Our 20 top horror moments
If you've ever browsed our guide to the 100 best horror games ever, you'll have a sense of the range of scares available on PC. Indie experiments like Slender can prove just as terrifying as a shiny big-budget adventure like Bioshock, but which games really succeed at creating lingering moments of terror? We went round the team to find out at scares us most, and compile them all into one SPOOKY list. Read on, if you dare...
Fighting the Regenerators in Resident Evil 4
Samuel: Don’t get me started on these horrible bastards, one of the primary reasons I wussed out during Resi 4 and put Nirvana’s Greatest Hits on in the background (don’t ask, but it’s how I got into Nirvana). For those unfamiliar, or who might’ve just picked up Resi 4 in its brilliant ultimate edition this year, the Regenerators are supernatural enemies who can only be killed with a heat-detecting sensor and shooting very specific organs within them. Until then, their appearance is preceded by a horrible wheezing noise that makes it sound like they’re constantly gasping for air. Then you see them, and the whole thing gets ten times worse. One of Mikami’s array of incredible design ideas in Resi 4, these foes are by far the scariest part of a game that’s more tense than terrifying.
The dawning realisation of Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Andy Chalk: For all the truly awful things that Amnesia: The Dark Descent inflicted upon me, the one that sticks out most in my mind wasn't actually a "scare" at all. It was the slow process of discovery, and the dawning realization of Daniel's—that is to say, my—willing, and even enthusiastic, complicity in unimaginably vile crimes committed against innocent people. The moment that I came to understand what was really happening in Alexander's mansion, and my own role in its creation, hit like a hammer. It didn't make me jump or yell or pull off my headphones and turn up the lights, but it stuck with me for the rest of the game and tinged my eventual escape with unexpected bitterness. That's not the kind of experience you find lurking inside a monster closet.
The second Scarecrow encounter in Batman: Arkham Asylum
Samuel: Not scary, as such, but chilling in a very specific way, the best narrative moment of the Arkham to date was surely its—SPOILERS—second Scarecrow hallucination when the corridors of the Asylum transform into Crime Alley, the location of the Waynes’ murder that’s at the heart of the Batman mythos. This scene perfectly explores that conceit, transforming Batman into young Bruce Wayne momentarily as you walk through the murder scene. A brilliant piece of storytelling that encapsulated Rocksteady’s understanding of that character’s nature.
Fighting Poison Headcrabs in Half-Life 2
Phil: Headcrabs are small, skittering, face-leaping bastards. They're horrible, but they're not really scary. They slowly chip away at your health in a game where everything slowly chips away at your health. They're easily dealt with, too. Even Ravenholm, Half-Life 2's horror level, is neutered through the abundance of Gravity Gun 'ammo'. It's as much a physics playground as a zombie-infested nightmare town. Poison headcrabs are different, and frightening. They reduce your health to a single hit-point. They don't kill; rather, they put you in the perfect position to be killed.
The scariest moment is in Nova Prospekt. You've just cleared out the laundry room of Combine, and are given a moment to explore for health and ammo. The game's pacing is such that this is clearly flagged as downtime. You can let your guard down. You check out a corridor to the side, and yes, it's filled with restorative items. You pick them up, turn around, and there it is. A poison zombie, three headcrabs on its back, shambling towards you from an unseen darkened room. Brrr.
The hotel flight in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Tony: You wake in the middle of the night to furtive whispers in the corridor outside your hotel room. The next moment, bestial inbred townsfolk are smashing in the door with axes, and your whole world becomes one nightmarish, fumbling flight from one adjoining suite to the next, desperately bolting doors behind you and dragging heavy furniture into place. The townsfolk are never more than a few seconds away from hacking you to pieces. There's a continuous background cacophony of doors being smashed down, axe thuds, and cries of "He's gone into the next room! After him!" The chase continues right across that whole floor of the hotel, and the best bit is that if you do this sequence right, and survive, you never even see your pursuers. You were too busy running away from them.
