Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
Being scared is one of the most intense emotional states. Fear gets the heart racing; it makes us look over our shoulder as we turn out the lights; it lingers in our minds as we sleep. It’s not surprising, then, that horror is such a popular video game genre.
It makes sense: the terror that comes from a good, spooky story can be heightened through interactivity. Since games require their audience to involve themselves by controlling a character’s actions, they also foster a deeper connection. The results are some of the most terrifyingly memorable moments of any medium.
Years of horror game releases have yielded plenty of scares. And the best of these moments sum up exactly what makes the titles they belong to so frightening. With that in mind, here are five of the scariest scenes in video games ever.
5. THE CRYING FETUS
From the first moments spent in P.T.’s empty suburban home, something feels wrong. The lights are dimmed, cockroaches scuttle across the hardwood floor, and the only sound is a low moan escaping from a wash of radio static. As the player sets out, examining shelves and tables littered with framed portraits, cigarette butts, and general grime, she begins to hear a baby’s cries. Eventually, after a previously locked bathroom door creaks opens of its own accord, the player finds the source of the noise: a grotesque, horribly distended fetus wriggling in the bowl of the bathroom’s dirty sink.
A living fetus abandoned in an empty room is disturbing on many levels. But it’s the perversion of reality that makes this scene linger in the mind. Though the fetus cries like a newborn and resembles an unborn child, the creature blends two natural elements of biology into something else—something whose existence is inherently wrong. P.T. creates a genuinely upsetting atmosphere, even if it only contains a handful of outright scares. The now-disbanded developer behind the game had a great understanding of how horror imagery can manipulate elements of the everyday into terrible new forms.
4. THE BASEMENT GHOST
’Until Dawn’/Supermassive Games
Until Dawn isn’t a particularly scary game. It’s full of tense moments and maintains a great, spooky atmosphere throughout, but the shocks that pepper its teen horror homage are more immediately thrilling than terrifying. But, partway through the game, two of the characters find themselves followed by a ghost while picking their way through the dark, unfinished basement below Until Dawn’s ski lodge setting. A rocking horse starts bobbing by itself, the figure of a woman drifts across a passageway, a picture jumps off a wall and slams to the floor.
Like everything in Until Dawn, the player isn’t sure whether or not they should take the poltergeist attacking their characters at face value. The game constantly keeps its audience on the wrong foot, unsure whether the plot is headed toward a confrontation with a human killer or something paranormal. The basement scene encapsulates the confusion that runs throughout the majority of Until Dawn’s story. Because the player can’t be sure what, exactly, is happening—whether what they’re seeing is supernatural or completely explicable—the ghost is all the more frightening.
3. THE FOGGY STREETS
’Silent Hill’/Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Choosing Silent Hill’s most frightening scene is tough. Konami’s long-running series is comprised of many games and the first three of them are some of the best horror titles to be found. All the same, one moment sticks out: the player’s initial, tentative steps into the fog that shrouds the town of Silent Hill in the 1999 original.
Silent Hill’s fog may have come from the PlayStation One’s technical limitations—hiding distant parts of the environment conserves processing power and memory usage—but it’s also a defining part of the game’s aesthetic. Rather than clearly see the creatures lurking just out of sight, the game allows the player to spend more time imagining what they’ve only glimpsed or barely heard in the distance. This sense of mystery is reflected throughout Silent Hill. Its story is filled with opportunities for divergent interpretations. Its horror is meant to reflect the personalized fears of its protagonist’s—and its players’—subconscious. The fog works on both a practical and narrative level, obscuring the true face of the terrors at the heart of Silent Hill’s plot. No moment captures this better than the first time the series asks its players to venture into the ominous mist hanging over the town.
2. THE HEART OF THE MACHINE
’Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs’/The Chinese Room
A Machine for Pigs, a follow-up to 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent created by a different developer, is an unusual horror game. Only loosely connected to the first Amnesia, but borrowing much of its storytelling format and visual style, Pigs has very different aims than its predecessor. Instead of the outright terror of hiding from awful monsters, the sequel chooses to disgust its player by having them explore a horrible, self-perpetuating meat production facility and, more importantly, unsettle them by using its late 19th century setting as a foreshadowing of the horrors of the 20th.
Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the game’s final moments. Having reached the heart of the eponymous factory—the “machine for pigs”—one of the game’s narrators begins to detail his prophetic visions of the coming century. As the player moves forward through the darkness, screams echo in the distance and a gut-churning, atonal soprano sings an awful introduction to the narrator’s vivid descriptions of the First World War, the Cambodian Genocide, Stalin’s USSR, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Machine for Pigs’ final scenes aren’t profoundly haunting thanks to gruesome monsters or frightening killers, but because they force the audience to reflect on the darkness that fills our actual history. Cleverly tying the unchecked capitalism of industrial Britain to the global wars of the 20th century makes for some of the most disturbing moments in any video game.
1. THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN
There’s little more frightening than the deep sea. It’s cold, dark, completely unsuitable for human life, and filled with creatures that look like H.R. Giger sketches. So, of course, setting a horror game far beneath the Atlantic’s surface makes a lot of sense. Though much of SOMA takes place within the confines of underwater research installations, the game often requires its player to trek from one facility to another by navigating the ocean floor with no protection but a diving suit. The most terrifying of these trips is the last. Toward its conclusion, SOMA’s protagonist finds himself heading to a lab located deep within an undersea trench (dubbed, appropriately, “The Abyss”). The Abyss is pitch black but for a few weak lights signposting the path between stations, and a strong current tugs at the player as she makes her way forward. There’s almost no sound but the rushing of water and no company in the seemingly infinite emptiness but occasional glimpses of a gigantic deep sea creature as it swims in and out of sight.
The sense of isolation that this sequence inspires is more than just scary for scary’s sake. SOMA is all about the long-term future of humanity—our relationship with technology and the fundamentally chilling concept of “evolving” by transplanting our personalities into digital storage. The scale of this idea stretches far into the future, forcing us to look backward at humanity’s history as a species and our place in the enormity of time and space. Like the sprawling, naturally violent indifference of the deep sea, SOMA’s theme frightens us by reminding us how small and insignificant we are when placed in the context of the entire universe.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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