Spooky season may be drawing to a close, but terror springs eternal. Heck, even if you’re not a fan of horror, the dark and macabre have a funny way of sneaking into our lives.
Think you’re safe from Halloween just because you don’t watch slasher films? Think again. Here are seven of the scariest moments in non-horror games:
1. The Witcher 3: The Von Everec Estate
Geralt of Rivia feels pretty invincible in The Witcher games. You get the sense that he’s seen it all. He can examine a dead body and know exactly what kind of vampire did the killing. In The Witcher 3’s first big (and decently spooky) quest “The Bloody Baron,” Geralt accurately assesses the whole dead baby, haunted household thing. I’m a huge scaredy baby, and one of the things I like about The Witcher 3 is that while it’s sometimes creepy, it’s not necessary scary, partially because Geralt oozes confidence.
But when he gets to the Von Everec Estate in the Hearts of Stone expansion, even Geralt doesn’t know what the hell is going on. He walks through an abandoned garden with dozens of fresh graves. He sees a looming figure in the shadows. He calls out. And he is horrified when the figure turns around, cloak pulled back, revealing the faceless Caretaker.
A difficult boss battle ensues: The Caretaker utilizes a shovel that regenerates his own health every time he hits you and necromances skeletal corpses of previous intruders. I shuddered with relief when I finally finished the fight, but The Caretaker was only the beginning. The emotional trauma of the rest of the Von Everec Estate will haunt me for quite some time.
– Written by Amanda Tien
2. The Sims 4: The Cowplant
The Sims 4 is a casual life simulation game where the player creates and controls the story. Despite having a Teen rating and not residing in the horror genre whatsoever, the decades-long Sims franchise offers a multitude of moments that qualify as scary. One of the more horrific moments in The Sims 4 is when your sim gets eaten to death by a Cowplant. What is a Cowplant you ask? Well, it’s a sentient plant with a stem leading up to a cow head. Obviously.
If not fed twice a day, the Cowplant becomes hostile and lures your sim over by setting a piece of cake on its tongue. That’s its way of telling you it’s hungry. With that, you can either feed your Cowplant or grab the cake to eat for yourself. If you decide the latter, the Cowplant will eat you and either one of two things will happen. If you’re lucky, it may spit you out; if you’re not lucky, it will devour you whole. By completely eating your sim, they will of course die, and you will receive a visit from the Grim Reaper. It’s utterly (pun-intended) disturbing in the best way, creating sheer surprise when you aren’t expecting it.
Honorable mentions for other scary moments in The Sims games include being abducted by aliens, having a burglar break into your home, and the “Set As Head” cheat in which players can replace their sim’s head with an object.
– Written by Allison McDaniel
3. Zoo Tycoon: The Dinosaur Digs Expansion
When the T-Rex inevitably escapes.
– Written by Amanda Tien
4. Batman: Arkham Asylum: Scarecrow Nightmares
While I wouldn’t describe any of the Batman: Arkham titles as “horror,” they all take place in terrifying settings. Still, the fundamentally cartoony nature of many comic book villains takes the edge off, making what would normally be a scary game more of a dark but campy caper.
Arkham Asylum, the first in the series (and arguably the best), features a wide variety of the caped crusader’s spookiest villains, but only one rises above typical goofball comic book fare: Scarecrow, whose uses of hallucinogenic gas and mental torture create some of the scariest moments I’ve experienced in a non-horror game.
Unlike typical boss fights or stealth encounters, the gameplay of the Scarecrow sequences involve Batman grappling with his greatest fears and traumas in the forms of hallucinations and nightmares. In order to fight through these nightmares, Batman must make his way across 2.5D platforming sections whilst stealthily avoiding the watchful eye of Dr. Jonathan Crane, eventually reaching a giant Bat Signal that he shines on Crane to end the segment. These levels typically involve broken, floating structures furnished with various objects found throughout the asylum. The levels themselves aren’t especially challenging from a design standpoint, but the horrors that surround them ratchet up the tension to the Nth degree.
Prior to these platforming bits, Batman hallucinates moments that terrify him more than any supervillain: finding Commissioner Gordon dead, reliving his parents’ murder, and even falling into a bottomless pit. It’s not that Bruce Wayne is afraid of death; he’s afraid of disappointing the people he cares about the most and failing to save them.
