It’s Monday and time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites deliberate on a single burning question. Then, we ask your take.
This Halloween week we Ask Kotaku: What’s a game that really scared you?
In a prior Ask Kotaku I revealed that I was a mark who purchased an Atari Jaguar, so I might as well double down by mentioning that doomed console’s most anticipated game, Rebellion’s Alien vs. Predator, which also turned out to be pretty scary. This was 1994, just after id Software’s Doom, so there weren’t a lot of creepy first-person experiences to go around. Doom itself seemed plenty frightening, what with its revolutionary lighting engine (darkness!?) and propensity to suddenly sic hordes of hissing imps on you. Simpler times.
Anyway, first-person shooter Alien vs. Predator was the rare Jaguar game that looked hype and received a lot of preview coverage. Upon its release I tried to reassure myself that my dumb new console was actually cool. It wasn’t, and AvP was actually a mixed bag itself, more a child of 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D than technological wunderkind Doom. In other words, a basic bug hunt in a flat maze, running at around 8 fps to boot.
But this maze was gussied up with grimy floor and ceiling textures (take that, Wolfenstein) and a storyline that said I was one of the last space marines trapped aboard a spaceship crawling with xenomorphs, a movie monster which terrified me back then. My imagination filled in where the modest graphics left off, making the gloomy atmosphere feel thick af; the game was silent except for humming machinery, gunfire, and foes’ piercing, movie-licensed screeches.
Two things got to me. First, those damn aliens were dead silent as they ran up, only shrieking when close enough to attack. (The draw distance wasn’t very good, either.) Second, AvP wasn’t generous. You started with the weakest-feeling peashooter of a shotgun ever, and had to put in real work to find your way through the ship’s maze-y layouts and acquire keycards, a motion tracker, and better firepower. Even when you did, you never felt too safe.
I just booted up AvP to take that screenshot, and as I maneuvered my shuffling, fragile shooty boi out of the starting brig, laboriously turning both ways to scan the dark clipping horizon for any incoming monsters, I instantly remembered why it freaked me out back then. Even now the many layers of jank start to fall away if I let myself get lost in its experience.
I vividly remember the first time a game truly horrified me: the original Silent Hill on PlayStation. Before, I had played games that had startled me or made me scared, like Doom with its deadly demons lurking around every corner, making nasty noises somewhere out of your line of sight. But no, it was Silent Hill that made me scream and turn off the console in panic.
I was barely 10 years old and my mom took my brother and I to Blockbuster (ask your parents) so we could each rent a game. This was a nearly weekly tradition, done every Friday. We would grab some food for dinner and get some movies and games from Blockbuster. I remember picking up Silent Hill and looking at it with confusion and interest. What was it? This was before you just looked up gameplay videos on YouTube. Back then my exposure to games was mostly from TV ads and store catalogs. I decided to rent Silent Hill. My mom didn’t know what Silent Hill was and the age rating didn’t phase her because I’d watched Jurassic Park and Blade and played games like GTA2. (I had a cool mom.)
So young Zack loaded up Silent Hill and started playing, alone in a dark room, like an idiot. I reached a part where James walks into a fenced-off area and finds a mutilated corpse hanging. The music was intense and my heart rate off the charts. I was fucking terrified. And then two weird creatures attacked me and I screamed and shut off the console.
A few days later I would return to Silent Hill to play a bit more of the game, though I was still too young (and scared) to finish it. Over the years, other horror games would scare me, but nothing has ever topped that initial experience in Silent Hill.
I’ve played many scary games over the decades, from cheap jumpscare-powered indie fare like the appropriately named Spooky’s House of Jump Scares to masterful suspense-builders like Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly. These games frighten me. They make my heart jump in my chest. But nothing has given me the crushing sense of dread and doom I felt playing 1992 PC dungeon-crawler Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
Ultima Underworld was my first full-on 360-degree first-person dungeoneering experience. A spin-off of Richard “Lord British” Garriott’s legendary role-playing series, Underworld was one of the early 3D first-person pioneers. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Underworld allowed me to look up into the darkness or down into even more darkness. It was the first game in which I could turn a corner, come face-to-face with a skeleton or a spider or a bat, freeze in fear, and get my fool ass killed. It was also the first game that caused me to get so spooked I turned off the entire computer instead of shutting it down normally.
Kids these days (says the old man) are used to first-person games. They are the status quo. Back in 1992, we weren’t used to video games being so intimate. We played from the top down. If we played in first-person we played step-by-step, with plenty of warning when monsters were approaching. We had control. Ultima Underworld made me feel completely helpless.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way: I hate the water level in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I absolutely hate the jump scares in Penumbra Overture and I can’t play Five Nights At Freddy’s for much the same reason. But! The scariest game I’ve ever played is not a horror title, but Tomb Raider II. Hear me out.
