Growing up, I had a reputation in my household for being a bit of a wimp. This was primarily because I was – and still am – quite easy to startle. My grandfather always joked that it was a sign of a guilty conscience. Whatever the reason behind it, scaring me was a favorite pastime of my stepfather, who made a point of startling me by randomly bursting into my room or just jumping behind me while screaming innocuous words like “cupcakes” or “strawberries.” Even now my wife tries to audibly warn me in advance of entering a room, because if I turn around and she’s there unexpectedly I tend to jump a bit.
Perhaps because I’m so easy to startle, I’ve never had much taste for horror games. While I play games like Zero Escape which are comparable to slasher movies in some ways, there’s a clear line between “thriller” and “horror” that I am careful not to cross. I enjoy being tense and disturbed, and I appreciate when a game or show creates the sensation of fear in a subtle way. But when the entire purpose of the game is to cause me to jump out of my skin, I’d just as soon avoid it. The thing is, some video games which are otherwise fear-free work these creepy moments into their gameplay or story. So even staying away from the horror genre, I still get my jeepers creeped from time to time.
Megan from the excellent blog A Geeky Gal is the featured blogger in this month’s Question of the Month on Later Levels, and in honor of Halloween she has asked the game blogging community which video games got their hearts racing with fear. I decided to construct my article as a top five post, sharing the five games which had moments of fear that caught me off-guard and left me shaking in my shoes.
#5: MEETING GRANNY RAGS – DISHONORED
Corvo first hears the tale of Granny Rags from Samuel the Boatman. He advises you to stay away from her neighborhood – there are all sorts of unsavory rumors about her, after all. Still, a place like that might be the perfect way to avoid attracting attention in a city where the guards are after your head. With that in mind, as soon as I stumbled off of Samuel’s boat I made my way to the area where Granny Rags was said to live.
Now I didn’t whether Granny Rags would be immediately hostile as soon as she saw me. As a result, I took a stealth approach towards her house. I made my way up a ramp on the side and then headed down the stairs from an upper room. As I approached her kitchen, I could hear her muttering to herself. Or rather, muttering to another person who wasn’t in the room with her. I felt sorry for the clearly old and disturbed woman, but still worried that she might attack me if I revealed myself. In order to avoid a fight, I snuck up behind her and used a nonlethal takedown to choke her into submission. When her body hit the floor, she disappeared in a wisp of black smoke.
Now I didn’t jump or scream or anything so dramatic as that. But this creepy old woman whispering to herself in her rickety house had just magically dissipated after being attacked, and that’s exactly the sort of witchcraft that I wasn’t about to mess with. I promptly loaded the game to a previous save point so whatever horrifying repercussions Granny Rags had in store for me would never come to pass. This moment lands at #5 on the list both because it wasn’t that pronounced, and also because the fear I experienced in that moment was fear of a possibility rather than fear of a reality.
#4: THE IDENTITY OF THE BOY IN THE HELMET – ZERO TIME DILEMMA
Any discussion of a game in the Zero Escape series must always, always be prefaced with “I AM ABOUT TO SPOIL THE BEJESUS OUT OF THIS GAME!” So if you’re in the middle of playing Zero Time Dilemma or have plans to play it in the future, you may want to skip this one.
One of the most unusual characters in Zero Time Dilemma is the boy in the helmet. He is referred to by some as Q, or at least it seems that he is, but in reality his identity as Q is a parlor trick by the game to throw you off of the scent of the game’s true villain. The actual identity of the boy in the helmet is a significant subject in ZTD, and the boy struggles to find ways to remove the helmet in hopes that it will help him realize who he is.
During the ending in which the boy finally obtains the code to his helmet, the villain Zero reveals to the child his true nature. He is not a child – not even a human. The boy in the helmet is a robot, a part of the facility in which all of the characters are trapped, connected to the quantum computer. This comes as a great disappointment to him, and nothing drives the point home more than when he puts the code into his helmet and is finally able to remove it. Beneath the helmet…is nothing. The helmet is the boy’s head – removing it simply reveals a port for various wires and plugs. In that moment, realizing just how inhuman he truly is, the boy lets out an agonized scream.
That image and sound – a headless child screaming in sheer emotional agony – sent cold chills down my body. Even typing the description of the moment and recalling it has the same impact on me now. I don’t know if fear is truly the right word for the sensation I experience, hence the reason it sits at #4, but this moment disturbed me and continues to sit with me long after playing Zero Time Dilemma.
#3: WAR WASP HIVE BATTLE – METROID PRIME
The close proximity of flying insects – particularly those with stingers – is a real-life fear I experience that ranks pretty highly on the list. As a kid I was terrified of bees to the point of not wanting to go outside, or if I did go I froze stiff if one came close by. It’s not exclusively a fear of being stung, because even beetles and winged roaches cause similar reactions for me. Large, loud bugs touching my skin or buzzing close by my ears instantly pushes me into fight-flight-or-freeze.
