The Top 15 Horror Icons of Gaming

As an unabashed fan of horror in all its forms, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for horror gaming. While not as prolific a genre as certain other game types, when a horror game comes along that gets it right, it manages to be more effective and plain scarier than horror films or books could hope to be. Play horror games long enough, and you’ll see some serious shit.

Much like the world of horror films, gaming’s forays into the demonic have left it with a plethora of iconic characters. While its debatable if gaming has produced a character as iconic as say Freddy or Jason, the overall quality and effectiveness of gaming’s horror icons can go toe to toe with those from any other medium, and as Halloween approaches I think its time they got some well deserved attention.

One quick note regarding these selections. A character can be scary and iconic even if it isn’t in a pure horror game, meaning that not every character on this list is from a game that is traditionally classified as horror! With that disclaimer, I present my top 15 horror icons of gaming.

15. Creeper (Minecraft)

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Now you see why I highlighted that disclaimer don’t you?

Minecraft is not a strict horror game, but it does rely heavily on its survival elements, which are also vital to good horror experiences. As such, the first night you find yourself out in the wild, or trapped in a deep cavern are among the scariest moments in gaming. That’s a feeling that’s due in large part to the presence of a creeper, whose silent approach and explosive death have been the end of just about ever “Minecraft” player at some point. The only time you fear the creeper more than when it’s directly behind you, is when you aren’t seeing it at all. That’s a pretty good indication you’re a horror icon.

14. The Yeti (Ski Free)

Yeti

So, it’s the early 90′s and you’re playing “Ski Free” on your fancy new Windows computer. There you are enjoying a leisure ski adventure, marveling at the game’s technical majesty, when all of a sudden a giant friggin Yeti beelines at your skier and straight up eats them.

The brilliance of The Yeti stems from the fact you’re not expecting it. It has absolutely no business existing in a casual game like Ski Free, and not only terrifies you the first time you play it, but makes you live in dread of his coming on subsequent tries. You may escape the Yeti, but you’ll never be truly rid of him

13. Wallmasters (Legend of Zelda)

WallMaster

I swear I’ll get to strict horror games at some point, but until then, I’ve got to give the Wallmaster its due.

Wallmaster…**** you. Not only are you the scariest creature in “Zelda” (giant dismembered hands are always scary) but you are the most frustrating as well. Whereas most servants of Ganon are satisfied merely murdering the young adventurer Link, you find your perverse pleasure in picking him up like a broken toy, and tossing him back to the beginning of a dungeon, making you something of an in-game troll as well as a giant hand. For being the cause of more high pitched screams and broken controllers than anything else in the Zelda series, I salute you.

12. Alma (F.E.A.R.)

Alma

You know what’s funny? “F.E.A.R.” isn’t really that scary of a series overall, and the whole “creepy little girl” thing was already getting kind of played out by the time Alma reared her freaky little head.

It’s the fact Alma managed to be so memorable in spite of those limitations, that gets her on this list. Remove Alma from “F.E.A.R.” and you’re left with a mostly generic shooter that would have been forgotten much sooner than it has been. With her though, you have a game that manages to keep you constantly on your toes in anticipation for the next moment that she will come and just scare the crap out of you. It’s her presence that manages to change the entire atmosphere and dynamics of the game, meaning whenever she is on screen “F.E.A.R.” goes from a semi-competent shooter, to pretty damn good horror game.

11. The Fog (Silent Hill)

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You know those directors who say something along the lines of “We may have shot in New York, but the city was more like a character than a setting.”? The fog in “Silent Hill” is just like that.

Originally implemented to compensate for the Playsation’s lack of draw distance, the fog in “Silent Hill” makes the whole game about 90% scarier than it would have been otherwise. It not only conceals your enemies making you rely on vague radio signals that only loosely indicate where the danger is, but even makes moments of supposed calm uncomfortable, like the fog is slowly seeping in and strangling you. It might not actually be a monster (that’s actually debatable considering the plot) but it’s certainly an icon of horror gaming.

