Alt+Home: Hallowed Horror

Games can be more than mere entertainment. In our column Alt+Home, intermedia artist Kent Sheely explores the ways independent developers are challenging the status quo, creating brand new experiences, and making a difference in the world.

October is an important time for the brave souls who spend the 30 days leading up to Halloween indulging in as much spine-tingling, heart-pounding horror as they can survive. Every year I like to set aside some time to play some of the spooky indie games I haven’t yet had the chance to savor, but with so many to choose from across so many various outlets, it can be a daunting task just figuring out where to look! If you’ve got a full schedule and just don’t have time to choose, not to worry; I’ve picked out a selection of my favorites, and I’ll tell you why I think they’re worth adding a few gray hairs to your head.

Anatomy

Kitty Horrorshow

“In the psychology of the modern civilized human being, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the house,” a voice begins to lecture in a darkened, empty kitchen, delivered by the distorted cassette player on the table. In Kitty Horrorshow’s latest delightfully unsettling production, a series of such recorded monologues provide a tour of a deserted suburban house, left vacant and hungry by the departure of its previous occupants. The narrator gives significance to each room by comparing them to the organs of a living creature, and as you explore, this analogy will become increasingly apparent.

It would be difficult to explain the premise of the game further without ruining the sense of dread you’ll feel every time you open a new door, or set foot on a new set of stairs, so just suffice it to say it’s an experience best savored in the dark, with a decent set of headphones. It’s a relatively short game, but as with Kitty’s other work, the tension in Anatomy is relentless, and you’ll never look at your home the same way again. Be sure to play through it multiple times, as there’s still more to discover even after you think you’ve been returned to the safety of your desktop and the soft glow of your monitor.

The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

Michael Lutz

Remember that childhood friend who lived on your street and claimed to have a tertiary relative who worked for a major game publisher? They always seemed to know all the hidden secrets in every game, so maybe it was true! Perhaps you hung out with the kid who loved to tell wild stories, the kind that only they could corroborate and seemed to get more far-fetched every time. Their dad didn’t really unearth a human skull in the garden, right? They had a better game system than you did though, so you kept playing at their house even if they were completely full of crap. Tall tales and urban legends still run rampant through schoolyards and groups of friends, but they were infinitely more mysterious before the Internet was around to quickly debunk them.

The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is a piece of interactive fiction that operates on that very scrap of uncertainty that let your young imagination pull your strings just for the sake of finding out just a few more juicy secrets about that boss on level eight. It takes place during a sleepover at a friend’s house, and the titular Uncle who works for Nintendo is on his way for a visit. This innocuous premise doesn’t even remotely betray how unnerving the night becomes as the hours tick by and the Uncle draws closer, so brace yourself for the surreal and be ready for anything.

Lurking

Lurkinggame

The most effective scares come from danger that is unseen and unknowable. If you missed my roundup of Minimalist Horror, I talked about a game called Dark Echo that takes place in complete darkness, in which the only visuals are the sound waves generated by your own footsteps and by external forces in the environment.

Lurking is played from a first-person perspective but operates on that same principle, in which the only way to see is to make some noise. However, you’re not alone in the building, and every time you generate enough sound to assess your environment, you’re ringing the dinner bell for the thing that’s hunting you. If you use a microphone, you can speak or shout to create the sound waves you need to “see” what’s in front of you, but it comes at the obvious cost of attracting even more attention to yourself.

Noct

C3SK

Like many other Survival Horror games, Noct follows the formula of “collect resources, avoid enemies, try not to die.” However, the way you experience it is something I’ve never seen before, and it’s extremely effective. You see the entire world from above, like a lot of other similar games have done, but it’s through the lens of a thermal camera presumably attached to an aircraft that tracks your character’s movements. The only sound you hear is the ambient soundtrack, even as you watch your tiny avatar scrambling for safety and pouring round after luminous round into gigantic pursuing monsters. Ammo is scarce, but running is often just as difficult as standing your ground to fight. Despite the disconnect between yourself and the character you control, your heart will still leap into your throat every time a colossal, indescribable creature lurches noiselessly out of a building toward you.

