Confession time: I never finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I never even played it. The closest I even got to it was watching my best friend play through ten minutes of the demo and getting to the invisible water-monster. We then put the controller down, said ‘nope’, and played LittleBigPlanet for the rest of the afternoon.
This week has seen the release of Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, two first-person horror games that have tried to grasp the record of ‘scariest game ever’, and both seem to have put in sterling efforts to win the prize. I will not be playing either of those games, because to do so would reduce me to a pants-wetting, gibbering mass of nerves before I’d even loaded past the main menu.
Instead, I’m going to cast off the last few shackles of shame that still cling to me, and describe five moments in my gaming history that made me have to go for a calm lie-down and a cup of tea. This list is not a highlight reel of the greatest of scares in video games, but shows that even titles not fully-geared towards horror can cause jitters and jumps in players, especially in those, like me, who aren’t hardcore terror-junkies.
Read on after the break, if you dare (and beware the spoilers lurking in the darkness)!
5. Ghost in the Bathtub – Hitman: Contracts
This one is actually an Easter egg that appears throughout the Contracts mission ‘Traditions of the Trade’. Of course, no one bothered to tell me this, so after spending a few tense minutes sneaking past hotel staff and bodyguards trying to get to my target, imagine my surprise when I look up from a quick duck into a bathroom and see this in the mirror:
When I encounter situations like this, my brain goes into a special kind of standby mode, like a caffeinated rabbit caught in the headlights of a ghost train. I flail around uncontrollably, making a lot of effort and mess without actually going anywhere. In this case I tried to shoot the phantom through the mirror with the very loud pistol I had on hand, before realising my how foolish I was being – ghosts are immune to tiny bullets, they need something bigger! Switching manically between my available armaments, I drew a sawn-off and spun round to face my spiritual stalker – only to find nothing there.
I freaked out for a second time, and accidentally fired my shotgun into the bath. Blood blossomed on the walls, emanating from the nothingness in the bath. Third freak out. By the time the guards showed up, drawn by my panicked fire, they found an elite assassin rocking back and forth on the floor of a grimy bathroom, covered in blood and whimpering to himself about the tub-ghost.
4. Ravenholm – Half Life 2
“That’s the old passage to Ravenholm… We don’t go there anymore….”
Damn straight, we don’t. Half-Life 2 whole setting is based around oppressive governments and unseen overlords, and has you, as the infamous mute Gordon Freeman, scurrying around over rooftops and through sewers to avoid the Combine authorities. It’s pretty tense and heavy stuff most of the time, but Ravenholm takes it to a whole other level.
Ravenholm was a town that was ‘shelled’, seeded with the iconic headcrabs that attacked the townsfolk and turned them into mindless, super-aggressive zombies. These creatures lurk in the fog and dilapidated buildings of Ravenholme, while hyperactive variants leap from roof to roof, shrieking a banshee wail. All the while, headcrabs crawl the wall space looking for living bodies.
Needless to say, events transpire that Mr Freeman just has to take a jaunt through the macabre streets. The whole area is teeming with baddies that like to lurk out of sight, and the relative lack of ammunition means that getting past enemies requires you to use the Gravity Gun to kill them with junk. Ever had to kill a zombie with a tin can before?
Even after all of this, it’s the sound that really makes Ravenholm a nerve-racking experience. Fires burn while crows flap and caw overhead. Distant gunshots and screaming of women and children can be heard if you have the guts to stop and linger for too long. The scratching through the walls that indicates a poisonous headcrab in the next room, ready to pounce.
The worst noise is the one made by burning zombies. It’s pretty terrifying while it’s happening, but listen to the sound backwards:
Chilling stuff. My first journey through Ravenholm was tinged with constant panic, and I propelled myself through it quickly, fuelled by fear and the urge not to give up.