10. Scissorman (Clock Tower)

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The “Clock Tower” series may never get the love it deserves in the world of horror gaming, but it’s high time that Scissorman was paid the proper respect.

Designed and modeled largely after the more famous creatures of film horror, Scissorman is a slasher in the pure sense of the term. He creeps, he stalks, he wields an iconic weapon, and he usually chooses the most cinematic moments to pop out and scare the living hell out of you. His design and actions make him often feel like some sort of missing character from the glory days of the 80′s slasher, and to this day seeing even a still image of him can inspire dread and a morbid curiosity regarding who he is, and where the hell he got those giant bloody scissors.

9. Necromorphs (Dead Space)

Necromorph

Aim for the head. If George Romero movies didn’t already get that simple message buried deep into your subconscious, the years of film and video games that preceded “Dead Space” and preached the same words probably did.

The Necromorph directly plays against that universal shooter rule, by making the limbs the weakspot. While that no doubt caused nearly every player to panic during the first few encounters, even when figuring out the trick to defeating them, their steady menacing pace and skills at playing dead never fail to cause you to shoot randomly in terror once in a while when one comes into sight. Also, unlike many horror creatures, discovering the origins and motivations of the necromorphs actually make them more terrifying. “Dead Space 1 & 2” (you heard me!) are the premiere horror games of this generation, and that’s due in large part to the terrifying contributions of the Necromorphs.

8. Deathclaw (Fallout)

Deathclaw

Despite not technically being a horror game, “Fallout” manages to be one of the most terrifying series ever made due to the unfiltered horrific vision of the nuclear apocalypse it portrays. There are atrocities in those games without equal, and the bleak and somber tones of the world they inhabit make them all the more intimidating.

Yet none of the horrors these games can throw at you compare to the Deathclaw. While their pants wetting visual design, incredible power, and simply unfair speed certainly help their iconic status, the biggest reason they’re so memorable is due to the design of the games themselves. Because of the open nature of “Fallout” the first time you encounter a Deathclaw, you are likely in no way prepared to defeat it, and can only watch in horror as it swarms on you with blinding speed, and an almost professional level of malice. Hell, even later in the game when you’re basically a destroyer of worlds, a pack of these bad boys can still make you pause in fear.

7. Poison Head Crabs (Half-Life)

Headcrab

Sure headcrabs are mostly derivative of the face huggers from “Alien,” but that did absolutely to suppress the terror they inspired when making there debut in 1998′s “Half-Life,” and they’ve since arguably surpassed their terrestrial spiritual brethren in terms of notoriety.

That being said, I give the slight nod to their poisonous offshoot from “Half-Life 2.” Even though the Ravenholm section of that game was basically a detour into the horror genre, the only sections I’d really consider scary involved these little bastards, and their ability to bring the player’s health down to 1 instantly. Much like the Wallmaster, the poisonous headcrab is memorable not just because of the way it initially sends a jolt of fear through the player, but because of the way it can wreck your gaming experience.

6. Evil Otto (Berzerk)

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When you’re first name is Evil, you’ve got some pretty big horror expectations to live up to.

Otto has done just that, though over a career dedicated to outmaneuvering the players of “Berzerk” and coming upon them like the specter of death itself, all while sporting a permanent grin that only goes away when its blood lust is satisfied. “Berzkerk” has claimed actual lives, and while that’s medically been attributed to heart attacks caused by the flashing lights of the game, anyone who’s ever cringed upon hearing the garbled “Intruder Alert, Intruder Alert” message that preceeds the arrival of Evil Otto know he was the more likely culprit.

5. The Cherub (Doom)

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In general, when designing an effective horror character, it’s appreciated if some level of subtlety is applied either in the origins or design. With few exceptions, obvious attempts to scare are not acceptable.

Meet one of those exceptions. Is it a bit cheap from a design standpoint to just throw a deformed monster baby out there and call it a day? Perhaps. However, it’s impossible to deny that when a gang of these things come screeching at you (of course they screech) you’re first reaction is to back away towards the last known safe point while screaming your head off and firing a shotgun in every direction. For the most part, the frights in the Doom series are muted somewhat by the sheer amount of firepower available to you, but there is no weapon in the game (not even the fabled BFG) that makes you feel comfortable when surrounded by these bundles of terror.

