As I’ve loved indie games for most of my adult life, I enjoy the two other genres with which indie often overlaps: stealth and horror. I’ve talked plenty about the former, so I want to address the latter. I’ve been a horror buff since I was 15, watching some of the crappier stuff like Friday the 13th and The Boy as well as more cerebral gigs like Hereditary and The Invitation. I like to think that conquering fear is a huge part of my personality. I could live for that feeling. When I was little and I was afraid of doing something, Dad would say, “Come on. It’ll be fun.” Jump off that diving board. Watch that movie. Go to that social outing. Now that I’m an adult, this is something I say to myself that fuels my desire to be the protagonist who shuffles down the dark hallway past the murderer. On that note, here are my favorite spooky games of all time.
Kholat is a history-inspired walking simulator about the Dyatlov Pass Incident in the Ural Mountains that separates European Russia from Asian Russia. The true story is two parts sad and one part scary: A team of students went on an arduous hike in order to receive certification from the Soviet government for being really good at hiking, and they all died. This was in 1959, so there were no cell phones or Waze. I don’t even think MySpace was around yet. The footsteps from the tent and the lack of clothing on the bodies suggested that the trekkers were running from something. Curious injuries, like large claw marks and missing body parts, tickled authorities’ imagination, but as of 2020, most abandoned their Wiccan bestiaries in favor of an avalanche after which wild animals had taken further liberties with the bodies.
In Kholat, your job is, of course, to investigate what really happened to the students. You’re supposed to find the tent, the bodies, and the SuPeRnAtUrAl PhEnOmEnOn. The historical accuracy made the game fun for me because I was also learning about a Russian urban legend of which I’d never heard. The narrative has a strong script, and Sean Bean is a strong narrator. Whether you’re a horror buff or you’re dipping your toes, Kholat is an enjoyable story that’s great for at least one playthrough.
For transparency’s sake, I mention that this game has “mixed” reviews on Steam, but I think the reason is rooted in miscommunication about what Kholat is. It’s definitely more of a walking simulator than a conventional horror game. It’s creepy, and it tells a fun pulpy story, but its gameplay is so superficial as to be far beside the point. Rarely do you have to sneak past the phenomenon, and this is why Kholat is the least scary.
In terms of fear, SOMA is made of stronger stuff, but it’s still pretty mellow, presenting a melancholy and fascinating story about the popular sci-fi topic of consciousness. A one-hit wonder from Frictional (more colloquially known as the developers of Amnesia), SOMA refines the gameplay of the first two Amnesia games and sets a solid stage for the puzzles of Amnesia’s third installment.
Similar to Kholat, SOMA presents a lot of safe exploration. The premise is that you’re a guy named Simon who, after having his brain scanned by a neurologist, is somehow teleported to an underwater research facility, and you have to figure out how to escape. Overall, it’s at least as good as the first two Amnesia games, if not better.
Amnesia was my first horror game. In comparison to others, horror games depend on narrative a lot more if they’re going to be any good. Amnesia offers a good narrative by immediately presenting a mystery. As the player, you don’t know what has happened because Daniel has downed the Amnesia Potion. Unraveling the mystery isn’t handled exclusively by cutscenes. Part of it is your interaction with the game’s world, and this may be why Amnesia has been such a gateway to other horror games for many gamers. Its cartoonish graphics take the edge off, though the game is ultimately not for the faint of heart. My personal favorite is the third one because it improves upon everything the first one did well. As a side note, the second one simplifies gameplay significantly in favor of the narrative and doesn’t require context.
Many revere Frictional, but it has improved a lot over the years, and I know this first-hand because I think Penumbra sucks. Amnesia strikes me as a brilliant realization of what the team wanted all along. This franchise is the final item I’d recommend to those of you who might be a bit scared. No judgment! I suppose I’m a rare case, but I didn’t always like this stuff. I used to be terrified of it myself. If it's any consolation, my weakness is bugs; I wouldn’t last a minute where this magazine is based (ed. Australia).
Dead Space (Franchise)
This third-person gig places a much greater emphasis on gameplay, so bring your FPS chops to the party. The initial elevator pitch for Dead Space was Resident Evil in space. The extent of my knowledge about Resident Evil is that it’s a third-person horror game, and a creepy invincible guy follows you occasionally. Dead Space offers the same thing, except it’s in space. This strikes me as a success. More than the narrative, I enjoy the general lore. Because the hive-minded necromorphs seem so feasible as an indomitable alien race, learning about who they are, what they want, and what they’re capable of is fun to do.
