Video games are the perfect medium for telling truly terrifying stories. Because they’re immersive by nature, seeing your avatar startled, scared, and spooked by any number of animated horrors is like seeing the same happen to you. While AAA horror is still a popular genre—2014’s The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation had solid sales despite some mediocre reviews—indie horror games are pushing scares to screaming new heights.
So what is the independent horror genre doing right? We’re taking a look at some of 2014’s hottest horror titles to find out.
The Forest is a lot like Lost, if Lost were about mutant cannibals rather than unanswered questions and dizzying plotlines. Your plane crashes on a mysterious island, where you must use whatever resources you can scavenge to keep yourself alive and find your kidnapped son. This is a next-gen survival horror game with crafting elements and enough suspense to keep you furiously collecting resources through many long, dark nights. A recent update of The Forest includes co-op, so now you and your buddy can die together at the merciless hands of cannibals.
Unlike many AAA games, The Forest keeps the player in the dark most of the time. Many Alpha players have compared it to a non-blocky Minecraft, but The Forest is a thousand times scarier—mostly thanks to the surprise of seeing your first mutant, and a plot that unravels gently and terrifyingly as you go.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
If you’ve ever felt creeped out by the unblinking eyes of animatronic animals, Five Nights at Freddy’s is going to be nightmare-inducing. You play Mike Schmidt, a nighttime security guard at a children’s pizza parlor, which seems easy enough. Except for—oh, right—the animatronics don’t shut down at night, and they have a peculiar fondness for murdering people by stuffing them into animal suits just like their own.
As Mike, players must manage the restaurant’s meager electricity supply to monitor the security cameras and blast doors to keep the animatronics out. Because if the electricity goes out, so does any semblance of safety. With its numerous jump scares and overall atmosphere of terror, Five Nights at Freddy’s gained a lot of attention thanks to Let’s Play videos and fan reactions. Like many other indie horror games, Five Nights at Freddy’s makes the most of limited resources, by forcing players into isolation and taunting them with snippets of story and horror to come. Rather than relying on realistically-rendered gore, indie horror games like Five Nights at Freddy’s use atmosphere and tension to bring the scares.
Among the Sleep
Reliving your childhood seems great, until you remember that being a child means being totally helpless. That’s exactly what Among the Sleep is counting on. As a two-year-old, the player character has severe limitations—speech, fine motor skills, and any form of combat are pretty much out of the question. The horror comes in feeling entirely unable to save yourself, as well as the uncertainty of knowing whether what you’re seeing is actually happening or just the confused delusions of a child. While it’s light on gameplay, Among the Sleep does an exemplary job of demonstrating just how frightening it is to be as utterly helpless and vulnerable as a toddler—a wholly unique horror game experience. The player character lacks any defense mechanism, and even running away results in the toddler falling and being more helpless.
These are the areas where indie horror games shine. The Forest, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Among the Sleep all force players to be humanly vulnerable, rather than letting players be powerful combat pros on the offensive. Because a crazed cannibal or a murderous, freaky-eyed teddy bear become infinitely scarier when you have no firepower, magical whammies, or mixed-martial arts training to take them down.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender are still held up as staples of the genre, despite neither of them having big budgets or hyper-realistic graphics. Indie horror games can make up for small budgets or staff resources by being innovative, and that’s exactly what these games do. They think outside the box to scare players, without relying entirely on gore, mainstream trends, or fancy graphics to get the job done.