While a great horror game can make your skin crawl and have you scared to walk around your own house in the dark, there is an expectation going in that you are welcoming a scary moment or two from those video games. If you decide to pop in any one of the many horror games, you are doing so knowing that the scary moments are what you’re playing for. You’re likely turning the lights out and want to feel the fear that they are advertising as a bullet point on the back of the box. This is why when a video game doesn’t sell itself as scary but has a terrifying moment or level, the effect can be even more powerful as you aren’t prepared for them. So, with it being the season, let’s look through some of the scariest moments outside of the horror genre. These are 10 scary moments from non-horror video games.
10. Call of Duty World At War: Nacht Der Untoten Reveal
Jump back to 2008 and think of that year’s Call of Duty. The series had just innovated the entire genre with Modern Warfare and was making a return to the series’ staple setting of World War 2. Although returning to their 1940’s roots, Treyarch was about to unknowingly innovate the series in their own way. The campaign of World at War was a bloody massacre. Whether you were fighting as Americans in the Pacific or the Soviets making their way to Berlin, it was gory, brutal, and violent.
Despite all of that, the game’s story doesn’t have any moments that would be called scary. Sniping with Reznov in Stalingrad began with a lot of tension before turning into a shootout, but I wouldn’t say there was anything actively terrifying. So you beat the game, the credits roll, and you expect to be kicked back to the main menu when a cutscene starts. The character you are seeing through awakens from what appears to be a plane crash, with a number of figures standing on the horizon. As you fade in and out of consciousness, the humanoid figures get closer and closer, until one of them sprints at you, the name “Nazi Zombies” filling the screen.
The debut of the mode that has become a staple of the long-running FPS series, Nacht Der Untoten being revealed as a bonus level after the campaign made it an extremely unsettling experience. Being dropped into a destroyed building on a foggy night as a full moon hangs high, the shuffling and groans of the undead surrounding you as they tear into your barely safe haven was shocking back then. There is no tutorial and you start with a pistol with limited ammo. You have to think on your feet to survive. Now, over a decade later, this little extra map spawned an entire third game mode and has become a major selling point for the series, with a subset of fans that buy new Call of Duty titles just for the mode, though that initial fear of the undead has faded with time. That first night of the undead, however, still remains a striking and terrifying memory for many who thought they were just getting a simple World War 2 shooter.
9. Undertale: Flowey Knows You Killed Toriel
When it comes to Undertale, there is a number of scary moments or even entire characters that could at the very least unsettle you, so many in fact that I had to redo the rankings of this list a number of times as I was constantly changing what scary moment from the 2015 video game I wanted to choose. The mirror in Toriel’s house that says “Despite everything it’s still you” is very off-putting along with the reveal of Flowey’s true form which also comes with a side of breaking the fourth wall to add a little sizzle. Alpys’ true lab is presented really well and has the extra punch of it only being able to be accessed through a pacifist run so you see these amalgamations based on the creatures that you have been sparing the whole game. All of these are great horror moments, but the conversation with Flowey after the Toriel boss fight is the one that sticks out because it is the first moment that is really meant to scare you, and it still retains the elements from these other moments as well.
Flowey is the first creature you meet in the Underground and is quickly set up to be a villainous figure for the game going forward. You are saved by Toriel, a friendly monster that, as her name would suggest, acts as your tutorial through the early portion of the game. She shows you how to fight and spare enemies, literally holds your hand though some obstacles, and even lets you stay at her home. She is willing to let you live an easy life under her care as long as you stay in the Ruins. It is when you decide to leave the Ruins that Toriel will try to stop you from going deeper into the Underground. If you persist, she will fight you to see if you are strong enough to survive in the world beyond.
I, like many others, killed Toriel by accident. Well, by accident I mean I hit a wall in the Spare puzzle, and thought maybe I was meant to lower her health to progress. Little did I know that at around 60% of her life, you do an instant kill move on her. I felt terrible, but it was a great learning experience: don’t try to attack monsters unless you want to kill them. I didn’t want to kill Toriel, though, so like many others, I reloaded my save and found out how to spare the friendly goat-mom. Once through the door, Flowey awaits and congratulates you and sparing a life, which is when he drops the bombshell statement of “I know you murdered her.” If a player reloaded their save after killing Toriel, that means that they must have felt some kind of guilt from doing so, and Flowey strikes at the core of that guilt. This moment gave the clear and scary message that nothing in this video game is sacred, nowhere is truly safe because the game itself is willing to attack not the character, but the player as well.
