I loved the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid. Honestly, I loved the whole game, so in many ways that’s not terribly interesting, but the Wrecked Ship in particular stood out in my mind. Yes, it was clearly a part of Zebes, but it was also this strange interloper, an alien element unconnected to the larger plot. I remember exploring it before it was powered on, then again after it had regained its power, at once intrigued and confused as to its ultimate purpose.
Super Metroid, of course, is not a horror game. But it’s also not the only game that makes use of horrific asides.
A horrific aside is a segment in an otherwise non-horror game that inserts a few elements of horror into play, whether you were or weren’t expecting it. When done right, it breaks up the flow of the game without being jarring, giving a sense that the player is more vulnerable than previously thought, mixing in shades of fear without making the whole game an exercise in terror. Sometimes, it’s even more scary and memorable than when the whole game is focused around the horror.
Super Mario World – The Ghost Houses
I am relatively certain that no one has ever been legitimately terrified by a Mario game. There’s some unnerving stuff, but in general the world of the game is meant to be light and gentle enough that you don’t ever feel any real terror. And the ghost houses are not filled with apparitions that will terrify you to the point of incoherent babbling, as the various Boos are unusual but not terribly scary.
What the ghost houses do deliver, however, are maps that deviate from the game’s very well-established formula. Sure, you miss out on some possible routes if you don’t explore for secret exits, but the fact of the matter is that most of the levels in the game let you go from left to right to a goal post. Once you clear it, you’ve cleared it. So you do that in a ghost house… and the end doesn’t show up, and you start realizing that it’s not going to show up, that you are literally stuck in here as the timer rolls down, with enemies you can’t kill and a goal you don’t yet understand.
The actual puzzles required to get through the ghost houses are not terribly complex, but the fact that you have to suddenly think about them forces you to approach the rest of the game differently and makes you realize that there can be a lot of hidden stuff to find. It’s kind of fitting that the Super Secret Area is hidden off of a side exit in the first ghost house you normally encounter. It’s not exactly a wake-up call, but it does show you that there’s more going on than you know.
Dragon Age: Origins – The Broodmother
The Deep Roads in the first Dragon Age game are easily the most tedious and bland part of the entire experience, but they’re momentarily lifted when you start hearing this poem echo through the halls.
Everything in the game had built up the idea that the Darkspawn weren’t just orcs-by-another-name, and they were already horrific, strange creatures. The Deep Roads, meanwhile, are the Darkspawn home base; rather than just being another group of the creatures invading, this is where they hang their hats, and you have the sense that you are in a part of the world where humans (and elves and qunari and dwarves) are no longer welcome. Bad enough in terms of numbers, obviously, but as you start moving toward the Broodmother it only gets worse.
You find yourself crawling through increasingly gore-caked hallways. You hear that poem echoing through the halls. Your party is increasingly running low on supplies, in all likelihood, and the going keeps getting harder. Then you find Hepsith, the poet responsible for that verse… and you find out what she’s referring to. And you realize the horror of what Darkspawn are and how they reproduce.
In a technical sense, it’s a lead-up to a boss fight. But from a thematic sense, it’s a really scary reminder of just how much danger you’re in and how fundamentally wrong your opponents are. It’s memorable, it’s clever, and it adds a lot of atmosphere just when the game desperately needs something to convince you not to get bored.
Half-Life 2 – Ravenholm
When you’re first told “we don’t go there any more,” you can be pretty certain that you’re going to wind up going to Ravenholm before the end of the game. You don’t realize, however, that it’s going to be a sgement almost entirely reliant on the gimmick weapon that you’re given only a few moments beforehand.
Unlike most of the rest of the game, Ravenholm lacks any enemies who drop ammunition and only has a handful of places to pick some up for yourself. What it does have is plenty of headcrabs, headcrab zombies, and variants on same including the fearsome black headcrabs that can nearly kill you with one bite. You recover quickly, but it still puts the fear in you. And worse yet, you have almost no ammunition with which to arm yourself… but you have a gravity gun, and there are traps, and you have a functioning brain.
Ravenholm is functionally a long tutorial for using the Gravity Gun offensively and defensively. In practice, however, you always have your guns in your back pocket… but every shot is a gamble, and a missed shot is valuable firepower you can’t use again. The result is that it teaches you to pay more attention to the environment and think through your activities a bit more carefully. You are in danger, and you can’t be sure more ammo is around the bend. So, best to use the tricks that don’t always require it.
That’s the fun thing about horrific asides as well – they teach you something about the underlying game, something that could be easy to miss otherwise but gets burned into your brain via play. It’s easy to feel unafraid when your character is powerful, but when you find yourself with some of your usual power locked away and your resources draining… suddenly you’re a bit more vulnerable. And everything gets a bit more fun.