Among other purposes, video games are about immersion, arguably more so than other entertainment mediums. You control the characters onscreen to create the illusion of being closer to the action as an important part of an exotic world. As such, it should come as no surprise some developers have used this interactivity to give gamers a fright, simulating scares not unlike a horror film. For the most part, these types of titles are clearly differentiated from others. When you play something like Silent Hill or Dark Souls, you generally know what you’re getting into.
Every so often, however, otherwise unassuming games from non-horror genres will throw you a curve ball. You’ll be peacefully traversing through a cartoonish platformer when you are suddenly confronted by a level that seems different, a level that sends a chill down your spine, a level that has you questioning the game’s rating. The story might take a sinister turn; your weapons may not work; the enemies could get tougher; the locales might get more hellish; the music may ramp up. Any number of factors could trigger this sudden shift. The effect of such sections can range from mildly creeping you out to scaring the living daylights out of you. Whatever the case, these levels blindside you when they emerge, changing the entire atmosphere of the adventure. Now, in honor of Halloween, here is a list chronicling some of these very moments: the 12 scariest levels in non-horror games.
12. Lavender Town – Pokémon
Considering it’s a series involving the catching, trading, and training of cartoonish creatures, you would not immediately associate Pokémon with any kind of fright factor, and that is a fairly safe assumption to have. However, children were in for a rude awakening in the first generation of titles. In their journey across the land to battle the eight gym leaders and take on the Pokémon battling champions, players eventually come to the mysterious Lavender Town, a haunted locale that plays host to ghost-type Pokémon. Here, you find a towering structure known as the “Pokémon Tower,” which houses the graves of hundreds of dead Pokémon. Supposedly, the tower is home to a disturbed spirit: a mother Marowak who was killed protecting her baby. As a result, she haunts the tower, unable to pass on to the afterlife.
The developers create an uncomfortable contrast between this grim backstory and the cutesy design of the Pokémon world, and that contrast is chief among the reasons that this segment is so effective. It comes off as unnatural, which is precisely the point. You’re supposed to be put off by such a depressing scenario being implemented into this kid-friendly subject matter. The game doesn’t go for all-out horror because it doesn’t have to. Rather, it simply immerses you in a sadder section of the Pokémon region, blindsiding you with the tonal shift and trusting that your imagination will do the rest. To help you out with this, the developers fill your ears with an 8-bit soundtrack that conjures images of death and hopelessness. The music walks a fine line between soothing and somber as if trying to lure you to eternal sleep. This may explain why so many gamers reported having nightmares after playing through this section. Stop and consider that. Pokémon, of all things, gave people nightmares.
11. Starkiller Cloning Facility – Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
One of the questions that looms over this hack-and-slash sequel is whether or not your character, codenamed Starkiller, is actually just a clone of Darth Vader’s apprentice from the first entry. Well, during the climactic battle with everyone’s favorite asthmatic villain, the game takes the cloning facility and turns it into a haunted house. As you slowly walk through the shadowy, metallic corridors, the visuals become distorted as if from dizziness. You are bombarded with cryptic lines of dialogue from the disembodied voices of your allies. Occasionally, Vader leaps out and attacks you without saying a word, making you wonder if he is even real. Then, you come across several tanks housing deformed and deranged Starkiller clones, revealing the horrific extent that the Dark Lord went to in order to create the perfect warrior.
Trudging through this place is akin to coming across Frankenstein’s laboratory. In a franchise that’s rife with psychic powers, ancient prophecies, clone armies, and planetary destruction, it’s difficult to come up with something that could be described as an affront to nature. Surprisingly, though, this game manages to pull it off.
The haunting music, pulled from Revenge of the Sith, combines beautifully with the voiceovers and the dizzy camera movements, providing an ethereal atmosphere and giving the impression that Starkiller is losing his mind. The sight of the clone tanks and panicked screaming of the protagonist only increase this uncertainty, as you wonder if your character has any identity of his own or if he is just another in a long line of failed experiments. It’s a great bit of psychological warfare from Vader. More importantly, it psyches out both the character and the player.
