Unexpected Terrors – Horror’s Impact in Non-Horror Games

Spider-Man looked like a pretty good 3D action game back when it released for the PS1 in 2000. Figured there’d be punches, web swinging, and a great deal of quips. A good time. Certainly nothing that would have my pulse racing and my hands shaking, right? Little did I realize that the game’s ending sequence would have me rushing to escape from an enraged Doctor Octopus juiced up with the Carnage symbiote. Picture a bloodthirsty, angry red octopus that will kill you in one hit. It was a terrifying chase, made all the moreso because it was unexpected horror. I didn’t predict seeing horror elements in a Spider-Man game.  

Now, I love me some horror games. I EXPECT to feel fear when playing a horror game. A part of me knows that something frightening is coming. While nothing has scared me quite as bad as the excellent horror titles I’ve played over the years, some of the most memorable scares come from experiences in games that weren’t specifically shooting to be horror titles.

The above-mentioned Spider-Man game was a fun action title that suddenly shifted into a terrifying chase with its last boss. In it, you had to use your web swinging abilities to their full potential during a panicked chase. Carnage/Doctor Octopus will grab you if you slow down for more than a few seconds. Your escape route leads through a maze of winding corridors, pipe-filled halls, and tall shafts. This segment lasts for ages as well, making for an excruciating three to five minutes where every second feels like it’ll be your last. If the beast catches you, you’re dead. My heart starts to pound even thinking of this level.

unexpected horror

I’m sure most folks who’ve played Half Life 2 can definitely recall Ravenholm and the unexpected horror within. It’s filled with Headcrab Zombies to the point where using firearms isn’t advisable. So, you’ll mostly be using the gravity gun to fling whatever weapons or tools you can find to fight them off. This makes combat awkward (and kinda fun when you get used to it). The zombies are relentless, so expect to be running from danger often if you can’t snag an offensive tool quick enough. Headcrab Zombies are also one of the more gruesome zombie designs I’ve ever seen in a game. You definitely don’t want to die the way they have.

Throughout much of the first part of Half Life 2, I’d say the action was exhilarating. There were definitely some tense moments where I was scared, but fear didn’t really settle in until Ravenholm. I wasn’t expecting that feeling, either. So, when I found myself suddenly running for my life when I’d been used to standing my ground and shooting back, it was pretty scary. That unexpected horror made Ravenholm stand out in my mind all the more, too. I barely remember much of the rest of the game, same as Spider-Man, but I can’t forget either of those particular stages from those games.

Pokemon Red, despite (arguably) being targeted toward children, would also draw from fear to create a memorable moment. In Lavender Town, there’s a tower that is the main graveyard for the world of Pokemon. Death isn’t exactly something I expected to consider in my happy game about cute animals beating each other up, but here we are. The town’s music was something far distant from the upbeat tunes of the rest of the game’s world, instantly creating this somberness that felt out-of-place. It was such a jarring transition to come to this place, and it left me terribly uneasy.

That feeling would persist when I entered the tower, encountering a ghost that I couldn’t catch or identify. One that really didn’t want me there. I felt the same way, so I was all too happy to leave. You can’t progress until you conquer that fear, though. So I, along with many (frightened) Pokemon fans would have to figure out the story behind the ghost and how to scale that tower. It was an incredibly dark moment in such a bright game.  And again, it’s my most vivid memory of playing the game.

Lavender Town’s music is playing in your head now, isn’t it?

These unexpected horror moments all felt like they came out of nowhere in their respective titles. From a cheery comic book action game to a sci-fi fps to a cute monster-collecting RPG, we see games with tones that don’t convey horror. Yet, when they drop that moment of horror within them, they blindside their players, hitting so hard with their terrors.

Why do they work so well? Because you don’t expect it. A part of letting fear really take you comes from panicking, I feel. When the terror can take you without you having a chance to fight back or get it under control. When you settle in to play a horror game, specifically, you know what you’re walking into. You know that something scary is going to rear its head at some point. Likely soon. When a game outside the genre, or one that seems to be something else, surprises you with that unexpected horror, you haven’t prepped for it. You don’t have any mental defenses up to keep yourself under control. So, for a time, there’s nothing to do but flow along with that fear.

It can be something as simple as a creature within the game that brings out that feeling, too. In the House of Skulltula in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, there’s an unfortunate creature within. You can help them heal with some hard work and a long quest, but I never speak to this thing until I have everything in place to finish the quest. It’s so deeply disturbing to look at this monster that I avoid it as much as possible. It was an utter shock at the time, and to this day, I try to avoid going into that building unless I have to. It also left me fearful that something more disturbing lie in some other place in the world. As if I needed other things to fear on top of Redeads.

There are hundreds of similar moments of fear in all sorts of non-horror games. It’s those moments of unexpected horror that burn into our memories. Moments like the House of Skulltula showed that you can sow fear in places players won’t expect it and get incredible results. As players won’t see it coming, it’ll make for some unforgettable moments and encounters, or have a lasting effect on those playing. Fear is a powerful emotion, and while horror games do incredible things with it, sometimes it’s those moments when we don’t see it coming at all that can be the most affecting.