Jun 06 2012

Oh God, Just Turn It Off: Three Horror Video Games That Scared the Crap Out of Me

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem 

This game is 10 years old, but it’s a friggin’ gem. Seriously, if you have a Wii, go out and buy this immediately (remember to pick up a Gamecube controller). Eternal Darkness is an epic story that spans centuries and takes place all over the world. The modern day frame story introduces Alexandra Roivas, a woman whose grandfather just died a grisly death in his creepy old New England mansion. She begins examining his stuff for clues to his untimely demise, and of course ends up reading an ancient tome bound in human skin. How anyone can hold a book that’s covered with stretched dead person long enough to actually crack it open and read a chapter is beyond me.

If my mom’s story exists, it’s probably in that book.

Anyway, the book is how she (you) relives the experiences of 12 other people who’ve come in contact with it, stretching across time and distance. So, apart from the normal scares that video games inject directly into my chest (with great musical underscoring, good sound effects, etc.), the deep and complex story serves to pull me even further into my identification with my onscreen avatars. It doesn’t hurt that it cribs quite a bit from Lovecraft, either.

But the thing that most terrifies me about this game is its sanity meter. In addition to your typical health meter, you also have a sanity meter that becomes depleted the longer you see monsters (kill ‘em quick!), and in response to certain story elements. When the meter comes down far enough, crazy stuff goes down in the game. Sometimes you collect ammo that isn’t really there. Sometimes the camera angle skews so it’s difficult to maneuver. Sometimes your character shoots him/herself in the guts. And sometimes, the game actually leaves your character alone so it can get to screwing with YOU. You may get a screen that says all your save files have been deleted, that your controller is not connected, that your inventory is empty, or various other psychological tricks that mess with you, the actual gamer.

One time the game lowered its own volume while displaying a dwindling green volume bar so it looked like my TV was possessed and controlling itself. And well, I don’t really want to talk any more about that.

Me, when that happened.

The Path 

This might be my favorite entry on the list. The Path is available for both PC and Mac (not consoles), and is at heart a simple retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. This time there are 6 different Reds of varying ages, and you’ll have to play them all. Once you’ve selected your chosen iteration (there’s no prescribed order), you’re placed on a path with the simple instruction to go to grandma’s house and stay on the path. And you can do that. Once you get safely to granny’s house, however, you’re returned to the character select screen without any progress being made in the game.

And here’s where the game started getting profound for me. I stayed on the path and went straight to grandma’s house more than once. More than three times, even. I got frustrated, not understanding why I was failing. And then it hit me. You have to go off the path. (“Duh,” says hindsight.)

And once you go off the path, you have to meet the wolf. Each of the girls has her own version of the wolf, and each interaction speaks to larger themes about growing up and exploring sexuality, creativity, and independence. The game isn’t filled with the kind of jump-out-at-you scares that are the norm for most horror games, but the sense of unease that permeates the proceedings is really hard to shake. Especially considering the way the screen blacks out once you meet the wolf, leaving you in the literal dark about what happens between the two characters. You do see yourself immediately afterward, and some of the resulting implications are less-than-pleasant.

I can’t help but wonder what a guy’s perspective on this game would be, since much of the fear being explored is inherently feminine. The game verges on pretension, but if you approach it with an open mind and allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable, at least a little bit, I think it proves to be an experience that stays with you.

I did read a review that said if you’re not usually down for a little David Lynch, you probably won’t want to get down with The Path. As you can see, they were on to something.

This article ended up longer than I expected, so I omitted two entries from my initial list. Extremely honorable mentions go to the Penumbra series and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. They were all developed by Frictional Games, and they’re notable for emphasizing stealth over combat, despite being presented in the familiar first-person shooter perspective. Amnesia also features a sanity meter, and y’all know how much I hate love those!

Here’s a screenshot from Amnesia:

Aaaaaand, I’m out.





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30 responses so far

  • Nick

    You should try the SCP games:

    SCP – Containment Breach
    SCP – 087

  • Schiapu

    And also Nightmare House 2

  • MarkShek

    I only played it once, but the scene at the beginning of the original Silent Hill in the slowly degrading alley still sticks with me to this day. That scene scared the hell out of me.

    Also, every time i had to pass through the rope hallway in Fatal Frame, i nearly wet myself

  • wevs

    Guy here:
    Can’t agree more on The Path. It’s not scary in a way that other horror games are, but the atmosphere of the game goes from gloomy to nightmare mode the second you step off the path. I don’t think one has to necessarily be female to relate, enjoy or get freaked out by the game, but on the other hand I’m pretty in-touch with my inner-chick, so a second opinion would be good.

  • Sara Clemens

    @Nick – Thanks for the rec. I just did some research into those and terrified myself by reading about them. I might check them out in the name of journalism, but I’m already getting the sweats.

