When a player traipsing through a horror videogame’s dark corridors explores the world around them, they tend to act a bit more guarded than they would otherwise. Players accept that, when they buy a Silent Hill or a Fatal Frame, there’s no real safe place for them, that they’re willfully entering a haunted house of frights and scares and know roughly what to expect from the experience. When I buy a horror game, I do it for the express purpose of it scaring the hell out of me, for reasons even I sometimes have a hard time understanding.
However, not every game gives you that warning up front. There are a number of videogames out there where the creators choose an odd moment—a boss fight, a far-off zone, a collection of off-putting enemies—to creep the player out. This is often done to provide a contrast to the rest of the game, or maybe to give a peek at hidden layers underneath, but ultimately give the player a quick shock to their system and to let them know that they should not assume they know everything about the game.
Here is a list of some videogames that do it well, though it is absolutely not exhaustive. These are the games I think of when I remember moments where my heart was beating out of my chest, games I really wish I hadn’t played at night. They range from images of frightening ghouls plastered on screen for a brief second and accompanied by hellish screams to somewhat vague implications of what death means in the context of a dying world. All of them had me rethinking the dynamics of tone presentation in the games they occurred in and appreciating the games more because of it.
As a series, Metal Gear Solid tends to bounce between campy spy drama and goofy science fiction, with most of its scarier moments tending to veer toward Disney’s Haunted Mansion more than Joe Hill. There are odd moments here and there, however, where Hideo Kojima seems to channel his craft of fear (choosing to ignore the boss named “The Fear”) and create something fairly unsettling. The best example of this is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’s boss fight with The Sorrow, a Christmas Carol-like ghost whose encounter involves showing Snake the sins of his many, many casualties of war.
As Snake marches through an ashen river, unable to damage the ethereal Sorrow in any way, the transparent forms of every enemy he has killed throughout the game appear in front of him, bemoaning the way they’ve been dispatched. Soldiers whom Snake has killed by slitting their throats walk toward him with their heads mostly detached from their necks, exsanguinating as they gurgle out unintelligible noises. Contrasted to the previous boss fight, wherein Snake fights an astronaut wielding both a flamethrower and significant anger issues, the Sorrow offers significant tonal (and incredibly creepy) whiplash. It serves a strange moment between sneaking into a base and the game’s action climax where your playable character is not Rambo with a light machine gun but is totally at the mercy of external limitations and, well, scary ghost magic.
Majora’s Mask’s core conceit is one of oppressiveness and the idea of denying, or eventually accepting, the inevitability of death. It presents this through the lens of quickly reused characters and assets from Ocarina of Time, which gives it the side benefit of a slightly off-putting feeling of uneasiness, as the things you’ve grown comfortable with are now different and strange. As a whole, Majora’s Mask is about making the player feel at odds with their memories, though very little of the game is outright creepy. That is, until Ikana Canyon.
The Zelda games play around with the idea of death fairly often, but usually with a cartoon-like backdrop. Death is rarely an immovable barrier, with characters routinely returning as charitable ghosts eager to give you items rather than simply shuffling off from the mortal coil. Ikana, however, is an area built around the idea of death, seemingly even worshipping the concept. To enter, you need to prove to a ghastly guardsman that you’re, simply put, dead enough to enter by wearing a mask of an executioner named Garo or the mask of mummies called Gibdos. The canyon is replete with the reminders that much of Termina no longer needs to fear death, since they’re well and truly past it. With a music box house where a daughter takes care of her undead father, a zombified dancing troupe of ReDeads that dance forever, and a somewhat simple graveyard for the less fantastical dead, Ikana relishes death and not necessarily as something to be feared, making it all the more unsettling. Unlike the rest of the series, and to some extent the rest of the game, Majora’s Mask’s Ikana Canyon is less about the inevitability of death and more the fascination with it.
I always ended up treating the original 2007 Bioshock with trepidation whenever I picked up the controller, the combination of unknowable madness and darkness pushing whatever buttons scared me away from playing it for a long time. Bioshock Infinite chose not to lean into the horror aspects of its predecessor in exchange for brighter lights, open skies, and a strange mélange of surface-level commentary on racism and religion. Without being privy to exactly why they made this choice in tone, it still works to great effect when Bioshock Infinite dips its toes in to the macabre upon visiting the Comstock House.
The murderous insane asylum is perhaps an old trope, and one that is certainly starting to show its age as mental illness gets demystified, but manages to work in the context Bioshock Infinite places it in. Windows are shattered, floors are a mess, bright lights are understandably unavailable as a distinction from the otherwise well-lit streets of Columbia. Within the darkness, players walk past listless men in masks of the American founding fathers, seemingly unaware of the player’s presence. This changes abruptly when players encounter strange-looking men in masks named Boys of Silence, walking alarm bells that alert the brainwashed masses to your location. When finally able to escape to different wings of the house, the player finds used surgical tools, burned bodies, and at least one jump scare that may have had me reaching for my trigger finger a little too quickly.
From’s Souls games, and their quasi-successor Bloodborne, certainly do not shy away from tension and fear. Similarly, they do not always target those feelings, either. A player exploring the burdensome, depressing worlds From creates will usually be on edge when approaching any unknown areas, but the games rarely draw from the horror movie playbook. Occasionally the games go beyond their constant level of tension, though, and enter the realm of the traditionally frightening. A recent example of this is Bloodborne’s Cainhurst Castle.
Cainhurst is an optional area in Bloodborne and it only takes a few steps in to understand why some players may choose to leave it that way. Among the few remaining corporeal residents of the castle are Indentured Chevaliers, serving as either knights or servants for the grounds, the latter of whom are endlessly toiling, scrubbing seemingly unremovable blood from the castle’s floors while sobbing uncontrollably. The candle-lit rooms barely allow you any visibility already, but they completely fail to reveal the Bound Widows, ethereal women who blindly strike at you in the best case scenarios. In the worst case scenarios, they hold their heads in their hands, necks spurting blood, as they scream ungodly sounds that freeze the player in place. Cainhurst Castle was the first area in Bloodborne, and perhaps in the series, that I contemplated retreating simply because it was too nerve-wracking to continue on.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer and videogame enthusiast. You can find him on twitter @imranzomg or under his covers hiding from the nightmares he dredged up for this list.