10. The Giant Alligator – Red Dead Redemption 2
An open-world western about a band of gunslingers, this game allows players to hunt animals, even rare and legendary ones, as a side activity. What you may not realize is that you have a close encounter with one such legendary beast in the main story. When protagonist Arthur Morgan and gang leader Dutch van der Linde resolve to rob a big city mobster, they ask a local fisherman to borrow his boat for their operation. Unfortunately, they must wade through chest-high water to find said boat in a misty swamp, and it is here that they are hunted by a colossal alligator.
It is naturally terrifying to picture an aquatic animal—many of which remain undetected in spite of their vast size—bursting out of the water and dragging a human being down to the dark depths below. That premise has been well illustrated in a wealth of stories, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and this spooky chapter of the Red Dead saga works for many of the same reasons. You have no idea where this animal will pop up or if one of your allies will suddenly be dragged below the surface. Detecting it is made all the more challenging due to the misty air and lack of light. Even the native fishermen, shown to be well-versed in spotting and avoiding gators, are at a loss as to how to deal with this new development. One of them has even sequestered himself in a tree, raving about how the monster almost got him. In the face of this, the general impression is that you are entirely unequipped to handle this adversary. The deepwater makes it impossible to move with any semblance of speed. In conjunction, it’s so murky that anything below the surface is invisible. The monster could swim right next to you without being detected. You feel fatally exposed, as you’re basically a walking, talking snack.
This knowledge alone results in a noteworthy section but giving you the opportunity to try in vain to kill the beast serves to increase the fright factor even further. No matter how many bullets you fire at the gator, it appears unfazed. This allows you to fully grasp the power lurking in this prehistoric reptile. Your eventual escape, though losing you some valuable crafting materials and a little bit of pride, does accomplish one thing: motivating you to take on the much more inviting task of fighting the Pinkertons.
9. The Lair of the Beast – Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
During their quest to recover the Thievius Raccoonus, a book that chronicles the Cooper family’s long line of master thieves, Sly Cooper and his gang come to an eerie swamp run by voodoo priestess Mz. Ruby (yes, that is the official abbreviation). Here, the characters come across a massive gate, which Sly decides to investigate. Unbeknownst to him, the gate was meant to keep something in rather than out, as beyond it lies the domain of a gargantuan serpent. As the player hastily tries to scramble out of the enclosure, the snake gives chase, devouring everything in its path.
The Haitian swamp where Mz. Ruby resides is already the creepiest chapter of the game. The sickening plant life, dark green color scheme, eerily calm music, scattered voodoo candles, and hostile specters give the place a somber, mystical atmosphere. What strengthens the dread in this particular section is the radio communication from Sly’s ally, Bentley, who continues to warn you about the impending creature. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he does ascertain that it is very big. Building the snake up like this creates a palpable tension in the air before the animal even surfaces. Once the behemoth rears its ugly head, there is little left on your mind except the impulse to hightail it in the other direction.
So much of the Sly Cooper experience hinges on sneaking past enemies and using indirect tactics to dispatch them. You get no such luxury in this stage; this snake sees you and will not stop pursuing you until you escape its lair. Enter the other major part of the Sly series: making a quick getaway. The resulting faster pace forces you to think on your feet, intuitively employing Sly’s agile platforming moves without thinking about your approach. Instead of running from the cops, however, the titular raccoon is running for his life. That in itself elevates the suspense above many of the Cooper Gang’s other close calls.
8. The End of the World – Kingdom Hearts
Created as an unexpected crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, this complicated series deals heavily with broad concepts like light vs. darkness and the far-reaching connections that people form with each other. Threatening the peace and stability of the various Disney worlds are the Heartless, mindless monsters born when people lose their hearts to darkness. These creatures then work to consume the hearts of others, eventually overrunning a world and causing it to be swallowed by the darkness. Toward the end of their first quest, protagonists Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy arrive at such a world. Broken, scattered landmasses litter the horizon, which stands empty except for an ominous portal. As the heroes venture into the cold, crystal-filled caverns, the eerie choral and piano music only heightens the unease. Fighting your way through hollow visions of previous worlds, you eventually come to Ansem, the malicious puppet master behind all of the game’s conflicts. What’s more, he’s plugged into a gigantic monster, its organs showing and suspended over an infinite abyss of darkness.
