When we watch horror films and something terrifies us, we have several things at our disposal to avoid being afraid. We can get up and walk away, eject the movie, close our eyes or fast forward past the offending parts. But with video games, we can’t do that. If we want to proceed, we must pick up the controller and wade through the unending nightmare. Video games provide us that intimacy that we cannot get from horror films or television. From the psychological horrors of THE EVIL WITHIN, the outer space frights of DEAD SPACE, the maddening point and click creeps of CLOCK TOWER, we love to be in charge of how we get scared. Today, join Daily Grindhouse as we dust off our consoles and take you through five of the scariest moments in modern gaming.
Outlast: Whistleblower (The Groom)
The primary gameplay mechanic of OUTLAST is to survive the thirty-one flavors of nutcase that comes your way in the darkened corridors of the Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane. They run the gamut from religious zealots to perverted psychos. Since you’re not a fighter, you have no choice but to run and hide from the knife-wielding killers. You’re a journalist equipped with a video camera. That’s it. While the original OUTLAST is ultimately not a satisfying experience, meaning the climax of the journey isn’t nearly as satisfying as the journey. However the DLC, WHISTLEBLOWER, released in 2014, is a never-shattering experience through a labyrinthine hell, and the ending is pitch-perfect and rewarding to boot. You feel like you’ve truly earned your survival. You play as Waylon Park, an employee of the Murkoff Corporation, the titular whistleblower that lets on to the journalist you play as in the original game that there are some shady dealings going on with his company. As Waylon, you traverse through the asylum, avoiding the lunatics and trying to survive. There are a few “stalkers” that you encounter through both the main game and the DLC adding a spice to the game. There’s Chris Walker, a hulking brute who shows up to chase you throughout the asylum at intervals. Then, you have Dr. Trager, a crazy who snips your fingers off, and saw-slinging cannibal Frank Manera. None of this compares to what you encounter in the last act of the game where WHISTLEBLOWER becomes a tableau of terror. You encounter The Groom, formerly a patient of the asylum named Eddie Gluskin – a man deluded into thinking that every male he’s now come into contact with is his prospective bride.
The game builds and builds to his arrival and once he’s on scene, he stalks you in some of the tensest sequences ever committed to a game. He quietly and methodically hunts you, singing to you, “When I was a boy my mother often said to me, get married son and see how happy you will be…” and when he spots you, he cheerfully yells “darling!” You play a sick game of cat and mouse, and when this cat catches you, it’s castration with a buzz saw. Your fingers will be slicked with sweat and you nerves will be on edge the entire time. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of The Groom, he’s back and right behind you. There’s even a moment where your character throws himself down an elevator shaft to escape the fate you seem headed towards. Admittedly, the whole segment feels like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, a nerve frying experience and one you don’t want to relive again. You’ll come to know the feeling of fear bloat up in you when you approach the place where “the thing below” is. Though you ultimately dispatch of him, his cheerful grinning face stays burned into your gray matter for all the nights to come.
Silent Hill 2 (Welcome to Silent Hill)
The cinematic experience of 2001’s SILENT HILL 2 is comparable to films like DEAD AND BURIED and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, using these disparate elements to create a gaming masterpiece. This terrific sequel uses the backdrop of a foggy lakeside town chock full of monsters, things plumbed from the tortured psyche of our protagonist to create memorable nightmares and an altogether beautiful story. The game’s plot is simple at first glimpse; you play James, a man who receives a letter from his wife Mary asking him to come to their special place in the titular town. The problem is she’s been deceased for three years prior. What unravels is a Japanese and Italian horror tinged take on survival horror, grief and the internal rot of trauma, the plot details of which I daren’t spoil as the key twist to the mystery is profoundly tragic. It replaces the parental fear of losing your child in the masterful first game and tweaks it to the adult fear of losing your spouse and ties it up into a JACOB’S LADDER inspired masterpiece.