8. What Remains of Edith Finch: Gregory Drowns
This entry is not a typical scary scene and might be the biggest reach on this list, but the scene of Gregory’s death is a terrifying depiction of a horrific tragedy. The entirety of What Remains of Edith Finch is about watching the Finch family fall victim to a “curse,” each one meeting some sort of tragedy and untimely death. Most of the deaths are stylized to mask the horrific nature of the death, like Barbara’s being depicted through a comic book or Lewis’s daydream hiding his suicide, but it is the death of the youngest member of the family, Gregory that is easily the most terrifying.
To state the obvious, playing this scenario in a video game is already a scary moment. Seeing the death of an infant through its eyes is a harrowing experience, but arguably much more sad than scary. What is scary is the way the game disguises this death that makes it so much more unsettling. As Gregory is left in the bathtub and falls beneath rising water, the world transforms into this underwater utopia, vibrant colors cascading through the water as all of his toys come to life, his life slowly fading away even if his mind doesn’t comprehend it. The difference between the presentation and the events taking place is so vast that it is unnerving, like watching a child’s show slowly being stripped away to reveal something sinister. With triumphant music as the dying child swims towards the light, it is a difficult scene to watch and, at least to me, has a deep sense of horror lying underneath it.
7. Batman: Arkham Asylum: Scarecrow “Restarts” Your Game
If there was a time for horror to be introduced or for there to be a scary moment in a Batman video game, it would be the section starring Scarecrow. There are three encounters with Dr. Crane over the course of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The first one does a great job building its atmosphere with Scarecrow only ever seen as a shadow as you make your way through the Asylum’s morgue, where he finds Commissioner Gordon’s corpse. His perceived inability to save his friend leads Bruce to confront his trauma around his parent’s death, a theme that continues into the second hallucination. The audio design and decaying environment does a great job of showing Batman’s mind falling apart due to the Fear Toxin in both of these encounters. I guess Scarecrow decided he had to up the dose in the next encounter because it doesn’t only mess with Batman, but with the game itself.
The third encounter kicks off with your game freezing and the screen and audio begin to glitch. After the screen cuts to black, it returns to the game’s opening cutscene, as if your game’s save had been wiped, though notable differences make it quickly clear that something else is happening. The Bat Signal that hangs in the air is very different. When the game cuts to the shots in the Batmobile, it is revealed that Joker is behind the wheel with Batman being the one getting taken to Arkham. The encounter as a whole is more of a cool set piece than anything actually scary when compared to the other encounters, but it is the first and only time that the game doesn’t prey on the fears of Batman but rather the fear of the players.
Game crashes, save wipes, and system bricking have been fears that have been prevalent in the gaming space for a long time, especially with the prevalence of Red Rings of Death on the Xbox 360 (the console I played it on) at the time of the game’s initial release. The game is given away if you notice Batman cough, the sign that you are about to go through a Scarecrow section, and the strange PA announcement right before the event along with the changed Bat symbol in the opening cutscene shows you that the glitch was an intended part of the game. For the brief moment though, the game struck at a fear that everyone playing the video game has had, making a perfect scary moment.
6. Halo: Combat Evolved: The Reveal of the Flood
Humanity fighting a fanatic religious group of aliens on a ringworld structure that turns out to be a weapon meant to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy, what else does a game like that need? When it comes to Halo: Combat Evolved, a race of parasites known as the Flood, which turns the game from the sci-fi action romp that it has been for the hours up to this point to a chapter that captures the feel of horror and dread better than some video games in the genre it borrows from.
The buildup to the reveal is masterful here, all starting from when your pelican touches down in the mission’s opening. Instead of the lush and bright environment that many players will likely call to mind when they think of the titular Halo ringworld, it is a dark and damp swamp that has an eerie air about it, something that is reinforced by the downed Pelican and downed Covenant Dropship. With the lack of any Marines in the area yet the surviving Covenant seemingly fearful of something shows that the Covenant didn’t win a skirmish with the UNSC and that there might be an unknown third party in this swamp. Traveling deeper in the swamp brings you upon a facility, which houses fantastic environmental storytelling throughout, with dead Marines and Covenant filling each room you enter, the one surviving human so traumatized by what he has experienced, that he shoots Master Chief.