To complicate the situation, there are other players who, like you, are desperate for the limited resources they need to survive. Some will see the value of numbers in a situation like this, but others will just as likely see you as competition and put a bullet through your head. Don’t turn your back on anyone you meet out there!

The Night That Speaks

Adamgryu

There’s something about intentionally low-resolution graphics that enhances the tension in a game that already has a creepy, threatening atmosphere. As a nearsighted person, I always equate it to navigating an unfamiliar home in the middle of the night without my contact lenses. The Night That Speaks was inspired by a game jam in which participants were challenged to make a game using the resolution and palette constraints of the original Game Boy, so not only are the graphics pixelated and chunky, the pools of shadow all start to blur together and it’s difficult to tell which clusters of light down every corridor are something you should worry about.

Your only weapon against the terrors that dwell within is the force of your own will, which you exert by defiantly extending your middle finger in a gesture that rebukes and momentarily halts the forces that intend to end your life. It’s a mechanic that offers comic relief but doesn’t assuage the anxiety you’ll feel as you push further into the darkness.

Bad Dream: Series

Desert Fox

Point-and-click adventure games are near and dear to me, as they were one of the first genres I ever played as a kid. They were one step forward from the interactive fiction that introduced me to video games, and the simplicity of both was what made them so scary and fascinating to my young mind. They lacked visual detail, which caused my imagination to fill in the often horrifying details of their stories, which made them far more capable of inspiring fear than even the gory slasher movies I wasn’t allowed to watch (but still managed to discover via friends in my neighborhood with far less vigilant parents).

The Bad Dream series, which spans six episodes, is demonstrably based on the “less is more” ideology that lies at the root of the most hair-raising games. Instead of going with a low-resolution “retro” look, however, its visuals are composed of just a scant few lines of ink, just barely enough to provide a sense of space, on what appears to be aged paper. They look like pages from a sketchbook that would have gotten you sent to the counselor’s office in high school, backed by a droning, metallic soundtrack and surgically disruptive incidental sound effects.

Which

Mike Inel

The second game in this list to trap you in an abandoned house with your wits and nerve as your only means of escape, Which sends you to wander a vacant home to collect a series of keys you’ll need to unlock the front door. The environment is rendered in textureless, grayscale and dimly-lit forms, giving the entire game a murky quality that is surprisingly pleasant to look at. Sunlight pours mockingly through the massive windows and between the links of the chains that block your only exit.

It won't take you long to discover that you're not alone in the house; a figure waits for you inside one of the rooms, a black-clad woman who literally has a heart-shaped hole in her chest. What does she want from you? Why is she silently stalking you from room to room, appearing suddenly at the tops of stairs and skulking in darkened doorways, somehow watching your every move despite her disturbing lack of a head?

She Who Fights Monsters

Gaming Pixie

It’s rare to see young children as protagonists in horror games, which is a shame because the world can be an even more frightening place when viewed through the filter of their rampant imaginations. In She Who Fights Monsters you spend seven in-game days as Jennifer, a little girl who lives with her alcoholic and abusive father. She is forced to fend for herself, scavenging food from the kitchen and trying to avoid her father when at all possible. Jennifer’s bedroom closet, which appears to her as a lush and tranquil garden, seems to be the only bastion of safety, but can she hide there forever?

Jennifer’s home is a terrifying world to her, which becomes viscerally apparent when the environment occasionally transform into a twisted nightmarish landscape when her anxiety begins to escalate. When she is forced to confront her father, the game shifts into an RPG-style, turn-based battle of sorts, but does a small girl have any hope to defend herself against the powers wielded by a twisted monster?

While you obviously don’t have to wait until Halloween rolls around to dip into the rich pool of horrific adventures that are available, I think it’s a lot of fun to treat it as a yearly ritual like we do with so many other holidays. If you’re in the mood to do some searching on your own, Itch.io and GameJolt are fantastic places to start! This list contains my personal recommendations, but there’s a wealth of refreshingly creative scares out there that will test your nerves and leave you wanting more.

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