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Top 10 most frightening sounds in video games


The reason our headphones often fly off in terror...

The 10 most frightening sounds in videogames

Last year Shadowlocked took a look at the most frightening sounds in movies. Now Michael Glavin explores some of the most iconic sounds from video games that have kept us up at night.

10. The slide-show projector – Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned was one of the most iconic horror games of the last generation, plunging the player deeper and deeper into the depths of the surreal and unnerving. As players take on the role of Ethan Thomas, a New York investigator on the trail of a twisted serial killer of serial killers, the game constantly forces the question of what is real and throws at the player a series of increasingly demented foes to bludgeon with whatever they can frantically put their hands on.

And this roller-coaster of psychosis is accompanied to the simple soundtrack of a slide-show projector flickering. It's one simple soundtrack that accompanies Ethan's disturbing journey right from the start, and before long acts as a signal to the player that something really freaking weird is about to go down. Like the iconic department store mannequin scene.

9. The Pisaca – Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a game whose lore is so vague and convoluted that it's often hard to even make heads or tails of the story, never mind any of the myriad symbolic hints. Much of the story has to be pieced together from obscure hints from item descriptions and semi-coherent monologues from the game's few-and-far-between NPCs. Bear with me on this one.

About two-thirds of the way through the game the player stumbles across the Duke's Archives, home to Seath the Scale-less dragon. In the primordial lore set millennia before the game's beginning, Seath betrayed his species in a war against the holders of the Lord's Souls, and for his efforts was rewarded by Lord Gwyn of Sunlight with a title of royalty and the means to investigate the dragons' scales of immortality. The Archives are littered with the abominable results of Seath's research: crystallised zombies and powerful sorcery-casters that attack the player on sight. And after the player is imprisoned by Seath and escapes from the Archives' prison, they encounter the Pisaca: bizarre squid-headed monstrosities that huddle in one corner of their cell, sobbing gently. Remnants of Seath's demented experiments, so twisted beyond human recognition that they barely even react to the player's presence, even when attacked. And no matter how many times they're put out of their misery, they continue to re-spawn every time the player rests at a bonfire, weeping gently forever.


8. The Redead – The Legend of Zelda series

Ocarina of Time was a defining game in the childhood of millions of kids across the world. And just about everyone who's played the game, young or old, will agree that the Redead enemies are freaky as hell.

Players first encountered the Redead in Ocarina of Time, in one of Nintendo's kid-friendly flagship series where death (and un-death) was a motif that was barely explored in the Zelda series beyond “these are the bad guys, whack them with your sword”. The shambling zombie-monsters moan agonisingly, shuffle painfully towards Link – and paralyse the player with their blood-curdling shriek. But possibly the most disturbing behaviour of the Redead is that, left to their own devices, they will huddle and crouch around any of their fallen comrades, possibly mourning their death (or re-death? Or re-re-death...?) - or, as the grotesque smacking sounds suggest, they're eating the putrescent, decaying flesh from their friends' bones.

7. “Running out of oxygen” music – Sonic the Hedgehog 2

There's a common joke among fans of the retro Sonic games that, if you set your phone's ring-tone to the “Sonic drowning” music, you'll never miss another phone call again. In retrospect, it's not hard to see why.

While Sonic obviously isn't a scary or creepy game in itself, any level with water is permanently ingrained in the minds of grown men and women the world over who played the Sonic games as a kid. Spend too long underwater without picking up an air bubble, Sonic's oxygen supply starts to dip dangerously low, accompanied by the most panic-inducing cacophony to grace the retro gaming world. The games' sluggish underwater controls did little to quell the growing sense of terror as the tempo reaches fever pitch, accompanied by the player's frantic button-taps and whimpers of “Oh God oh God oh God...”, until Sonic finally succumbs to oxygen deprivation and sinks lifelessly off-screen with the most gut-wrenching gargle.

6. Creepers – Minecraft

Minecraft took the gaming world by storm a few years ago with its simple, addictive and utterly pointless gameplay, encouraging players to build the most ludicrously elaborate and sophisticated constructions just for the sake of being there. While the game was still in development when players were able to get their hands on it, at one point hostile monsters were introduced to up the ante. From this rose one of Minecraft's most iconic enemies – the Creeper.

Just about anyone who's played Minecraft has had a run-in with one of these freaky beings – hopefully in plain daylight with plenty of notice. More often than not, though, the Creeper has a tendency to ambush players from the side, behind, above, below... wherever they can't be seen coming. And when you hear that infamous hissing/fizzing that signals the Creeper's imminent self-destruction, it's normally a good sign to say goodbye to your ass and everything you worked so hard to construct.

5. Lavender Town music – Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow

Nintendo seems to have a knack for putting some subtly creepy stuff into kids' games. In the first-generation Pokemon games, the player travels to Lavender Town as part of their journey. The quiet seaside town acts as a graveyard for Pokemon all over the region, and is dominated by the seven-story Pokemon Tower, which houses the graves of hundreds of Trainers' former cuddly companions.

Like the Zelda games, Pokemon doesn't often explore the theme of actual death – when a Pokemon is defeated in battle it merely “faints” and is easily resuscitated with some items or good-old TLC. But in Lavender Town's Pokemon Tower, the player encounters the ghosts of countless Pokemon that have shuffled off this mortal coil and haunt their eternal resting place. And throughout it all, the normally-jovial chiptunes that have provided the soundtrack for the player's journey so far is replaced by a spooky droning melody that haunts the whole town like the spectres of the dead Pokemon that linger there.

