Bigger doesn’t always mean better, particularly when it comes to video games. Any material or content from an upcoming title can quickly lead to consumer hype which then quickly fizzles into disappointment when the title itself goes live, and any other unexpected changes that occur between the development and release of a game can further cause frustration amongst players.
As such, it’s no small wonder that a number of lesser-known indie video games have become increasingly popular throughout the past decade. Even more surprising is the fact that so many of these indie titles either contain strong horror-related themes if they don’t fall directly into the “horror” genre of video games themselves.
This week, I’ll be covering my top 5 picks for lesser-known horror video games produced by smaller indie studios or developers that you need to check out—especially if you’re a horror fan. Keep reading to see which titles were picked and why!
Having released via early access on Steam in 2014 and again as a full release in 2017, Darkwood has become a landmark horror title for the video game industry due to its near-perfect blending of several key horror themes, including setting, story, atmosphere, and sound design.
Darkwood’s primary horror element comes through the game’s internal day/night cycle. During the day, players must scour the monster-filled forests around their location for weapons, food, and other supplies in order to find out who the main character really is and how he came to be in a plague-infested forest. Come nightfall, however, the player must return to their in-game shelter in order to defend themselves against the monsters that appear during this period, using all of the weapons, traps, and supplies they have to keep their shelters both illuminated and defensible, and their character alive.
The kicker with this mechanic is that the monsters never truly stop coming for you, no matter how well you defend your shelter against them. The longer the game goes on, the stronger and more terrifying the enemies become. Because of the way the game’s top-down perspective and light mechanics handles the in-game protagonist’s line of sight, as well, players may never get a full glimpse of the baddies that come for them, either, making something as seemingly small as a rustle of leaves or creaking door hinge as nightmare-inducing as the horrid beasts found in Darkwood themselves.
It’s not often that a 4-person multiplayer video game finds itself rooted in the horror genre, but even rarer is when this does happen only for players to find that the game is…actually, all things considered, a pretty solid game. While Phasmophobia is the youngest title found on this week’s list, having only been released on Steam in September of 2020, it not only rapidly went on to receive a cult underground following, but even beat sales numbers for other award-winning titles such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Baldur’s Gate 3.
What sets aside Phasmophobia as a true horror gaming title is made immediately apparent to players who pick it up. Once the game is launched, players find themselves in the role of an amateur ghost-hunter tasked (along with up to three fellow amateur sleuths) to uncover what sort of paranormal entity is haunting a specific location—be it a suburban home, run-down asylum, abandoned school, or other settings.
Players will need to work together in order to acquire items like voice boxes, motion sensors, thermometers, and more both to find out what sort of spirit is ailing the location as well as to defend themselves against it. Most spirits will also require players to complete tasks, such as taking a picture of dirty water in a sink or halting the ghost’s progress with a line of salt, to uncover their identity. The more you pry, however, the more likely you are to stir the spirit’s ire and send them on a hunt to track down and eliminate you and your teammates one by one.
3. Little Nightmares
Developed by Tarsier Studios and published by Bandai Namco in 2017, Little Nightmares (“LN”) is unlike other entries on this week’s list mostly due to its focus on puzzle-solving in a 2.5-dimensional world: one not fully 2D, but not quite fully 3D, either.
In LN, players take on the role of Six, a young girl who finds herself trapped within a vessel known as The Maw. As Six, players must escape from the Maw while avoiding the array of deformed and twisted humanoid creatures found within its bowels—all of whom will see no problem in capturing Six and preparing her for an equally-twisted outcome should they encounter her.
Navigating the Maw’s claustrophobic rooms and maze-like corridors is spine-crawling enough, especially given how grim and hopeless many environmental clues left for the player to find make the in-game world appear, but the added sense of danger looming over every inch of progress is what really makes LN a true horror gaming title in its own right. Few moments of the game are left without a sense of danger, creating a near-nonstop ramping feeling of tension that only ends at the game’s climactic finale.
4. Little Hope
Since Supermassive Games’ hit title Until Dawn was released in 2015 to critical acclaim, the game production studio has gone on to release a handful of titles following a similar gameplay style formula under what has become known as The Dark Pictures Anthology. Though the entire Anthology is planned to encompass eight separate games in total with only loose connections to the others, only 3 have been released at the time this article is written: Man of Medan, Little Hope, and House of Ashes. It’s the Anthology’s second title — Little Hope — that we’re covering today.
Like both Until Dawn and its immediate anthological predecessor, Man of Medan, Little Hope’s ending and eventual outcomes depend heavily upon the in-game choices made by the player using Supermassive’s “moral compass” system. Being released the day before Halloween in 2020, Little Hope’s story and setting are based on and rooted in the real-world tragedy of the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
In Little Hope, the player assumes the role of 4 college students and their professor who are left stranded in a remote town drenched in an eerie fog after their bus crashes. While they attempt to find a way to escape, all characters are routinely thrown into visions of the past that take place during colonial America’s late 17th-century witch-hunt craze. With each step made towards progress and safety, it becomes increasingly clear that both the fate of the town and the in-game characters are rooted in the uncomfortable truth of their past and ancestry: a truth that must be righted if they wish to leave the town of Little Hope with their lives — and sanity — fully intact.
Following the 2010 success of their breakout title, Limbo, Playdead studios’ 2016 underground hit Inside helped establish the Danish developers as one of the best (albeit much lesser-known) generators of unsettling pseudo-satirical horror in the video game industry.
Like LN, Inside is a puzzle-platformer game that acts as a masterful example of what horror in video games can be when more emphasis is placed on setting and atmosphere, rather than the characters, their dialogue, combat mechanics, or even a game’s story itself. With Inside, players take control of a young boy caught in a desolate, semi-industrial landscape who must rely on the environment to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles, and avoid detection from man, beast, and machine alike.
With Inside, like its predecessor, Limbo, there are hundreds of different ways the protagonist can meet an untimely end, each more gruesome and macabre than the last. The game uses a mesmerizing blend of environmental cues, lighting, sounds, and more to both alert the player to danger but also to occasionally misdirect them into the line of fire if they aren’t situationally aware before reaching the game’s ending, which is arguably even more creepy than Inside’s story or gameplay itself.