were suffering from amnesia and that things on the ship had gone “very, very wrong”.
This would turn out to be something of an understatement. Initially armed with just a humble wrench, you began to explore the ship’s corridors and control rooms. Bodies littered the floors; ghostly apparitions shimmered into view: and copious blood splatter let you know in no uncertain terms that something deeply nasty was unfolding aboard the craft.
However, it was when you eventually made your appointed rendezvous with Polito that the game sprang its crucial and significant twist: SHODAN was in fact on board and had been posing as the good Doctor in order to manipulate and direct you. But the real revelation was that the super-AI was not simply revealing herself as your enemy and nemesis – rather, she was in fact proposing an awkward alliance, as she herself was now under threat.
This put a whole new fiendish spin on the proceedings – forcing the player to work with the murderous, malevolent AI instead of against it. Surely this had to be the most unreliable of all video game allies: an insane, twisted rogue intelligence that would almost certainly seek to destroy you as soon as you’d served your purpose?
Watch SHODAN’s shocking unveiling here:
Losing Your Mind – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
In the dread stakes Eternal Darkness really was something to behold. A novel sword and sorcery take on the horror genre, it mustered deeply foreboding environments, hideous foes and a haunting, choral soundtrack. But the game also introduced an inspired mechanic in the form of a ‘sanity meter’, which would be drained in response to the presence of evil. When this bar was completely depleted, the game would mess with your mind by manifesting your character’s madness in the form of disorientating and occasionally nauseating hallucinations, occurring in real-time.
You might enter a room to find that the perspective had spun upside-down; or be plagued by weird and unexpected shifts in the surrounding scenery. Most impressive of all was when Eternal Darkness broke the fourth-wall in an ingenious, crafty and darkly humorous manner, reaching out from within the confines of its gaming dimensions to insinuate that you yourself were going crazy. For example, the sound might unexpectedly cut out, accompanied by a bright green ‘MUTE’ display on screen, or a message might appear stating that the console had just deleted all of your save files.
No doubt some anxious individuals immediately checked whether they’d sat on their remote control, or frantically examined their console to see whether it was playing up. In throwing up apparent technical aberrations and glitches capable of making you believe you were going round the twist – or that a poltergeist had taken residence in your living room – Eternal Darkness stood out on its own as a remarkable example of astonishing nerve, intelligent inspiration and calculated effectiveness.
By directly messing with the player as well as the player-character, it deservedly enjoyed widespread status as an offbeat classic among those who played it…and lived to tell the tale.
Watch some of the game’s most unsettling and ingenious insanity effects here:
Shalebridge Cradle – Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004)
The third instalment in an excellent series not generally associated with the horror genre, Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004) abandoned all restraint and went into full-on scare mode, infusing its stealth-based gameplay with unbearable levels of tension and a memorable, centrepiece chapter in the form of Shalebridge Cradle.
An abandoned former orphanage and asylum (hence combining the two creepiest histories that a haunted building could have), it ushered you in to unbearably dark hallways, chambers and dungeons, overflowing with eerie sound-effects ranging from ghostly thuds to half-heard screams. The building itself was revealed to be a malevolent, controlling force – one to be greatly feared.
With a young girl’s phantom directing you to comb the most harrowing, unholy corners of the Cradle in search of important items, the game mustered an atmospheric exercise in psychological dread to rival anything that survival-horror had to offer. Stumbling, head-caged patients prowled the dusty stone; flickering, crackling lights revealed glimpses of forgotten atrocities. Every once in a while the girl’s shimmering tones would relate a shocking story from the cursed place’s grisly past, heightening the sense of unease even further.
Get a taste of Shalebridge Cradle here:
Apple Seed Orchard – Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005)
Monolith’s remarkably dark and oppressive gem Condemned had plenty of memorably nightmarish moments, as you – playing criminal profiler Ethan Thomas – pursued a depraved killer through the abandoned, rotting districts of a decaying, run-down city.
Although the Department Store level would have to be a very close second, perhaps the pinnacle of the game’s experience was the penultimate chapter, in which you found yourself searching through a remote, derelict farmhouse on the city’s outskirts. Wind may have whistled through the chimney and buckled the windows, and stepping downstairs into the hated cellar felt like descending into hell itself, yet in many respects the house was, well, just a house. Not unlike the player’s own home in fact.
And that’s what ultimately made this section so particularly terrifying. As you took in the unremarkable kitchen with its everyday appliances, you realised that the gothic mansion of Resident Evil had nothing on this, because it was so obviously not applicable to reality – and neither was the shifting parallel world of Silent Hill. Unlike the survival horror games of old, Condemned thrived on taking the mundane and turning it on its head. The house it ushered the player through was just an ordinary house, even if it was home to horrific atrocities and a psycho in the attic. As such, the breathless sequence in which you were chased around its upstairs rooms, running for dear life, felt sickeningly plausible.
Watch a walkthrough of Apple Seed Orchard here:
The Regenerator – Dead Space (2008)
While the grisly sci-fi shooter’s alarming box of jump-scare tricks became largely predictable and formulaic a short way into the game, it pulled a peach of a trick with its regenerating, seemingly un-killable super-necromorph – a towering, relentless creature that pursued you with fierce determination, unleashing a palpable sense of panic as you cut it down again and again, only for it to re-assemble itself and attack once more as you desperately searched for an escape.
As with Bobby Barrows, it was the sheer vulnerability of this situation that made it so unbearably scary. In an action-orientated game where you had so far been able to simply blast apart the twisted creatures scrambling towards you in the half-darkness, and pick up additional ammunition from their corpses, being confronted by something you simply could not kill was a genuinely shocking twist.
Both Barrows and Resident Evil 3′s Nemesis creature may have been around a decade earlier, but Isaac Clarke’s own nemesis proved an equally alarming foe. When it returned for another dose of terror later in proceedings familiarity was no dilution to the fear; the experience of desperately trying to rearrange a blocked hallway of cargo crates while the thing appeared from nowhere and began gnawing at your head, is not one anybody sound-of-mind would enjoy revisiting anytime soon.
Watch The Regenerator in action here:
Water Monster – Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
There are so many petrifying moments to choose from when considering the masterful slice of nightmarish, atmospheric psychological horror that is Frictional’s unholy Amnesia. Many a player has been reduced to a gibbering wreck while cowering in the darkness, going slowly insane, praying for a way out and hiding helplessly from the game’s prowling, unspeakable monstrosities.
However, when considering the nerve-jangling experience as a whole, one sequence in particular stood out as being particularly intense and terrifying, and that was the appearance, and pursuit, of the so-called ‘water monster’.
While negotiating a particularly hazardous section of the game’s crumbling, sinister castle, you emerged into a dark, flooded basement corridor, and upon moving forward found yourself stunned by sudden large impacts in the water ahead, coming urgently your way.
Propelled into action you hopped onto a nearby floating crate, and watched in abject terror as some unknown creature strode purposefully around you – unknown because you could not actually see the monster itself. It was, to all intents and purposes, invisible.
What followed was the scariest exercise in platform-hopping and the-floor-is-lava imaginable, as you sought to negotiate the flooded corridors by leaping and sprinting between the flotsam and debris, the unseen monster racing suddenly towards you should you so much as tip your toe in the water.
It’s been said that fear of the unknown is the most powerful fear of all, and this sequence more than bore that theory out. Whatever that water monster was, it certainly stands as one of the most maddeningly scary entities ever to have been unleashed in the history of gaming.
Watch the ever-entertaining RadBrad experiencing the joys of the Water Monster here (the relevant action gets underway at 02:00:
Mark Butler’s book Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror is available to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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