All of this crescendos as you find a dead body with a video log, filling in the gaps of what took place that led to the massacre you just walked through. The footage hits all the beats: friendly banter at the start, standard mission procedure once on the ground, the slow build of something being off, and eventual realization and reveal of the Flood, which tears apart the team that you were just watching. Upon returning to gameplay, the Flood enters, and an entire mission of build-up is paid off as swarms of these parasites attack the Chief. The tension that is built by placing an unknown entity that has torn between numbers of your enemies and allies, slowing the game’s action pacing down and forcing the player to consider the steps they are taking in this unnerving environment in a game where you have been a super-soldier for the previous number of hours creates a mystique around these creatures that make them all the more terrifying when they are eventually revealed.
5. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty: Turn the Game Console Off
I think it’s fair to say that Hideo Kojima is a mad genius, and often uses that madness with the interactivity of video games to create some pretty scary moments. You can see this in Metal Gear Solid 1 with Psycho Mantis reading your memory card and inputs with the only way to get the upper hand is to change the controller port. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater has an encounter with The Sorrow that forces you to confront the enemies you’ve killed. Out of all of them though, none of them veer into true horror like the final act of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty where Kojima and his team decided the concept of the fourth wall was passé.
After being brought aboard Arsenal Gear and tortured, Raiden escapes his confinement. Naked and unable to fight, Raiden makes his way through the flying facility, which has a haunting score unlike any other in the game so far. A Codec call from “Colonel Campbell” sets off a series of interactions that are downright bone-chilling. The AI that is acting as Raiden’s commanding officer begins to glitch, telling to complete his role in this “role-playing game,” his voice distorting and his face becoming partially translucent, allowing you to see the face of his skull beneath the skin. He then makes threats to Raiden involving his wife, but then things begin to get strange.
The AI is breaking as is the game that inhabits it, with the most chilling statement made by it being telling the player directly to “turn the game console off.” He says that you’ve been playing the game too long, begins to say quotes from previous Metal Gear games, and even shows footage of the original Metal Gear from 1987, and even reads a snippet of an audio drama that was included as an extra feature in Metal Gear Ghost Babel. You watch as the AI and the game corrupt, until all that is left is just a few preset commands and phrases, just as Raiden himself is “playing” through a scenario based on the original Metal Gear Solid. The entire Arsenal Gear section is a moment whereas the walls of the video game world slowly fall away in the scariest unsettling way.
4. Psychonauts: Milla’s Trauma
My favorite part of the Psychonauts series is the clever use of the setting and premise when designing the games’ items, enemies, and collectibles. The translucent pickups being called Figments of the person’s imagination, mental cobwebs, and emotional baggage being literal suitcases are all good wordplay and puns. The collectibles that provides the most substance are the mental vaults that give some backstory to the character that Raz is currently inhabiting.
Milla Vodello is the ultra-positive and the caring, mother figure at Whisper Rock Summer Camp. Her mind is a disco club with exciting music and bright colors that allow all the occupants to dance to their heart’s content. There are two vaults to be found in Milla’s head, one of which shows her relationship with fellow Psychonaut Sasha Nein while the other tells a much darker story. While making his way up the club, Raz can stumble upon a children’s playroom off the beaten path. The room is pretty out of place for a disco club and despite its innocent appearance, it houses a pretty scary moment, not unlike the video game itself.
The other mental vault is here and shows the memory titled “Milla’s Children.” Milla was once the caretaker of a house full of orphans, which burned down one day with the children inside. Due to her psychic abilities, she could hear the screams of the children as they burned to death. This concept conveyed in still images thanks to the nature of the vaults is already a horrifying idea, but the trauma doesn’t stop there. In the same room as the vault, there is a toy box that can be opened and jumped into, which brings you to a room where the ghosts of the children call for help in a whispering tone, asking where Milla is and why she let them die. The upbeat music disappears and the sounds of their voices drown out Milla who tries to steer you back to the party. It is a haunting encounter that is an extremely poignant depiction of this seemingly cheery character’s trauma that acts in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s comedic nature.
3. Max Payne: Max’s Nightmare
The original Max Payne has a dark atmosphere, but first and foremost it is an innovator in the third-person shooter space thanks to its stylish Bullet Time slowdown that lets you jump through the air and gun down enemies with extreme style. It is an exciting game to play, but this doesn’t mean the story of the game should be ignored, in fact, I would say that the game’s gritty film noir aesthetic mixed with its subtlety in its storytelling while being stylized enough to keep the simple premise engaging is one the game’s greatest strengths. It’s through the comic-book-inspired cutscenes that we get glimpses into Max’s tragic past, but there is a sequence of gameplay that takes a deep look into his damaged psyche and through what is definitely the game’s scariest moment.