4. The Headcrab Zombies – Half Life 2

The original Half-Life and its expansions introduced the world to some of the most iconic creatures in gaming, the Headcrabs. These parasitic little suckers are encountered on their own where they leap screeching through the air and try to attach themselves to the player's head. The Black Mesa research facility is also populated by the reanimated bodies of researchers that have succumbed to the Headcrabs, becoming shuffling, mutated freaks that slash the player with deadly claws and make very distinctly non-human gargling noises.

With the release of Half-Life 2, it would've been a sin for Valve not to include one of the most popular enemies from the series. So when the player wanders into Ravenholm, after being told in hushed tones that “We don't go there anymore” by the game's friendly NPCs, it quickly descends into the stuff of nightmares. The abandoned town of Ravenholm is haunted by the freakish victims of the Combine's Headcrab infestation which, when set on fire (as is often the case, given the burning wreckages the dot the town), snarl and yell in torment in a language that sounds almost – but not quite – human. As if that weren't bad enough, the few Headcrab hosts that have mutated beyond their primary stage have become rabid monsters that clamber along on all fours, launch themselves at the player screaming incoherently. Ravenholm's would-be keeper, Father Grigori, eventually leads the player out of the town to the (relative) safety of Combine invaders armed to the teeth, but the mental scars linger.

3. The Kaernk – Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia is commonly recognised as being on of the most utterly crap-your-pants terrifying games of the last decade. Set in the mid-Nineteenth century, the game tells the story of Daniel, a man who wakes up in the ancient Brennenburg Castle in the dead of night with no memory of how he got there. The player helps Daniel piece together his memories and uncover the true horror of Brennenburg.

Part of what makes Amnesia so damn scary is the fact that the player is given absolutely no means of self-defence other than running like hell from the twisted monsters that pursue you throughout the castle. And none is more absolutely petrifying than the Kaernk. This invisible horror pursues Daniel through flooded parts of the castle, the only signs of it presence being the foreboding “Splosh... splosh... splosh” of its footsteps and its visceral, inhuman snarling. Spend too long in the shadows, and it will rip you to pieces. It can be outsmarted by throwing objects in the water and it's drawn to feast on meat, but that just makes it even more terrifying – this isn't some intelligent being with a motive. This is a vicious, unknown, otherworldly animal whose only reason for being is to turn you into a midnight snack.

2. The Regenerator – Resident Evil 4

A lot of people complained when Resident Evil 4 came out by saying that its new gameplay direction made the game less scary and was drawing away from its survival-horror roots. While it's true that this did end up leading to a steroid-pumped Chris Redfield punching a boulder with his bare fists in the crater of a volcano (which is subject to another article entirely), that's not to say that Resi 4 didn't have its moments. And what better “moment” was there than being chased by the Regenerator monster.

These monstrosities are the results of the Ganados' experiments with Las Plagas, resulting in the semi-amorphous humanoids that pursue Leon in his mission to rescue the president's daughter. And they're called Regenerators for a reason. Pump them with a full clip of handgun ammo, and they simply shrug it off. Blast off their limbs with a shotgun, and they'll grow them back. The only way to defeat them is to find an infra-red sniper scope and use it to pinpoint the parasites that riddle their bodies, and shoot them all before they have a chance to regenerate. Mess it up, and they'll just keep coming, and they won't stop coming until you're dead. When you hear the dolorous bells and rasping, inhuman breathing that signal a Regenerator's presence, it'll take all your self-control not to panic and blindly fill them full of lead.

1. Radio static – Silent Hill series

It would've just been wrong to have a list of scary video game sounds without having Silent Hill on the list, and it quite rightfully claims the top spot for being perhaps the greatest horror game series of all time. Despite going somewhat downhill in recent years after the series was outsourced to an American development team, and one absolutely abysmal movie adaptation, Konami's classic survival horror has been making gamers grip their controllers in sweaty palms and ask time and again “What the f**k is that?” like no other since its debut in 1999.

Part of what makes Silent Hill so successful at what it does is its absolutely spectacular use of sound – something which is hugely under-appreciated  in other games. Just about everything has its own signature sound effects that evoke an overwhelming sense of dread, and none of them surpass the simple sound of the radio static. Players can trudge through the game for long, tense minutes in almost absolute silence, with only the character's footsteps and very soft ambience for company, but when you hear the rising crescendo, you know that some twisted abomination is coming your way to make your life hell. It's an amazingly simplistic, minimalist effect, but it works so well that it's permanently ingrained in the minds of a whole generation of gamers. And it's why I'm absolutely terrified of walkie-talkies.

The top 10 most frightening sounds in movies

The top 10 most frightening sounds in movies

Lists at Shadowlocked


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#1 Great read Chris Morgan 2012-03-09 15:37
Excellent list Michael. Keep it up :).
#2 Missed one. Jim 2012-03-10 07:35
Can't be a proper scary video game noise list without Sinistar.
#3 Oh God why? Tanya Harris 2012-03-13 12:41
I forgot about the screams of the Undead from Ocarina of Time... just before they started sucking on your brain. They were by far, scarier than Ganondorf ever was.
#4 RE: Top 10 most frightening sounds in video games Stuart 2012-03-15 13:49
Great job, Michael. A nice list.

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