But we’re not talking about games that are clearly built to terrify. You can tell these apart by simply looking at the game case and promotional material. I mean the games that look perfectly normal from everything you see, but throw you a scary curveball. It’s these that have left a far bigger impression on us over the years because it’s the fright you don’t expect.
Let’s go through seven of them — ranging from current horror surprises to games from our childhood that left us too horrified to turn the console on again.
When I say “the bunker part,” a lot of seasoned players will already know what I’m talking about. It’s almost like Naughty Dog took a look at the Indiana Jones-esque adventure of Nathan Drake, and asked “how can we mess with these players?”
You enter a disused German facility in the middle of the jungle with one simple mission: turn on the bunker’s power to open the door and escape. Everything seems like your standard puzzle section — navigating through a series of jumps and pipe climbs to make it to the generator room.
Then, things start to get darker, and Drake switches on his flashlight. You head to a door, slowly open it, and if you’re not prepared, the jump scare is sudden. A mutant sprints towards you and kills you in one blow!
Nobody expected this sudden shift from the fun, lighthearted adventure to a terrifying moment that’s built up with some real survival horror finesse — from the orchestral score disappearing to the crackles of your walkie-talkie comms amping up the tension. This was the first real sign of Naughty Dog being able to scare you, which we saw in full force with The Last of Us.
— Jason England
2. Heart of Darkness
While I write about this, I want to emphasize one thing: this game is rated ‘E for Everyone.’ Got that? Good. Now let’s talk about the many terrifying ways the kid protagonist can die in the Darklands.
The story is innocent enough: a boy named Andy flies to a mysterious planet in his spaceship to save his dog Whiskey, after he’s kidnapped by a mysterious dark force during a solar eclipse. Think like your standard Goosebumps story, but with an additional family friendliness… At least that’s what I thought.
Because you see, the real horror was not in the story of overcoming your childhood fear of the dark — it was in the many creative ways you can die. From shadow monsters snapping your spine to giant centipedes pulling you helplessly into their burrow, and watching your legs flail then fall lifelessly limp after a horrifying snap, Infogrames pulled no punches.
This is the epitome of what I like in horror, which is that rather than showing you every gruesome detail of an in-game death, sometimes leaving the gorier parts of a killing to the player’s imagination allows the thoughts of what happened off-screen to ruminate and become a whole lot worse. That’s something Heart of Darkness did with a terrifying perfection.
Think like the celebration of being offed in all kinds of violent ways in The Callisto Protocol, but with a reliance on your mind building it up, and you’ll be close to realizing why this game left me scarred.
— Jason England
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar’s open-world prequel masterpiece is one of the best games I’ve ever played. And I don’t say that lightly. It’s a game about the birth of capitalism, the slow decay of the Old West and for this specific article, a really freakin’ scary mission involving a cave network of cannibals that comes out of nowhere.
Don’t get me wrong, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game loaded with heavy subject matter. Dollops of criminality are complimented by a central story that surrounds a terminal respiratory illness. So yeah, this isn’t exactly a game of giggles.
In its darkest moments, though, it’s genuinely scary in what’s ostensibly a slightly sarcastic yet melancholic Western that is as likely to serve criminal cowboy Arthur Morgan up a mission where he gets slaughtered on old time whiskey as he is to do genuinely heart-warming deeds, like financially bail out a mother and son he did horribly things to the dad to.
Anyway, said people-munching mission is grim, and seriously scary. It evokes the uncomfortably claustrophobic, ultra-violent tone of Rockstar’s Manhunt. Tonally, it’s unlike anything else in the game. It’s genuinely frightening, involves some of the most challenging shootouts of the game due to its boxed-in confines and it’s not an experience I want to revisit anytime soon.
— Dave Meikleham
Portal was one of the first first-person games I ever played. And while most players remember Valve’s iconic puzzle platformer for the “Cake is a lie” memes or the sadistic AI GLaDOS and her repertoire of endlessly quotable taunts, it was a decidedly more terrifying experience for me.
