I can admit it. I don’t like being scared. I generally avoid scary movies, games, and situations if I can help it. However, I can usually face my fears and make an exception for one month out of the year.
Generally, October is the only month where I actively try to watch horror movies. I’ll catch up on a scary TV show I’ve missed or play a few of games in my backlog that make me nervous to take the dog out at night. Having said that – I’m still kind of a wuss. Most of these games aren’t straight horror. You’re not going to see any Silent Hill, Until Dawn, Amnesia, or Outlast on this list, and I think that’s okay, everyone knows about those. These games still embody the creepy, the dark, and the macabre, but in a more understated way. These are games you might have heard of but haven’t played for one reason or another. Halloween is almost here, so here’s a list of recommendations that you might want to give a shot during the spookiest month of the year.
4. Hollow Knight
This pick might seem a bit unconventional, since in no way, shape, or form is it a “horror game”. However, several of these games will skirt around the horror genre anyway and I think Hollow Knight has a ton to offer that makes it a perfect pick for this time of year. Hollow Knight is a beautiful, moody, tough-as-nails, metroidvania, souls-like, that demands not only your skill, but also your attention to detail. The story and lore unfold in a very obscure way. Instead of cut scenes and exposition, you start off with basically nothing and walk into a dusty, bleak, barely inhabited town, which resides on top of a vast underground kingdom. The narrative plays out on a much more micro level than most games, as you, and all of the remaining living inhabitants, are bugs, and the majority of the game takes place underground. The kingdom itself is a corpse of its former self and has been mostly forgotten and left to the slow decay of time. Something happened there, but you’re never explicitly told what. You have to piece together all the little tidbits of information you exhume over the course of your journey.
The game is wonderfully crafted, with intense platforming segments and more intense boss fights and difficulty curves. It starts off relatively slow and plodding, but quickly ramps up into something special and the more time you spend with it, the more you appreciate every aspect of what makes it special. Hollow Knight isn’t going to offer you any jump scares or terror, but it literally drips with a spooky, macabre, almost sorrowful atmosphere. It starts off very dark and dingy and while it eventually opens up to some more exotic and colorful places, it really nails the feeling of gloomy and forgotten. You’ll see all kind of crumbled and dilapidated environments, structures, and locations, and you might find Deepnest to be something pulled out of your worst nightmares.
There is a sense of decay and hopelessness to the world that permeates throughout, but yet it also demonstrates splashes of splendor, beauty, mystery, and discovery that keeps your engaged and pressing on to see what’s next. All these visual elements are cocooned and heightened by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. The music always fits the area you’re exploring perfectly and many of the track’s somber and mysterious melodies elevate the wonderful visual design in a way that few games can. Seriously some of these tracks belong on a “Hollow-een” (ahhh see what I did there!) playlist.
Hollow Knight is a perfect symbiosis of mysterious story and intense and rewarding game play that’s complemented by a gorgeous art and sound design that creates an all around incredible piece of work that just oozes atmosphere out of every nook. Not only is it a great game to sink into as the weather gets colder and the nights get darker, but it also happens to be one of the best games I’ve played this year.
Oxenfree might fall under the often derogatory category of “walking simulator” but rather than lessen the impact of the game, to me it actually enhanced it. There isn’t much game play to speak of. It’s more of a sort of point-and-click interactive story that has you controlling your character’s movements and dialogue and not much else. However, the way that you navigate the dialogue is part of what makes the game so compelling. You could play multiple times and never go down the same conversation branches twice. The dialogue and voice acting is either amazing, or totally awful, depending on how you look at it. I find it to be extremely well done for the tone they were going for.
Oxenfree has a 80’s-esque, Poltergeist-like vibe that feels right at home with VHS and could have been a product of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment studio in an alternate dimension. This is a classic teen coming-of-age story that happens to be set on a mysterious island, chock full of weird history and creepy secrets. In true 80’s Amblin fashion, there are plenty of humorous, light-hearted moments throughout, but make no mistake, this game gets weird, dark, unsettling, and also surprisingly poignant. There are a ton of really fantastic audio and visual effects that really play up the creepiness and the soft, painterly art style and synthy sound design throughout really nail the tone and ambiance that the game shoots for.