    @Schiapu – I’ve totally wanted to check out Nightmare House 2 since I saw the trailer and it ended with “Coming…when it’s done.” I only have HL2EP2 with the orange box for Xbox, though. It seems silly to buy it again with Steam. But the mod possibilities—oh, the mods!

    @Mark – I will be totally fine if I never play another SH game. And you are on point with Fatal Frame. That game could have easily made this list. The rope hallway haunts my dreams.

    @wevs – Thanks for commenting! I’m definitely more on the tomboyish side myself, so sometimes I can misinterpret if references are universal or more specific. Everything’s pretty relatable to me. I’ll have to make the hubs play and see what he says.

  • Mike

    There is a book called “Horrors!: 365 Scary Stories” that has a story similar to the one you described. It says how you didn’t knotice that the book was thicker than the others by a few pages and how the narrator watched you buy the book and how he will kill you by the end of the story. It’s actually a good book. Some of the stories are silly, but others are pretty horrifying. I would suggest buying it. You can find it for pretty cheap.

  • Sara Clemens

    @Mike – Holy sh*t, that sounds like that’s it! I wonder if it’s an older story, since this anthology was published in 1998, and my mom talked about it like she had read it before I was even born. Considering I can get the book for the price of dirt, I’ll totally have to pick it up. Thanks, man!

  • thenottakenname

    I’m going to have to check out The Path. Games that jump and scare are good and all, but it’s the games that really get in your mind and mess with your perception of the real world that are worth it. If somethings going to make me jump at shadows, I’m down.

    There was an old PC game called ObsCure… and for some reason, when I first saw the first creatures in it, I had to pause the game and run away. The game just psyched me up more and more and more until you encounter them. After that it was meh… but for that one moment I was just outta there.

  • thenottakenname

    I guess it was on consoles too haha.

  • Neil B

    Love the scary games! Great article! But can you leave pics of my mom off the internet? Thanks. +1 for the new girl.

  • http://iconscious.co.uk/ mike cupcake

    I’ll have to try The Path again, I didn’t give it enough of a chance first time round. Seem to remember wandering around for a while and meeeting various characters but not the wolf.

    Scratches: Directors Cut and Downfall are two point n click games that have creeped me out recently.

    The Amnesia screenshot I’d have gone with would be an almost completely dark screen that hints at the edge of a huge wine barrel that you’re hiding behind, hoping and praying that whatever made that noise didn’t see which way you ran…

  • Charlie Ward

    The only game that ever scared me was Alan Wake. Then again, I’ve never played any of these games.

  • http://remycarreiro.com/ Remy Carreiro

    I am now looking for The Path on your recommendation.

  • Kaniner

    Eh… Eternal Darkness was fun and I liked it a lot, but I don’t think it was particularly scary. The sanity meter was fun and sometimes surprised you a bit but never really scared me, usually it felt more like a fun gimmick.

    Amnesia should have been on the top of that list. I play a lot of horror games and that game made me scared in a way I never thought a game could scare me.

    The Path does look pretty good, though. I’ll have to check that out.

  • starr

    the scariest game i’ve played has to be the first dead space game. there was a lot of tension walking around the space ship not knowning when somethin would jump out at me. worst was the background noise. i played in the dark, in surround sound, so it was worse. the background noise with the surround sound definately set a spooky mood. i stopped playing because i i couldn’t take it; killing the aliens wasn’t hard. it was the waiting and walking alone with nothing but the clinks and clanks of metal, and sometime hearing voices and the singing! still haven’t finished it, i watched the ending on youtube and that was satisfying enough for me.

  • Habshockeygrl

    The first game that ever scarred me (other than thinking I could hear the half life creature in my dreams) was Clive Barker’s Undying. I know it wasn’t overly popular at the time but I loved it. I also found Condemned great for a little startle you in the dark play.

  • http://snarknotes1.tumblr.com/ Sara Clemens

    @Remy – Do it! Let me know your take on it.

    @Kaniner – You’re right about Amnesia, I’m already planning a “Part Deux” to this article where I can give it the attention it deserves, and also add my two cents about some of these games you guys are recommending (thanks thenottakenname, mike cupcake, Charlie Ward, and starr!).

    @Habshockeygrl – Clive Barker’s Undying was great! I got that as part of triple pack for Macs that include American McGee’s Alice. I really liked Alice, too, though it hasn’t aged that well.

    Speaking of: anyone play Alice: Madness Returns? Any good?

  • banditone

    PC: I remember being spooked playing the original F.E.A.R.

    Console: No love for Bioshock1 & 2? Am I just a big girly man that I was scared as hell playing both 1 & 2 alone in the dark with the surround sound blasting?

