With Halloween now mere days away, it’s time to say farewell to those humid summer nights and settle up indoors with a warm drink, oversized sweatshirts, and your favorite spooky media. For us gamers, this means booting up our console of choice to revisit and replay some of the scariest games in our digital libraries.
But those scary games are only as creepy as we give them credit for. What makes a game — or even a portion of a game — inherently scary? Well, a combination of outstanding art and sound design is a great place to start, as the aspects of any video game that feed into its setting and atmosphere are arguably what instills that feeling of horror in us players in the first place.
This week, I’ll be reviewing 5 creepy, spooky, and otherwise outright scary areas found in video games. Keep reading to see which levels were picked and why!
1. The Library (Halo: Combat Evolved)
Since its release in November of 2001 for the original Microsoft XBOX console, Bungie Studios’ first-person shooter Halo has become one of the most-awarded and celebrated games of all time. Though “horror” is far from what most veteran Halo players will describe the game as falling under, the seventh level of Halo’s main story campaign has become infamous for doing just that.
Upon arriving in the Library, players will immediately be greeted with four stories of large, open rooms. At first, nothing seems out of the ordinary, save for an apparent lack of…well, anything. That is, until the player heads towards the lift that brings them to the Library’s additional floors, only to hear an ominous warning that says, “The Flood must not escape the installation. They would consume all.”
As the player progresses through the Library, the context behind the warning becomes terribly clear, as each floor slowly fills with The Flood, a parasitic alien hivemind. As their name suggests, the Flood begins as a trickle of enemies before growing into what can only be described as an army of reanimated lifeforms focused on consuming any and every living thing they come into contact with. If players aren’t prepared for one heck of a fight, the Flood will easily and rapidly overwhelm them, promptly turning what would otherwise have been an ordinary “shoot-em-up” level into an all-out scramble for escape.
2. Nightmare of Mensis (Bloodborne)
FromSoftware’s standalone 2015 hit Bloodborne is a testament to the studio’s creativity and innovation. What begins as a seemingly creepy Victorian action-adventure gradually evolves into a full-blown Lovecraftian fever dream as the game’s story progresses, throwing players into settings that continue to up the anty in both difficulty and horror-inspired level design.
Of all the levels players will find themselves in while playing Bloodborne, however, none are quite as horrific and terrifying as the Nightmare of Mensis: a true and literal living nightmare conjured into existence by the Great Ones and the wayward scholars who worship them. At the boundaries of the Nightmare, players must navigate through a jagged and labyrinthine mountainous landscape while dodging an array of monsters whose physical appearance, sounds, and movements perfectly embody the Uncanny Valley.
In true horror fashion, the Nightmare’s setting and enemies only become scarier as players progress through the level, begging the question of just what kind of inhumane, unholy mind would ever be so twisted as to dream up such a place—let alone bring it into existence. As if this weren’t creepy enough already, the final leg of the Nightmare has players facing off against a semi-invisible, six-armed Great One to the faint sounds of a crying, distraught infant. If H.P. Lovecraft were alive today, this level alone would likely obtain his highest praises for its near-perfect use of existential dread and cosmic horror.
3. Shadow Temple (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
Like Halo, “horror” isn’t exactly the first term that comes to mind when gamers think about Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series, and even less so from its most prominent and award-winning installment. After all, Ocarina of Time’s lighthearted fantasy environment, cheery music, and family-friendly “‘E’ for ‘everyone’” rating position the game as perhaps the furthest away from horror as a game can get. At least not until reaching the abandoned well found in the game’s Kakiriko Village.
Upon first entering the well as young Link, players are greeted with two ReDeads, the Zelda series’ take on traditional zombies. They hint at the true horrors located deeper in the dungeon — a place littered with torture devices and bloodstained walls — which culminate in the boss fight against Dead Hand: a humanoid monster likely responsible for inducing nightmares in a generation of childhood gamers.
Returning to the well as adult Link only serves to add to the horror of the level. Upon players visiting this level for a second time, they are greeted with a fully-fledged dungeon (now referred to as the Shadow Temple) filled to the brim with disembodied whispers and screams, traps like illusionary walls and invisible platforms, and even more monsters than before; not the least of which is the Temple’s final boss: Bongo Bongo. I mean, just look at this boss’s character design and tell me how it isn’t supposed to be pure nightmare fuel to any gamer under the age of 10.
4. Lavender Town (Pokemon Red & Blue)
If you’ve ever played either version of the first-ever Pokemon games released for Nintendo’s handheld Gameboy console way back in the late 1990s and are asking yourself why this level is included on this list, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Unlike every other location in the Kanto region, entering Lavender Town doesn’t present the player with an upbeat 8-bit musical score. Instead, the music begins playing a slow and eerie lament more akin to a funeral hymn, and players quickly realize why. As it turns out, Lavender Town is the one location in the game that provides insight into what exactly happens to our adorable, fierce, and loving Pokemon when they grow too old or lose too many battles: they die. This is made prominently known by the massive burial tower at the Town’s outskirts.
The reason this is so jarring is that throughout the game, whenever the player’s or an enemy’s Pokemon loses in battle, they simply become unavailable to use after the game states that they “fainted.” What makes Lavender Town even more creepy is what comes after the player battles against their in-game rival inside the burial tower. After winning the battle, players can find their rival standing in front of a lone gravestone. Approaching your rival to talk to him will prompt a dialogue that says he is there to pay respects to one of his deceased Pokemon — one that you fought against yourself but haven’t seen him use in battle for the past few encounters — leading players to reason that their own Pokemon killed another.
5. The House (P.T.)
Also known as the official (yet long since-pulled) demo of Konami’s canceled Silent Hills title, P.T. is in itself a horror story of what can happen to an amazing game concept with brilliant designs and innovative mechanics only to have it prematurely scrubbed due to disagreements and in-fighting amongst its leadership.
The entirety of P.T. takes place in two hallways located in a haunted suburban home. Players find themselves controlling the demo’s protagonist in a first-person POV as they uncover clues to solve puzzles to learn more about the house and its seeming lack of denizens in a psychological blend of horror and mystery. But each time the player completes their scouring of the hallways, they find themselves right back at the beginning of the hallway, forcing them to find even more clues to progress through the unsettling environment.
Eventually, after enough clues are collected and the “loop” progresses, players are given their first glimpse of the true horror behind P.T., a malformed ghost named Lisa who is more than willing to scare the crap out of anyone bold enough to turn around in the wrong place at the wrong time in their “loop” of the house. Even before encountering her, players will notice strange shadows and sounds that give the feeling of something following them; always right behind them but never visible.
Despite P.T. having been removed from Sony’s Playstation store a mere eight months after its initial debut, player Lance McDonald, who goes by the Twitter tag @manfightdragon, hacked the game some 5 years later to find out what exactly is behind players before they turn around. As it turns out, and much to the horror of P.T. fans everywhere, it’s Lisa—always ready and waiting for the player to make one wrong move while her raspy wheezes breathe down your neck.