When it comes to terrifying video games, there's no way your mind conjures the likes of Super Mario 64 or Minecraft. That superlative is best left to franchises like Silent Hill or Resident Evil. But a game doesn't have to be created with the intention of instilling fear into players to be completely spine-tingling.
Some of the tensest, most disturbing experiences in the gaming world began as something wholesome or benign. From nightmare-inducing boss battles to fantasy worlds teeming with Eldritch abominations, here are some of the most unintentionally terrifying games you could potentially play, just in time for Halloween to roll around.
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Gone Home may be one of the most benign games on this list, but that doesn’t change how potentially creepy it can really be. It wasn’t created to scare you, but it certainly can if you don’t keep your guard up. You're tasked with exploring an empty house in the middle of a torrential downpour, forced to stumble around in the dark while trying to figure out where your parents and little sister have gone.
While there's nothing objectively scary about this excellent narrative-heavy adventure, you aren't thinking about that when you venture into yet another dimly-lit room thinking you could find your little sister's head on a platter at any moment. It's not meant to force you into panic mode, but it does an admirable job of keeping you on the edge of your seat regardless.
Super Mario 64
Mario may seem innocent and fun-loving, but there’s definitely something strange and unsettling about Super Mario 64. Perhaps it’s the feeling that you’re absolutely, totally alone. Maybe it’s the slightly off-putting look to some of the character sprites. Whatever it may be, some particularly foreboding feelings set in when you make your way throughout the game world and they don’t let up.
Unsettling laughter as you try to enter new stages, a fanged piano, a staircase that never ends, and other particularly uncomfortable setpieces are waiting for you. There’s something inherently creepy that permeates just about everything you see throughout the game, and while it’s difficult to put your finger on at first, eventually when you peel back the layers, you begin to see exactly that the game isn’t as jovial as it attempts to make you think.
Sure, Earthbound is surreal. But that doesn’t make it scary, right? That’s exactly where you’d be wrong. But we mustn’t forget the hellish nightmare of a final boss that is Giygas. Some fragmented speech and a horrific vision of this haunting enemy make this encounter one that’s totally unexpected after a game that pits you against whimsical enemies and fighting alongside someone named Poo.
If you’re unconvinced, next time you have a spare moment, have a listen to just Giygas' battle theme, and see if you still feel as though you’re happily traipsing along in a kid's game.
Ecco the Dolphin
A game about dolphins seems docile enough, doesn’t it? A look at life under the sea should be relaxing and tranquil. That’s if said game isn’t the Genesis’ Ecco the Dolphin. Playing as Ecco is entertaining enough, but it’s also incredibly bizarre and unsettling.
The extreme isolation of navigating the waters, avoiding fairly frequent potential one-hit kills, fighting off aliens, and the fact that Ecco is actually a time-traveler makes for a cocktail of strange that feels positively Lynchian. You may only have noticed the abnormally austere difficulty when you were a kid, but as an adult, it's hard to miss the more disturbing overtones.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
While the Legend of Zelda franchise is mostly known for its timeless heroes and thrilling adventures, the Nintendo 64’s Majora’s Mask is known for a heinous, grinning moon that's about to crash into and destroy a world called Termina. It’s up to Link to save Termina in just 72 hours as a chilling countdown ensues.
To aid in his adventure, Link must take up the form of other characters by wearing special masks, complete with grotesque sequences that subject him to disturbing transformations as well as complete strange dungeons and side quests. The Elegy of Emptiness and the Stone Tower Temple are gut-wrenchingly horrific on their own, but being able to look up and see the Moon's empty, soulless smile is one of the freakiest features of Majora’s Mask by far.
Minecraft can be an uncomfortable game on its own, especially to new players who aren’t accustomed to the sweeping, often overwhelming expanses with no real resources to turn to and the swarms of monsters that descend at nightfall. This is a game that’s completely devoid of other players or even NPCs to speak to. If you do happen upon another humanoid player, you still can’t speak with them or even interact in ways beyond violence.
It’s much like being stranded on an alien world with no real way to communicate with the locals. If that isn’t scary, ponder the fact that most of the time, the only thing keeping you safe from the spiders, zombies, creepers, and Endermen that come out at night are well-lit areas and run-of-the-mill doors.
Klei Entertainment’s unassuming resource management title wouldn’t seem so scary if it didn’t force you into the dark to forage around from time to time. Just as with games like Minecraft, the dark is full of dangerous enemies and other ways for you to meet an early demise.
Oh, and there are little to no instructions provided to you to keep you afloat the very beginning. Failing the grotesque creepsters that lurk in the dark, Don’t Starve’s aesthetic is creepier than most. Plus, the fact that the crux of the game is to not starve (and keeping healthy and sane) probably won’t sit well with some players.
Skyrim is extremely by-the-books when it comes to high fantasy settings, It has burly adventurers, strange races of people, and plenty of magic to go around. It may even seem quite normal when you set off on your own after narrowly escaping your own demise, even with dragons burning towns to ashes. But once you take a good, hard look at what’s going on around you, things dissolve quickly into a Lovecraftian web of horror.
Undead dragons, morbid quests, cultists, and more will break the facade of normality Skyrim operates behind. Speaking to townsfolk won’t even save you from the sense of dread that builds as you venture through vast, often unexplored lands alone, as they’re just as strange as the creatures you’re trained to kill. You may be Dragonborn, but you’re still totally and utterly alone.