Architecture and topography themselves become horror in these underground experimental games – titles you can play with a few minutes in the dark.

Regular readers have no doubt heard me make the claim before and can look forward to it appearing again: indie games are the new albums. So nowhere better to explore the strange and experimental angles on that on, the thinking person’s Steam.

Don’t expect hours of gameplay and high-polygon ghouls jumping out at you – perhaps don’t expect gameplay at all. There’s tons of game jam material, and of course, some of us adore that kind of quick-fix weirdness. But the creators publishing to itch can deliver high-concept, surreal worlds that are somehow even more genuinely frightening. It’s that trippy simplicity that allows them to get somehow more under your skin.

As on Bandcamp, there’s plenty that’s cheap, pay-what-you-like, and free – and there’s a Halloween sale on now:

A haunting house

The perfect lockdown title for the moment to me is Anatomy. Built in Unity Engine, the game’s visuals are so dim that you’ll actually have to turn out the lights to play.

Every house is haunted.

Explore a suburban house, collect cassette tapes, study the physiology of domestic architecture.

It’s an analog lover’s delight. If you live in a suburban home, or if you ever have, it could warp your perception of reality just by playing it. Without spoiling the plot, you discover the house by navigating through darkened rooms and discovering items in a series of audio cassette tapes. When they say you should replay it – you should. You know what happens to VHS tapes as they’re replayed?

It’s good once, when you think it’s over. But then play it again.

Seriously. This game is not just an architecture lecture. Play it more than once. (There is a ‘spoilers’ text if you get stuck.) It is … really one of the scariest things I’ve played, especially since you have to play it in the dark to see the screen and it’s a time of isolation.

This is a 2016 title – and there’s plenty more from creator Kitty Horrorshow, self-described “woraven witchqueen : black-feathered harpy heresiarch : Goddess of Haunted Cities.”

“i am made of blood” I think is actually scrawled over the main offices at EA, too, but here it’s more charming somehow.

School’s out

We’ve all been there.

Some readers of the site no doubt were once Japanese schoolkids, but if there is a similarly traumatized child inside you from any culture, join in for Ruins in Me. It’s a prototype more than full game, but I found it surprisingly poetic – and appreciate its strange render engine.

This experimental title turns out to be a portal to a series of scary games featured by Malaysia’s Attau Gaming (so prepare for some Malaysian-language voiceover, of course)!

Let’s up the playcounts for this person! (some great finds in there)

Son of a birch

A desolate birch farm where weird things happen

I don’t know what your nightmares look like, but some of mine definitely seem like some f***ed up custom PlayStation 1-style game engine built in OpenGL.

Weird things are afoot in the OpenGL engine, too.

And if that’s your idea of pleasantly creeping yourself out, behold this summer’s Betula by nothke, in an entirely custom and very strange custom game engine coded in OpenGL. Just in case you manage to hold it together long enough while the ground appears to be sliding into another dimension, you’ll be harassed by some man with freakishly long arms speaking … well, you identify the language, if you can.

This is just one result from a wonderful PS1 game jam themed “wretched weekend.” It’s from June, not Halloween, but surely all of 2020 has had a basic horror vibe going for it.

So there you have it, whenever you need a break from making your snare sound even worse or listening to the same loop over and over again, turn out the lights and freak yourself out. (Or if you’ve got family around and have been stuck with them for all eternity by pandemics and whatnot, some of these games could be reasonably finished on a “toilet break” if you were to disappear).