With the approach of All Hallows Eve comes games and films designed to fill us with dread and make us shriek in delighted terror. While September and October saw the release of some much anticipated big budget horror games like Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within, these “big” games require an investment of time and money that, perhaps, you can’t make on a night when you are busy passing out candy to appease the ghouls and goblins at your door.
This list has been created with one’s limited Halloween time and budget in mind. These six “little games” will help get you into the spirit of this frightful season.
I think the reason that Stephen King’s horror stories remain among the most popular of the genre is that they aren’t simply horror stories. Unlike other examples of the genre, King’s interests are not merely the thrill of terrifying and/or grossing out an audience. Instead, King’s horror stories are about people grappling with guilt, with obsession, with failing relationships, and the like. Simply put, the inhuman and supernatural worlds of King’s fiction still place their focus on exploring human beings and what makes them tick.
Sepulchre is a 20-minute, free-to-play point-and-click horror game that strikes me as something very much in the vein of King’s approach to horror. The game tells a quiet story about a man taking a trip on a train, a man that possesses more baggage of the psychological and emotional kind than of the more practical variety. Like a King novel, the game’s horrors creep up on you slowly, initially simply teasing at unsettling ideas, allowing disquiet to build, before revealing the nature of this man’s circumstances as something quite awful. This isn’t a gorefest. Rather, it’s psychological horror experienced in a thoughtful, well paced, well written manner.
I can’t say that I was terribly familiar with Scandanavian folklore prior to playing Year Walk, but the grotesque and macabre creatures that inspire the game linger within me, now. Year Walk is designed by the same developers that created the brilliant little homage to ’60s surrealist spy stories like The Prisoner and Device 6. Year Walk is available for only a few dollars on iOS and PC, and like its predecessors, it’s weird and unnerving in the best kind of way.
You will play as a man on a kind of vision quest called a “year walk” in the frozen climes of northern Europe. The game is essentially focused on puzzles and exploration in a very stark environment. The soft crunch of your character’s feet in the snow sets the tone for a journey that grows more macabre and bizarre with each step. The coolest thing about the game is how it turns you into a researcher, as you will find yourself looking up notes in a journal of Scandanavian folklore to figure out just what you are encountering and how to deal with it. You will also find yourself taking notes on strange runes inscribed in trees and rocks around the landscape, again, in order to resolve puzzles that are inscribed in the environment itself.
The imagery is strange and wonderful, the sound design is amazing, and the twisted conclusion of the game makes all your efforts worthwhile.
What would horror be without a healthy dose of the repulsive, the repugnant, and the spectacularly grotesque? The premise of The Binding of Isaac is a particularly unsettling one. What if your mother heard from the voice of God himself that you needed to be sacrificed in order to appease Him?
What follows, though, is less horror in the sense of jump scares and making you get the heebie jeebies, as it is an experience of the horrors of the body and all the blood, viscera, vomit, urine, feces, and twisted flesh that that might entail. Oh, and all this is set in the context of a fast-paced, rogue-like, bullet hell shooter, whose aesthetic is inspired by the 8-bit style of The Legend of Zelda.
The Binding of Isaac is challenging in more ways than one. It’s a difficult game, full of difficult themes that are conveyed through the twisted imagery and twisted game mechanics of a retro ’80s console game. It may be cartoonish in appearance, but The Binding of Isaac uses that aesthetic to blow out its grotesqueries in the most spectacular and vile ways possible. Not only is it horrifically gross, it might just be brilliant, too.
Now, those familiar with Hotline Miami might be calling into question its inclusion on this list. Hotline Miami is a hyperviolent, action game that also borrows from a retro video game aesthetic, interested in splattering its reddened pixels all across your PC’s screen. But interested in scaring you? Not so much.
However, Hotline Miami strikes me as a horror game because of something that it does differently than any of the other games on this list. It isn’t interested in making you a potential victim. It wants to encourage you to play the role of the monster.
In Hotline Miami you play, as you do in so many video games, a killer. But this killer is not a heroic soldier or a hero enacting righteous vengeance for the sake of the greater good. You play a man whose psyche is unraveling as he takes “missions” based on a phone call from an unknown organization, missions that involve mass murder. As pleasurable as it can be to play Hotline Miami, the game never forgets to remind you that you are a psychopath, it forces you to linger over the gory consequences of any “successful” mission.
If Poe often introduced his readers to the mind of a monster in order to unsettle and create disquiet in his own audienc,. Hotline Miami makes you don the mask of an animal and consider the brutal nature of “playing” with violence.
Gone Home is a haunted house story. It’s a game about returning to a place that should be familiar, safe, and comforting — only to find it invaded by things that have been lingering there all along, ready to finally make their unfamiliarity apparent and to unsettle you. The opening minutes of Gone Home are a creepy thrill as you enter a home that you have not occupied for some time and hurry to turn on lights. You want to make the shadows flee because you are not quite sure what might be shuffling within their depths.
Your family is missing, and the explanation of their disappearance has to be uncovered by slowly and methodically exploring more and more of your old home. You must figure out what is haunting it. Gone Home recognizes what ghost stories are all about: they are about confronting the past and how the memories of what occurred within a space have to do with the people that are possessed by them now.
If you’re interested in confronting the past and considering its implications for the present, this game is for you. You’ll find that are more things in your house than just ghosts.
In many ways, this seems like the most conventional and traditional horror game on this list. This is a game that wants to scare you, wants to make you jump, and wants to make you scream in startled pleasure. It’s also exceptionally well designed to do just that.
In the article “Horror With Friends”, I wrote about the social nature of experiencing horror; how we like to be frightened in the company of other people, and why we enjoy watching another person’s terror (PopMatters, 30 July 2014). The Cursed Forest is the game that inspired these ideas, and I can’t recommend enough how one should not play this game alone.
The premise of this free-to-play, independently designed game is pretty simple. You have accidentally wandered into a cursed forest that is haunted by the ghost of a dead girl. You will attempt to put her to rest by collecting her bones. This is a game about jump scares and little moments of gleefully experienced shock and terror. The beauty of the game is how masterfully it anticipates the expectations of players that know that the game just wants to make them jump. You know what sort of tricks it will try to pull on you, yet it will bait you every time with a new scenario. You will be surprised, and scared. Every time.
This game is purely about visceral reactions and responses. It boils down horror to its most basic form, not as a rational experience, but as an instinctual response to a well crafted, artificial appearance of danger. It will make you cling to your friends and loved ones only that much more, this Halloween.