Much like in any other medium, video game horror has its trendsetters, its runaway smashes, and swarms of copycat cash-ins. Independent horror games have been a large, important part of this in recent years, and there’s a wide variety of styles that have garnered critical acclaim.
The indie game market is teeming with horror efforts. To find every interesting indie horror in that festering swell is a tough task. Games like Amnesia, Inside, Outlast, and Five Nights at Freddy’s have seen plenty of attention and praise lavished on them, but there are so much that deserves more coverage. These games may not be the most polished or even particularly good in a technical sense, but they do something right with horror in a variety of ways that many more popular titles simply do not.
Observer (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Bloober Team made a name for itself with the first-person horror headtrip that is Layers of Fear, a game where a failed painter goes slowly mad in his creaking, dilapidated homestead. Following that up is Observer, a first-person sci-fi horror headtrip.
In Observer, the year is 2084 in a decrepit Krakow. The Nanophage has wiped out large swathes of the population, a horrible war has dealt with most of the rest. Those who remain turn to drugs, and VR, neural implants in a bid to escape their bleak reality.
You play as Daniel Lazarski (voiced by Rutger Hauer), an elite neural detective known as an ‘Observer’. Your sole purpose is to hack and invade suspects’ minds.
In this future, anything you think, feel, or remember can be used against you to punish you.
The story begins when Lazarski receives a cryptic message from his estranged son. It prompts Lazarski to visit the seedy Class C slums of Krakow to investigate. Things get grim, and it turns out that hacking into the unstable minds of criminals and victims to look for clues isn’t a particularly pleasant experience.
The digitally enhanced slum apartment is creepy enough, but things truly get interesting when Lazarski probes the mindscapes of the residents. Weird, trippy, and frankly disturbing imagery bleeds into reality, and as Lazarski delves further into the mystery he’s embroiled in, reality and memory become harder and harder to tell apart.
Observer messes with player perception much like Layers of Fear before it, but tackles the topic of comfort and escape through technology in a disturbing and depressingly bleak manner. Hauer’s performance is patchy, but he definitely adds depth and character to a weary old man filled with technology who sees awful, awful things quite often.
Subterrain (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Subterrain starts ratcheting up dread from the get go. This top-down survival game set in an underground facility on Mars. The protagonist, Dr.West, narrates the story of how he ended up there, imprisoned and under armed guard. A short while into his imprisonment West discovers the place is now seemingly abandoned. After engineering his escape from his cell, he finds that some kind of infestation has caused mass carnage, and West has missed the last bus outta town. Most chilling of all, he soon knows he isn’t actually alone after all.
The survival of this survival horror is very much rooted in the modern fads of crafting and item management. You’ll collect scrap items to forge new items and to repair essential facility equipment such as power supplies, oxygen filters, and temperature controls. If that wasn’t enough, you also have to manage your health, hunger, and hygiene, with food and drink having an adverse effect on your bladder and bowel movements. Bluntly put, you need to visit bathrooms to urinate and defecate when the occasion arises or suffer the knock on your overall health. It’s a unique hook at least.
Subterrain: The horror game where you can literally shit yourself.
The early hours of Subterrain are a rather lonely affair. The first areas you access have plenty of the bloody aftermath of the initial outbreak. Bodies are scattered in various states of ruin, and blood smears the metal flooring of the facility. The imagery only gets more nightmarish as you begin to meet the infestation head on.
There’s little in the way of life aside from the odd half-mad survivor you have to obliterate. The repetitive thud of the industrial-esque soundtrack breeds a fear of something ominous on the horizon. It’s a fine bit of tension-building that settles in just long enough to put you at ease in time for the steady escalation of walking atrocities that lay ahead.
As you descend deeper into the facility, with every hope you had hurtling towards certain doom, you quickly realize that Subterrain expects you to die and learn. There’s a constant air of uncertainty about the facility, and that means you’re constantly struggling against everything the game throws at you. The ever-ticking clock that is the game world’s growing infestation means you can’t just edge forward in small increments, you have to find a balance between rational thinking and hopeless abandon.
Subterrain’s horror comes from its long periods where nothing really happens. That’s because you always feel like something will happen. You know the infection is spreading unseen, creating threats beyond your knowledge and sight. You just have to hope you’re not in need of a toilet break when something lurches forth from the industrial darkness.
Detention (PC, PS4, Switch)
What Detention does so well is something Guillermo del Toro was adept at in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. It takes some historical context of a tough time for a particular country, and uses that as the backdrop for some fresh n’ freaky goings-on.
