You know where you are with a zombie.
They shuffle towards you, moaning and dribbling blood. The thought of one chowing down on your brain can be a little disturbing, but at least you know what to expect. You’re always prepared to either run away or fight for your life at any given moment when flesh-eating monsters are around.
The real terrors of video games spread fear outside of the horror genre, when you’re not in the same mindset you would be when playing Dead Space or BioShock.
Here are five such menacing creatures that have had me trembling in my boots (everyone has a pair of boots they wear during gaming sessions, right?).
Giants — The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
The giants of Skyrim appear to be a peaceful folk. They tend not to acknowledge you as you pass by. How could anything that herds big, cuddly mammoths be scary?
Have you ever tried approaching one?
I’m sure many have. One of the NPCs you meet early on in Skyrim fools you into thinking their side quest is just as ordinary as any other. “Bring me a mammoth tusk,” they say. It seems simple enough; you’ve already seen them roaming the tundra. Surely the slayer of dragons can take on what amounts to nothing more than a fuzzy elephant.
Then you learn that the giants are only placid when you’re not bothering them or their livestock. They have extremely short tempers, and that primitive-looking club hurts more than you would think. One bonk on the head, and you’re on a one-way, airborne trip to Morrowind.
You’re already dead before you hit the ground. You don’t even get to see that part; one can assume that the landing would be so horrifying that it would drive an observer mad.
Some might question the reality of a character flying up into the air after being hit on the head, rather than being crushed into the ground. I’d like to think of it as Elder Scrolls lore that giants are able to strike with such precision that they defy the laws of physics.
They put the fear of the Eight into me, and that’s why Skyrim’s mammoths will remain a protected species for the time being.
The Fel Reaver — World of Warcraft
You would think the name “Hellfire Pensinsula” would be a clue to the experience you’re going to have with Outland’s first zone in World of Warcraft. But it’s business as usual when you’re out killing demonic boars and burning down Fel Orc camps. You’re lulled into the same routine you’ve become comfortable with: accept quest, kill stuff, claim your reward.
Along the way, you spy a sparkly herb or ore vein, whatever your persuasion, and while you’re happily plucking/mining, you hear the infamous mechanical roar in the distance. Except it’s not in the distance. Somehow, a clanking juggernaught has crept up right behind you, despite being ten times your size.
You can try to flee, but it’s useless. Rather than prolonging your demise, you might as well just accept your cruel defeat.
Blizzard has tried to emulate this fear in the expansions that followed The Burning Crusade with variations such as storm giants, but nothing will ever compare to your first Fel Reaver death. It’ll have you forever looking over your shoulder.
Peter Puppy — Earthworm Jim
Peter, the adorable purple puppy, prances along without a care in the world. He's oblivious to the various dangers of tentacle monsters, bottomless pits, and meteor showers.
Trying to protect the young pup from harm in the unforgiving Earthworm Jim has you multitasking like a mad man — so much so that it’s easy to lose track of Pete. By the time you notice him approaching one of those tentacle monsters, it’s almost always too late to rush to his aid. It’s around this time that you might want to worry about your own safety, rather than his.
Pete gets angry. You’ve failed to protect him. You’ve broken the bond of trust forced upon you by his decision to perpetually proceed forwards like a lemming, with no regards for his own well-being. In his fury, he transforms into a purple behemoth, mauling you with over-sized canines.
If you’re lucky enough to reach the end of the level alive, it’s not without the cost of your sanity. At the very least, you’ll find that you’re now more of a cat person.
The Moon — The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The world will end in three days. A creepy skull-kid is summoning down the moon to crush everything you hold dear. It sounds like one of those great apocalyptic games. But wait…it’s Zelda?
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask stands out as a dark entry in the series, thanks to its morose atmosphere and Link’s constant struggle to stop the destruction of all life. Usually, you only see the bringer of impending doom in the odd cutscene and again in the final battle, by which point you’re more than ready to put him or her down for good.
But the moon hangs over you constantly. Its crazed face stares into your soul and sees your despair. You’ve got 72 hours, and stabbing a celestial object with a sword is far from feasible. What are you going to do?
The moon reminds you of your hopeless task every time you look up into the sky. It sort of makes you look outside at our own moon. Does it look closer than usual to anyone else?
Sharks — Various games
Remember when, as a child, you challenged yourself to make it across the room without touching the floor? You’d imagine that the floor was made of lava or consisted of shark-infested waters. Whenever video-game developers are feeling cruel, they like to invoke these childhood fears of something lurking in forbidden depths and make it all the more frightening by showing you the consequences of your foolish bravery.
The shipwreck section of Tomb Raider 2 instantly comes to mind as one of the most nightmarish scenarios involving sharks. For the most part, you were inside the ruins of a ship, safe from the creatures lurking in the ocean outside. But every now and then, you were forced to venture out, fully aware of what was waiting for you. Sure, you had a harpoon gun. But it was no match for the razor-sharp teeth of a Lara-chomping predator.
Banjo Kazooie’s Treasure Trove Cove features a delightfully jaunty tune that quickly turns to a chilling Jaws-esque theme when you wade out into the water. It doesn’t matter where you are in the level; the underwater carnivore is always waiting nearby for its meal of bear steak with a side order of breegull wings.
Sharks even turn up where you least expect them. I mean, what was one doing in a Batman game? When playing Batman: Arkham City, I felt empowered. I stepped into the shoes of the world’s greatest detective, and I feared nothing. Except when a swift, brutal aquatic predator came along and turned me into a nervous wreck, desperately trying not to dip so much as a toe into the water.
The Scarecrow would have a field day with me.