Jump scares only work in the right context. A sudden startling moment can be the payoff to a slow, almost suffocating build-up of suspense, which works wonders in horror entertainment (provided it's used sparingly). But when you lose that framing, jump scares go from 'masterful climax of terror' to 'cheap moment of shock with no real meaning'. If you're not partial to freaky faces, loud noises, and leaping attackers suddenly disrupting your sense of calm, yet suddenly find a jump scare where you weren't expecting it, you might find yourself inwardly (or outwardly) screaming "I didn't sign up for this", "Why would they do that?!" or "You bastards".
Games that revolve around jump scares have practically become a genre unto themselves, and whether or not you enjoy their gauntlets of screaming monsters is a matter of taste. But some games completely botch their jump scares because they're missing that crucial context, producing moments that feel cheap, pointless, or altogether unnecessary. Whether it's from an M-rated game trying to spook you for no reason, or an E-rated game making the cruel decision to frighten its unsuspecting young audience, these jump scares just don't belong.
If nothing else, you've got to admire David Cage's undying dedication to making games that aspire to be interactive cinema. But I don't think this particular moment - a pointless jump scare that would make the PG-13 crowd scoff - would fly in a movie theater. Early on in Beyond's story, you get to control a young Jodie in a level that establishes her ability to see dead people. It builds up to a creepy jump scare in the garage, which is all well and good, but before that happens, you have the opportunity to wander around Jodie's house and stumble upon a completely pointless jump scare. If you approach the bathroom mirror, button prompts let Jodie make some adorably silly faces - which somehow cues a shadowy, anglerfish-like demon to flash into view behind her and growl. Then it's gone. Ok, so... was this otherworldly horror ineffectually trying to communicate that Jodie's face might freeze that way?
Amassing extras like new outfits or concept art is typically a humdrum task, but the Mortal Kombat series ratcheted up the excitement of unlocks with The Krypt, a dungeon full of goodies locked up in marked coffins or tombstones. The 2011 Mortal Kombat expanded the concept into an entire realm of unlockables linked to gruesome animations - and just to really keep players on their toes, a 2D, imp-like monster will pop up and scream in your face at random intervals. Ed Boon must really love scaring completionists' pants off, because Mortal Kombat X's Krypt is guaranteed to make you jolt away from the screen and possibly squeal timidly as you do so. While exploring its highly detailed map in first-person, you'll suddenly be accosted by wolves leaping at you, giant spiders crawling on top of you, or skinless ghouls bursting out of blood pools to take a swipe at you (with just enough time between the jump scares to lull you back into dubious serenity). Won't these horrid creatures just let us hunt for Raiden's alternate costume in peace?
Believe me, I'm not trying to incite animosity in the age-old argument between which 16-bit Aladdin platformer is superior: the SNES or the Genesis version. But this particular Game Over scare is exclusive to the latter, which should surely count as a knock against it. Losing Aladdin's last life triggers a beautifully animated scene of Apu fanning a woozy Aladdin with the magic carpet, while Genie massages his shoulders like Doc Louis between boxing matches. Delightful! Suddenly we smash cut to the twisted facial features of a wickedly grinning Jafar floating above a hypnotic burst of flame, accompanied by a digitized cackle and the soul-crushing message "GIVE UP, STREET RAT". Jafar's piercing gaze, freakish smile, and belittling taunt must've been burned into the minds of countless children, who would then dread the thought of using up their continues for fear of this harrowing screen.
I actually applaud this particular jump scare for how unorthodox it is, but that doesn't make it any less gratuitous. Hisako made her debut as part of the Season 2 additions to Killer Instinct's roster, embodying the Japanese onryo fables that birthed the 'creepy, vengeful ghost girl' trope made popular by Ringu. Her intro animation clearly conveys her paranormal freakiness in the space of six seconds, as she shambles toward the camera, warps into a body-twisted crab walk, then suddenly vanishes from sight... before reappearing directly in front of the camera accompanied by a piercing shriek. It's a great bit of character-building that bolsters Hisako's unique design - but imagine what facing her must be like for horror-averse fighting game fans. Here you are, trying to enjoy a one-on-one sparring match, yet all you can think about is frantically skipping the intro scenes to a fight with Hisako for fear of having to endure a baked-in screamer prank. That kind of perpetual dread can wreak havoc on your combo execution.
If I ever decide to devote my life to standing on street corners and shouting at anybody who will listen, my ravings won't have anything to do with religion or the impending apocalypse. My unasked-for preaching will revolve around my belief that the Nancy Drew adventure games are way too scary. Perhaps I'm not giving enough credit to the young adult sleuths who make their way through these point-and-click mysteries, enduring countless startling death scenes and villains with such outdated 3D renders that they become even creepier. But just take a gander at some of the jump scares from the Shadow at the Water's Edge montage above (if you dare). Those in-your-face frights seem like a bit much for an E-rated game, don't they? Or maybe I'm the only one who's terrified by the pitter-patter of small feet behind me, right before a disfigured onryo ghost girl leaps up and attempts to drown our teenage detective.
Here's a scene many of us are familiar with: you're eight years old, and you pop in Super Mario 64 (pop it out, blow on it, pop it back in). You venture into Big Boo's Haunt, the mandatory creepy mansion level, but it's okay because you're a big kid and can totally handle it. Once inside you head for the first room on the left, which has nothing in it but a piano. You innocently walk over and go to jump up and down on the keys (because what else do you do with a piano) and Sweet baby Mario did it just bite you? While the carnivorous piano certainly adds to the creep factor of the level, it seems bizarrely out of place in Mario's G-rated adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom, and you never encounter anything like it a second time 'round. Let's just pretend it never happened? I'd like to avoid the nightmares.