This place comes off like a primordial locale that exists between life and death. You can see for miles, but there are no signs of anyone in any direction, lending an uncomfortable emptiness to the setting. The malformed structures give the impression of a planet that has literally been torn apart, leaving you wondering how it is held together. You get the biting sense that this world shouldn’t even be here. Simply put, it’s what one would imagine Purgatory to be. This is especially impactful when coupled with physical hazards. Your allies, who have been with you through thick and thin, are taken away at key intervals, leaving you alone to battle some of the toughest Heartless in the game in a pitch-black arena. You feel in over your head, unaware of the breadth and danger of what you’ve stepped into. In this way, the level is a case of life imitating art, as it mirrors Sora’s plight in how he is thrust into a vast and unfamiliar universe. He naturally feels overwhelmed, and that feeling is shared by the players as they fight for survival in the foreboding remains of this world.
7. Derelict Reaper – Mass Effect 2
In their space-faring series, Commander Shepherd and his crew regularly come into conflict with the Reapers, an ancient race of machines designed to wipe out entire civilizations. In the franchise’s second outing, the heroes discover that the human extremist group known as Cerberus was conducting research on a seemingly dormant Reaper. It is through exploring the ruined facility that the player learns of the scientists’ downfall. The Reaper had gradually infected the minds of the unwitting researchers, eventually driving them insane and turning them into mindless drones. Suddenly, the enemies that Shepherd and company had been fighting are painted in a much more foreboding light; these things were once intelligent life forms who have since lost any semblance of humanity.
The idea of indoctrination was not new at this point in the Mass Effect series, having played a major part in the first game’s conflict. However, to see it laid out in such a methodical and detailed manner adds an uncomfortable tangibility to the concept. The audio recordings and video footage illustrate the process so vividly that it is easy to place yourself in the shoes of the unsuspecting workers. It’s undoubtedly disarming to think that you’re in control when it is actually the other way around; you feel mentally vulnerable as a human being when you see how easily and subtly these other members of your species were overwhelmed when confronted by the unknown. That’s why this section is such a supreme demonstration of the dangers endemic in expanding one’s horizons too rashly and arrogantly. Mankind’s hubris is completely and utterly demolished by turning the masters into slaves like it was nothing.
6. The Dark Forest – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Regarded by many as one of the best games to feature the iconic boy wizard, this title lets players roam around the massive setting of Hogwarts Castle, learning various spells and encountering all manner of magical phenomena. Of course, with that comes some of the more harrowing obstacles that the Wizarding World has to offer. The Dark Forest, located just beyond the castle grounds, is an area that players must traverse twice: once during Harry and Ron’s arrival and another time when the heroes seek out Hagrid’s giant spider, Aragog. Both of these visits come with their fair share of perils and pitfalls, such as spider hordes, poisonous plants, killer trees, and ghostly wolves that emerge from the mists. We all know how wild and varied a real-world woodland can be, but a magical woodland is a step beyond in unpredictability.
As you wade through this foreboding forest, you can’t shake the idea that you’ve stepped off the beaten path. The game as a whole lets you experience what it is like to be a Hogwarts student, and you feel safe within the walls of the school. Even with its obvious safety hazards and child endangerment lawsuits, the castle still provides a sense of security from the dangers of the outside world. When you travel into the Dark Forest, however, that safety blanket evaporates. The massive trees, made more imposing by being cloaked in fog and shadows, appear eager to consume little Harry. Many of the roots and branches even move, coming alive for the sole purpose of tripping you up.
This game does not limit itself by what was in the film; it makes enemies out of literally anything, ensuring that you never know what will try to kill you. The plethora of beastly noises in the background constantly raises the question of what will confront you next. This, coupled with the perilous music, ensures that you never have a moment of rest. Instead, you always have to have the right spells equipped to deal with the right enemies. Unfortunately, due to your status as a second-year student, none of the spells feel particularly powerful. This further contributes to the disheartening impression that you are an insignificant little kid in a merciless world. Perhaps chief among this section’s accomplishments is that it actually makes you pine for the blissful boredom of school.
