Horror games are usually also survival games, forcing you either to dismember monsters in self-defence, or running away from them to avoid being dismembered yourself. From Silent Hill and Doom to Five Nights at Freddy’s and Alien: Isolation, there have been many brilliant and/or popular examples of that diverse category. This list isn’t about them, however. Instead, I’d like to collect a handful of lesser-known games that are interested in creepiness rather than horror, that cultivate a sense of pervasive unease and wrongness rather than cries of oh my god I almost shat my pants. Some of them are fun in a twisted way, others are unnerving, and a few are downright disturbing. All of them are worth playing.
A game that puts you in the role of a women exploring an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Italy, and with it, her past. As you move through the ruins that are in the process of being reclaimed by the forces of nature and entropy, you shed light on the horrific events that took place decades earlier in the fascist 1930ies, after the protagonist had been hospitalized as a 16 years old girl. The Town of Light is both psychological horror that subverts the trope of the psychiatric hospital, and a sort of historical document recalling the systematic abuse that was so typical of these institutions. The hospital is a painstaking recreation of an actual building, the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra. The work pays off: the hospital feels like a real, lived- and suffered-in place, which gives additional weight to the fictional-yet-authentic story of the tragic protagonist. Despite its deep interest in psychology, The Town of Light is a horror game that isn’t merely rooted in the mind and its imagination, but also in concrete, historic tragedy.
Another game about psychological scars and depression. Unlike The Town of Light, however, it takes a deep-dive into the grotesque. The game opens with the attempted suicide of the lonely cat lady Susan, which brings her to the Queen of Maggots. This sinister apparition forces immortality on Susan and tasks her with killing the Parasites, five profoundly evil humans. What follows is a harrowing tour de force through hell on earth, relentlessly dragging the player past a whole menagerie of deeply revolting and disturbing scenarios that have an almost cathartic effect. The Cat Lady is a jet-black experience that seems to exude a stench of perversion and evil that will cling to you long after you think you’re done with the game. Still, deep beneath its repulsive skin, there beats a very human heart that refuses to forget the tragedy in the middle of all the horror.
Speaking of psychology and the grotesque: Fran Bow, too, is fascinated by the morbidly twisted and mental illness. But while The Cat Lady is about how horror affects our mind, Fran Bow is about the way the mind itself can project horrors onto reality. Instead of the gritty, photo-like aesthetic of The Cat Lady, we have a colourful crayon look. Instead of depression, its protagonist suffers from hallucinations (or DOES she…?!). The player follows the troubled girl Fran Bow on a journey that begins with the gruesome murder of her parents and the disappearance of her cat Mr. Midnight. Her story is parts fairy tale, parts Alice in Wonderland retelling, and parts sickening body horror; the places it leads you to are both fantastically whimsical and perfectly nightmarish. But this is a story about perception, and viewing those horrors through the eyes of Fran allows its world to retain a strange sense of childlike innocence.
A favourite of mine, and a rare creepy game that rejects horror tropes in favour of a more evocative and ancient root: folklore. Year Walk tries to recapture the eponymous Swedish custom (Årsgång in Swedish) that was performed as a means of divination. Wandering through the silent, snowy forests, the player encounters visions of otherworldly beings from Scandinavian folklore, such as the brook horse that drowns the unwary in rivers, the mylings, which are spirits of unbaptised infants, or the Church Grim, the spirit of an animal sacrificed for and buried beneath a newly built church. These creatures aren’t portrayed as evil, but they are obviously threatening to mortals and unconcerned for their welfare. True to its theme of divination, however, Year Walk is less interested in psychological or bodily harm than it is in the simple act of witnessing glimpses of the future and other plains of existence. Still, those visions will haunt you.
This is an unassuming, subtle little game whose hard-to-pin-down creepiness sneaks up on you slowly but steadily. It is your task to wait on a remote hotel’s anthropomorphic guests and to gather ingredients for dinner each night. Needless to say, this is far less innocent than it may sound at first, but I won’t spoil the details. Let me just quote the Steam page’s description: “Make sure every dinner is worth dying for!” The unease it’s so good at building doesn’t stem from monsters, gory grotesques or psychological torment. Rather, it comes from the realisation that you’re participating in a deeply ingrained routine that seems shocking to the player, but completely unremarkable to the inhabitants of this weird world. There’s a nightmarish, relentless logic at work here within which the player fulfils her duty like a cold cog in the wheel.
A masterful horror game that conjures that kind of unease that feeds on the thorough familiarity of your own four walls. Wandering through a seemingly normal home, the player is looking for tapes that contain fragments of some strange treatise on the anatomy of the house, spoken by a distorted voice. There’s an equivalency, it argues, between a house’s rooms and a body’s organs that goes beyond the metaphorical. Increasingly, being inside this house feels like having been swallowed by an enormous, ever-changing, disintegrating organism. Freud would have loved this: I can think of no other game that captures his concept of the uncanny so convincingly, so terrifyingly. The seeds of one of the scariest games ever made are planted in feelings of comfort and safety.