For when you’re over the jump scares.
There’s a lot to be said for the world of indie horror games. But beyond abandoned hospitals, zombie invasions, and limited ammo there’s a whole subgenre of truly troubling experiences. Titles like these shed some light on just how messed up our favourite game developers can be, and each on this list is guaranteed to clam up your mouse far more than a jump scare ever would.
7. Bendy And The Ink Machine
I’ve always found classic Disney animation creepy, and thanks to Bendy and The Ink Machine, I feel vindicated in that belief. This unusual horror game sees you revisiting your old workplace, a studio from the ’30s that animates the titular Bendy. Yet while Bendy always sports a beaming grin and the assertion that “dreams come true,” it soon becomes apparent that this cartoon may not be so family-friendly.
Looking around, it’s evident that things took a turn for the worse at Joey Drew Studios since you left. The place is falling apart, there are employee recordings saying that the owner has gone off the rails, and most significantly, an imposing ‘ink machine’ has been installed that seems to have a life of its own.
Rounding off the unsettling nature of Bendy and The Ink Machine is a stylish but eerie aesthetic of hand-drawn, comic-like surroundings with a monochromatic black and yellow palette. It makes it feel like you’re part of a cartoon of your own – just not one to show the kids.
6. Among The Sleep
Things always seem scarier when you’re a kid. Everything around you looks bigger, every corner darker, and you can’t help but think of a bogeyman hiding in every shadow. Among The Sleep brings these childhood nightmares to life, putting you into the shoes of a two-year-old child waking up in the dead of the night to mysterious noises. Part first-person horror, part explorative adventure, this claustrophobic experience gives a new perspective on fear.
It’s not what you see, more so what you don’t, and as a vulnerable child, you have no way to defend yourself. There’s no combat, so your only option is to run and try and hide. This adds another level of anxiety to the game’s tensest moments that anyone who has played Outlast will easily understand.
It’s an interesting alternative to the usual kind of protagonists you play in this genre, and positively disempowering in many ways. It’s in that vulnerability that Among the Sleep embraces its creepiness – the fact you’re so small and weak only adds to the layers of terror unfolding before you.
5. IMSCARED: A Pixelated Nightmare
Sit back and let your imagination do the work in IMSCARED: A Pixelated Nightmare. Italian developer Ivan Zanotti unleashed his masterpiece of creeping fear in 2012, to viral appeal. As more and more streamers and players stepped into the world of IMSCARED, we all realised this wasn’t just a horror game but rather a slowly unfolding descent into paranoia.
There’s a reason this world is built with simple blocky pixels. As players stroll through the darkened corridors of this mysterious building, ever mindful of the fading appearance of the dreaded white face man, every single on-screen block could pose a threat. Retro-themed games such as this often work to evoke a feeling of childhood joy through their nostalgic graphics. IMSCARED runs with that familiar sensation and uses it to triple your heart rate.
The distinction between creepiness and pure horror is best described through the evil White Face Man following the player through their experience. Rather than jumping out at high-intensity moments, this grisly face simply fades in and out when you least expect it. It’s a powerful effect and one that serves as a microcosm for the incredibly clever psychological choreography of this experience.
Some experiences can just be so overwhelmingly weird that they become scary or creepy in their own right. It’s like their overt strangeness acts as its own form of horror. Off-Peak is one of those experiences. Stranded in a cathedral-styled train station trying to find a way home, you’ll have to explore this bizarre environment and its inhabitants if you ever hope to reach your destination.
Off-peak is a game of interpretation. Its off-beat approach and ability to evoke a sense of uncanny valley is unsettling but its meaning is even more obscure. Clearly, something is not quite right but it’s hard to put your finger on it. It has a weird dream-like quality to it, or should I say nightmare – you are stranded on public transport, after all.
You’re free to explore the unusual location you’ve found yourself in. It hides its fair share of hidden passageways and secrets. There’s much more to this seemingly mundane setting than meets the eye. Its creepiness is really in its atmosphere, and its people: Why are there tiny people? So many questions.
3. Five Nights At Freddy’s
The game that took streaming horror to the next level on its release in 2014, Five Nights At Freddy’s has become synonymous with high-stakes sweat. Pulling up the chair at a local kids’ restaurant for a night shift on guard duty doesn’t sound terrifying, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, you already know how much those hours will make your skin crawl.
The reason we’ve all come to shiver at FNAF isn’t because it’s a traditional horror title, however. Rather, it’s creep factor is far heavier on our traumatised minds. While its main mechanic is the jump scare, it’s a tool employed to punish a failure rather than drive forward an experience.
Rather than relying on a quick moment of instinctive adrenaline to sell a fear, Scott Cawthon’s experience uses the threat of such a moment as the main driver of emotion. And as is so often found in horror video games, the threat of something is always far scarier than the real thing.
2. the static speaks my name
Lulling the audience into a false sense of security is a tried and tested mechanic of the psychobiological horror genre, and the static speaks my name is a shining example. “Use the bathroom,” you’re instructed when you wake up. “Eat breakfast” is the next order. Is it possible to get any more mundane than that?
But as you walk through the protagonist’s apartment, this sense of normality soon unravels. A stack of CRT televisions in the corner, endlessly playing static. Boarded up windows and doors. No working lights in the entire flat. And it only gets weirder from there.
If you’re looking to get your creepy fix, the static speaks my name is a no-brainer for two reasons. Firstly, it’s very short, so you can give yourself the heebie-jeebies in record time. And secondly, it won’t cost you a penny. Cheap thrills indeed.
Warning: This game contains themes relating to suicide.
The world is considerably different through the eyes of a child, as we’ve seen in Among the Sleep. Everything exists as a jumbled mess of sensory experience and fantastical imagination working to fill in the gaps of understanding. The result, if witnessed directly by an adult, would be a strange experience to say the least. That’s where Bonbon comes in.
The dark and often overwhelmingly creepy tale of a small child’s toybox begins with a simple British garden. You’re a child, looking at a toy. Cool, simple enough. Pick up the toy and start trying to speak and the warbled mess of demonic voices that erupt from your mouth instead introduces players to the concept that this might not be the sunny adventure it initially seems.
In fact, nothing is as it seems. As you move through the world and interact with your toys, it quickly becomes obvious that Bonbon is using its infant protagonist to portray a warped view of reality – one distorted by imagination and a fear of the dark.
The result is a deeply unnerving experience that preys on an uncanny valley of nostalgia, portraying heavy realism around an average British household that takes a terrifying turn as soon as things begin to twist out of shape.
The difference between a general horror game and a specifically creepy game is how much it lingers with you after the credits have rolled. While consistent jump scares or the threat of an invading zombie horde can definitely get the pulse going, a disturbing game will nestle into the back of your mind for days or weeks to come.
Oh, and sleep well.