5 innocent looking games that are secretly terrifying — 15 years later 1 still scares me

Screenshot from Heart of Darkness
(Image credit: Amazing Studio)

Horror games are beloved, as unlike other mediums, there’s a newfound terror in being able to control the protagonist rather than just watching them. It allows for a whole new playing field when it comes to utilizing scares, and it can be incredibly difficult to move forward when you’re at the pinnacle of fear. But there’s more to terror in the medium than just horror games.

We can be terrified for a number of reasons. The sudden appearance of a challenging boss that forces the player to perform at their peak can offer an incredible combination of both exhilaration and fear, while some games boast themes hidden beneath the surface that when revealed, are clearly petrifying 

There are plenty of ways to find horror in the little things, even in games that might be happy-go-lucky otherwise. So without further ado, here are totally normal games you didn’t expect to be terrifying.

Heart of Darkness

On the face of it and given the ‘E for everyone’ rating, my Mum bought me Heart of Darkness with my PS1 for my eighth birthday. To this day, I’m still a little bit scared to pick it up.

Now I know your questions: how could a 32-year-old man still be scared of a kids game? Well this 2D platformer manages to surprise you with an overwhelming sense of dread by making your protagonist, a kid, get outnumbered by all kinds of terrifying shadow monsters. 

If you fail, your protagonist, which I need to remind you again is a kid, is killed in a myriad of horrifying ways — be it falling to your bone crunching death, getting eaten by said monsters or (most memorable for me) being pulled into a giant centipede’s hole and watching your legs squirm and fall limp after a bone chilling snap.

They say that in horror, less is more. Leaving a death to the imagination rather than showing it in all its disgusting detail allows the question of how they died to ruminate in your head a little more. Heart of Darkness is a masterclass in this artform, which makes it all the more unexpectedly horrifying.

- Jason England 

Super Mario 64 

The inexplicable eeriness of Super Mario 64 has been discussed at length ever since the game’s launch. This seemingly jolly platformer is riddled with tiny discrepancies, surreal world-building details, haunting soundtracks, and a core concept that becomes more and more sinister as you ponder it.

Super Mario 64

(Image credit: Nintendo)

I frequently think back to Wet-Dry World, an area that possesses the remnants of a once-active city submerged in water. And as Mario proceeds to the downtown area, all we see is a series of gray buildings and abandoned city streets. The image backdrop for Wet-Dry World clearly depicts claustrophobic ruins clumped together, completely submerged in the ocean while the sunlight beams through the watertop.

Other areas like Hazy Maze Cave are similarly creepy, as weird bugs are littered across a labyrinthine cavern with an unsettling soundtrack playing in the background. The designs of these bugs are genuinely terrifying, as their enormous eyes, ungodly round bodies and the strange textures that make them look like hellish molten monstrosities seriously skeeves me out. Part of Super Mario 64’s innate creepiness has to do with its age, as old game environments can occasionally be unsettling, but the game’s creepiness certainly surpasses that threshold.

- Momo Tabari

Outer Wilds 

Outer Wilds took the world by storm in 2019, offering an exhilarating journey focused on exploration throughout a small but brilliantly crafted solar system. And in the first few hours of this rather cozy introduction, the player would assume that the experience yields cute character interactions, playing acoustic instruments and roasting some marshmallows.

Outer Wilds

(Image credit: Mobius Digital)

But the comfort of one’s home planet has no bearing on the terrors you face throughout the unforgiving depths of space. Fear of the unknown is a potent device, and Outer Wilds brilliantly utilizes the player’s lack of knowledge on the entities and phenomena which occupy this solar system to bring them an inescapable doubt from deep within.

While Outer Wilds further embraced its inexplicable horror in its Echoes of the Eye expansion, I never expected the original to be as frightening as it is. My heart would race from something as simple as approaching a new location, because at some point during my playthrough, I began to understand the language of Outer Wilds: When overcoming a challenge, player’s should be seriously afraid of what comes next.

- Momo Tabari

Animal Crossing 

A mellow stroll through your Animal Crossing town is unlike anything else in the world. Greeting villagers, smacking some rocks with a pickaxe, perusing for new stuff to buy, and crafting cute items to decorate your home are a few of the activities that bring fans joy. Isn’t it so peaceful? Sometimes.

Animal Crossing New Horizons

(Image credit: Nintendo)

But Animal Crossing can be a grueling exercise in mental distress as much as it can be tranquil. Few games have scarred me so badly that I fear the idea of ever launching their application again.

It all started during the first year of the game’s launch. My birthday was quickly approaching, and during the months prior, I was addicted to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. However, my enthusiasm for the game dwindled a week before the big day, and due to my focus on birthday-related preparations, I never launched the game. I awoke the next day in horror, only then realizing that I completely forgot to jump in that day.

I’ll never forget how my heart sank when I was told that my villagers were preparing a party for me. A party I never attended. They waited in my home to surprise me, but I never showed up. Their love for me shined through their actions and they poured so much of themselves into making me happy on my special day, yet I didn’t even think of them. I’ll never forget it. There is no greater terror than disappointing your loved ones, and Animal Crossing taught me that first hand.

- Momo Tabari

Untitled Goose Game 

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Really? Animal Crossing was already a stretch, but Untitled Goose Game is ridiculous! How could that be terrifying?” This may seem silly on the surface, but there’s more to it than you think.

Untitled Goose Game

(Image credit: House House)

Untitled Goose Game is colorful and cutesy, bolstered by amazing piano arrangements that give every dastardly action a phenomenal sense of class. The theme of the game is no secret: You’re an obnoxious little goose and your job is to annoy the hell out of people, stealing and breaking crap at every turn.

As I stomped my webbed feet throughout the streets, honking like a goose does, all I could feel was sadness in response to my own actions. The game is fun thanks to how each objective plays out like a puzzle, but watching those puzzle bits unfold, which resulted in people hurting themselves (or the goose doing the hurting) made me feel bad.

Yet when watching other people’s playthroughs, at no point did I detect an inkling of remorse. People audibly express their joy when sticking some poor kid in a phone booth, stealing his toy plane, and taking his sunglasses. I felt awful for him during my playthrough, which caused a sort of terror towards myself to rise in my mind as I was encouraged to do, and obeyed, these awful things. Untitled Goose Game showed me that people are terrifying, not just geese.

- Momo Tabari

Jason England
Content Editor

Jason brought a decade of tech and gaming journalism experience to his role as a writer at Laptop Mag, and he is now the Managing Editor of Computing at Tom's Guide. He takes a particular interest in writing articles and creating videos about laptops, headphones and games. He has previously written for Kotaku, Stuff and BBC Science Focus. In his spare time, you'll find Jason looking for good dogs to pet or thinking about eating pizza if he isn't already.