What You Don’t See: Unsettling Games Create Atmosphere Through Misdirection and Subtlety

Virtual Reality Demands A New Gaming Iconography

You know the goosebumps you get when you’re home at night and you hear something, somewhere in the house rattling around? You could know for a fact that it’s your cat playing with a toy, or your roommate moving furniture, or your upstairs neighbor stomping around, but there’s still a part of you that can’t help asking, “What if it isn’t?”

That feeling isn’t blatant fear, not exactly. Moments like these are more unsettling or discomforting than anything else. They come not from what we know to be true, but what we don’t know, and when games aim to capture this feeling, the stories they tell are often more powerful than those that simply try to scare the pants off us.

The difference between fear and being unsettled is subtle. So what is it that goes into making unsettling games over outright horror?

Story Subtlety and Speculation Encourage Player Suspicion

Horror is often at its best when it’s subtle. But unsettling games do not have to be horror games, despite their similar reliance on subtlety for effective atmosphere building. Monsters and gore can be scary and unnerving, but who hasn’t felt let down by seeing the monster in a horror film and finding the design funny rather than scary?

Loading Human Environments
Loading Human‘s environments, in which players are often on their own, create a sense of uneasiness because you’re never quite sure if you’re really alone.

Loading Human isn’t a horror game—it’s an episodic sci-fi story, a VR update of classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion. But it is absolutely an unsettling game, despite its polished, pristine vision of the future with space travel and life-extending science. This utopian-seeming world hides a dark secret, one that becomes increasingly clear the longer you play the game. There are brief snippets that don’t match up with our expectations, making us question whether what we’re seeing is worth believing, or if there’s more we have yet to uncover.

Because it’s set in an almost idealistic vision of the future, the sense of perturbation is even more pervasive. It’s similar in tone to something like Moon—the longer you spend in the environment, the more you suspect that something isn’t right. While the character you embody goes about his life, little things begin to make you question whether everything is as it seems, and you wonder what it is that’s throwing up those red flags.

Misdirection Lures Players Down the Wrong Path for a Nasty Surprise

Good games like to throw us off balance. When creating a sense of disquiet, few tools are more effective than that of misdirection. You think you’re getting one thing, then bam, you’re handed something completely unexpected instead. That shocking moment when you realize that you’ve been led down a misleading path is a game changer, because it puts you at a loss. After coming all this way, you no longer know where you stand.

Gone Home Unsettling Game
Through purposeful misdirection, Gone Home keeps players on their toes. Image Source: The Fullbright Company.

Gone Home is a great example of this. It takes place one dark and stormy night when you return from a long vacation to find that your family isn’t home. That’s unnerving in itself, but the further you get, the more you find mention of ghosts, historical suicides, and other strange happenings, and you start imagining that each door you open has something horrible lurking behind it.

But instead of taking the pure horror route, Gone Home does something different. Without spoiling what the game is really about, you pick through your family’s belongings and find that, while things aren’t how you expected them to be, it’s not all horror and paranormal activity. Instead, the anticipation of something going wrong shifts from the expectation of a supernatural threat to a real one. You begin to wonder what exactly is going on with your family, and whether they will ever be the same.

Exchanging Horror for “Wrongness” in Majora’s Mask

A sense of wrongness is everything when it comes to unsettling games. Though the feeling itself is complex and difficult to describe, evoking it in players can be as simple as introducing a single strange element, like one discordant note in a song.

Or, you can take the Majora’s Mask route and turn every expectation about a game on its head.

The Legend of Zelda Majora's Mask Unsettling Games
Though most Zelda games have a hint of creepiness, Majora’s Mask becomes unsettling by avoiding some of the core tenets of the series.

To be fair, The Ocarina of Time is hardly a happy-go-lucky game. Redeads are some of the most horrifying monsters in any game before or since, and the less said about the Dead Hand, the better. But Majora’s Mask doesn’t just feature creepy monsters. It’s unnerving through and through, simultaneously adhering to and subverting all our usual expectations for a Zelda game.

For one thing, Zelda herself only appears in a flashback scene. There’s no Ganon whatsoever, nor is there a triforce. The elements you expect to find aren’t there; everything you know about Zelda is instead a bit darker, a bit more sinister, less likely to make you feel nostalgic and more likely to feel unnerved.

It’s a creepy twist on what makes the game familiar. Rather than being the classic “rescue the princess from the evil boar-man” story, it’s instead focused on time travel, an apocalyptic event, and soothing a lonely child. The idea of Skull Kid crashing the moon into a village is disturbing enough, but on top of that, it flies in the face of everything we’ve come to expect from the series. With its unnerving plot and alarming imagery, it should come as no surprise that Majora’s Mask inspired one of the best-known video game creepypastas.

Uneasiness, Not Horror, Attracts Players of All Kinds

What makes a game unsettling is not so much that it contains a horrific element—a ghost, for example, or some other supernatural entity—but that it doesn’t do what we expect. Loading Human’s idyllic vision of the future is undercut with relationship tension and subtle hints that something is wrong, while Gone Home and Majora’s Mask similarly play with our expectations to create a sense of unease. These games cultivate discomfort, rather than trying to induce outright panic, meaning that even players who are averse to horror can still enjoy the spine-tingling tales they have to tell.

Loading Human combines a futuristic sci-fi aesthetic with the incredible potential of virtual reality and a dash of unsettling detail. Preorder your copy today!


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

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