What makes independent horror games stand out so much? While so many indie games fail to penetrate an oversaturated market, the horror genre is different. There’s a new homemade standout every month.
There’s a draw to the fully-fledged operas of the genre, triple-A games like Alien: Isolation and Dead Space that build terrifying worlds to encompass players. Millions of dollars of engine development, art and sound design are thrown into these titles.
Yet there’s also a draw to the stripped down entries of the genre. The Five Nights at Freddy’s series is often cited as one of the scariest franchises, and it’s incredibly popular. The story of a pizza place’s animatronic characters becoming possessed and crawling the halls at night, gameplay is extraordinarily simple. Each game takes place in only a single room, but players are asked to use cameras to keep an eye on several other locations.
The rules require players to read into what they see and hear at every turn, and make strategic decisions with limited resources. Do you take the time to reboot the noisemaker that distracts the creatures, or do you press on without it? Can you rely on certain assumptions about where all the creatures are, or do you need to double-check? The games stay fresh from one entry to the next by stressing new elements. The last entry focused on sound cues almost exclusively, while also transferring the setting from that accursed pizza place to a toddler’s room in the night. Instead of cameras, you crawled to various doors that lead into your bedroom.
The deceptively simple Spooky’s House of Jump Scares echoes many of these same concepts. The game is decidedly retro, wryly comedic, and its gameplay boils down to “run faster than the things chasing you.” Yet the quiet moments in between, the false clues, fake monsters jumping out at you in the form of endearing cardboard cutouts, all train you to react most intensely to your own imagination. As the level logic drops out from under you and creatures actually start chasing you, sometimes you won’t even realize it until you double-back from a dead end and suddenly see one closing. (It was selected as one of our Best Free Games on Steam.)
One of the games it riffs on is SCP – Containment Breach, an independent game that captured imaginations by featuring blinking as a gameplay mechanic. One creature chasing you is like the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They can’t move when they’re in your line of sight, but blink or turn away and they’ll close on you incredibly quickly. You try to hold your eyes open and blink at opportune moments. By contrast, another creature chases and kills the player if its face is directly in the player’s eyesight. Hazards like gas that make the player have to blink more often complicate matters. This all combines to create simple yet unique gameplay moments where you’re either backing away from a deadly creature, or holding your eyes shut as you approach it. It doesn’t matter that the game looks somewhat cheap; it matters that it plays so intensely.
These three examples explain the backbone of independent horror. Mainstream developers are required to report to publishers regularly. To justify the funding they receive, they have to make their games look and feel like all of the budget is on-screen at once, and they have to do it early in the process. They have to justify the money someone else is putting into the game.
Independent developers often enjoy free reign over their games. Unique creative voices are allowed time to build experiences around the gameplay, not the look or the polish. Singular visions aren’t as often compromised for ultra-realistic graphics, and gameplay innovation remains king.
Independent horror games are popular for the same reason that independent horror movies are popular. You don’t need that much overhead to scare someone. You can do it with simple elements. Think of it this way, if you wanted to put on a drama for your parents when you were young, they’d love your enthusiasm, but they wouldn’t think they were taking in Shakespeare. If you wanted to dance for your parents when you were young, they’d love your energy, but they wouldn’t be calling the Martha Graham School. If you wanted to scare your parents when you were young, all you had to do was lie in wait and jump from around a corner, and they’d be startled.
Scaring is an easy thing to get down, easier to evoke than sadness or happiness. Fight or flight starts existing at a more basic, reactive emotional level. That’s not to say horror games don’t layer more complex reactions on top of those basic scares. After all, they have to be expert in making you anticipate, and not just jump. Fear is simply a more accessible door for developers than emotions that demand more trust. For the best in the flight part of that mechanic, consider Outlast, which threw parkour and elaborate chase scenes into the gameplay mix.
The accessibility of fear means individual developers or small teams working in horror can get an effective emotional foundation out fast and build from there. Most games spend a much longer time just getting that foundation established, convincing the player of a reality in the first place. All a horror game needs is leafless trees, suggestive shadows, a flickering light. Most people, even non-players, imagine horror games in their minds as they walk around a quiet house at night, or happen upon an eerie stretch of midnight street.
Players who seek out horror games are already well-trained in convincing themselves of frightening realities. On the other hand, you have to convince someone to be emotionally invested in a story enough to be happy or sad about it. That’s why horror can so reliably be realized without the expense of a fully constructed world. Players have already convinced themselves to be scared before they’ve even sat down to play the game. In horror, you don’t need to establish the feeling, only build on it. Perhaps no game did this better than the game that laid the encounter-based groundwork for modern horror, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Players don’t notice or care about the lack of elaborate engines and graphics the way they would in other genres. Those elements help, but they’re not required. This allows independent developers, who are already focused more on gameplay than graphics, to spend more time on the player experience. Horror games tend to be about what works and what doesn’t work, not about how to get it to work in the first place. This can mean simpler systems that take less development time. That time can be spent on new innovations, and simpler gameplay mechanics mean fewer bugs and easier playtesting. Most importantly, players have already decided they want to be scared before booting up the game. They’re not looking to be convinced, only satisfied, and that’s where independent developers are most specialized.