  • Lauren

    If you want something else you won’t be able to finish as far as horror video games go I’d recommend Fatal Frame 2 for the PS2. The first one was good. You start off in black and white with the grainy old movie quality (it terrifies you). The first is especially terrifying when you realize that it’s based on actual Japanese ritual and mythology. Somewhere, at some time, people believed this was the way to be.

    The second outdoes the first by a mile. You play twins transported to the “Lost Village” and you have to find a way out. I never managed to beat it. I made my boyfriend do it for me but there were times I screamed in that one even as a passive observer (and I never scream in anything.)

  • Steve

    Sara,

    You are probably the best addition to the site; this article was a pleasure.

    I loved all three of these games, and the funny thing is the only one I “finished” was The Path… I have a bad habit of not finishing games.

    I have three little girls, so that may have opened things up for me more with regards to being sympathetic to what was going on in the game… The encounter with The Woodsman, for instance, left me feeling ill and angry. Hell, the “James Dean Werewolf” (our nickname for the wolf near the run down playground) left similar feelings…

    It really hits that “art” feel by evoking emotions without having to shove them in your face.

  • http://snarknotes1.tumblr.com/ Sara Clemens

    @banditone – I totally hear you on Bioshock. I was freaked out start to finish. I’m not sure it’s construed as a horror game, though, which is the reason I didn’t consider it for the article. You’re not the first to recommend F.E.A.R. to me; I’ve heard some really good things. I remember when it came out and I totally ignored it because I thought the name was stupid. Which probably means I’m a jerk, ha!

    @Lauren – I played the first Fatal Frame and it was certainly successful at being ridiculously horrific. Can’t wait to try not to cry while playing the second. I get being scared even as a passive observer. I have gotten utterly terrified while watching my husband play Silent Hill 4. PS everyone, that’s the one I didn’t finish.

    @Steve – Thank you, it’s a pleasure having commenters like you! Thanks also for your thoughts on The Path. I bet being the parent to daughters brings about a whole other level of horror. And I absolutely agree with you about its artistic merit; it’s almost more of an experience than a game. In a great way.

  • thenottakenname

    @Sara – Alice: Madness Returns is a half decent game, fun if you love surreal and dark scenery, as well as all the wild characters. However, it’s not a scary game, if that’s what you’re asking.

  • Sara Clemens

    @thenottakenname – I knew it probably wasn’t scary, since the first one wasn’t, but I really dug Alice and the sequel is going for cheap these days, so I’ve been thinking about giving it a go. Thanks for your input; it sounds much like the first, which is right up my alley.

  • Charlene

    Eternal Darkness sounds like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth with the insanity thing only there is no HUD. You have to pay attention to your heart beat/breathing, splint broken legs, and the character will commit suicide if too unsettled.

    My friend had it and I was too scared to actually play but loved watching

  • thenottakenname

    @Sara – If you liked the first one, then you’ll definitely like this one. Everything has been improved upon greatly, while playing out similar to the first.

  • http://snarknotes1.tumblr.com Sara Clemens

    @Charlene – That sounds awesome! What an example of the internet’s greatness – my must-play list just doubled thanks to you guys.

    @thenottakenname – Thanks for your two cents, I’ll definitely pick it up. Always glad to get recs from real people. Reviews can only get you so far.

  • http://iconscious.co.uk/ mike cupcake

    I’ll add a second vote to checking out SCP 087, I replayed it last night and it is simple but terrifying. The fiction it’s based on is fantastic too.

    More scary gaming posts – yes please!

  • Gore Motel

    The Path sounds awesome.

    Eternal Darkness was also just outstanding. I thought the Sanity meter was great, added a whole new layer to the game, plus, I intentionally made myself go insane sometimes just to see what the game would do.

    I would like to throw my hat into the ring for Dead Space and Dead Space 2 (I didn’t finish Dead Space 2, but only because fighting your dead girlfriend at the end is an exercise in cheap, frustrating death.) because they are thick with atmosphere. The game understands jump scares, with loud bangs and industrial noises blending with the actual sounds of monsters that will TOTALLY sneak up behind you, because, hey, you should have been paying attention.

  • Mike

    I once read a book full of short horror stories when I was younger, each having an inevitable twist of some kind by the end. One was in first person and by the end of it the person retelling the story is talking directly to you and getting quite threatening. They then tell you to read the first word of every sentence from the beginning of the story.
    And that’s the end.
    When you read the first word of each sentence as prescribed you discover a message that gave me chills as a young teenager.

    Not quite what your Mum read (made up?) but reminded me of it.

  • gray

    should try “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth”. it’s the kinda game that’s made more frightening because of the controls, and you can’t stop to look at whats chasing you or you’re dead.

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