There’s no shortage of fantastic horror video games out there, but I really think there’s something to be said for the times when a game that isn’t explicitly advertised as horror manages to scare the daylights out of the player. Today that’s just what I’d like to talk about: some great moments of hidden horror in video games. I have two criteria for this: (1) whatever I’m talking about has to be in a game most wouldn’t consider to be horror and (2) they have to have unnerved me personally in some way.
And before we begin, I’m going to lead with this: I’m focusing on lesser-known instances of this developer trend. As iconic as something like the piano from Super Mario 64 might be, it’s been talked about to death. So even if you think you might know what I’m about to discuss, think again. These are all hidden horror elements that I’ve rarely seen discussed in any capacity.
Lastly, this isn’t a ranking, and these incidents are presented in no particular order.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time-–The Forest Temple
The Zelda franchise as a whole has always had fun little scary moments in their titles, from the unnerving vision of multiple shadow Links presented to the player in Twilight Princess to the entire Ikana Canyon sequence in Majora’s Mask, Nintendo has always taken great pleasure in putting players in eerie, unnerving settings in their seemingly family-friendly franchise. Ocarina of Time was the first 3D entry in the series, and its late-game levels Bottom of the Well and the Shadow Temple are rightfully seen as some of the best horror levels in a non-horror video game. But I would like to throw the Forest Temple in that category as well.
Consider the fact that this is the game’s first Adult Link level. From a story standpoint, Link has aged seven years and awoken to a much drearier, much scarier version of Hyrule where Ganondorf reigns supreme. You return to the Lost Woods in Kokiri Village, the place where Link grew up, and travel to the heart of the woods where you first learned Saria’s Song as a child. The once fairly benign maze to get there now has hulking Moblins in it, and it’s quite challenging to get to on your first play-through. Then you reach the Forest Temple itself, and nothing is as you would expect it.
I’m willing to bet that most players expected a fairly standard grass-themed level. It’s tradition in video games that the first world or major level or what have you often has this theme, but OoT flips that trope completely on its head. The Forest Temple is actually some sort of mansion in the middle of these woods, complete with a Gothic atmosphere, ghosts to hunt down (the main idea in the dungeon is collecting four Poe souls to get to the basement), and plenty of monsters and puzzles to solve. And instead of some upbeat, cherry tune normally associated with grass levels, the music is instead creepy as hell, using what I can only describe as “timed panicked inhaling” and a creepy synthesized flute to give the whole thing this really unnerving, creepy atmosphere.
It’s much subtler than the later Shadow Temple level but no less unnerving for it. It fits perfectly with the theme of the game; Link is now a stranger in a strange land, and this echoing and perversion of the Deku Tree’s woodland theme is an incredibly strong way to drive home just how much the world missed Link during his seven-year slumber. It’s a great way to kick off the last two-thirds of the game.
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle—The Fight with Matt Helms
I love SUDA 51’s No More Heroes series, and a large part of that is just how downright unpredictable the storylines of each game are. Each entry distills anarchy into narrative form, and they each use the franchise’s structure to great effect. For those not in the know, the No More Heroes games each find an excuse for their protagonist, Travis Touchdown, to fight his way through the ranks of the United Assassin Association to become the number one killer in all the world. This structure is a great excuse to have a whole bunch of memorable, challenging, insanely good boss fights.
One such boss is Matt Helms early on in the second game. A lot of the characters in these games define over the top—they’re loud, they’re crass, and they often die in some shockingly violent ways. Matt Helms is a bit different; he never speaks. In fact, he is a serial killer who murdered his parents and now haunts what’s referred to in game as an Akashic Point, which is an area of the world where the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest. The fight absolutely reflects this horror set up.
Matt never speaks, just giggles to himself, and he will coat the arena in flames, only jumping out to take pot shots at you. Since it’s an early fight, it’s not super challenging, but the tone and atmosphere are spot on. His backstory is disturbing, and seeing him live for murder, complete with his own mask, costume, and weapon, makes the fight super creepy.
And the creepiest part of all: you never actually kill him. Upon beating him, Travis makes the guy’s head explode with his beam katana, but Sylvia, the UAA organizer and constant love interest of Travis, shows up to reveal that Matt can’t die since he’s at an Akashic Point. He takes the form of a burnt up little kid, and even though he’s shot in the head in this form, he simply gets up, giggles, and runs off to God only knows where.
In a series so dedicated to the very idea of anarchy, real horror was bound to pop up at some point, and Matt Helms is a memorable, frightening boss in an otherwise extremely colorful and funny series.