Heading into the attic in Gone Home
Samuel: This is a hard one to qualify, but I first played Gone Home last year on a dark rainy night with my window open, absolutely terrified as I walked through the secret compartments of that house. Foolishly I thought a Slender Man-like creature might appear at the end of a corridor, or something, because my brain must’ve powered down, but what Gone Home did with that final attic reveal was so smart. It allows you to dream up a terrifying conclusion that doesn’t come to pass—in this story of missing people with a slight supernatural undertone, that final walk up to the attic really could end in any way. The truth is better than anything you could hope it would be.
Encountering humans in Day Z
Phil: DayZ contains zombies, but it's not about zombies. It's about people. More accurately, because it's a game and therefore has no real-world consequences, it's about psychopaths. Psychopaths with guns. Hundreds of them.
Anticipation is scary, and DayZ is a master of this. Individual exchanges are often short, but the uncertainty makes hearing another human a tense and frightening prospect. A nearby gunshot or sprinting figure means you're vulnerable, and that anything could happen in the next few minutes. Maybe it will be okay, maybe it will be the end of your life. Maybe it will be something really creepy.
Evan: Other than Alien: Isolation on the Oculus Rift, I don’t think anything compares to playing DayZ, in the (in-game) dark, on a fully-loaded character. There’s absolutely nothing available to comfort you, and illumination—flares, flashlights, fire—all broadcast your position. Beyond that, you don’t know who might be watching you through nightvision goggles. What’s so off-putting about DayZ, supported by Arma’s draw distance and fidelity, is the feeling that you’re being watched and hunted and you may not even know it.
Here is a tense moment that I had a couple years ago. Even with NVGs to help me, I felt defenseless. This was back when the zombies’ hearing and vision sensitivity was extremely high, mind you.
The dentist in Bioshock
Phil: Jump scares are cheap but effective—especially when used in moderation. Rapture is a weird and creepy place, but its horror is usually sold through the atmosphere and environment. It's jump scares are sparse, and work better because of that. The best (or perhaps worst) is set in Painless Dental, in the Medical Pavilion. As you enter the operating room, steam drifts down from the ceiling. In the corner is a desk, containing a Tonic and audio diary. You pick them up and turn around, only to find the building's owner stood stock-still in front of you. That he doesn’t do anything only adds to the shock of the moment. You were briefly vulnerable, completely unaware of your silent voyeur.
The creaking stairs of Silent Hill 3
Tim: Although clearly inferior to the magisterially creepy psychodrama that was Silent Hill 2, Konami’s third visit to the terminally be-fogged town featured some cracking jump scares. In particular, there’s one moment late on, as peppy protagonist Heather explores the Borely Haunted House exhibit in the Lakeside Amusement Park (complete with glorious Vincent Price-style audio tour narration), that made me actually shriek. Check it out here. If you dare.
That’s actually not my favourite scare in the game, though. Earlier on there’s a far more understated sequence, during which Heather’s exploring some predictably grim toilets, as all stars of Silent Hill games seem doomed to at some point. Outside on the stairs you suddenly hear the creaky approach of footsteps. Naturally, as the player you dash outside to see what enemy is on the way and… There’s nothing there. You stand around for a bit, and still nothing. The game moves on, but you’re left knowing this: it is not to be trusted.
Making first contact with Chryssalids in X-Com: UFO Defence
Phil: Turn-based strategies aren't known for their scary moments, but X-Com had Chryssalids. The Firaxis reboot, XCOM, had Chryssalids too, but they weren't nearly as bad. In the latter game, they zombified any civilian or soldier they killed—planting an egg that, if not destroyed within three turns, would hatch into another Chryssalid.
The 1994 variants were subtly different in a way that made them terrifying. They could insta-kill a unit with their melee attack, creating a zombie that, when killed, would always spawn a new Chryssalid. Just a glimpse of them meant that a single mistake would be the end of your squad.
