Even action-oriented games have a tendency to get creepy from time to time, but there’s a reason most of us fear Amnesia more than Left 4 Dead. Terror seems to grow best in the dark, out of sight but firmly planted in the player’s mind.
In Left 4 Dead it’s justified, in Amnesia it’s expected; but what about those other games? The games where you picked up the controller with not a care in the world, only to find yourself having trouble sleeping that night?
Again, sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s expected, but sometimes it’s not. There are times when you’ll be playing a game and suddenly realise that you’re scared to go on, regardless of what waits for you along the way.
It’s testament not only to the developers’ ability to affect the player’s primal emotions with only the environment around them as stimuli, but to games in general as an artistic medium. Below are five examples, in no order, and by no means the best; of levels that can strike fear in the player, even in the absence of danger.
Frigate Orpheon -- METROID PRIME
Metroid Prime is brilliant. Though visibly dated, it still looks and plays beautifully. A large factor that ensured Metroid Prime’s success was how well it managed to translate Super Metroid’s atmosphere into a first person perspective. While Prime has its share of creepy moments (particularly when the lights go out), it’s the opening stage, the Frigate Orpheon, that is most memorable.
Samus’ Varia Suit and Arm Cannon do little to stop you from feeling small as you walk through the Orpheon’s claustrophobic halls. Scans of the dead or dying Space Pirates detail their violent last moments, but fail to mention the identity of their attackers. That unknown threat lingering in the back of your mind as you walk through the quiet rooms of the Orpheon makes for a powerful and unforgettable introduction to the game.
Daedric Ruins – THE ELDER SCROLLS III: MORROWIND
Exploring Morrowind, you’ll inevitably crawl through countless dungeons. There’s something intangible that separates the Daedric Ruins from any thieves’ hideout, forgotten Dwemer structure or ancestral tomb; an innate feeling that you’re messing with something much bigger than yourself.
It doesn’t take long to reach a point where your character can take anything the game throws at them, but even so; entering a Daedric structure is always accompanied by an uneasy, dreadful feeling. Even the exterior of the Daedric Ruins, in broad daylight no less, can conjure up feelings of panic and confusion; their jagged, nonsensical architecture looking like something straight out of Lovecraft.
Nothing’s sacred in The Elder Scrolls, but the Daedric Ruins come close. They’re possibly the only places in the game where you won’t charge in weapons flailing but instead approach with caution.
Bright Falls – ALAN WAKE
Alan Wake is unique among the entries on this list. It’s a game that actually means to be scary, but doesn’t quite succeed. The opposite of the other games mentioned, in a way.
The game is a little too action-packed, with too many safe areas, to be a truly terrifying experience. What makes this game so scary though is just how realistic, how mundane and normal it is. The environments, be it a twisting mountain road, an abandoned mine, a national park or a gas station all look very true to life, and conjure memories of similar places the player has no doubt seen before.
There are plenty of jump scares to be had in Alan Wake; whether it’s due to the constant onslaught of enemies or the unnerving effect the shadows of trees can have in the wind, but what makes Bright Falls truly eerie is that it could exist, and we all know of a place just like it.
The Spencer Mansion – RESIDENT EVIL REMAKE
Resident Evil is another unique entry, in the sense that instilling fear in the player is its primary objective. It could be argued that it shouldn’t have a place on this list, and if it were any other Resident Evil game it’d be right to say so.
What puts the Resident Evil firmly on this list is the Mansion it takes place in. Massive, beautiful and luxurious; like Bright Falls, the Spencer Mansion could easily exist in reality, if not for all the puzzles and zombies and stuff.
But the reason the Mansion is just so terrifying is its unpredictability. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time in a room or your tenth time, there’s no guarantee it’s safe. Even though most of the time it is, opening each door is still a genuine struggle.
Shalebridge Cradle – THIEF: DEADLY SHADOWS
Shalebridge Cradle will go down in videogame history as one of the most harrowing levels ever made. The few people who’ve heard of it are curious and wary, and those who have set foot inside the Cradle left changed. That’s no exaggeration. Books could be written about the ordeal that is the Shalebridge Cradle.
What makes this level so strangely terrifying is that Thief: Deadly Shadows normally isn't a scary game. In fact, you’re the one lurking in the shadows. This level is different; you can feel it before you even start, but the terror doesn't hit until you enter its walls.
A profound and potent fear settles in immediately, and only gets worse as you get deeper into the Cradle. Though there’s not a single enemy for almost half of the level, the orphanage-come-mental-asylum absolutely devastates your psyche. It’s quite possibly the most terrifying location in gaming.