5. The Crones of Crookback Bog – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
In this fantasy RPG, titular monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia is roped into dealing with a mythical trio of crones who have been kidnapping children from the villages of Velen. Upon venturing into their swamp, the witcher discovers that the crones are hideous, sadistic witches who joyously (and graphically) feast on human flesh.
This chapter of The Witcher 3 is akin to a Grimm fairy tale, with all of the twisted trappings that you’d expect. The juvenile, condescending tone of the witches, combined with the deep-cutting modulation put on their voices, is particularly effective at getting under your skin. This is especially true when contrasted with the horrific visuals. Once the witches reveal their true forms, their grotesque proportions and diseased skin are disgusting enough, but the manner in which we see them gleefully feast on dismembered human remains is exceedingly revolting. However, the disgust factor is only part of the equation. The fact that we see living humans worship the crones as gods and children who seem unwilling or unable to leave the witches’ domain adds yet another layer of menace to these foes.
The possibility that these monsters are omnipotent beings is what distinguishes them from the numerous other monsters that the player encounters in this world. They don’t come off as just another beast that Geralt can dispatch with his sword. Rather, their unsettling intelligence and the cultish loyalty that they inspire in their followers make them an unfamiliar threat to even witchers. When a professional monster slayer is unsure about how to deal with a hostile creature, then that is saying something.
4. Scarecrow’s Hallucinations – Batman: Arkham Asylum
With a premise that involves the Dark Knight being stranded on an island full of lunatics, this stealth-action game pits players against some of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes. Among these is the Scarecrow, a mad doctor who injects Batman with his signature fear toxin. The resulting hallucinations show the detective’s world literally crumbling around him. It goes beyond simply showing us a few grim scenarios, such as Commissioner Gordon being killed in the line of duty. Instead, the laws of nature soon become fluid, transporting Batman to a nightmarish realm where the line between real and imaginary continuously is in flux.
Arkham Asylum is creepy enough in itself; its gothic aesthetic, ominous lighting and thick layer of fog and grime lend the island an otherworldly quality that makes it a prime locale for a Batman tale. The hallucination sequences take all of those qualities and use them to construct a Lovecraftian nightmare. In navigating the broken, floating pieces of the asylum to avoid the gaze of the gigantic Scarecrow, you get the sense that you’ve entered another dimension, one where anything could happen. You never know what you’ll encounter next. One minute, you could be in a fistfight with a bunch of skeletons. The next, you could be walking down a distorted hallway that slowly morphs into Crime Alley, the place where Batman’s parents were killed.
It seems that the goal here was to make players question their own sanity, as the visuals brilliantly illustrate a diminishing grip on reality. It takes talent to cause audiences to lose their mental steadiness, and in a place like Arkham Asylum, such a feat could not be more unnervingly appropriate.
3. Escape from Monster Ock – Spider-Man (2000)
At this end of this PlayStation/Nintendo 64/Dreamcast title, the friendly neighborhood web-slinger has foiled a symbiote invasion and defeated both Doctor Octopus and Carnage. Everything looks right as rain until the latter villain’s symbiote latches itself onto the former, creating a monstrous abomination bent on ripping Spider-Man apart. As the supervillains’ base explodes, you must swing through a series of narrow hallways while this creature remains hot on your tail.
The word that immediately comes to mind in describing this chase is chaos. As over-the-top as it is, it definitely succeeds in conveying a chaotic urgency. The barrage of rumbles and explosions does a great job of selling the destruction of the underwater base, but they are ultimately a distraction when compared to the more pressing issue: staying ahead of Ock. This is no easy feat, though, as he is unexpectedly fast and will kill you instantly if he gets anywhere near you. What makes the level even more difficult is the limited mobility. Most of the environments thus far have been fairly open in their design, providing plenty of space for you to exercise your arachnid abilities. That is not the case here. Not only does the tunnel offer little room for jumping or swinging, but the perspective constantly changes according to which way said tunnel goes. You could be moving Spider-Man horizontally and then be forced to instantly zip upwards and run toward the camera. It’s claustrophobia crossed with extreme erraticism. In essence, this section requires heightened senses, quick reactions, and intuitive knowledge of the controls in order to win. One mistake will lead to death, and the game uses this to psyche you out as Ock repeatedly screeches, “Die.”
