Few games are in the prestigious position to claim that they can deliver both a quality experience and simultaneously shock gamers. One may expect gruesome twists to occur at the end of the game but, more often than not, these startling moments of clarity appear in the midsection of the experience.
An excellent example is Halo: Combat Evolved where the Flood is introduced as a primary antagonist. This is not a drawn-out twist, but rather a series of small build up moments and foreboding tension. It is entirely unexpected, but the threat of the Flood quickly supersedes that of the Covenant. The horrifying aspect of the Flood lies in its ability to rip apart the body, mind, and spirit of humans and Covenant alike.
Now, what if a game went further? What if there was a scene of bodily mutilation in a first-person game that made it impossible to hold down one’s lunch? Over-the-top violence is nothing new in games. Sometimes it can take a humorous quality and, in other instances, it can spark a fiery debate about violence in the media. Either way, the following violent scenes have some common traits: they have some level of interactivity, they only occur once in the game, and are notorious in the industry for being extremely disturbing. Be warned: Extremely Graphic Content and Spoilers follow.
15 Strogg Mutilation – Quake 4
If you believe there is a chance that you will be saved early in this scene, you are very much mistaken. Occurring midway through the game, Kane’s ‘stroggification’ process is shown entirely in first-person on an assembly line of doom. First, he is impaled in the chest, his legs are sawed off and replaced with robotic legs, Kane’s chest and arms are mutilated with cybernetic implants, and a then he is given neural programming. Finally, Kane is rescued, but the damage is done: this moment can never be unseen. One truly unsettling part of this scene is that you are witness to your fate first by seeing it happen to the human on the bed in front you. The game essentially forces players to live through the moment twice: first as a witness and then as an unwilling participant.
14 Trevor Tortures Scene – Grand Theft Auto V
Some scenes require very little explanation to understand their shock value. Among them, Grand Theft Auto V stands as an undisputed champion. While playing as Trevor in the game, you are tasked with torturing a man for the FIB. It emphasizes the urgency of the scene in order to extract information for another part of the mission. There are a couple of chilling aspects of this situation. First: you are required to pick an implement of torture and then follow through with the act, all the while monitoring the man’s heart rate. Secondly: Trevor is a complete psychopath, and he even comments on the fact that torture is not for information, but rather for the thrill it gives the torturer. It sets a disturbing precedent for the edgy series, while also providing a brutal social commentary on torture as a whole.
13 “No Russian” Level – Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Among the most controversial on this list, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains a level that the game is plainly aware of its violence. In fact, there is even a graphic content warning – yes, in an M-rated game – with the option to skip the level entirely. In truth, this warning was made with the best intentions because the scene involves players in shooting up an airport of civilians. That said, you could choose not to shoot because the level ends the same: your leader shoots you in the head. The most disturbing element of the scene is the helpless civilians running and screaming from the carnage. It forces you to think about your actions in a game in a new way. This scene could have been done as a news alert between levels, but it ultimately set a uniquely somber tone for a grim shooter with little hope of survival.
12 Death Animations – Tomb Raider (2013)
Throughout her adventure, Lara Croft faces death at every turn on the island of Yamatai. Unfortunately, the island’s crazed inhabitants are not the most brutal forces at work on the island. It is, in fact, the environment that serves to be the most ruthless force of all. Every jump Lara performs is felt with nail-biting intensity...and those are the least violence deaths she endures. The worst is undoubtedly the scenes where Lara is forced down a narrow stream of water. These streams are typically lined with spears, and sharp branches that naturally end up impaling Lara’s chin through the top of her head should players stray too far from the path. Similarly, the scene involving the parachute can end with Lara impaled through the chest if you descend too low too fast. Finally, there are the wolves, all of which viciously attack your neck and can kill in one strike. Ouch!
