There are different kinds of “scary” things. There’s what I’d call “haunted house scary,” anything that immediately elicits a sharp scream, like a plate falling on the kitchen floor, that you forget about as soon as it’s over—you gather up the shards and move on.
There’s “Joe Rogan scary,” the least fun kind, which makes you want to put a bag over your head because you can’t believe it exists. Then you have “blood stains on the carpet scary,” which sinks in slowly, a black bat tangled in your hair. That type of scary revisits you when you can’t fall asleep at 2 a.m. It makes you want to wash your brain. And it’s what I tried to summon for this list of spooky game recommendations.
These games, all indies you can pick up on Steam, probably won’t make your heart pound the way flashier horror—the mewling monsters of Resident Evil, all the sharp and shining teeth in Alien: Isolation, Until Dawn jumpscares, etc.—does. But their big eyes and grainy blood spatter will creep you out forever. They’re some of the least cozy games you’ll ever play. If you can accept that, read on.
Read More: “18 Cozy Games That Feel Like A Warm Blanket”
I might have grown up since I was first exposed to first-person survival horror Outlast in
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2013, I’m taller and my hair is longer, but the thought of facing any of the game’s malformed asylum inhabitants still makes me want to triple-lock my door.
The game, which requires you to keep lanky journalist Miles Upshur alive as he documents the lethal goings-on at Mount Massive Asylum, is a vat of depravity. There’s cannibalism, amputation, crucifixion, and self-immolation. Tons of blood, rope, and loose organs. A little heavy handed on the yucky shit, you might think, but Outlast has no combat and rarely any light, so its extremities are more like electric undercurrents to an anxiety you can’t quite place. You know something is wrong, but you can’t see it.
I’m probably a lifetime fan of this game because of how badly it makes me shiver, but I also have personal beef with its wacky (and harmful) representation of people with mental illness. I somehow like that less than the self-immolation.
Read More: “Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness”
How to play: On PS4, Xbox One, PC, or Switch, with all the lights off
Lost in Vivo
Psychological horror Lost in Vivo is, as creator Akuma Kira says on the game’s itch.io page, is mostly “about claustrophobia.” After your sweet service dog is swept up in a storm and pulled down a sewer drain, It-style, you follow it in and get stuck in a series of suffocating, liminal environments as constricting as your mind seems to you.
“You can feel it everywhere you go,” Lost in Vivo’s back-of-the-box itch.io quote says. “The walls are getting closer, the sky dropping further down every day. With each labored breath your world is shrinking.” This game’s lo-fi crawlspaces and enemies, many of which look like bleeding, anthropomorphic silkworm cocoons, will make you feel thrillingly gross.
How to play: On Windows, with a blanket around you
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia was the game my friends’ older siblings would play in front of us so word would travel through the elementary school and scare all the students. “It can literally sense your fear,” I remember one of them saying.
It can’t, though that would have been a really impressive capability for 2010 PCs. Instead, the survival horror uses its floundering, amnesiac protagonist Daniel’s jumbled psyche to make you feel just as vulnerable and fractured.
Like Outlast, Daniel can’t fight any of the monsters he finds in damp, cavernous Brennenburg Castle, their skin loose and pulled like half-peeled apples. He recovers pages of his journal to understand why he got there, unraveling a complex, gothic horror about human evil and ritual magic. Your job is to guide him through it, protect his slipping sanity from his own miserable actions, and try not to feel too dirty while doing it.
How to play: On PS4, Xbox One, PC, or Switch, with a taper candle burning
Point-and-click horror Fran Bow invites you to more vintage horror, this time in the style of 2000’s goth cartoons, like Ruby Gloom and Growing Up Creepie.
Little Fran Bow found her parents dead, dismembered in their house, and has decided to escape the asylum she was forced into after it happened. There’s no other way to help her reunite with her black cat and Aunt Grace, a surviving relative, than by clicking through her ghoulish hallucinations filled with black magic, dark forests, and floating eyeballs. Through all the bloody adventure, Fran stays unfazed, taking all the gore in optimistic stride.
It’s macabre in the same innocent way as Hansel and Gretel, but while it’s sweeter than the other games on this list, Fran Bow nonetheless manages to burrow into you. Its stalwart protagonist makes a cute, lasting impression, navigating the fallen leaves in her striped tights to form a deeply surreal path to salvation, maybe even inspiring your own.
How to play: On PC, Apple devices, Android devices, while listening to Belle and Sebastian
What are some of your favorite creepy games?