Making things worse is the fact that the creature himself is a radical departure from the game’s other villains. While they were mostly motivated by greed and displayed some semblance of personality, this monstrosity is just pure, unbridled rage. All it wants is to kill you, a prospect that carries an elemental dread that few other Spider-Man adversaries have. So many fear factors are piled on in such rapid succession that it makes this climax a thoroughly stressful and hectic ordeal.
2. The Desert of the Knaaren – Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc
Although the Rayman series has always been lighthearted in tone, it is also home to plenty of oddball antics and deliberately off-putting weirdness. Never have these adventures been more frightening, however than when Rayman encounters the Knaaren, a race of gigantic, ape-like creatures who value strength above all else. As you enter a scorching desert, you’re told that you must navigate the Knaaren’s network of underground caves in order to proceed. Ordinarily, this would not be an issue, but it comes with the catch of not being able to fight them. These monsters are invulnerable to Rayman’s punches, so you have no option but to sneak past them and run like crazy when they inevitably sense your presence. As if this was not enough, their raspy voices and bloodcurdling shrieks echo through the tunnels as you desperately try to stay one step ahead of them.
On top of the frantic music and chilling blend of green, black, and orange colors, this level stands out because it is such a fundamentally jarring shift from the rest of the game; it essentially forces you to rethink your whole strategy. Much of why this sequence is so unnerving has to do with the inherent powerlessness of the player. Up to this point, the Hoodlums have been fairly cartoonish as far as enemies go, emitting all manner of silly noises and occasionally bumbling over themselves. While still a decent challenge because of their variety and numbers, you can still take them down with your agility and a few well-aimed punches. Now, here come the Knaaren to knock you off your high horse, their animalistic appearance, primal demeanor, and invincibility forcing you to go against what you’ve been doing for the entire journey. Instead of a valiant hero embarking on a fun adventure, you feel like prey running from a pack of predators. The fact that the developers are able to reduce you to this in a matter of seconds brilliantly hammers home the elemental terror present in this section.
1. The Nazi Bunker – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Considering his reputation as the modern Indiana Jones, it makes sense that globetrotting treasure hunter Nathan Drake would come across an ancient curse or two in his adventures. However, none was more frightening than what he encountered during his search for El Dorado in his debut outing. Trapped on an island full of mercenaries, Nate eventually discovers a group of rabid, deformed humanoids that seek to devour everything they see. It is revealed that these are the Spanish explorers that originally sought out the mythical treasure and were subsequently cursed by it. Obviously, Nate and his allies must hightail it out of this place, but doing so requires Drake to venture down into a bunker previously used by the Nazis, who also came looking for El Dorado. What he finds is a maze of damp, dark hallways, the monsters leaping out of seemingly every corner.
Looking at this sequence, it is very easy to see developer Naughty Dog practicing for their eventual transition to The Last of Us, as many of the frightening aspects of this level come back in full force during the future foray into zombie-based horror. A large part of why this works so well is the fact that you hear the creatures before you see them, as their gurgles and shrieks constantly echo through the dank bunker. You’re always afraid to turn the next corner, wondering if you’ll be able to shoot them before they reach you.
Such effective use of sound is combined perfectly with a gnawing sense of isolation. Nate is alone down here, cut off from his allies, and this makes the situation feel that much more perilous. There’s no one to alleviate the tension or help to fight off the zombies should they decide to swarm you. With this in mind, you’re left with nothing but a desperate need to complete your task and get out of there as soon as possible. When a game manages to fill you with this desire through sheer fear, you know it’s doing something right. That is why the Nazi bunker tops this list of scariest levels in non-horror games.
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