While there were larger, more obvious horror games that grabbed the attention of gamers this year, the genre’s health is rudest in the smaller spaces.
Smaller-scale horror games are the building blocks for the genre’s future, and this year has given us such an interesting mixture of horror in all its shapes and sizes.
So here is my list of notable indie and small-scale horror games of 2023 for ComingSoon.
Killer Frequency (Team 17)
Killer Frequency takes the simulator approach to building a unique flavor of horror. You play a washed-up DJ in the 1980s, slumming it a small-time radio station, and you get the unbridled joy of working the night shift. That does allow you to actually take calls, swap records out, play with mixers, play ads and sound effects, and go for the high score in throwing balled-up pieces of paper into the waste paper bin across the studio.
But that alone wouldn’t be much of a horror. An almost mythical killer from the town’s past has seemingly emerged on this night,a nd only you can guide callers out of their personal sticky situations with the killer by finding the right materials around the station to keep them in the land of the living.
Killer Frequency takes place in real-time during these calls, and each caller could potentially die if you don’t help them in time or help them in the right way. It makes for a refreshing intensity and pressure, but also makes good use of your limited environment as a subtle puzzle box.
Stasis: Bone Totem (The Brotherhood)
This throwback to isometric point-and-click adventures was one I took a while to finally play, but its aquatic horror themes were a great hook once I got there.
Mac and Charlie, a husband and wife duo, who make their living scouring the ocean for salvage. But, when they stumble upon an abandoned oil rig in the Pacific Ocean, they uncover a horrific secret that Cayne Corporation will do anything to keep hidden.
Stasis: Bone Totem is an audiovisual feast. The grungey, dripping locations feel far more expansive than a screenshot might suggest. The unraveling of a great mystery under the ocean also manages to grow in its horrifying nature the deeper Mac and Charlie go.
Lethal Company (Zeekerss)
Chances are you’ve probably seen or heard about Lethal Company in recent weeks. Since its Early Access launch in October, this humble take on the co-op extraction shooter has provided players with all manner of wacky, hilarious, and frightening anecdotes.
You and your crewmates are sent to abandoned, industrialized moons to salvage goods for your company. While there, you need to amass enough goods to meet the required quota and thus be allowed back home.
Sounds easy enough until you realize just how many strange and sinister monsters like to hang out on these moons. Each has its own unique ruleset that, once learned, will make them easier to handle. But Lethal Company never makes it easy for you and your team.
Homebody (Game Grumps)
You might suspiciously eye a horror game from the people behind Dream Daddy and a comedic YouTube channel, but you really shouldn’t because Homebody is an intriguing time loop slasher game reminiscent of classic Clock Tower.
A young woman named Emily meets with her friends at a remote house to view a meteor shower and generally reconnect after various issues caused them to grow apart. But as night falls, a masked killer arrives and slays the group.
That is until Emily finds herself alive and back at the start of the evening. As time keeps looping and people keep dying, Emily, who is the only one who seems to be aware of the loop, must uncover the puzzling secrets of the house to break the loop and stop the killer.
Amanda the Adventurer (MANGLEDmaw Games)
One of the lovely things about itch.io, the site that gives indie game makers a space to publish their games, is that it allows for some fascinating short-form experiments that can potentially turn into fully-fledged experiences. Amanda the Adventurer is a great example of this.
Having inherited their Aunt Kate’s house, Riley Park starts exploring what the reclusive woman left behind. In the attic, Riley is surprised to find a stack of VHS tapes next to an old TV set. The tapes seem to be episodes of an early 2000’s era children’s cartoon they have never seen before. Intrigued, Riley pops the first tape into the VCR.
The television show that follows is crude and may well cause parents with a disdain for Cocomelon to shudder just looking at it, but that’s not where the horror lies. There’s something sinister about the show, and it could well have a connection to where Riley stands in the present day.
The Outlast Trials (RedBarrels)
I will make no secret of my distaste for RedBarrels’ Outlast and its sequel. But The Outlast Trials shows those games were mere stepping stones on the way to the developer’s true potential.
The Outlast Trials puts a multiplayer spin on things by making you a somewhat unwilling participant in a government brainwashing program that sees you complete various horrific tests. The only way to win is to survive the terrors you must endure and be broken enough to become a pliable husk of humanity. Cheerful stuff!