3. Hotel Basement – The Last of Us
By the time I’d reached this part of The Last of Us, I’d been playing solidly for about seven hours. The game is already a fairly tense affair, pitting you against the monstrous nature of humanity, as well as just plain monstrous nature, armed with little more than half a brick and a can of nails. My nerves were already pretty much shot by the time I fell through a floor and ended up in the pitch-black, water-logged basement, surrounded by infected clickers and runners.
Exploring that basement was just terrifying. Creaking pipes and and odd scrabbling sounds make up the ambience track, causing me to think there was something there when there wasn’t. Certain rooms would cause enemies to spawn behind you, so I was never certain if I was safe or not. And, of course, the only way to escape involved making a lot of noise, causing more enemies to appear.
The rest of this level had taken place on a sunny day, in a brightly lit hotel. To be thrown from that into this dank hell-hole was such a change in pace, it would put anyone off their guard. Needless to say I died a lot, and had to set the game aside for a few days in order to gear myself up for it again. When I came back, I decided not to explore the area again, and managed to get through first time.
The Last of Us is a fantastic game, but maybe not to be played seven hours straight…
2. Fungus Among Us – Legend of Grimrock
I am actually quite sad I haven’t played Legend of Grimrock more than I have. I set it down after this experience, got distracted, and forgot to pick it back up again. It’s something I’ll definitely have to get around to.
Anyway, I was travelling down a corridor in the mountain dungeons, losing myself in a maze from which I had no chance of escaping. I start hearing noises, because of course I start hearing creepy sounds before terrifying things happen. I’m worried that whatever made the sound is waiting for me round the next bend, so I decide to retrace my steps in case I missed anything of importance. I turn around to see this great alien thing clomping down the corridor towards me:
Apparently the damned thing had been behind me the whole time, which was not a comfort in the slightest. I still wasn’t used to how the combat in Grimrock worked, and in my terror-stricken and dazed state I fell embarrassingly quickly to the overgrown house-plant.
There was something about just finding out I’d been stalked for so long that really, really unsettled me. The randomised maps of Grimrock mean I may never experience this again, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye over my shoulder in future playthroughs.
1. The Dentist – Bioshock
OK, so Bioshock might be more horror-focussed than the rest of the games on here, but I feel it deserves a special mention because this is the number one scariest moment of my entire life as a gamer. It still haunts my dreams, and just thinking about it gets my heart racing.
If you’ve played Bioshock, you almost certainly know which part I’m talking about. It takes place in Rapture’s Medical Pavilion, which is the creepiest area of the city in my opinion, combining the terrors of claustrophobia, jump-scares and the body-horror of experimental surgery. Also, if it’s your first play-through of the game, you’ll still be getting to grips with the theme and tone of the game at this point.
Horror and terror are two completely different emotions, but the Dandy Dental office manages to evoke both in a single minute of exploration. When you get into the room with the dentist chair, a thick fog forms, dissipates…and nothing happens (terror). A few seconds later, the fog reappears, and leaves behind a dead body in the dentist chair (terror/horror). Nothing much happens after that, and the fear subsides and you go to lea- oh, what’s that? An audio diary? I suppose I can listen to that. OK, now to leave an-
(Horror. Horror! HORROR!)
According to other players, he doesn’t actually attack you, he just stands there until you choose to dispatch him. I didn’t know this and freaked the hell out. I never killed a bad guy in a video game more than making sure this dentist was never going to get up again. The first time I encountered this, it was pitch black and seventeen year-old me was by himself. It took me about an hour to get my breathing to something regular, and a couple of days to start playing the game again.
I recently played through again, because regardless of the scary parts, Bioshock has one of the best themes and atmosphere of any game I’ve ever played. My girlfriend was genuinely worried I was having a heart attack when I reached this point. It may also go some way to explaining my current fear of real-life dentists. It’s amazing how a single minute can affect you.
So, there we have it – five moments in non-horror games that turned me paler than an anaemic ghost. Honourable mentions must go to the morgue in Batman: Arkham Asylum and the heart-rate upgrade in Flash game Upgrade Complete 2.
Maybe I’m just not cut out for scary games. How about you? Any pedestrian scares that got to you way more than they should have?