Detention is set in a fictional version of 1960’s Taiwan. The country is under martial law and is generally already a fairly bleak place to live. The game begins with a boy narrating his way through a class at Greenwood High, a school housed up in the mountains. The boy falls asleep during the lesson, and awakes to find the room empty, and suspects there was an evacuation because of an imminent typhoon. Of course, it isn’t the real problem.
The boy finds one other person left at the school, a female student, and the pair decide to leave together. Unfortunately the only bridge out is destroyed, so they take shelter in the school. It’s from here that things take a very strange turn, and the school grounds become a hellscape, filled with angry wandering spirits.
While Detention is a survival horror mechanically-speaking, it’s not one that cares for combat (you evade the spirits by holding your breath as you pass them). You still get the puzzles, the tension, and fear of the unknown, but Detention leans very much into the dark realm of psychological horror with some political overtones. The depiction of a militaristic Taiwan is a hell of a backdrop for the more fantastical aspects of Detention.
There’s also the odd bit of local mythology and folklore to help give more credence to the horrors you will endure. While it’s not entirely important to know this information, it does wonders for building this alternate world into something believable.
The hand drawn art style is beautiful, almost more so as things crumble and deteriorate, and stabbing crescendos of sound used at key moments really ramp up the feeling of unease from seemingly innocuous situations. Detention handles horror in an intelligent, mature manner, and it stands out as result.
The Town of Light (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
It’s fair to say The Town of Light is not the best game on this list. Its technical issues and inconsistent guidance are a blight for sure, but much like Detention, its backed by some real life history that makes it fairly unique.
The hook to The Town of Light is in its setting. The game takes place in the very real Volterra Psychiatric Asylum, a broken, abandoned place, away from the more scenic pleasures of the Tuscan landscape it resides in.
The Town of Light is not a horror game in the traditional sense. It’s not about tension, creeping dread, nor being stalked by unnamed things through corridors.
It’s more of an audiovisual tour through the history of a grim and brutal place.
The horrors here are inspired by the grim reality of how unquestionably poor mental health facilities once were at handling mental illness. It’s the cruel, depraved orderlies that are closest this game has to tangible villains, as the stories of their reprehensible actions towards vulnerable, troubled women are recalled in a matter of fact manner by the protagonist (who appears to struggle to understand where she fits into all this herself).
This is not a pleasant experience. There’s no respite, hope, or relief to be gleaned from the dark path this tale treads. Yet that’s The Town of Light’s appeal. It doesn’t shy from the sheer awfulness of its subject matter. It never romanticizes it, nor does it cheapen it by shoehorning in some traditional horror tropes. By grounding so much of the game in reality, there’s an unpleasant understanding of a real-life horror in The Town of Light’s narrative.
Sheltered (PC, PS4, Xbox One, iPad/iPhone)
The post-apocalyptic setting is as well-used as a backdrop in video games as it is in other media. From Fallout to The Last of Us, the struggles of a life after life is pretty much over have been told time and again, usually in much the same fashion. Sheltered dares to show life in the aftermath as a mundane, bleak existence in much the same way as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Thankfully it’s not quite that grim or the developers would have to include therapy sessions in the price of the game.
Sheltered is a management game akin to This War is Mine or Fallout Shelter. You are tasked with managing a family of four (two adults, two kids that can be customized to a small degree) along with a family pet (snake, fish, horse cat or dog, all with their own advantages) who have just escaped the end of the world by getting in an underground shelter, which is about as happy as things get.
It’s presented in a 2D cutaway of your underground bunker with simplistic, colorful visuals clearly inspired by classics such as Another World. This lends it an oddly alien feel that’s striking and clear without having to be overly detailed.
Immediately it becomes apparent just how overwhelming the situation is. There’s a laundry list of improvements and additions to make to your basic shelter, and what supplies you do have quickly diminish. Here begins the world’s most somber juggling act. You constantly have to gamble your family’s health and well being against topping up your dwindling supplies.
As you combat sickness, hunger, thirst, radiation, and strangers wanting in on your shelter, tragedy is almost certain to occur, and when it does, it can be terrifying, especially where children are involved. There’s concern when you have to send someone out to scavenge, with only a limited look at what the expedition party are getting up to, but also back at the shelter. What happens if a visitor comes? Can those who remain protect it if necessary? There’s a huge emphasis on every decision having life-threatening consequences, and the only solace is trying to ensure this family has the best chance of survival for a s long as possible.
The anguish of fighting against the inevitability of death is a tough sell for a video game, but to its credit, Sheltered persists.