It's almost Halloween. Which means that it's time to partake in the grand tradition of gorging on horror media — scary movies, ghost stories and most importantly, terrifying games.
There are a number of high profile releases to get excited about this season. Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within have both launched this month, and Neverending Nightmares, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and D4 (which was more bizarre Swery65-ery than true horror) are all very recently released.
But you don't need to spend tons of money to get a solid horror fix this season. Actually, you don't need to spend any money at all. The following is a list of scary, mostly indie games. Some are Interactive Fiction (IF). Some are first-person exploration, others fit better into the adventure genre, some are even management sims. But every game on this list is spooky, and every one is 100% free.
I'm starting with this one first, to get it out of the way. If there's any chance you're interested in horror, have a PS4 and haven't yet played P.T., Hideo Kojima and team's brilliant, subversive playable teaser for the upcoming Silent Hills, then I have no idea why you're still reading this. Go play it! Find out for yourself why people are STILL playing, discussing and making videos about this supposed "piece of viral marketing." It may have been designed as a vehicle for a Silent Hills trailer, but it stands as one of the most interesting, effective horror games of the year on its own strengths.
And while we're at it with the bigger names, have you tried Slender: The Eight Pages? Slender may not be as scary as Lisa (the ghost from P.T.), and his game may not be as new, but it's still a very effective mood piece to get into the holiday spirit.
My father's long, long legs
This is one of the most unsettling, terrifying pieces of Interactive Fiction (IF!) that I've ever played. Author Michael Lutz uses mystery and tells us just enough about what's going on to instill true, genuine terror in the player. The use of effects later on in the game (I won't spoil it) is a stroke of brilliance.
A Dark Room
A Dark Room tasks you with basic resource management while placing you in a world that evokes the horror classic The Wolf Man. You need to stoke a fire in a large room. Strangers appear. Maybe they will be useful... maybe not. You need to build traps and collect wood and deal with horrifying creatures in the night. A Dark Room is basically a calm headed "what would you do as a leader in a terrible situation" sim, full of bloodthirsty monsters and sparse prose.
Composition 83 is a short but extremely creepy experience, worth playing for its ambiance and use of unsettling black and white visuals. You are trapped in a slow-moving diving suit — maybe it's a space suit. Maybe it's a diving bell. Composition 83 doesn't tell you everything about it's disturbing world. But the things it doesn't tell you are just as terrifying as the things it does.
The Last Door
This entry comes with a content warning for suicide.
The Last Door is an episodic, free-to-play point and click adventure set in a spooky, late victorian-era mansion. One pull quote on the website calls it a "love letter to Lovecraft," but I think early chapters take as much from Poe, with their ominous murder of crows in the back yard, vacant fields and eerie, empty rooms to explore. It's atmospheric, stylish and deeply disturbing.
I'm Scared: A Pixelated Nightmare
This came out in 2012, but it belongs on this list. A first person horror game that involves walking through seemingly endless corridors, only to find spooky apparitions, bloodstains and oblique-seeming puzzles, I'm Scared is terrifying throughout. The game requires you to make a separate folder on your hard drive for... reasons. I won't spoil anything, but the game innovates on horror tropes in a game environment in fascinating ways.
Lights Out, Please
Lights Out, Please is a collection of spooky twine stories (IF!) made by a diverse collection of folks. There are ghost stories. There are tales of revenge, strange creatures and things that go bump in the night. All of the stories are available for free at the link below, but if you do like what you play, you can leave a donation here that'll be evenly split across all 13 creators.
Like this article? Make sure you check out our Halloween Hub, a page dedicated to stories about games that scare, and the like.