Seeing Max lose his wife and infant daughter in the game’s opening gets us to empathize with the character, but it is later in the game when we experience his nightmare that we get a true understanding of the trauma he feels from that day. The dream is made up of long, large hallways, an impossibly long labyrinth that eventually brings him to his old living room, a room filled with happy times with his wife Michelle and at his job, the very job that lead him to blow off a conversation that very well could have saved his family’s lives. The bedroom door leads to a small, claustrophobic hallway, streams of blood traveling down the side.
The hallway gives way to a black abyss that must be navigated by walking a tightrope of blood, the cries of Max’s infant daughter filling the air. It’s a sequence that taps into so many aspects of fear and horror, from the grotesque with the bloodstained walls, and to the winding maze that you can easily get lost in, to seeing such a traumatic event through the mind of a man so riddled with guilt, it is a sequence that truly places the player in Max’s shoes, with all the demons that entails.
2. Outer Wilds: Traversing Dark Bramble
There are a lot of places to explore in the galaxy of Outer Wilds. From the ocean planet of Giant’s Deep to the harmonic dancing of the Ash Twins, the locations that you explore are varied and unique. There is one, however, that is so unique that it called my attention really early on. Little did I know that the Dark Bramble leans all the way into the horrors that the universe has on offer. Dark Bramble has seeds spit out across the other planets, all of which have the appearance of an infection, a part of the planet that doesn’t belong. Bramble itself seems to be a glimpse into what these seeds can do, with what once might have been a regular planet splintered and shattered, with one of these seeds acting as the planet’s core.
The entrance of this core brings you to this ethereal space, a heavy fog hands in the air, the only things that can be seen are faint white lights with only the sound of the haunting score. Sound, the key to your downfall here. While some of these lights are emanating from seeds that teleport deeper into this impossible space, there are others that are luring you into a trap. Giant Anglerfish have decided to call this place home and due to them being blind, rely on sound to hunt prey. This means you must rely on your ship gliding through the seed that you need to go to. It makes traversing the Bramble an extremely tense journey, as you try to figure out which lights bring you deeper into the unknown space and which make you the dinner menu for these giant fish.
This is the only enemy in the game, so no matter when you decide to visit the Bramble, the reveal of hostile enemies will give you a jump. I remember the first time entering this area I wasn’t too cautious. I had only explored Giant’s Deep when I decided to go to the Bramble, so I was approaching it like the fog was a layer that would give way to a surface only to be greeted by the ear-shattering roar. This first encounter terrified me so much that I stayed away from the Bramble for hours afterward and I am still unable to listen to the sound that these giant beasts give off when they detect you. Very clever of the developers to put the key to the end of the game here, it makes it one of the tensest runs to the end of a game that I’ve ever seen.
1. Drakengard: Ending D… All of It
I don’t even know what to say. The original Drakengard is set in a dark fantasy world that tackles many taboos that aren’t often seen in media let alone video games. The scary moment in question is also the fourth ending of the game so you have seen everything twisted and messed up that the game has to offer. With everything I said before with Flowey taunting you having the effect it did because it happens so early, to multiple entries involving fourth wall breaks to really strike at the heart of the player, the juxtaposition between the rest of the game and the moment in question is so wide that it creates a greater impact, these seem like important things to have if you really want a scary moment to hit the player of your game.
Drakengard’s Ending D: The Wild Dreams Of A Deluded Child does none of these things and still remains the most terrifying thing I have experienced in a non-horror game and it is probably still high on that list of scary moments when you throw video games from the genre in. It is that unsettling.
This ending revolves around “The Watchers,” otherworldly beings only held back from invading the world of Midgard by The Seals, which are destroyed over the course of the game. When Manah, a little girl that is possessed by these Watchers is killed during this ending, a horde of giant, stone-like infants flood into the world from the sky. The imagery is so off-putting; a sky full of these humanoid babies who you watch descend upon the party and devour two of its members, a fitting end for Arioch, a woman who has a past of eating the flesh of babies. The sound of her being eaten and the blank white eyes and pale skin of the creatures set alongside the multiple close-up shots of their salivating mouths create this mix of being alive and stone. The sounds they make when eating humans mixed in with the stock baby noises make the scene all the scarier. Grotesque, unsettling, and definitely the scariest moment from a non-horror video game, perfect for the season of Halloween!