11 Ocelot Tortures Huey – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
In the most recent Metal Gear Solid game, there are a couple of disturbing torture scenes. One sees Quiet being electrocuted for information, but the most drawn out scenes involve Ocelot and Miller interrogating Huey Emmerich. In the first, they use his robotic legs by bending them the wrong way at the knee. These legs never actually breaks the knee, with Miller stopping just prior, but the game gets very close to show the act and is still a violent scene. The second torture scene has Ocelot brandishing an acid-filled needle, threatening to melt Huey’s mechanized legs after fulfilling that promise with his glasses. Both scenes are tough to watch because, instead of gore, they rely on nail-biting tension and incredible performances to draw players in. Fortunately, we are never directly playing out these particular scenes, but players still feel ownership for them when playing as Big Boss.
10 Helios Head Rip – God Of War 3
There is nothing subtle about Kratos’ quest for vengeance in God of War 3 and his removal – scratch that – his ripping off of Helios’ head is a series high for pure carnage. Even a so-called ‘quicktime’ event can make players uncomfortable in the agency they are given. Curiously enough, Kratos’ violent act is strong, yet is not the most disturbing aspect of this graphic scene. As it turns out, Helios’ head is a game mechanic – used like a mystical flashlight. The graphic brutality of the infamous head rip is somewhat glorified with Kratos’ use of the head as a tool. It could even be interpreted to serve as a sadistic trophy, representative of his lust for vengeance sown deep within the nature of his character.
9 The Composer Is Activated – Halo 4
In Halo 4, the Master Chief learns that the Didact intends to activate the Composer, an ancient Forerunner artifact that can digitize sentient life and twist them into an army under his will. The Didact’s target is Earth, but after facing resistance, he chooses to first fire it at Ivanoff Research Station. The scene is nothing short of horrific: the composer kills all of the humans aboard by accelerating the decomposition process. The Chief witnesses his ally’s faces lose skin, muscles, and bones – leaving nothing but a pile of sand where they stood. Worst of all, The Chief fails to stop the Didact from firing the Composer on Earth and an entire city is fully composed before the device’s destruction.
8 Fatalities – Mortal Kombat X
This one more or less speaks for itself. At the heart of the Mortal Kombat series is a glorification of over-the-top violence. Most of it is seen as an odd marriage of both brutal, yet light-hearted. Of course, there is one aspect of the game that, in its most recent iteration, is hard to sit through: fatalities. These are the morbid finishing moves awarded to the victor of two rounds. It is an excruciating display of needless violence that turns the dial up to eleven in gore and cringe factor. There is some skill and MK combo knowledge required to perform these fatalities, but once executed, they can be difficult to forget. For example: Mileena has a fatality that involves ripping apart her opponents’ stomachs, effectively removing their torso from their legs. The victim dies pulling themselves from Mileena, who is more content with eating their kidneys.
7 Elizabeth’s Lobotomy – Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea
It never pays to place a bet on Frank Fontaine’s word. Trying to extract his ‘Ace in the Hole’ from Elizabeth, Fontaine performs a transorbital lobotomy as a sadistic method of torture. This serves as the climactic sequence in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea - Part 2 and is entirely presented in first-person. With each gentle tap, Fontaine’s needle is felt in the vibration of the controller. Finally, Elizabeth upsets Fontaine enough that he violently rips it out of her. The entire scene is lit with Fontaine in the spotlight as blotches of colour go by – showing just how much Elizabeth’s eyesight is affected by the violent procedure. Whenever characters’ eyes are involved in first-person, it shatters the comfortable perspective into a painful reminder of our own mortality. In this expansion, it is difficult to feel safe, even on a comfortable couch.
6 Ethan Cuts Off His Finger – Heavy Rain
Game Director David Cage enjoys the shock value of his games, and Heavy Rain is no different. Ethan, a desperate father looking for his kidnapped son claims he would do anything to save him. The kidnapper chooses to put that to the test and asks Ethan to cut off his finger on camera within the allotted time. As Ethan, that choice rests in your unsteady hands. Of course, there is the option to walk away, but that’s not why Heavy Rain is featured here. Ethan is given the tools of choice and the means to remove his finger. No method is necessarily more pleasant to participate in than any other: all are gruesome. Yes, you are an active participant in Ethan’s suffering…and many of the acts are motion controlled with the Sixaxis of the PlayStation controller. Even the button prompts closely simulate the actions depicted on screen.