Half Life—The Fish Monsters
Whether or not the original Half Life is actually a survival horror title is up for debate. The game certainly does a great job of making the player feel overwhelming odds being stacked more and more against them, and the combat is intense and challenging. Plus, there are zombies in the game, but for the most part, I wouldn’t call this revolutionary title overtly scary. It’s more of a white knuckle thrill ride than a suspense piece, but there is one exception to this: the fish monsters (which the Wiki tells me are referred to as Icthyosaurs). And it’s not even necessarily the monsters themselves but the elements surrounding how you fight them.
Gordon Freeman’s HEV suit lets him survive an uncommonly long time underwater, and for a long time, bodies of water are used more for puzzle solving and environmental traversal. There’s a part maybe a third or so of the way through the game, though, that changes everything about water. You have to, at one point, jump to a cage to progress, and this being Half Life, it, of course, falls into the watery pit below when you do and this is your first encounter with the alien fish Gordon brought through the portal to Xen. And they scared me senseless.
Their design is pretty standard stuff, but the actual water you fight them in has extremely limited visibility. You can only see a few feet in front of you, and these aquatic menaces will dart at you from seemingly out of nowhere. On top of that, the noise they make almost sounds like panicked mumbling. This scared me in a way I struggle to describe, but I’ll do my best.
Horror where there’s a danger lurking at the very edge of what you can see is extremely effective on me. Penpal is a whole story about this very idea; the narrator is stalked through his early childhood by some unseen threat lurking forever out of sight. Something about that idea of something or someone that means you harm that you know for a fact is there but you’re unable to see what is just terrifying to me. The fish enemies in Half Life are a personification of this idea. They are the dominant predator underwater, and their erratic movements and disturbing sound design always managed to make me panic.
A similar idea is used to great effect in Dark Souls for the fight with the Four Kings in New Londo Ruins, although I think the design of the aforementioned bosses is too elegant to be as scary as these damn fish.
LISA: The Painful RPG—Wally’s Cult
LISA: The Painful RPG is my favorite game of last decade, and a big part of that is because of how it masterfully balances a variety of tones. It’s both hilarious and soul-crushingly sad, and it uses those two opposing tones to subvert players’ expectations at almost every corner. The basic premise is that Olathe suffered from a mysterious event called The Flash, which made all of the women in the world disappear. It’s left behind a broken world, with Olathe becoming an apocalyptic wasteland of lawlessness and despair. Feeding that despair is Joy, a drug that makes the user feel nothing at all but will eventually turn them into a mutant that fixates on one thing. What that one thing largely depends on who they were before they turned; some mutants are completely docile and harmless, but a good chunk of Joy Mutants are violent, scary creatures.
This all leads me to one of the game’s many dips into horror: the cult of Wally. You come across a village of people who worship someone named Wally. They can order fast food from a speaker, and said food descends from the mountain top in a heavenly glow. It’s all very funny but also kind of makes sense. Fast food is one of the things lost to The Flash, so it makes sense that a functioning fast food joint would become an object of worship. None of the cultists really ask where he’s getting the meat he uses to make burgers, and that’s for the best.
As it turns out—and this is kind of predictable—the meat is human. What’s not quite predictable is that Wally is an employee who was unable to get out of his costume and turned to Joy to deal with his horrific situation. As such, he has mutated and fixated on serving fast food, but there’s a part of his brain that still knows what’s happening. He screams in pain during his boss fight, and you only get small glimpses of his true form as the helmet on his costume chips away.
It’s essentially one long prank played on the audience; the setup is the bizarrely funny cult, and the punchline is the very real and very scary horror lurking at the top of the mountain. LISA has many moments that could be considered horror, but for my money, the fight with Wally is the best one.
Okami is essentially the best Zelda game that doesn’t have Zelda in its title, and it’s rightfully considered to be a classic by most. Apart from its simply gorgeous art style, it weaves a very compelling story that uses actual Japanese folklore to tell a classic good vs. evil story. It’s filled with twists and turns, and packs in a lot of locations and content in its world.
Relatively early on in the game, you are tasked with looking for Chun, the daughter of a chief of owl people. There’s a nearby house on a hill that people generally warn Amaterasu against, and that’s because the people who live there, who simply go by Mr. and Mrs. Cutter, are complete creeps. If you try and approach them, they’ll become hostile, and because they’re human, there’s no way to defeat them. Eventually, you find out that they have Chun.
As it turns out, the Cutters are demons disguising themselves as people, and they’re planning on eating the poor owl girl they’ve captured. There’s already plenty creepy about a couple who live in isolation and call themselves the Cutters; it’s even creepier when you find out that they’re monsters in disguise. It feels like a fairy tale come to life, and like LISA, there are other instances in Okami that could be considered horror, but to me, the Cutters have always stood out for how they function as an urban legend come to life.
These are just a few of my favorite instances of hidden horror in video games, but this is October, and we aren’t done with this topic just yet. Come back on October 27th for the second part of my dive into the creepiest corners of non-horror games!