Most fans regard Dead Space 2 as the series’ crown jewel, and I stand by that too, but the first one lags only a step behind. The main improvement is that, by Dead Space 2, the silent protagonist graduates to the rank of regular protagonist with a speaking role (played by Gunnar Wright, if that ever comes in handy at bar trivia), necessarily providing a more fleshed-out narrative.
The Dead Space games have different difficulties, but due to the new game plus option, I recommend playing it “Diablo-style:” Play it on normal, play new game plus on hard, then play new game plus again on impossible for the best experience, IMO. Do whatever you want. I’m not a necromorph. I’m not going to eat you.
Lastly, fans enjoy the third one the least. Many of us actively dislike it. By far, it’s the least scary and is essentially an action game, but I recommend it for those of you who become sucked into the story.
Horror aside, Outlast is one of the best games ever made, period. While it’s not the scariest horror game, its realism makes it scarier than Dead Space, and that’s pretty scary. This game has it all, including naked cannibals. You don’t want to mess with those.
Red Barrel markets itself as an indie studio whose members are AAA veterans, and the actual game echoes this. While the graphics and optimization are perfect, both Outlast games offer the crisply simple gameplay of indie games, presenting a novel parkour mechanic for easier escapes from assailants. Both games’ narratives are on par with each other, though the second one’s gameplay is slightly more complex. I wouldn’t say the gameplay improved much, but it was great, to begin with, so this isn’t much of an issue.
With its disturbing narrative, Outlast emphasizes the horror elements, but in spite of having no way to kill anything, the gameplay is fun enough to rival Dead Space and carry your Halloween party.
This is a scary one. The mere thought of it disgusts me. Christ, what a good game. Visage is a photorealistic horror game with mind-bending puzzles and hand-wringing stealth. While the narrative is intense enough to arouse sharp inhales and relieving exhales, a mostly safe hub world and emphasis on puzzles make the gameplay casual enough for you to play with friends.
As comical as this may sound on paper, the premise is that you’re trapped in an evil house, and you have to bear witness to what the previous tenants of the house endured. As you navigate through each tenant’s story, the house contorts to create a “level” for you.
Photorealism carries most of this game’s novelty, while the gameplay is conventional. Still, the approach to puzzle design is reminiscent of a good escape room. While we have not yet arrived at the scariest game, Visage is by far the most puzzling, so prepare to use your noggin, or a ghost might smash it on the ground.
At least on the hardest difficulty, Alien: Isolation is completely unfair. The Alien routinely snatches you from hiding places without reason, and she can run three times as fast as you can. If this doesn’t terrify you already, then you should test your nerves against this stomach-churning masterpiece.
From the perspective of software development, the MVP is complete, but from a colloquial perspective, the MVP is the atmosphere. From a VHS-suggesting film grain to the precise sounds of the Alien’s hulking footsteps, you’ll feel like you’re in the original movie from 1979 (one of my all-time favorites; certainly better than Star Wars from two years earlier).
When I was watching the promotional commentary for this game before its release, one of the designers said, “Alien presents a future whose technology won’t save you,” and this has stuck with me because when I played the game, the team delivered on that perfectly. In the world of Alien, cryogenic technology is sickening. Travel across the stars is far from instant, and even if people could hear you scream in space, there’d be no one around except for a few equally helpless crewmates.
By far, this is the scariest game I’ve ever played. You play as Luigi, a man who wins a raffle he hasn’t entered. Instead of deleting his suspicious email, he takes it at face value and approaches his prize: a huge mansion brimming with riches, but something is not right with this house. Quickly, Luigi realizes that the mansion is infested with ghosts, and he must use a vacuum cleaner to suck them all up.
Apart from the horror, Luigi’s Mansion features excellent vacuum-based combat. Other VBC games don’t match the frenetic majesty of Nintendo’s signature horror experience. As you rid the mansion of ghosts, the genuine replay value becomes clear because the other half of the game is about how well you can gather all the riches the ghosts leave behind. If you think you’re too old to play Luigi’s Mansion, then you may be right, but in spite of its popularity, it’s as short as an indie game. Besides, it’s at least as fun as his brother’s 3D platformers.
While I may have gotten facetious at the end, each of these games is dear to me. They’re visceral cinematic experiences and challenging puzzles that I think other horror buffs might like too.
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