Recent years have seen a spark in the once niche genre of indie horror video games, thanks to notorious titles such as Slender and Five Nights at Freddy’s, both of which are now full-blown franchises spanning multiple sequels and even scoring movie deals. Riding on the digital wave of YouTube video game commentary, the two quickly became enshrined in the indie horror hall of fame, prompting dedicated gamers to revisit the genre in search of forgotten gems and encouraging independent developers to explore the possibilities of creating new spooky titles within the category. Here are some indie horror titles that might have flown under your radar – they might not feature tall, faceless men or bloodthirsty animatronic children’s characters, but they’re sure to give you more than enough goosebumps once the sun’s gone down.
Release date: September 2014
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Ouya, Mac OS X, Linux, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita
Based on creator Matt Gilgenbach’s struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Neverending Nightmares is an indie masterpiece when it comes to delving into the depths of psychological horror. The player takes on the role of Thomas Smith, a young man who has to navigate an endless stream of nightmares plagued with metaphorical and abstract depictions of mental illness. Gabby, who is introduced as Thomas’ younger sister, makes frequent appearances in his nightmares, though her role becomes more ambiguous as Thomas’ nightmares get darker and even more violent than the last. The simplicity of the game’s side-scrolling mechanism is balanced out with intricate 2D line art drawn entirely by hand, making Neverending Nightmares a brilliant depiction of the potential horrors that the human psyche holds.
Release Date: January 2013
Platforms: Mac, Windows, and Linux
With a vibe immediately recognisable to anyone who’s worked after hours in an office, One Late Night is a game bearing a deceptively simple premise (as far as horror games go) that is cleverly paired with its emphasis on atmosphere and in-game immersion. The player steps into the role of a web designer working late at their office; as they trek through the deserted hallway towards the kitchen for a caffeine break, it becomes known that their colleague, Robert, has mysteriously stopped showing up for work. As supernatural incidents begin to unfold in the dimly lit corners of the office, Robert’s past comes back to the surface to haunt the player’s character, and it’s up to them to put the puzzle pieces together. The game’s hiding mechanism works extremely well at getting the player’s heart racing, and the realistic office layout in the game is enough to unsettle players based on its uncanny similarity to real life alone.
Release: June 2016
Platforms: Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4
Inside is a puzzle-platformer adventure game that has won its numerous accolades for a reason. Set in a dystopian universe where human beings are under threat of mind control by a totalitarian government, the player controls a young boy (made distinct from the masses by his bright red shirt) attempting to skirt the authorities while navigating the game’s bleak, desolate environment. The storyline possesses stellar pacing and build, and while the game is not marketed explicitly as a horror title, elements of the genre come through as the young boy’s role in the universe becomes increasingly sinister and foreboding. Every step the player takes produces eerie echoes within the game’s behemoth-like buildings, and the feeling of constant surveillance and pursuit is enough to put any gamer on the edge of their seats.
Release Date: February 2016
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X, Playstation 4, Xbox One
Layers of Fear plunges players headfirst into the role of an unnamed painter, plagued by the horrors of his past as he attempts to complete work on his magnum opus. There are no big, menacing monsters to fend off in the game; the only adversaries that the player has to face reside in the psyche of the player’s character. Issues of alcoholism and marital unrest manifest themselves in the very structure and layout of the mansion that the painter inhabits, turning the environment into an unforgiving mirror of his past mistakes and the people caught up in them. Building on the legacy of psychological horror that games such as Silent Hill have pioneered, Layers of Fear takes players on a nightmarish journey that unravels the madness behind the mind of a creative genius.
Release Date: January 2017
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux
Detention is a puzzle horror adventure game making its mark on the scene for its distinctive premise and vintage art style. Set in ’60s Taiwan under martial law, the game follows two students, Wei and Ray, who are trapped in Greenwood High as the impending threat of a typhoon closes in on them. As they attempt to wait out the storm under cover of the school, it becomes clear that the two are implicated in a dark series of events tied in with the school’s bloody and heavily political past. The art style is understated yet beautiful, and the simple mechanics of the game do little to take away from the richness of the storyline. What sets Detention apart from its peers is its incorporation of Taiwanese and East Asian culture and mythology into the gameplay; players lay down food offerings for hungry ghosts and encounter Chinese deities in their search for answers within the game. In a market dominated by Western narratives, Detention is a refreshing take on the indie horror genre that brings East Asian culture to the forefront without sacrificing on the scares.
Hungry for more? Check out JUICE’s interview with Red Candle Games’ co-founder Vincent Yang, part of the creative team behind Detention.