4. The Witch (Left 4 Dead)

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Ah the Witch. What else is there to say about the Witch?

The Witch is like a landmine of pure terror. Even though you’re up against an army of some of the most horrifying creatures imaginable, it’s the one that can kill you before you can put up a fight that scares you the most. Landmines might not make a noise to alert you of their presence like the Witch does, but those lamentations actually make her more frightening as the moment you hear them, you’re suddenly seized with terror and the knowledge you might soon be dead. The Witch has gotten us all at some point, and the moment you fire a shot in the wrong direction, she’ll get you again.

3. Shodan (System Shock)

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Like many other horror gaming characters, Shodan borrows several characteristics from something in film (in this case “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000), but uses the interactive advantages of gaming to maker her own mark.

The antagonist of the “System Shock” series, Shodan’s defining moment would come in “System Shock 2” when after your character has survived an abandoned space ship full of horror, it is revealed that the lone survivor that was guiding you along is actually the evil A.I. Shodan, whose been using you for her own agenda. Long before “Bioshock” asked us “Would You Kindly,” “System Shock 2” showed us how a twist can be that much more effective when coupled with the feeling of betrayal. Only here it’s made even more effective by the presence of Shodan whose megalomaniac personality makes you feel appropriately small.

2. Nemesis (Resident Evil 3)

Nemesis

The argument that “Resident Evil” is the biggest franchise in horror gaming is not a hard one to make, and of all of the terrors the series has lent to our nightmares (lickers, giant spiders, those damn zombie dogs) none are more memorable than the Nemesis.

Essentially the Terminator of the franchise, the Nemesis was built for no other purpose than to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. Not bound by many of the series previously established rules (he can enter doors!), the Nemesis is like a boss character you fight the entire game, though you never know when he will appear, and as such are rarely prepared to stand up to him. With his strong aversion to dying, the only pang of regret you’ll feel when he finally goes down for good, is when you realize that the “RE” series, and horror gaming, may never see his demonic equal.

1. Pyramid Head (Silent Hill 2)

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In a way it was disappointingly easy to name Pyramid Head number one.

While his iconic looks are the very embodiment of terror, and certainly make him stand out amongst the crowd, it’s not until you start learning more about the characters origins do you realize just how depraved it is. One of the more disturbing elements of the character, which is rarely seen in video games otherwise, is its underlying sexual themes, which are highly reminiscent of the terrifying cenobite demons from “Hellaraiser.” It’s an example of the many ways this character assaults your emotions on a primal level, and gets under your skin in a very real way.

I think that may just be the clearest reason Pyramid Head gets the top spot. While just about every other character on this list largely only unsettles you when you’re actually up against them in the game you’re playing, Pyramid Head is the only one that really sticks with long after, and is as terrifying when you’re merely considering him, as he is when you’re facing him in the game.

The 31 Horror Games of October: Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

As Halloween draws near, here are the final 10 greatest horror games of all time, any of which would be more than worthy for a Halloween night marathon.

10. Alien vs Predator 2 – A couple funny things about this game being on this list. One, its actually more of a sci-fi shooter than a full on horror game. Two, there are three main stories to play through and two of them (that have you playing as the alien and the predator) are entertaining, but far from scary. What gets it on the list is the 5-8 hour colonial marine campaign. If the best aspect of horror games is how they make you feel like you’re not ready for what’s next, then this may be the best example of it.

Around every corner waits a new threat, and the tension of awaiting it is only outmatched by the fright itself. It may be a sci-fi game but it’s also one of the best examples of the “haunted house” effect I can think of. You would think that the heavy arsenal at your disposal would help, but it only leads you into a false sense of security. The “Alien vs Predator” movies may have been abominations, but if you never played this game, I can’t begin to adequately describe the terror you are denying yourself.

9. Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth – An almost impossibly underrated title, where as most horror games take elements of the works of H.P. Lovecraft for their scares, this is a direct adaptation of several of those titles. What I love about the game is how much it feels like a love letter to the genre, as so many elements present in the game are horror conventions that are effectively implemented so that they sure to give any fright fan an impossible to shake ear to ear grin. Well, until it’s replaced with a look of cold fear that is. As much as “Call of Cthulu” is a fun experience, it is an even greater trip through pure terror. The monsters design is superb, the ammo is appropriately sparse, the sound is a highlight reel of bumps in the night, and the game features some of the best set piece moments you’ll see in the genre.

Particular mention here must go to the escape scene in the town of Innsmouth, where your early investigations lead you to conclude that everyone in the town is incredibly indifferent, and even hostile. That instinct would turn out to be dead on as the entire populace starts chasing you with the intention to kill. It’s a flawless escape sequence that puts you into the game like few other titles can even hope to do, and is a perfect example of the brilliance of this title.

8. Dead Space – Picking up “Dead Space” originally for a quick play through, I didn’t understand the hype. After all, at the time it was being heralded as the savior of the survival horror genre and one of the most terrifying games ever made to boot. My mistake was only playing the game for a short burst though.

“Dead Space” is a game that begs you, even dares you, to immerse yourself in it. Turn off the lights, shut down the phone, crank up the volume, and see how far you can make it before the sheer terror overwhelms you. The brilliance of “Dead Space” is in the collection of all the little things it does well, like removing a lot of the traditional HUD elements on the screen and subtly putting them on your characters back, or how almost all of your weapons are mining tools re-purposed for your current slaughter needs. There’s also the bolder elements like the horrific creature design, and the emptiness of the space station setting making you feel like you are truly fighting your way out of hell and into the unknown. I was gravely mistaken for thinking “Dead Space” was anything less than one of the greatest horror games of all time, and I now recognize it as perhaps the prime example of effective atmosphere in gaming.

7. Left 4 Dead 2 – The greatest zombie game ever made? Well…not quite but it is certainly the most entertaining. Valve struck horror gold when they devised the idea of allowing 4 players to fight their way through the zombie apocalypse in the original “Left 4 Dead.” With the sequel, they perfected the experience by incorporating more enemies, more characters, better levels, and more modes.

The entire game works because of its intense level design which is open enough to make you feel like you’re not boxed in, but still linear enough to make the choke point moments work. Even better is the community aspect, as “Left 4 Dead” perfectly allows you to live out those conversations you have with your friends about what you all would do in a zombie apocalypse. That’s not to say the game is entirely about fun, as the scares are plentiful and often come in the form of the sheer overwhelming numbers you face, and the special zombies that complicate your survival intentions with their unique abilities (especially the Witches, which are essentially the nuclear weapons of the zombie horde). “Left 4 Dead 2″ is a simple idea executed to absolute perfection.

6. System Shock 2 – Remember earlier when I mentioned that “Dead Space” is perhaps the prime example of atmosphere in gaming? Well, that’s because there are a couple of other contenders on this list, with “System Shock 2″ being chief among them. The theme of the game is isolation, as you are sent to investigate the sudden stoppage of the world’s most advanced ship. One it becomes clear that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong on board, your only companion is a surviving analyst who guides you to her location, and your only goal is to survive and hope that by reaching her you can regain a sense of perspective about what is going on around you. In your path is a host of mechanical and organic enemies as well as a very real sense of hopelessness that threatens your progress more than any in-game element.

“System Shock” is the spiritual pre-cursor to “Bioshock” and many of its elements were highly influential on the “Deus Ex” series. While that gives you an idea of how revolutionary it was at the time, I’m happy to say I can do no real justice to the game’s atmosphere. You are truly alone in this world. While it’s a world filled with incredible amounts of backstory and political intrigue if you go looking for it, that doesn’t make it feel any less unwelcoming. Capped off by one of the greatest plot twists in video game history, “System Shock 2″ is one of the few great entrants of the horror genre in the games are art debate.

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