Enter Metroid Prime, a video game where you are alone on an alien planet full of horrifying monsters that want to eat you for breakfast. The big scary monsters don’t bother me. Even Metroids themselves, while certainly dangerous, don’t cause me all that much anxiety. But the moment a war wasp swoops down towards me, I’m firing my arm cannon like a madman in a desperate attempt to keep the creatures as far away as possible. And as it turns out, there’s a whole boss fight where a dozen of these creepy things come zooming at you from their robo-nest and circle around you to sting you to death.
I thoroughly hated the ram war wasp battle. All the buzzing gives me an itchy sensation like something is crawling on me, and having all of those small, fast targets zipping around made the whole experience worse. While in the overworld you can get the jump on war wasps and burn out their nests before they cause you any trouble, here you lack that option and destroying the nest is going to mean certain harassment from these creepy guys. The thing that keeps war wasps from catapulting straight to the top of the list is that the fear they create is temporary in nature – once they are gone, the itchy feeling starts to go away and I’m able to calm down again pretty easily.
#2: THE MORGUE SCENE – BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM
The Scarecrow sequences in the first Arkham game did an amazing job of showing off the villain’s fear gas in a way that was impactful even when it was anticipated. I knew very quickly that I was experiencing Scarecrow sequence when I found Chief Gordon’s body dead on the floor and saw the glow in Batman’s eyes. The hazy screen was another giveaway that something abnormal was happening. But anticipation of a scary moment is part of what makes fear effective, and Asylum does this brilliantly with the morgue sequence.
When you step into the morgue, the room appears to be empty. There’s nothing obvious to interact with but you need time to look around the room to be sure. As you walk around, a voice begins to whisper to you. “Get out,” it says, “it’s time you get out.” “Get out of here.” “You have to go.” Softly at first, then increasingly louder as more voices join in. The slow escalation from a quiet warning to a cacophony of people screaming for you to leave is terrifying, and will likely push you to rush towards the exit. The door opens – right back into the same room, now eerily quiet again. The camera focuses on body bags lying on tables in the center of the room. Inside of those bags are Bruce Wayne’s parents, whose corpses speak to him in his addled state.
This moment in the morgue – the build-up of the voices telling you to get out, the release of tension when you escape only to tense up again when you realize you’re still in the same room – it’s brilliant game design and excellent at creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. In fact, it’s the skillful execution of this moment which prevents it from being my #1 scary gaming moment – in the moment, my fear was lessened by my recognition of and appreciation for the excellent design work that went into creating such a moment. My geeking out about the game broke my immersion enough to keep from fully experiencing the fear of the moment.
#1: MATHIEU BELLAMONT’S LAIR – ELDER SCROLLS OBLIVION
The Dark Brotherhood quests within the Elder Scrolls series tend to have a disturbing air about them. The fact that the Brotherhood is a cult which worships a creepy dead lady in a coffin who whispers to them to kill people sets a grim tone right from the get-go. There are plenty of moments in both Oblivion and Skyrim which caused me to say “hell no, please get me away from here, I don’t like what’s happening right now,” but none of them had me looking over my shoulder for the next week quite as much as the lair of Mathieu Bellamont.
Bellamont is the main antagonist of the Dark Brotherhood quest series in Oblivion, a traitor who manipulates you into killing most of the Brotherhood’s members by claiming to be the Night Mother’s Listened, Lucien. When the real Lucien learns what is happening, he sends you on a quest to identify and kill the traitor who is responsible for unmaking the Brotherhood. That quest leads you to the killer’s basement lair, a room full of previous victims as well as disturbing diary and the dead mother of the traitor.
Bellamont loved his mother and watched her die at the hands of Lucien, and so made it his mission to get revenge on the entire Brotherhood. His clever plan very nearly succeeds, which is surprising considering that the ramblings in this guy’s journal make Granny Rags seem like she’s reading a children’s storybook. Reading things like “mommy I so afrade. I miss you mommy. I just want you to kiss me again” or “kill him” written over and over again in room full of rotting flesh while the face of a dead woman stares at you…that’s the stuff of nightmares. You better believe I wouldn’t walk around the house without lights for awhile after experiencing this scene. This scene terrified me and the fear of it sat with me long after I played – even now just thinking about it I kind of want to turn another light on in my apartment.
So there you have it, adventurers, my top five scary moments in gaming. If you want to share your own fears as part of Question of the Month, feel free to write your own post and submit it for the competition! The prize is everyone knowing how much a scaredy-cat you are, so it’s very much worth it. Be sure to tag A Geeky Gal and Later Levels in your post, and if you don’t feel up to creating an article on the topic, I’d love to hear your gaming fears in the comments below!