The X-Com-inspired Xenonauts featured the equally fearsome Reapers—providing the same scares without the need to battle a 20-year-old UI.
Slenderman, absolutely all of it
Tim: I’m the sort of horror glutton that will trawl the two star section of Netflix just to watch something new and scary, and yet despite having consumed probably 90% of all horror movies made in the last two decades, I’m still somehow a massive baby when it comes to jump scares. In the cinema, I mitigate this by squinting slightly and jamming my fingers in my ears, the skewed logic being that by reducing sensory input the jump, when it comes, will be slightly less jumpy.
This, it turns out, is not a viable strategy for playing scary videogames, which pretty much demand your digits are engaged elsewhere. As I discovered when I tried to play Slenderman. I think I managed two deaths before having to pass the mouse to my girlfriend, who’s another horror aficionado but didn’t last much longer. The he’s-behind-you! structure might be facile, the woodland setting might be obvious, and the meme-friendly monster might be kinda lame when you actually look at it, but the sensation of being stalked is powerful and deeply unpleasant.
Tyler: Slenderman is dumb. Play Amnesia.
Tim: You’re dumb.
Tyler: Nuh uh.
Braving the spider tunnels in Metro: Last Light
Tom Senior: They screech when you shine a torch on them. Keep the beam focused and they'll eventually flip over, legs clawing at the air as their shells burn lobster red. That's when you shoot them in the belly with a shotgun and cringe with disgust as the thrashing legs fold into a spidery death pose.
Metro: Last Light's giant mutant spiders are horrible, and their lairs are simply awful. Every time I hop out of my subway vehicle and head into a side tunnel matted with webbing, I feel genuine dread. Eggs gurgle and pulsate and hatch with the sound of tearing gristle—it's oppressive. You have to fight through the hordes by dim torchlight to reach the vital light switch at the other end of the tunnel. Flipping it should provide a moment of relief, but no. The cacophony that results as the entire hive burns to death is somehow even worse than the horror that precedes it.
Heading out of the airlock in Dead Space
Samuel: Dead Space’s sound design was my favourite part of the game, so inventive was it with the use of Isaac Clarke’s breathing patterns in the course of action sequences. This peaks with the airlock sequences in the first game, where exiting the Ishimura switches off all sound barring Isaac, who gasps for air when oxygen runs low, creating a very specific sort of panic that’s unique to Dead Space. When enemies silently wander into view, too, that makes for a pretty freaky moment—I could do with never thinking about that again, thanks. That kind of skilled tension was lost by Dead Space 3, but kudos to the sound design team for being so inventive with that one device.
The blood bath in The 11th Hour
Tyler: Here’s the obligatory nostalgic, not-really-scary entry. The 7th Guest and its sequel, The 11th Hour, weren’t meant to be scary. They were goofy, really, but I had a more vivid imagination when I was 11, and this skeleton in a bathtub of blood stuck with me at night for at least a week. It’s not even blood, really—it has a weird texture that makes it look more like blood-soaked sponge cake. Oh, and that eyeball cursor was fantastic.
Robbing The Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows
Andy Chalk: Through sheer force of will, I'd managed to make my way into the Shalebridge Cradle, an orphanage/insane asylum that wasn’t quite as abandoned as advertised. It was one of the most singularly god-awful gaming experiences of my life, akin to the entirety of Amnesia: The Dark Descent rolled into one level of an otherwise unremarkable game. But I'm Garrett. I'm a pro. I'm inside. I'm picking a lock. And I'm really focused on this lock. Finally it clicks, and I stand and turn, just in time to see a towering horror bearing down on me. I can’t even remember what it looked like; it was just a blur of howling malevolence, like some kind of unholy payback for sins committed in a previous life.
The timing could not have been better, and worse. I screamed—I screamed like a little girl—and half jumped, half fell out of my chair. It all gets a bit hazy after that. My alarmed wife rushed into the room to see what all the commotion was about (and found no end of amusement in witnessing my gamer machismo lying shredded on the floor, right next to me), and I would assume that poor Garrett, left to fend for himself, died in short order. I didn't return to the game for several days.