Even in Early Access, The Outlast Trials is one of the strongest horror multiplayer experiences around. The nervous intensity of survival in the trials is bad enough when you’re riding solo, but with others, the worst of humanity can be teased out and change your fate in mere seconds.
My Friendly Neighborhood (John & Evan Szymanski)
On the surface, My Friendly Neighborhood would appear to be another eye-rolling attempt at mascot horror in the wake of Five Nights at Freddy’s monumental success. Its offbeat spin of a Seasame Street style show gone wrong does little to dissuade the casual observer of that.
But the reality is that My Friendly Neighborhood is much more of a classic survival horror experience with a demented and inventive sense of humor in its characters, environments, and most of all, in its weaponry. The surprise is that it’s actually a refreshing take on both survival horror and mascot horrror.
The Szymanski’s take the ball of Saturday morning kids show gone rogue and run with it to the point it distorts the reality the game exists in. From those bonkers weapons to world design that amplifies the vibrant and unusual nature of the game’s story.
El Paso, Elsewhere (Strange Scaffold)
The premise of El Paso, Elsewhere feels so typically early 2000s PC gaming that I can almost feel the sting of my eyes from another unadvisable all-nighter on Quake 3.
It’s not like Quake though; it’s instead like a more cosmic and supernatural take on Remedy’s Max Payne with a hardboiled detective slaying werewolves in slow-mo within the confines of a reality-shifting motel.
But it’s what El Paso, Elsewhere does with that setup that makes it so special. It’s inventive, odd, and, as advertised, full of more slow-motion dives than you would think it is humanly possible to fit into a single video game.
Varney Lake (LCB Game Studio)
Last year, I fell in love with LCB Game Studio’s homage to pulp novels and 80s text adventures Mothmen 1966. Its simplified, yet striking color palette, intriguing spin on B-movie sci-fi horror, and general presentation made it a surprise hit for me.
Varney Lake arguably improves on that experience in every way. A tale of innocence lost as three kids enjoying their Summer in 1950s America encounter a vampire that will change their lives forever.
The story has an air of Stephen King to it, especially with the back and forth between the kids’ fateful Summer and the aftermath in their adult lives. It definitely retains the pulp feel of its predecessor, but there’s a bit more of a tragic human connection to Varney Lake that makes it stick in the brain.
Dredge (Black Salt Games)
The term Lovecraftian gets thrown around a lot for a certain kind of horror game, but very few actually translate the feeling of Lovecraft‘s work and instead simply copy the notes. Dredge is one of those that captures the unsettling dread and feeling of cosmic insignificance. And it’s basically just an open-world fishing sim.
In Dredge, you become the local fisherman for an archipelago with a mysterious past. Sketchy locals, hushed warnings about the dangers of the sea at night, and you pulling up your line and exclaiming ”what in the hell is that thing?” are signs all is not right with this place.
The better you get at Dredge, the more disturbing and horror-led it becomes. The price of increased freedom on the waves is coming face to face with the terrors of the deep. Effective horror is offset by the sometimes tranquil scouring of the ocean on your dinky trawler.
Incident at Grove Lake (ToothandClaw)
Itch.io is home to many fantastic short horror experiences. And when I say short, I mean somewhere between tea and lunch break short. Dan McGrath’s Incident at Grove Lake clocks in at about 25 minutes and manages to show off the style and atmosphere that another recent, and certainly more hyped, alien abduction game (Greyhill Incident) failed to conjure up once.
Part found footage, part PSX-style first-person adventure, Incident at Grove Lake taps into the 90s alien paranoia of Fire in the Sky and The X-Files by giving us various perspectives of the titular incident from past and present, and then layers on a dressing of reality with the use of real public radio shows concerning alien conspiracy.
That last part helps create a strong ending to the game, with the frenzied chattering of a caller convinced the government is out to get them echoes what we’ve seen in chilling fashion.
Slay the Princess (Black Tabby Games)
You’re on a path in the woods, and at the end of that path is a cabin. And in the basement of that cabin is a Princess. You’re here to slay her. If you don’t, it will be the end of the world.
She will do everything in her power to stop you. She’ll charm, and she’ll lie, and she’ll promise you the world, and if you let her, she’ll kill you a dozen times over. You can’t let that happen. Don’t forget, the fate of the world rests on your shoulders.
That’s the hook for Slay the Princess. It’s a game that teases and tricks the player and draws you into a hand-drawn world of cosmic horrors. To say more would tarnish the experience.