Mental asylums often make great settings for horror, but Arkham Asylum actually presents its scariest moments within Batman’s own mind. The real horror isn’t any clear and present danger; it’s the possibility of living with even more guilt than he already does.
– Written by Sam Martinelli
5. The Lion King: “Can’t Wait To Be King” Level
This is a stage so irreplaceably burned into my head. The catchy and bouncy song that inspired the “Can’t Wait to Be King” level of the 1994 Super NES/Sega Genesis game level is a cake-tier lie.
Players direct Simba from tree to tree with the help of oddly placed monkeys who will swing him through… only if you roar at them to change their direction. Even if you successfully trial and error your way through roaring into the right direction, you also have to navigate jumps on top of the heads of impossibly impatient giraffes who will toss you into the water almost the second they register Simba’s touch. But wait, there’s more. If you’re lucky enough to survive the giraffes, you will be placed onto the ostrich that once gave Kevin Hart nightmares and be forced into a duck or jump obstacle course that has some of the worst collision detection.
Good luck getting the timing down, 5-year-old Anthony. How I ended up loving video games after this experience either is a testament to my tenacity or a clear sign of sociopathy that everyone missed. The craziest part of all that? It was only the second level.
Truthfully, the entire game is a special kind of hell that had no reason being exposed to children. Yet the “Can’t Wait to Be King” stage is the only level I can think about. It’s been such an integral piece of my gaming origin, that I bought the Aladdin/Lion King Disney 2-pack on Switch just so I can right this wrong, or suffer at 33 as a result of pairing this with the weight of adult responsibilities. I’m not sure which.
– Written by Anthony Franklin II
6. What Remains of Edith Finch: Barbara’s Chapter
Oh, wandering around an abandoned house with memories of dead relatives, most of whom have died in this house. (What a nice, normal thing to do.) Yet, despite this being the premise, What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t really a horror game. It’s the winner of the 2018 BAFTA Game of the Year and is categorized on Steam as “adventure, indie.” Every dead relative gets a beautiful, poetic interactive narrative episode. That is, until you get to 16-year-old Barbara’s chapter.
Each Finch chapter is expressed with a different art and gaming style. Barbara Finch’s is told in the style of a comic-book released in 1961, a year after her death. I already don’t love it when women get violently murdered, and so I’ll be honest, I felt a little relief when I realized the format of the teen’s story. It’ll be very past-tense, very passive, I told myself. Wrong. Somehow, this format made it worse. The limited boundaries of each comic panel made Barbara’s entrapment in her own house all the more horrifying.
I outright screamed when Barbara’s possessive boyfriend startled her in the basement to prove a point. I thought about quitting the game outright, but I rushed through the rest of the chapter. I clicked quickly through the panels, past searching for her missing young brother. I hyperventilated when Barbara got attacked by an actual serial killer. When she miraculously made it out, I breathed a sigh of relief… then she got cannibalized by strangers at the door.
Even recapping this segment makes me ill. What Remains of Edith Finch is a brilliant game, and I never want to play it again.
– Written by Amanda Tien
7. Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3: Clever Uses of the Reapers
I love the Mass Effect series. I delight in roleplaying as Commander Shepard, bravely going where no one has gone before. The Big Bads of the series, known as The Reapers, are just freaky enough. The mysteries of their community are sometimes scarier than what is known about them. Bioware shares knowledge of the Repears sparingly for dramatic effect in the space action epic. There is a moment in each game of the original trilogy that spooked me:
- Mass Effect 1 – In the Prologue, Shepard lands on Eden Prime for a routine pick-up when something mysterious destroys all their communications with the planet’s inhabitants. It isn’t long before Shepard finds colonists burned and pinned on creepy spikes… But then, the corpses twitch awake! They clamber down, eyes burning with electric blue voids of nothingness. They are Husks, and they are lunging at you.
- Mass Effect 2 – Human-Reaper on Collector Base. Enough said.
- Mass Effect 3 – You’re me, driving around space in my little happy spaceship, finding artifacts and gathering resources. Just borping along. Feeling fun, feeling fresh. Oh, you’re running low on gas and you’re far from the edge of this galaxy. Should be fine, probably. Then, a metallic note rings out across space and time—the Reapers are here, and they’re chasing you! Bioware did a great job of turning a routine activity from Mass Effect 2 into a harrowing mini-game. Please don’t turn me into a human slushie.
– Written by Amanda Tien
On behalf of the entire Punished Backlog team, Happy Halloween!