This is is a Lego game. It may seem redundant to mention that given the title, and the fact all the characters have those cylindrical heads with the little nubs at the top. But I feel the need to reiterate it, to drive home just how bizarre it is that there's a jump scare in this of all games. In the preamble to the Venom boss fight, our blocky heroes enter the room to find a scene straight out of a PG Alien: the lights flickering on and off, the whole place rumbling and shaking, and something running around the surrounding walls before a toothed face leaps out at you. Three guesses what the "something" is. It's actually not that scary and it's over in a second, after which Venom is properly introduced, so what was the point of all that? Here, in this Lego game? I don't understand.
The sole inhabitants of the Snowpeak Ruins, Yeto and Yeta, seem like a harmless pair of sasquatches. Heck, even though they have a piece of the Mirror of Twilight tucked away in their mansion, they totally offer to show it to Link, no questions asked. You get a little backstory on Yeta's ailing health and the harm it's done to their relationship, which is sad and all, buuuut Link doesn't really have time for that. He's got worlds to save! However, all that quickly becomes more relevant when you realize Yeta's sickness was caused by the shard possessing her. The game communicates that by having her twist her head around and shriek out of a brand new demon mouth. SWEET LORD WHAT. Link is able to quickly defeat her and she goes back to normal, and we are left wondering what in the hell just happened.
Dead Rising has a knack for being stupidly difficult, and it only gets worse the more you want an ending that doesn't suck. Case in point, Dead Rising 2's Ending S, which requires you to successfully complete every case in the game, kill the supposed big bad, beat the Overtime sequence, then kill the real big bad in a timed battle where all your weapons and health items are gone and damn I'm frustrated just writing this. Plus, the devs don't want you to forget that this a grotesque zombie game when Chuck and his family walk off into the metaphorical sunset. Whats the best way to communicate that? Why, have a zombie jump directly at the camera at the very end of course! This one creates a serious case of mood whiplash, and undercuts all the happy bits you wanted so badly to see. Damnit, Dead Rising, cant you let me have anything?
Serious Sam is the kind of game that will kick you for fun, so it's no surprise that it couches basically all of its secrets in bizarre jump scares. Arguably none of them belong in the game because they are completely irrelevant and just so goddamn weird. But I don't have enough space for all that, so I'm just going to talk about the worst one: the Secret Mighty Kamikaze. We're off to a good start, right? On the Serpent Yards map, picking up one particular health pill causes a giant pair of eyes to appear right over your head. That's not unnerving at all. But it gets even worse if you have poor survival instincts and shoot at the eyes, because then a fifty foot, screaming kamikaze pops into being and explodes right in your face.
So you're playing BioShock Infinite, dodging the Boys of Silence who will call an army to ruin your day if they see you, and finally make it to the ubiquitous door control room. You turn around, ready to get this thing done and a Boy of Silence goes off right in your face. As effectively as this one makes you feel like your heart and intestines are getting acquainted, it becomes clear how cheap it is once the panic subsides. Basically, it contributes nothing on its own and was just there to freak you out. It can also be used against your friends for the purpose of wicked hilarity though, so I guess that makes it a little better.
Have you ever heard of cognitive dissonance? It's the feeling you get when you believe two contradictory things, and your brain goes uncomfortably haywire trying to parse them. That's the best way to explain the jump scare in Zack & Wiki, because that's how badly it doesn't fit with whats going on around it. Child adventurer Zack and his troupe of animal pals go to a place called the Bell Tower of Requiem, where there's a statue of a sleeping girl. Everything seems fine until you ring a bell over the statues head, at which point her eyes open, her mouth drops uncannily, and she starts crying blood into a basin and shrieking in agony. And then you have to solve a puzzle by REACHING INTO THE BLOOD BOWL, pulling out the reflection of the moon and then a key. Both prompt adorable fanfare while the shrieking blood woman is still right there in the background. 'Uncomfortable' is the nicest thing you could call this.
Remember that beloved children's story about the wonders of reading (told rather counter-productively through a film), The Pagemaster? The one with Macaulay Culkin and the melty paint dragon? No? Well, it's a movie and there's a point-and-click adventure game that goes along with it. The game's pretty innocuous, featuring harmlessly scary monsters and some pirates whose greatest crime is tossing animated Culkin off a dock. That's why it's so bizarre when, while investigating a shipyard, you're greeted with a nasty monster head that pops up and SCREAMS at you for no reason. This is apparently part of a puzzle for later in the game, but there's no explanation as to why the creators decided to go all B-movie horror on us in order to introduce it. The game shifts immediately back into its standard atmosphere of whimsical mediocrity, never addressing that it just tossed a severed noggin in your lap.
In a game where curb-stomping is a standard victory move and you can carve an enemy from neck to nethers with a chainsaw, is anything really going to phase you? Well, the Gears of War developers sure tried - or, kind of tried - early on in the first game. When Dom busts Marcus out of a prison cell to kick off their hyper-violent buddy adventure, the two start exploring the old prison to try and find a way out. Along the way, Marcus busts through a door and OMG BODIIIIES. Granted, corpses with only their top half to speak of hanging from the ceiling would be terrifying in real life, but the way the camera zooms in, screech-y music plays and bats fly out through the door makes the whole scene incredibly cheesy. Add that it's otherwise irrelevant to the game, and Marcus sarcastic "Nice." pretty much sums it up.