What is “scary”? According to the dictionary, scary is defined as “causing fright or alarm.” I think those words don’t do justice to describe true terror. Video games help explore the topic of scary deeper than a dictionary, invoking a reality that can only come from interaction. That sense of unease when going into a uncomfortable place, that shock to the heart when taken by surprise, the feeling of sheer dread when powerless against an unbeatable foe. These are six games – the ones that stick with you, scare you, and threaten you – scary games that help put into perspective the idea of scary in different, valuable ways.
Developed by Digital Pictures. Published by Sega. Released on October 15, 1992 for the Sega CD.
This is the grandfather of scary video games and one of the leading reasons there are industry-imposed video game ratings on today. Even though the game was released in 1992, it had an incredibly realistic depiction of the gruesome events that took place within it by being an interactive movie experience.
The player is working with “Special Control Attack Team” (SCAT), to protect the lives of a group of girls. The group is spending the weekend at a winery with a history of people disappearing. SCAT hacked into the house security system and gave you control of the cameras and traps within it. It’s revealed that the family who owns the winery house is into blood or human flesh of some kind: vampires. The son and daughter of this vampire family manage to convince six girls they met at the mall to come back to their lair.
The one scene in Night Trap that media pointed to be “shocking” was a bathroom segment. One of the girls, Lisa, is doing their hair and an Auger hiding in the shower is watching her. Lisa opens the shower door thinking it’s a prank by one of her friends. Just as she realizes it’s a home invader of some kind, two other Augers burst into the room and hold her down. The group take this probe harvester and suck the blood out of Lisa’s neck. Afterward they all drag her off into the dark passages of the house.
The plot of Night Trap was nonsensical, but the United States government took notice.
Politicians usedNight Trap as evidence of violent video game content. The 1993 US senate committee hearings were the climax of the controversy. Media activists dramatized the game as a shocking experience that was a blight of media. The talks resulted in video game content adding ESRB ratings. These tell video game buyers what themes to expect in their new purchases. A documentary about the Night Trap fiasco was later filmed, called Dangerous Games. It served as the cast’s response to the criticism the media leveled at them. The creator himself said the intention was to provide a goofy and bizarre situation – not to deliver a violent and obscene horror.
Night Trap is a scary game due to the outside world viewing it as a frightening tale. The cast and crew of the game testified that the game was an outlandish goofy fantasy. Despite that, Night Trap became the poster child of video game violence and controversy. Media trumped up the idea of fear, that may or may not actually exist. But that vision made politicians and lawmakers go to action. That raw power in itself is something frightening.
UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-COM: UFO Defense
Developed by Mythos Games, MicroProse Software. Published by MicroProse, Spectrum Holobyte. Released in the summer of 1994 for PC.
Alien attacks and humans being abducted start to become a concern for nations around the world. Leaders around the globe meet in secret to discuss how to solve this dilemma, resulting in the creation of the Extraterrestrial Combat (X-COM) group. X-COM has the player managing global headquarters and progressing in an overall conflict against alien invaders, alongside turn-based strategy missions that depict conflicts with the aliens directly.
X-COM Enemy Unknown had a dark ending cutscene if the player failed to stop the enemy invasion. The nations of the world concede to signing treaties with aliens, promising peace. The leaders of humanity face betrayal from the aliens. They proceed to exterminate the human race and drain Earth’s resources.
The Playstation version of X-COM goes a step further with envisioning this frightening reality. The scene opens with a UFO flying over the United Nations building. The leaders of the world are trying to form a treaty of surrender, when aliens burst into the room. A look of defeat comes across the faces of the leaders as they know they’ve lost the battle. The alien blows their brains out and spatters it all over the negotiation table.
X-COM is scary because it could really happen. Scientists at NASA eagerly study the stars and cosmos to search for extraterrestrial life, but I’m worried they’ll eventually actually contact a race in a galaxy far away. Humans on Earth don’t know what’s up there in the stars and the looming answer to that could be a harbinger for the planet’s destruction. Space is a vast expanse of mystery, there really might well be aliens out there wanting to destroy the human race. Don’t think about it too much.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
Developed & Published by Scott Cawthon. Released on August 8, 2014.
The summer of 2014 was impacted heavily when Five Nights at Freddy’s surfaced on the internet for the first time. The uncanny robot animals similar to Chuck e Cheese that made parents feel uneasy since the late 1970s had been reincarnated into a video game.
The player takes on the position of a security guard in most entries of the series. The job is to keep an eye out for intruders and vandals during the night shift at their place of employment. What nobody told you when signing up was that the machine animals come to life at night. Plotting to attack you and stuff you into a costume, the only tools to survive are your wits and vigilance.
In a typical situation when a monster is staring down at you, running as fast and far away as you can is the way to go. But you can’t run in this game. You must survive from 12 to 6 AM in this tiny room deep in the heart of their lair. The player must come to terms with the machine beasts and watch their movement pattern.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a scary game because it explores the uncanny valley of childhood. The gameplay premise forces the player to come to terms with these nightmare machines. Powerless, with nowhere to run. Five Nights at Freddy’s provokes people to second guess harmless situations that cause unease. Maybe there’s a reason for it.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Developed by Nintendo EAD. Published by Nintendo. Released on October 26, 2000.