While SILENT HILL 2 is filled with terrors like the iconic villain Pyramid Head, the opening of the game sets the stage for the frights ahead of us. You begin the game at a rest stop of the outskirts of Silent Hill, the road to the town blocked off, leaving you with no choice but to hoof it through the nearby forest to reach the center of the town. While running through the foggy forest, you hear inhuman sounds just beyond your line of sight. As you run and run towards the town, the expectation that something will happen leaves you on the edge of your seat and your controller gripped tightly in your paws. The game is chockablock with psychological scares, but the real horrormeisters know that to scare someone, you need the choking, inescapable fear of dread. As seasoned gamers were conditioned by the first game to expect diabolical things, when nothing happens – that’s where the fear takes hold. You’re lulled into the false sense of complacency. “Oh, this can’t be too bad if this is how things start off.” Because nothing ultimately happens until you get to the town, one is left with the sense that the town wants you to come inside. It’s inviting you to find that special place and peel back the layers of the gruesome onion to see just what lies beneath. Amazingly, the game continues this seeping, continually building dread throughout the game, right up until its tragic climax.
The Last of Us (Hotel Basement)
2013’s THE LAST OF US is a landmark in console entertainment — one that pushes the boundaries of what we perceive to be a cinematic gaming experience into a whole other realm with strong writing, strong acting, sparse music and overwhelmingly beautiful emotion. It makes for a delicious cocktail, one where we mix robust storytelling with grueling violence, which one is able to slurp down handily time and time again. THE LAST OF US is a post-apocalyptic story framed over the four seasons in a year, where we follow Joel, our “hero,” a violent smuggler suffering from a devastating tragedy that has left him riddled with post-traumatic stress disorder and the inability to foster a close relationship with anyone. He’s then put in charge of smuggling Ellie, a foul-mouthed teenaged girl who harbors a painful past of her own; across the violent landscape as her immunity to the virus that has devastated the world is the possible key to saving mankind. They’ll cross paths with bloodthirsty infected people and raiders who would be content with stealing your gear and leaving you for dead. Joel and Ellie’s relationship is one of the most touching examples to date, one that simultaneously breaks my heart and warms it at the same time.
About halfway through your arduous journey, Joel and Ellie get stranded in Pittsburgh and are forced to hoof it to their next destination with violent thieves on their trail. They cut through a hotel and are separated, Joel getting trapped in the dank, dark basement of the hotel. This is where the true horrors happen. Though the game’s primary focus is that of action and survival, it dips its toes into the horror realm and does so with aplomb. Joel has to navigate his way back to Ellie and so he must proceed into the inky black of the unknown horrors. Horror movies have successfully gauged our expectations so that we know something waits for us around the corner, and this moment in THE LAST OF US toys with us perfectly. The anticipation gnaws away at us. It’s not a matter of is something there, it’s a matter of when will it show itself. The way they slowly dole out that something’s wrong – a biblical flood of rats fleeing in your direction, a brief glimpse of a Cordycep infected stalker skittering away, just out of your peripheral all culminating with you flipping the switch to the generator, bringing light to the darkness and the hungry shrieks of the infected to your ears. And just when you think you’ve gotten your escape, you’ve procured the card that will unlock the door that’s your escape from this fucking nightmare of a basement – you run headlong into a goddamn Bloater. This big, lurching, infected bastard will one hit kill you by ripping your head from jaw, like a redneck popping the top off a Natty Light. When you do finally escape, you feel yourself sucking in air just as Joel does on the other side of the door.
Resident Evil 2 (Kool-Aid Mr. X)
The RESIDENT EVIL gaming franchise is known for its plentiful jump scares, scares that have been inducing rapid heart rates in players since its North American debut on the PlayStation in 1996. Who among us didn’t drop our controllers with a jolt when the dogs burst through the window in that old familiar hallway? The sequel dropped in 1998, itself a groundbreaker with its “Zapping” technology, meaning the actions in one game affected the other scenario and you could choose the protagonist with which you want to complete a certain scenario and then play through the ‘B’ scenario with the other protagonist, giving a linked experience but one that feels altogether different. It also traded the musty mansion trappings for the cold, ornate and gothic corridors of the Raccoon Police Department filled with despicable monsters, some of whom are human. There were some phenomenal jump scares therein, the dog window scene was replaced by a murder of crows smashing through windows to uh, murder you. And the frigging Licker bursting through the window in the interrogation room is the game just screwing with you. This overall experience leads most to agree that RESIDENT EVIL 2 is one of the best video games ever made and a satisfying ending to Raccoon City saga for the time being. There’s a reason why Twitter burst out with excitement when it was announced that Capcom would be remaking the game for next-gen consoles.