Watching the creature in Alien: Isolation
Tom Senior: I can never stop myself from looking. CA put the peep button in Alien: Isolation for a reason: they knew Alien fans couldn't pass up on a chance to watch the Xenomorph hunt..
The creature is never more graceful than when it's leaping from the corridor to the vent systems above, or vice versa. Normally it drops in quickly, and slowly rises to case its surroundings, but once, early on, I saw it arrive in a most peculiar way. Lit by the red strobe of an alert light it spiralled downwards slowly, elongated head rotating around a single slender arm. It placed one leg to the ground, and then another, all in perfect silence. The entire motion was deeply strange but entirely believable. When I saw that, I knew I was up against something not of this world. Chilling.
Evading the Brothers in The Void
Tom Senior: The Void traps you in a grey purgatorial realm ruled by a monstrous "family" of creatures. They're Ice Pick Lodge's most disturbing creations, and some of the strangest monsters in gaming. One is a wheel made of grasping arms. Another has spears instead of limbs and walks around on them like stilts. One floats on a fleshy sack like a human blimp. Initially, they think you're one of them, and see no need to destroy you, but as you absorb life-from the environment—essential for your survival—they start to suspect something's wrong. Their gradual shift from passive overlords to hunters is truly nightmarish.
Tank attacks in Left 4 Dead
Tom Senior: It was a toss up between the Tank and the Witch in Left 4 Dead, but I think the tank has it. He's not as disturbing the as the Witch—looking as he does like a body builder gone wrong—but his impact on the mood of the group is spectacular. It's the AI director's table-flipping moment, when the game decides to really put you under some pressure. The Tank even brings his own horn section when he rounds a corner, striking sudden fear into the hearts of every survivor.
Brad Dourif in Myst III: Exile
Tom Marks: This may seem like a weird choice, the Myst series being entirely slow paced puzzle games with a distinct lack of scares or even the intent to scare, but when Exile was first released in 2001 I was only 10 years old. I was a fan of the series because my Mom had played Myst and Riven before it, but Exile was the first one I was old enough to play on my own. All I had retained from watching the original two was the atmosphere; creepy and dark, with live action people speaking angrily at you. This false perception of danger was quickly cemented in my childhood mind with the opening moments of Exile, where the paradise-like home of your friend is set on fire in front of your very eyes. All I knew was that this madman, Saavedro—horrifyingly portrayed by Bard Dourif, better be known for his equally horrifying portrayal of Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings movies—was dangerous, and I was following him.
I never knew the Myst series only had puzzles, so I played them with the constant fear that I may turn a corner and be struck with an axe from nowhere. All the games’ villains were psychotic, all the landscapes were harsh and dangerous, nothing about the environments were designed to make you feel safe, so young me never did. I didn’t finish Exile when I was 10, having to come back to it years later now wiser and understanding that I there was no man with an axe hiding around the corner. I played through the myst games with a new confidence, slowly but surely shaking that feeling of looming death, and finally confronted Saavedro at the end of Exile. And, in a moment I can only describe as every childhood nightmare I’ve ever had rushing over me like a wave of confusion and doubt, I took too long to make a choice and he killed me with an axe.
Meeting Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2
Andy Kelly: Of the many encounters with Silent Hill 2's pyramid-headed stalker, it's the first that is the most chilling. Exploring the eerily silent corridors of the Blue Creek apartment complex, James suddenly comes face to face with... something. Through the bars you can a shadowy figure, glowing red, not moving. It's just watching you, quietly, as your radio squeals and hisses with static—the game's indicator that something unpleasant is nearby. It's a brilliantly surreal and unexpected moment, and a perfectly scary introduction to the thing that'll soon be shadowing you relentlessly as you explore this seriously broken tourist town.