The game came out in 1997, when I was 10 years old. It was my first shooter of any kind, so uncharted territory for me. And it terrified me. As a kid, I didn’t tolerate tense moments very well, and that game was chock full of ‘em. Tigers would jump out of nowhere accompanied by some kind of loud, harsh musical sting. There were moments when Lara had to run from a boulder that would crush her if you didn’t move fast en—oh god it’s right behind you keep running keep running jump it’s still behind you watchoutforthespiketrap... and you’re dead.
Tomb Raider II was also not very well lit, which lent to its spookiness. Darker levels hid traps and enemies which contributed to the stress the levels caused. I loved that game despite the pain and suffering it caused me, but because I’m such a baby, I’ve technically never finished it. There’s a cheat code you can input by moving Lara’s body a certain way and it would skip to the next level. I’d do that until I got to the final level, which is not too scary, so I could finish it on my own.
I don’t know! “Scariest” is a pretty difficult question. I guess the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the phrase “scary video game” is Resident Evil 4. It might not stack up these days, but in 2005, it was the scariest thing I had played up to that point.
Now that I think about it, Resident Evil 4 was probably my very first horror game. Which is funny, since this is the installment most folks credit for shifting the series to more action-oriented gameplay, but I digress. My dad surprised me with a rented copy from Hollywood Video one day after school, and I plopped the small disc in my GameCube as soon as I got home.
I’m naturally pretty nervous, so it didn’t take long for Resident Evil 4 to sink its hooks in. That moment in the very beginning when you kill your first ganado and find yourself surrounded still gives me the chills when I play the game today. Not long after, you come face to face with your first chainsaw dude, which was quite the experience during my first playthrough. If I remember correctly, I barricaded myself in one of the houses as long as possible, trying to do whatever I could to avoid seeing him.
Much further into the story, Resident Evil 4 introduces regenerators, one of the most horrific monsters ever to be put into a video game. They’re tall and lanky with impossibly smooth skin, but the worst part is that you hear their difficult, raspy breathing before they come into view. And the only way to kill them for good—they regenerate, you see—is to use an infrared rifle scope to kill a bunch of little parasites inside their bodies before they can get close enough to munch on you. Some even have spikes for close-range impaling! I literally had to stop playing the game for the day after meeting my first regenerator.
In terms of gameplay, Resident Evil 4 is probably one of the least-scary scary games of all time. By the end, you have so many weapons and explosives that everything that crosses your path quickly becomes a pile of quivering zombie meat. But the atmosphere is top notch to this day. I’m not sure if it’s residual memories from my youth that still make me fear what’s around every corner—don’t even get me started on those damn tentacle dogs—but I can always count on Resident Evil 4 to give me a good fright.
What does it mean to be scared? I’m often scared to check my bank balance, or open my phone when a Slack notification pops. During middle and high school I was scared when the phone would ring, thinking it might be a teacher telling my parents that I hadn’t turned in a project or wasn’t “performing to my potential.” I’m scared of public speaking. My heart beats fast and my breath grows shallow. I’m scared of losing my job. I’m scared of one day dying and ceasing to exist for all eternity. Once at a gas station in New Jersey the guy filling my tank saw the six-month-old in the back seat and asked me to distil my new-found fatherhood into one word. “Fear,” I said.
What do any of these things have to do with zombies chasing me down a hallway in a Resident Evil, or the jumpscares in an Amnesia? Jaws for the NES terrified me as a kid because the shark was mean and powerful and you never knew where he was going to show up at. Super Mario Bros. 2’s Phanto still freaks me out, whizzing around from one screen to the next, following me across dimensions, a floating symbol of the extremely high likelihood that I’ll die, lose my progress, and have to confront the pangs of frustration and futility that consume me upon realizing I’ve wasted an hour of my limited free time trying to blow up Bowser’s frog cousin for the 20th time. (My brother always maintained they were related.) Puzzle games like The Witness scare me, worried that I’ll never be able to think up the solutions, and thus destined to remain trapped in a lonely, abstract world forever. The ending of The Witcher 3 scared me, afraid to lose my connection to its characters and magic once the story was complete and my brief connection to them became forever untethered. I put off beating the game for a whole year.
But the most scared I’ve ever been playing a game was 1995’s Stonekeep, a first-person PC RPG by Interplay. It’s animations were based on digitized live-action footage, like having giant Mortal Kombat characters sticking their noses right in your face. The enemies were difficult, and there was really no rhyme or reason to defeating them. Every section of the game was drenched in darkness or thick fog, obscuring everything about the world that wasn’t immediately in front of you. Limited to moving left or right, backward or forward, combat was like being chased in a dream where you can never quite escape despite never being caught. Every corner of Stonekeep was damp with dread and I will never willingly return.
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Has a game ever, in the parlance of the Dreamcast’s extremely tasteful Illbleed, made you shit yourself with fear? Or, hopefully, experience a less embarrassing involuntary reaction? Share it below. We’ll be back next Monday to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!