In Scenario B, whichever of the protagonists you’re playing as encounter Mr. X, a relentless rabid dog precursor to the immovable object known as NEMESIS (say it with me, “STARS!”), sent by the nefarious corporation Umbrella to destroy everything in its path to cover up the evidence of the company’s malfeasance. The scary as hell moment I’m building towards is when one of the two protagonists you’re playing as, ventures in the press room on the first floor of the RPD to retrieve a golden cogwheel to solve another goddamn puzzle. Once you’ve grabbed the cog, Mr. X bursts through the wall like a fucking demonic Kool-Aid Man causing this player one at least one occasion to scream hysterically while firing their submachine gun. Now, we knew that no matter if the room had windows or not, the mutated monsters could get to you. Now, nowhere was safe. Later games would be more and more action focused, leaving the jump scares behind but retaining the monster killing action, like the abominable RESIDENT EVIL 6. It would take a next-gen sequel RESIDENT EVIL 7 and an adjustment to first person to right the ship back to the scares that the discs on the PlayStation console provided.
Alien: Isolation (Habitation Decks/Rec Rooms)
The ratio of hits to misses for video game adaptations has never been truly kind to the ALIEN franchise. There was that sick-ass light gun game that peppered the arcades I frequented in my formative years. There were ALIEN games splattered over just about every console from PlayStation, Nintendo Entertainment System, Amiga, Sega Saturn and the frigging Atari Jaguar. The problem with these games is not that weren’t particularly good; they just forgot the core ethos of ALIEN – to make the Xenomorph an element of fear. Even the dread-filled ALIEN 3 was adapted into a side-scrolling actioner. You could argue that it was just hardware limitations, and to that point I agree. But when it hit next-gen consoles, the games still didn’t work as effectively as they could have. Enter ALIEN: ISOLATION in 2014, just one short year after the massive disappointment that was ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES. The difference between the two is night and day.
Developed by The Creative Assembly, who painstakingly ensured that the spirit of Ridley Scott’s spaced out sci-fi/horror mixtape would be honored; this game feels like you’re trapped in space with the Xenomorphs yourself. The game itself is a first person “interquel” resting snugly between the end of ALIEN when Ripley shuttled herself into space and ending sometime before the beginning of ALIENS when Ripley is discovered by the salvage crew. Because you’re playing as Ripley’s daughter, herself a blue-collar schmo like her mother, you’re not a gung-ho, gun-toting marine a la ALIENS. This serves to add to the fear of the game. And despite a few negatives (the thin plot being stretched to outlandish proportions, the lack of stakes – we know Amanda will survive because canonically speaking she dies long before the event of Cameron’s sequel), the game succeeds at being a scary-as-hell cat-and-mouse game that retains the retro vibe of Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, even the addition of the androids as villains feels in line with what the film’s creators were aiming for – their names “Working Joes” are appropriately blue-collar.
Due to the complex AI that was crafted by the developers, you’re dealing with an alien that’s fiercely smart, learning from your actions as a player and working to beat you at your own game. It can be as simple as the alien learning that you hide in lockers too much, so it will start its search for you there, or learning the best way to attack you while avoiding an onslaught from your flamethrower. What’s worse is you can’t kill them with conventional weaponry. You can’t kill them at all in combat. I mean, you’ll die if you try. In one scary moment, the alien will even kneel down to find you if you’re hiding under a desk. It’s terrifying. Throughout the game, you will go through cinematic set pierces where you have to run and hide from the crafty space critter, even wading through a slimy nest of the mean fuckers. The scariest moment in the game comes right at the very end when you’re escaping the fiery ship, the Sevastopol. You’re cutting through the Habitation Decks/Rec Rooms, a figure eight looping corridor that’s chock full of smoke, flickering lights and an alien that’s hot on your ass. You’ve got to make your way to rooms on either side of the corridor and the alien is right nearby, ready to instantly kill you if you’re not fast on your flamethrower trigger. Making matters worse is the pulse-pounding, petrifying score known as “Habitation Decks,” the most unnerving soundtrack to your frantic flight in fright.