5 Brain Extraction – Wolfenstein: The New Order
Fergus or Wyatt? Deathshead is waiting for your reply and, in order to continue the game past the first level, a choice must be made. Of course, this is an arbitrary choice and has little to no impact on your overall experience in the game. With that being said, this scene does come back in a brutal flashback at the end of the game. In the opening, we never actually see Deathshead extract a brain, but near the end of the game, we see it in its full brutality. A machine rips open either Fergus’ or Wyatt’s back and burrows into their skulls. It sucks the brain out neatly, but leaves behind a mutilated corpse. Worst of all, Deathshead kept the brain for the ensuing boss encounter, where B.J. must face off against his former ally’s brain in their new robotic body.
4 Robot Tears Your Arms Off – Call Of Duty: Black Ops III
The opening level of Call of Duty: Black Ops III truly tests the fortitude of players with a high-stakes mission and a deadly encounter with a group of robots. One robot, in particular, is able to get in close enough to the player to tear both of their arms clean off. Because this is a first-person game, they definitely make it as horrific as one could imagine in this instance. The controller rumbles violently as each arm is pulled and violently torn from their sockets. Behind that robot stand a dozen others awaiting their dismemberment fixes. Sound design often goes understated in games, but the sounds utilized in this moment are to be commended for their utter brutality. A fascinating aspect that comes up later in the game is, upon your next encounter with robots, the player suffers a fearful hallucination of their experiences with the first robot.
3 Lee Removes His Arm – The Walking Dead
In 2012, players were moved by the connection between Lee and Clementine in TellTale’s The Walking Dead. Of course, the story has evolved drastically since its initial release. Though there are many moments that come to mind in the first season, perhaps the most divisive for fans is the choice of whether or not to cut off Lee’s arm once a ‘walker’ bites him. As Lee, players are given free agency to choose how they wish to play out the final part of the game. The differences are largely negligible, having little impact on Lee’s fate. If another character cuts it off for Lee, it is removed while Lee is in mid-response to a player dialogue prompt. The most prominent sound in the scene is the ridges of the hacksaw cutting through Lee’s bone.
2 White Phosphorus – Spec Ops: The Line
One of the most shocking scenes in Spec Ops: The Line is when Walker orders Adams and Lugo to deploy white phosphorus, a self-igniting gas on enemy combatants. The scene is presented with an overhead view of the battlefield where Walker is able to blast enemies with the gas. Shortly thereafter, the three soldiers walk through the bodies of enemy soldiers and witness the true horrors of their act. The remnants of the 33rd lie screaming in agony, begging for mercy. The scene disheartens Adams and Lugo, but Walker remains cold, forcing them to continue. Finally, they come across a solider that reveals the truth: there were civilians caught in the white phosphorus. We then see the brutal piles of burnt, screaming bodies of the helpless. This scene changes perceptions of player agency and really makes one stop and think of the real, brutal nature of combat.
1 Eye Surgery – Dead Space 2
It is hard to believe anybody would voluntarily resort to eye surgery after playing this utterly gruesome scene. The worst part is that, no matter the outcome, the eye surgery scene of Dead Space 2 ends with Isaac getting a needle inserted into a sensitive area. The set up: Isaac lies on a bed with his eyelids propped open. Players are tasked with advancing a needle ever closer to his pupil. Unfortunately, Isaac is just as scared as the player and his eyes are moving rapidly with anxiety. Given the small margin of error for the procedure, this becomes one of the most stressful scenes in the game, easily among the longest 30-seconds players have spent in a digital space. If successful, a long, thin needle is inserted directly into his pupil. If unsuccessful, the entire device impales Isaac’s face. Gruesome is too kind of a word.