For all of cinema’s most haunting works – and there are many – nothing quite scares like a video game. It comes down to their interactive nature. Watching a horror flick where a character tiptoes down a dark corridor to be startled by some horrendous miscreation is one thing. But in a game, you have to do that yourself, pushing a pad or stick to edge towards inevitable terror, being an agent in your own turmoil. It’s all part of video game’s fascinating relationship with horror, which is explored in depth in Bitmap Book’s coming release, From Ants to Zombies: Six Decades of Video Game Horror, out this Halloween.
The book looks more than 130 iconic horror games – including titles like Resident Evil, which are among the best known, most popular titles in the medium’s history.
Clearly, then, games can deliver a fright. But what are gaming’s scariest individual moments? With Halloween dawning, we’ve braved exploring a range of classics to unearth those video game scares or creepy happenings that stay with you long after you put the controller down.
Fatal Frame – The Falling Woman
The Fatal Frames games – also known as the Project Zero series away from Japan – are packed with tortuous, terrifying moments. And the fact that you have to fend off all manner of aggressive spirits by fumbling with the settings of a camera obscura while trying to get them in frame to deal damage only accentuates the frantic fear the series expertly induces.
These games are, frankly, difficult to play. That the ghost of a mother trapped in a box with her baby isn’t the series’ scariest moment says a lot. So many scenes are harrowing, but the infamous ‘falling woman’ in Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly must be the toughest moment. Trapped in a looping moment of tumbling to her death over and over, when she falls on you, she deals significant damage. She’s damn hard to capture on film too, and the violent, relentlessness of her eternal death can stay with you for years.
Resident Evil – The Zombie Window Dogs
Perhaps gaming’s most famous jump scare, the moment the dogs suddenly dive through the window in the original Resident Evil had to be on this list. An exemplary moment of horror direction, it’s all about tone and timing; elements that defined the 1990s survival horror game design movement.
As you move down a hallway, already fairly frightened by the build up, in a moment the camera turns, just in time to catch a dog to burst through the window, sending broken glass scattering. The first time you play it – even if you think you’re prepared – it’s delightfully startling. Scary as hell, for sure, but after the nerves settle you should feel a smile creep across your face, perhaps from the relief that the horrors are contained within a games console.
Uninvited – Entering the Mansion
ICOM System’s 1986 Macintosh point ‘n’ click Uninvited sure isn’t as famed as Resident Evil. And in all honesty, it doesn’t deliver the scares modern games can achieve with all their 3D polish and binaurally recorded sound. But retro gaming is in Bitmap Book’s (oozing) blood, so we had to go back to the classics.
For a black-and-white release that’s primitive by today’s standards, Uninvited does an impressive job of fostering dread, if not jump scares and juddering harrowing moments. Following a car crash caused by a mystery figure, you find yourself outside a mansion looking for your missing sister, who had not long before been your passenger. Stepping into the mansion for the first time really is a moment that can test the nerves.
Not convinced Uninvited carries horror clout? Some have speculated that the original Silent Hill’s opening is a homage to ICOM’s gem of a classic.
Max Payne - The Nightmare Blood Maze
While the noirish Max Payne games aren’t horror games in the strict sense, they have their moments. One of the most challenging comes in the original 2001 Remedy Entertainment game when Max experiences the first of his drug-induced nightmares, producing visions of his murdered family that become deeply disturbing.
As you work your way through a series of corridors, blood starts pouring through the walls, as chiming nursery music feels the air. The wails and voices of Payne’s baby and wife fill the air, accompanied by creaks and groans. Soon the corridors vanish, leaving Max following a trail of blood through the darkness surrounded by danger. It becomes remarkably hard to make yourself move forward to what comes next.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem – Playing With Your Saves
Silicon Knights 2002 action-adventure title Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem brought a fair share of traditional frights and terrifying tone. But it was when it toyed with the idea of letting the horror seep into the player’s reality that it offered up one of gaming’s most iconic horrifying moments.
Let the game’s Sanity Metre drop too low, and Sanity Effects would begin to kick in, testing your mind as much as any in-game entity. Fake crashes, twisted camera angles and worrying noises that suggested they might come from your television or console were just the start of suggesting your own reality was being impacted. Things got really affecting when the game made out like it was deleting your precious save files. If you were caught out by this moment before ever reading about it, you know how real it felt for a painful moment. What’s more, in severing your trust with the game’s sense of reality, the Sanity Effects start to make you question everything; even in the moments after you step away from the controller and back into your own life.
The Last of Us Part II – The Rat King
In reality a ‘rat king’ describes a rare phenomena where a group of rats’ – or sometimes squirrels’ – tails become so entangled they are doomed to writhe about as a connected whole, likely until death. It is so unusual some consider it to be apocryphal. However, in 2021 a live example was apparently recorded in Estonia.
That’s plenty unpleasant enough. But in the acclaimed The Last of Us Part II the Rat King is something much more gruesome. A ‘super-organism’ that takes the forms of a congealed mass made up of other infected creatures from the game, it ups the ante of the horrors on offer considerably. The game has darker moments, but few scare like the Rat King’s first appearance.
If you’re looking for more terrifying experiences from the world of games, or are a devotee to gaming history, horror, or retro culture in general, be sure to check out Bitmap’s coming book, From Ants to Zombies: Six Decades of Video Game Horror. Follow that link and sign up for email alerts to be sure you get every update on our most frightful release yet!