Welcome to October, dear friends. As we get ever closer to that spookiest of holidays, Halloween, it becomes increasingly requisite to break out the thrills and chills we find in classic horror video games. Now, obviously, I could recommend to you any AAA powerhouse: Until Dawn, Alan Wake, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill 2… the list goes on. There is a veritable pantheon of formidable horror games with which you could regale yourself. And then, of course, there’s the independent horror scene. I have my pet favourite indie faves — Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy should be obligatory. And then, of course, those nostalgia-rich browser horror games — The House anyone?
In recent years, I probably haven’t paid enough attention to the well of horror games made available to me. I’ve found a disappointing lack of critical considerations for what makes a horror game tick outside of tired tropes — those which usually betray an underlying fear of the mentally ill, the gender nonconforming, those with deviantly-read sexualities, and/or class anxieties. I only last dipped my toe into the contemporary independent horror game scene to play Doki Doki Literature Club last year. So I booted up itch.io and played every standalone (read: not a demo, not working off of an existing IP, not part of a series) free game in the horror tag, sorted by popularity. Here’s what I think is worth your time.
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Yasmin Curren’s Perfection
Perfection describes itself as a “first-person psychological horror game that taps into mankind’s insecurities,” and borrows heavily from the BioShock school of aesthetics. Perfection was built as a university Computer Game Arts project, from designer Yasmin Curren and team: Tiffany Derbyshire, Tabitha Beresford-Owen, and Jaime Aldous. Perfection purports to help players be cured of their various “imperfections,” whatever they may be, and by whatever means necessary. Including searing a metallic headset to your cranium. The game gestures broadly to questions about whether or not one can ever be “perfect,” and it’s successfully unsettling. There are some clever environment tricks, and it warrants replaying to try and “figure the game out.” Most enjoyable, perhaps, is the transparency of the development process — left as easter eggs for the player to find.
Jumpscares? Light. Beware peepholes!
Dan Sanderson’s The Tomatoes are OK
There’s something endlessly disturbing about the lo-fi aesthetic. Its ambiguity, its proximity to a period of time without the internet and all of the trappings of safety that may — or may not — afford. Here, in Dan Sanderson’s The Tomatoes are OK, you run a lo-fi farm, and you are proud of that farm. You must please take care of the pig and you must never anger mother. Is there much else to know? Please take care of the pig.
Jumpscares? I screamed one (1) time after opening a door.
Circle Star Software’s Ribeye Charlie’s
Following in the lo-fi vein, Circle Star Software’s Ribeye Charlie’s gives off the vibe of some poorly captured informational training video gone wrong. Ribeye Charlie’s is perhaps a cautionary tale for fast food chain workers, warning folks and their fingers away from the deli slicer and the crazed cow-people who roams the halls of the meat freezer.
In Ribeye Charlie’s, you are locked in a fast food joint after hours, where you must escape. In doing so, you discover the restaurants horrible secrets. The game borrows heavily from the Slender/Amnesia school of horror, and if you like that kind of “endlessly followed” game, this is one for you.
Jumpscares? None — unless you turn the corner at the wrong time.
An impressive mainstay on the Itch.io Horror tag, Typing was released in 2015 by “Israeli hobbyist game dev,” Alon Karmi. Typing was made for a bite-sized game jam, and the game is just properly bite-sized. A little horrorible nibble. Played entirely in an IRC chat window, it’s over in a few minutes and there’s not much I can say here without giving it all away. It’s a fun way to spend a few minutes, and I can easily picture it set up on a computer in an empty room at a Halloween party to really spook some wandering guests.
Jumpscares? None — but there are some spooky tone shifts.
Cozy Game Pals’ I’m Still Here
After you play all those spooky games, you might need a small palate cleanser. Something which gives off those good good atmospheric vibes, and resolves to give you a more lighthearted end to an evening. Enter, I’m Still Here.
I’m Still Here was the 6th game by development duo, Crista Castro and Bryan Singh, who go by the Cozy Game Pals. The game chronicles moving into a new apartment, which is unhelpfully populated by a ghost. Following this discovery you must turn to the internet, and a thinly-veiled Yahoo Answers, for help managing your spectral roommate.
Jumpscares? Beware toilets.