Help me help you help horror.

I played Rewind or Die a few days ago. It was gifted to me as a joke, because Kyle wanted me to cover more horror games but is too much of a weenie to do it himself. The video store premise is discarded almost immediately. It becomes yet another game about fleeing a slasher as textures warp and loud noises blare, because that is all that Torture Star Video makes. Aside from the hilariously inappropriate butt rock that starts up every time you’re being chased by the killer in act 4 it was a joyless experience. I beat it in just shy of 2 hours, earning every achievement except for one that you get for fucking up instead of playing the game well, which I do not intend to go back and collect because I do not intend to go back at all. None of these games are worthy of your attention even once, much less multiple times.

This was meant to be for the vending machine 10 feet away. Sure.

There’s a stigma swirling around horror video games, particularly on the indie side of the fence. Phrases like “YouTube bait”, “jumpscare fodder”, and “FNAF/Slenderman/[insert spooky thing du jour here] clone” are leveled at almost every game that comes out. There’s a broad assumption that a non-AAA horror title is unlikely to offer much of value unless you rely on jumpscare adrenaline instead of caffeine, and even if there is a budget it’s likely just going to be compared to Silent Hill or Resident Evil depending on how much shooting you get to do.

Due to our perpetually eroded standards we have a tendency to accept spooky games that would otherwise not pass the sniff test as “good enough” as long as they function on a basic technical level, and no publisher is in the business of taking a movie ticket’s worth of steambux while providing the bare minimum like Torture Star Video. I want to push back on that, not just because of my distaste for their output, but because there truly is great indie horror out there and it’s forced into relative obscurity by the sheer amount of these types of games.

You made a game that takes place in a pre-2000s video store, then left smartphones in? Fine. Why try?

Look, most of anything is crap and horror games aren’t immune to that. But it’s undeniable that horror fans, for a variety of reasons, are neck deep in trash. We yearn for unsettling storytelling, gruesome gore, shocking twists, anything that gives us the emotional response we crave. Instead we get dogshit like Garten of Banban. Have you seen Garten of Banban? If so, why? Why did you do that to yourself?

A lot of these aim to pay tribute, either by visual style or direct reference, to the 80’s. You can’t escape it. Even modern games that have somewhat escaped it, like your FNAF derivatives, began squarely in that decade because Showbiz Pizza was literally an 80s invention. Nostalgia is inescapable and comforting, making for easy subversions of our expectations, but it’s also a lethal poison. Too much of it, as we’ve been seeing, lowers all boats and makes all of them less effective. 

Look at what you could be experiencing! Ok it’s incomprehensible as a screenshot, but trust me, this rules.

What we often forget due to rose colored glasses and survivorship bias is that 80s horror film was a creative wasteland. The sheer amount of dollar-chasing cheap trash that solely existed to pad catalogs was immense. Some of these ascended to so-bad-it’s-good, and even fewer managed to actually be decent movies, but the vast majority of these were and are cynically produced crap. What we are witnessing now is that same methodology applied to horror media once again, only for video games and we’re all alive for it. The rare truly great schlock film was almost always produced by a team that tried their hearts out. Despite low budgets, poor gear, difficult production conditions, and a general lack of experience, the rare great low budget flick overcame all obstacles by sheer force of effort and unbridled passion.

Indie horror video games have these entries too! Cannibal Abduction is not perfect, but it’s head, shoulders, and waist above Torture Star’s output in large part because what is there had immense amounts of care put into it. The brilliant and beautiful Devotion was released by a team that overcame interference from the Chinese government, and creates an experience so unsettling that I’d consider it a must-play for genre fans. David Szymanski’s Iron Lung is a masterclass in tension and isolation. Everything produced by Enigma Studio is a sensory overload in the best way, relying on impeccable presentation and tension as opposed to jumpscares. And if we go outside of the realm of “spooky walking”, games like Brutal Orchestra show that small teams are actively creating brilliant works of the macabre while creating games of substance.

Devotion is the most unsettled a game has ever made me. You should feel this.

The recommendations above could keep you terrified for weeks but they also barely scratch the surface of excellent indie horror. You need only look at the alumni of the Haunted PS1 crew to find heaps of games that have been and will be excellent. Trawling the depths of will reveal a whole new world of indie horror that you may not have even been aware of and you’ll only have to pay pennies for the privilege! You’ll find new creatives that you vibe with and get excited for, and that’s something to celebrate. Go play the demo for 10 Dead Doves and tell me that isn’t the most bizarre, intriguing thing you’ve at least seen this week.

That said, you will also find plenty of games that are more frustrating than fun and more workmanlike than creative. Rather than focus on these and dutifully dropping the $10-15 for each release in hopes that it’ll actually be good this time, why not just…skip ’em? Why play direct to YouTube horror when you could try something new? Support the artists pushing the boundaries, not the publisher that reliably slaps out Burger King-tier replicas of the same premise month after month. When we have contemporary artists making some of the best works of horrific art the genre has yet to see, we have no reason to settle for a regularly scheduled drip feed of “content”.

Horror can be exhilarating. Why settle for less?