When I think of Portal, what I remember most is cowering in a little hidey-hole behind a bit of paneling that another test subject had pried from the wall, reading the frantic writings of Doug Rattmann and trying to ignore the creepy echo of a turret’s voice asking “Are you still there?”
As the game goes on and you progress from completing simple tests to navigating literal deathtraps, the twist of GLaDOS’s sinister intentions is largely played for laughs. But when you’re already on edge and feeling slightly claustrophobic getting used to a new POV, it’s a more delirious kind of laughter.
Once I realized I was trapped in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center with things that could kill me, the sterile test chambers felt as ominous as levels in a horror game. The turrets haunted my nightmares (though now, since I’ve grown a spine, I think they’re adorable little guys). And even as I was cracking up over GLaDOS’s deadpan voice lines, I was hyperventilating over everything she threw at me and desperately missing my Companion Cube.
— Alyse Stanley
5. Super Mario 64
So put yourself in my shoes for a second. I already had the carpet ripped from beneath me by Heart of Darkness as a kid, so I decided to play something that was obviously going to not be scary — Super Mario 64. It’s the red plumber! This isn’t going to jumpscare me right? …right!?
Well, you already know where I’m going here. Enter Big Boo’s Haunt, and while it’s spooky, it’s not scary. That is until you enter a suspiciously quiet, empty room that contains only one item: a grand piano. You assume it’s just a little bit of scene dressing and head towards it until the instrument springs to life bearing sharp teeth — jumping towards you with a cacophonous sound of the strings inside.
Named The Mad Piano (or Killer Piano in Japan), this is another example of a seemingly innocent game pulling the old bait and switch. Me being a 6-year-old wuss at the time jumped out of my skin, and could no longer hide the fact I was playing games before bed time from my parents because of it. Thanks for that, Mario.
— Jason England
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
The second best moment in Rocksteady’s incredible Dark Knight adventure is one that doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough. Why? Well, because it’s exactly that: it’s ‘merely’ the runner-up in terms of amazing moments packed into this superbly focused superhero title.
Even though the character got a major, scarier redesign in Batman: Arkham Knight, my favorite take on Dr. Jonathan Crane will always be Asylum's version. And that’s entirely because the foreshadowing before his stealth-focused boss encounters are so expertly handled.
The moment which instantly springs to mind is the second encounter with Crane, where Bats is suddenly forced to relive the death of his parents via a hallucinogenic sequence that sees a massively ripped man dressed as a flying rodent briefly morph into a blubbering child as he crouches over his deceased folks. It’s an astonishing piece of in-game, mind-bending theatrically, but it’s not scary.
What is truly frightening is the build-up to Batman’s third Scarecrow boss battle. In another ingenious move by Rocksteady, the picture on your TV suddenly starts going on the fritz, with distortion and eventually a full on blackout that made me think Arkham Asylum had genuinely broken my beloved Panasonic plasma panel back in 2009.
Once the in-game display resets, the opening of the game is brilliantly turned on its head. It’s now Batman tied to a gurney instead of the Joker, as the Clown Prince of Crime and Scarecrow merrily ferry him through the halls of the infamous asylum. It’s a discombobulating moment of script-flipping brilliance that made this A/V obsessive believe the game has broken my very experience TV. For a television geek like myself, that’s the ultimate definition of horror.
— Dave Meikleham
7. Pokémon Red and Blue
Welcome to Lavender town. You thought this game about catching animals and forcing them to fight each other was innocent…well, since I put it that way, it clearly doesn’t sound like that, but trust me it is!
But think again, as you head over to this haunted location for Ghost-Type Pokémon. From the rather creepy music that builds a sense of dread to the horrifying stories of death that play out through all your interactions with the local residents, this is less about jump scares and more about creating tension.
And this tension was built beautifully in a Game Boy game of all things — that 8-bit creepiness just adds to the whole aesthetic.
— Jason England
More from Tom's Guide
- I've never bounced harder off a Bethesda game than Starfield — and the Steam data shows I'm not alone
- The Evil Within (and its sequel) are free for Halloween — here's how to claim them
- Golden Joystick Awards 2023 — vote now for Ultimate Game of the Year