The hero from Ocarina of Time goes off on a quest to find his fairy companion. An altercation with a prankster tosses Link in the world of Termina. A crazy madman known as Skull Kid plots to crash the moon into the Earth in three days. He sets out to do an impossible task and stop the moon.
The game over of Majora’s Mask didn’t just end at you losing all your health and Link dying. Instead, game over is the moon crashing into Termina and obliterating countless innocent lives. Ganondorf seems like a casual villain in comparison. Ganon doesn’t have a timetable for his takeover while the Skull Kid give Link only three days. There’s more emotional tension in the game’s atmosphere with the knowledge of limited time.
Nintendo had managed to instill this lingering fear by making the moon look menacing. Adding to the intensity of the impending threat to Termina was a clear and present danger. Clock Town itself named around the concept of time, Link only had three days to fix this world. The player is unable to sympathize with the power to cheat time and turn back the clock. Yet the Clock Town townspeople’s feelings about world ending doom tell a story of their own.
The brave swordsman who boldly challenges to take on the moon himself, is seen cowering in fear in his dojo’s backroom right before the moon apocalypse. The Happy Mask Salesman himself is a terrifying sight when angry, picking up Link, shouting at him and shaking him. The face of the Happy Mask Salesman is a mask of something demented, making the player uneasy. Moreover, the souls of dead creatures were what created the masks Link used. The Deku, the Goron, the Zora – they’re all harvested by Link for use in his adventures. When Link puts on these particular masks, the transformation that occurs looks painful.
Majora’s Mask is a spooky video game because it managed to take the classic, brighter feeling that people came to expect, and do a 180 degree turn on that formula. There wasn’t the standard quest of killing Ganondorf, saving Zelda and protecting the triforce. It was stopping the moon from crashing down and killing hundreds of people. The doom of a petrifying moon creeping closer each day is alarming for the citizens of Termina. When the player sees people panicking in their last hours of life, it has much more of an emotional impact.
LSD – Dream Emulator
Developed/Published by Asmik Ace Entertainment. Released on October 22 1998.
Japan had experienced the shock of the jump scare back in 1998, long before the Slenderman myth ever began. The video game named LSD – Dream Emulator released. It was the first time a game had used a flashing image into the experience with the intent to startle people. Asmik Ace Entertainment created the game based on a dream journal that their artist Hiroko Nishikawa kept.
The entire LSD game takes place in the drug induced dream world this author described about in his journal. You explore different hallucinatory drug trip scenes filled with strange animals and colorful buildings. Bumping into any object or falling off a ledge will take you to another random dream.
There aren’t any other characters or NPCs in this dream sequence, except for a man in an all grey coat and hat – he became known as “The Grey Man”. He can show up in your dream at any time without warning. The Grey Man doesn’t even walk like a normal human, instead gliding towards you like a ghost. If you get too close to Grey Man, he corrupts your dream sequence and renders it unplayable.
LSD – Dream Emulator is a scary game because it taught players the meaning of the word “jump scare” by giving us an example through the surprise appearances of “The Grey Man”. The faceless evil that had the power to intrude into the player’s dream level at any time forced the viewers to be on their guard. It also makes you wonder what kind of Grey Men haunt your own dreams.
Developed/Published by Worlds Inc. Released April 1995.
Do video games ever “die”?
One of the earliest virtual chatrooms was first brought online in 1995, with the release of worlds.com. Think of it as Second Life, but if an apocalypse happened and the population disappeared. People still play worlds.com today, if they manage to get the outdated game client to work on their system.
In 1995, Pearson PLC gave Worlds Inc $5.6m to establish a multi-user 3D environment. They worked with Sprint and Intel to create virtual reality experiences for communication needs. Steven Spielberg at one point worked with worlds.com for a project. By 1999, businesses invested $20 million into this project. Famous people such as David Bowie commissioned their own areas in worlds.com. Another example that caught media attention was the construction of the New York Yankees stadium.
The hype seemed to be infinite. But like all trends on the internet, everyone in the userbase moved on to the next big craze. All the buildings and monuments this virtual universe had created, laid empty and barren. Frozen in time. The places of worlds.com are stuck in the year 1999. Nobody ever modernizes the creations within. Forever in a stasis, a monument to a bygone era.
Gardens made of giant hands. Cartoonish backyards with frogs and dogs that just stare at you. An upside down house, carousels in outer space, things that don’t even have names are possible. Some places in worlds.com degraded into glitch filled hell zones that just crash your computer. Others, are simulations of actual hell.
The people who remain in this virtual world grew more twisted as the years went by. The emptiness started to settle in, many of the regulars became wanderers. No matter what new avatar skin or player costume they put on, the people became more empty inside. These days, the worlds.com loyalists lurk in red dog masks, trying to find fresh faces to recruit. The red dog is the symbol of “Nexialist”, one of the oldest worlds.com players in existance. Rumors say that Nexialist is the CEO of worlds.com, inc – Thom Kidrin. He’s wandering the infinite halls of his domain.
It’s believed Thom Kidrin is able to maintain worlds.com as a result of the lawsuits he waged over patents. Kidrin maintains worlds.com to establish that he uses the 3D environment patents that his company owns.
Worlds.com is a scary game because it’s a desolate internet universe long forgotten about. The unlimited creative freedom people had in constructing their own corner of this strange land had a dark side. People used worlds.com to experiment with their imaginations. A tomb of a long gone Internet age, the closest thing we’ll ever see to a dead video game.