There are video games that are meant to be scary – Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Space and so on – but truth be told, it’s the games that weren’t supposed to be that are often the most.
Sometimes video games are terrifying because of their jarring character designs. Consider 1996’s Super Mario 64, the first 3D Mario game. This is a series primarily targeted at children, so why is there a giant toothy eel with glassy eyes that springs out from nowhere like a cursed Slinky? Then there’s the sinister moon from Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Why is he looking at us like that? What’s wrong with him? Why can’t I get the image of his face out of my head even when I close my eyes?
Remember 16-bit classic Ecco The Dolphin? It was released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1992 and purchased by millions of well-intentioned parents thinking a dose of aquatic splendour might temper their fears that games were corrupting their children. Early on, the titular porpoise breaches and a hurricane occurs, followed by the ocean’s wildlife being sucked out of the sea, screaming and choking. On the same system, in 1991, young gamers saw a certain blue hedgehog gasping for air in Sonic The Hedgehogs flooded Labyrinth Zone.
Often, it’s the limitations games put upon the player that create the unease inherent in unintentionally scary video games. There’s a scene in survival horror masterpiece Resident Evil 2 where you encounter a dying policeman. He’s bleeding out but asks you to leave him alone, then closes the door. Imagine this in reality. A man is dying behind a closed door. You’d break it down, right? Make a bandage out of your shirt? Nope. You can’t do any of that. You spend the rest of the game knowing that behind that door, the cop is slipping away into oblivion.
Speaking of clipped freedoms, chances are you played 1997’s Tomb Raider II. Over 8million people bought it, so that’s more than 8million people who will wince when remembering Lara Croft’s groaning butler, who follows you around with no respect for your personal space. You can’t tell him to go away, as you would do in reality. If you tricked him into following you walk into the fridge, then locking the door behind him, you weren’t alone.
Spend too long thinking about the reality of what you’re asked to do in Katamari Damacy and you’ll start to feel the fear. Likewise, the cosmic emptiness of No Man’s Sky. The list goes on. Whether we’re children in our bedrooms or adults playing into the night, games are often a solitary experience. Connectivity has largely killed the survival horror genre. It’s hard to be scared when YERMUM0307 is online and bugging you for a quick game of Call Of Duty. Being alone with your mind, that’s where fear likes to breed.