2. Gone Home
Gone Home is yet another game on that lands on this list, but doesn’t explicitly represent the horror genre. I don’t want to say too much, as that would spoil it and this is a surprising game that’s best experienced going in as blind as you can. However, the high level overview is as follows: “You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something’s not right. Where is everyone? And what’s happened here?” The game opens with you arriving on a dark and stormy night and seeing a note on your front door from your sister imploring you to not explore what has happened. That’s a pretty unsettling setup if I’ve ever heard one. While playing, I was always on edge, cringing, waiting for the mystery to be revealed and for the scares to set in. The game does a really great job with immersing you into a first person view so you can explore the house and try to decipher what has transpired there.
Gone Home is another game in the “walking simulator” genre and much like Oxenfree, is less of a game with prescribed goals and mechanics and much more of an interactive story. Unlike Oxenfree however, your interaction doesn’t come from the other characters, but stems from your own discoveries and investigations from the house and the clues that reside inside it. You can pick up and interact with all kinds of items and objects that are strewn around the house and almost everything you interact with not only fleshes out the mystery of what happened, but also helps paint the picture of missing family. For instance, you’re able to discover early on that your father is a novelist (and not a very good one at that), your sister loves playing video games, and your mom is a fan of the band Earth, Wind, and Fire. These little trinkets and artifacts give you the background and history needed to really help set up the overall narrative and allow you to naturally experience all the peeling paint that is this family.
Gone Home is a short, but extremely enjoyable experience that lends credence to the “games are art” debate and it will surprise you in none of the ways you were expecting.
ZombiU is the only straight up horror game on this list. Released in 2012, it puts you into a zombie filled, post apocalyptic London, in which you, a survivor of this disaster are contacted by someone only known as “The Prepper”. The Prepper is watching you via the city’s CCTV camera system and leads you to a safe house he’s prepared and the game unfolds from there. In addition to the novel setting, the game does a number of things differently than most other zombie games. First, this definitely isn’t an action game. It’s much more slower paced and has a bigger focus of survival. Think season 1 of The Walking Dead, back when the survivors weren’t able to stylishly take out 8 zombies at a time and there was a huge sense of dread and tension when they encountered even one. That’s the way this feels. Zombies aren’t cannon fodder, but seriously dangerous foes that can kill you in a single bite. Facing just one of them is enough to make you grip the controller tightly and fear for your safety. Bumping into two of them at once is an invitation to become overwhelmed. Anything more than that is essentially a death sentence.
The emphasis of zombies being a real threat really elevates the game to another level and adds a palpable tension to all the other game mechanics that are built around it. The WiiU’s much maligned Gamepad controller is a key component in this. You have a map that displays on the Gamepad’s screen and you can press a button and “ping” your surroundings. If there is “something” nearby, the ping will return with a bleep and a flash of red on your map, indicating that there is likely a zombie (or rat, or crow) nearby. Since every encounter could be your last, you’ll find yourself creeping slowly around pinging the map almost constantly.
The scares and tension are amplified by the asymmetrical game play of using the Gamepad because anytime your eyes are looking at the Gamepad/map – they aren’t on the TV screen, which means that corpse you passed earlier that looked dead, could have stood up and made its way over to you. This tension builds as the game play expands along with your progression and you start to do more with the Gamepad. Need to pick a lock on a door? Time to look down at the controller and deal with the action down there. Say goodbye to being able to pause the game, collect yourself, and equip your best weapon. instead the Gamepad acts as your bag, so anything you want to pull out of there has your character on screen stopping and pulling off his bag as you rifle through your inventory – something that leaves your playable character with his head down and you distracted and vulnerable for the undead.
All of this terror, tension, and stress culminates in a great “permadeath” feature. If you die, that’s it. That character is dead for good. You wake up as a totally different, new survivor without any of your previous weapons or gear, forcing you to backtrack while under powered to find the now zombified version of your previous character. Once you find your previous self, you then need to and kill them if you hope to get any of your belongings back. If you fail – your previous gear, weapons, and survival items are gone for good and you have to start scavenging all over again. This system really ramps up the tension in the best way possible and forces you to carefully consider every move you make. Take it from me, just when you start feeling comfortable and cocky, that’s likely when your downfall is seconds away from being realized. The upside to this system is some clever usage of online functionality. Just when all hope seems lost, you might bump into a now undead survivor who played on a system somewhere else in the world and his loss is your saving grace. You can kill this player and take all the loot they had on them at the time of death, greatly increasing your chance of survival.
ZombiU is not an amazing game. It’s full of bad loading times, cheesy voice acting, glitches, and bugs, but if you’re looking for a challenging game brimming with tension and scares, ZombiU will scratch that itch. Just don’t play the child’s daycare section alone. Seriously. To hell with that.