Summer can be expensive – holidays, air conditioning, building a bunker in your backyard and stocking it with supplies in case Trump becomes President. It’s also a rubbish time for video gaming, as companies hold everything back in order to cash in on the impending acquisitive orgy of Christmas. But do not despair! I have been on a mystical quest to Itch.io, a website that allows independent video game developers to get their games directly into the hands of gamers, and brought back five of their best horror games, from psychological terror to puzzle platforming via point-and-click adventure.
Notes of Obsession
Notes of Obsession is a first-person exploratory horror game in the vein of Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the Silent Hills Playable Teaser (PT), both of which it borrows from liberally over its twenty minute playing time. You play a mother who wakes up on a storm-lashed night to find her son missing and a music box creeping her out from the floor above. I found that scary enough, but things just got worse (in the best possible way) from there.
Notes of Obsession was made in only ten weeks by Creaky Stairs Studios, a group of Swedish game development students from the University of Skövde. It doesn’t look or play like it comes from such humble beginnings; the graphics are incredibly detailed and really bring the family’s home to life, while the game maintains a tense atmosphere throughout, building up to a satisfyingly visceral conclusion. I was hugely impressed. It looks like Sweden has a bright future when it comes to horror games.
Sinister Systems’ Daily Cthonicle tasks the player with the editorship of a supernatural newspaper agency. You will expose all manner of Lovecraftian horror and fight cultists, serial killers, and horrors from other dimensions in your quest to bring the truth to the beleaguered citizens of the Town. You do this by sending your reporters to various locations to interrogate locals, investigate unusual events, and delve into the hidden, dangerous locations.
Daily Cthonicle has some rough edges; the tutorial system is woefully inadequate, the interface somewhat finicky, and the graphics fairly rudimentary. But beneath that is a solid game with some surprisingly deep systems. Your reporters can be injured or driven insane, requiring treatment, therapy, or even long-term hospitalisation to recover, and they can level up as the game progresses. The stories are randomised each time you play for some heavy replay value, and are good fun to investigate – in my first playthrough I fought a skinless monstrosity, banished an undead playboy, and closed an interdimensional rift, all while increasing circulation and turning a profit. Daily Cthonicle feels like a modern updating of early 1990s classic (and one of my favourite childhood games) Covert Action with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian noir thrown into the mix.
I Can’t Sleep In Silence: It’s Always Darkest
It’s Always Darkest is the free prologue to the upcoming point-and-click adventure game series I Can’t Sleep In Silence by BlueBee Studios. It looks, sounds, and plays just like the classic Sierra/LucasArts adventures of yore, but with a neat Sin City-style art direction combining grainy black and white with the occasional burst of vibrant colour. You play British detective Warren Blake as he arrives at a crime scene to continue his investigation into the violent Abacus Killer.
It’s Always Darkest plays out over a slick twenty minutes, with strong characterisation imparted via Blake’s internal monologue and the dialogue of the supporting cast, which reads as authentically British rather than the mockney apples-and-pears or mouth-full-of-plums poshness that we usually have to put up with. The puzzles are logical, the world-building swiftly effective, and the story grabbed me and made me want to know what happens after a great final twist. I’ll definitely be picking up the full game when it releases.
Little Bug, from developer Bela Messex, is a two-dimensional platformer very much in the style of Limbo or Inside, albeit with a quirkier, more Tim Burton-esque aesthetic. The game is only at the “proof of concept” demo stage at the moment, hence its availability for free, but it brings some interesting twists to the genre and is well worth the half an hour or so it takes to play through.
The protagonist of Little Bug is an oddity – a platforming character who can’t jump. Instead you guide her with one thumbstick while controlling her companion, a firefly, with the other. A button press unleashes a stream of light from the firefly that pulls the character towards it, sending her leaping up over obstacles or swinging across gaps. Little Bug takes this simple idea and makes it feel instantly intuitive, while still providing a challenge as the game wears on. I enjoyed this one’s bittersweet styling and unique mechanics so much I played it through twice, back-to-back.
The least horrific title on the list, Katy133’s visual novel [redacted] Life earns its place on this list for its cute, tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of horror tropes and a couple of moments that managed to get the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.
You play as Adrian, who introduces himself with the memorable line “I first realised I was a character in a video game about three weeks ago…” Things get progressively stranger from there, with a twisting, turning plotline, some brilliant deconstructions of gaming culture, and some innovative fourth wall breaks (to tell you any more would be to ruin the game). There are a few minor spelling and grammar errors but the way [redacted] Life mixes daft and dark, silly and serious so expertly makes them easy to forgive.