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Horror games have never been scarier

From being a mortician’s assistant to swimming through an alien moon’s oceans of blood

A red screen from video game Who’s Lila. On one side is a man’s stern young face, staring directly into the camera. On the other, the same young man climbs the stairs of an apartment building. Image: Garage Heathen

Every year has big tentpole releases, like the Assassin’s various Creeds or a new Call of Duty. But there’s an underbelly to the game release calendar in the form of a thriving horror games scene. Many of these games have a short run time, focusing on one chilling concept or malicious monster, and they’re nearly as fun to watch as they are to play. October is a prime time for scary games, but if you look carefully, they’re available all year round. They push the medium forward, and they’re my personal games of the year.

A big, meaty open-world RPG like Elden Ring is full of terrifying characters and eldritch twists, but I find the most compelling scares that lurk around my brain come from smaller and more focused experiences. And I’m not alone. Horror is the most popular tag on itch.io, a platform that tends to host smaller and more experimental titles. There are also horror games with no end, like Dead by Daylight or Phasmophobia, that are fun to play over and over or watch streamers attempt. When I don’t have the courage to make my way through a campaign — or the inclination to find all of the endings and secrets — I can check out one of the YouTubers or Twitch streamers who explore the genre.

A player flees from the Trickster in Dead by Daylight. The Trickster’s POV shows the player fleeing, and he raises a brightly colored throwing knife in preparation for the kill. Image: Behaviour Interactive

One of the best horror games that came out this year is Who’s Lila?, a point-and-click adventure starring the awkward youth William. As the player navigates through William’s life, they have to manually adjust his expression; he’s not good at doing it on his own, and staring at everyone with an expressionless poker face tends to freak others out.

As the player pilots William through a day at school, they begin to peel back a dreadful onion of murder, mystery, and meta meetings held in the margins of the save menu. The player discusses the various ends they encounter with an intrepid detective. I hadn’t played anything like Who’s Lila? before; the inventive hook pulled me in, and I initially had fun yanking William’s face into increasingly silly expressions. There’s nothing quite like the joy of having him bare his teeth and pull his eyelids back and have it register as a friendly smile.

But like a boiling frog, the intrigue ramped up, and I was glued to my computer until I figured out all the endings. Who’s Lila? is a little ugly to look at and awkward to control, but that’s part of the charm. It’s horror at its best — an unfurling, increasingly distressing mystery that risks engulfing the characters and town around it. The player is the only one who recognizes the risk; the enigmatic Lila is free to roam as she pleases.

The player looks into a mirror as William, the protagonist of Who’s Lila. On the right side of the screen, they manipulate his face to make a disgusted expression. Image: Garage Heathen

Another great short horror game is The Mortuary Assistant, which has a much cornier plot that still serves up some interesting scares. The Mortuary Assistant stars Rebecca, who’s taken a new job as the titular mortuary assistant in a tough economy. Turns out her new workplace is chock-full of demons, and now she has to navigate the usual tasks of draining, sewing up, and preserving human bodies while identifying and torching the corpses infested with demons. This game popped on Twitch due to the randomized scares and multiple endings, making each streamer’s path a little bit different.

Chilla’s Art is a studio of two brothers creating small, focused horror experiences that often start with mundane situations. In 2022, the studio released The Closing Shift, a job simulator game that becomes something more sinister. What if you worked at a Starbucks-style store… and one customer got a little too interested in getting your number? This is a short game, but it’s a relatable experience that’s enthralling and disconcerting.

These small and concentrated horrors are intense and difficult to explore in a massive, triple-A title meant for huge audiences. Indie games pull off these new and uniquely terrifying ideas best. Iron Lung puts the player in the role of a sole submarine operative, navigating through an alien moon’s oceans of blood. It’s a short game, but it takes a killer premise and executes on it in a deeply unnerving, hair-raising way.

a terrifying demon perches on top of a cabinet at the mortuary’s workshop in the video game The Mortuary Assistant. Image: DarkStone Digital/DreadXP

There’s something chilling — and strangely satisfying — about getting into some sort of terrible trouble in a video game. Being locked in a supernatural motel room, stranded on the roadside, or drowning in an underground network of claustrophobic tunnels is strangely thrilling. And when my own resolve falters, I know I can always turn to streams. Watching someone else fall prey to a jump scare or sneak their way past a terrifying enemy is a satisfying experience in and of itself.

It’s a great time for horror — and many of these games are so easy to access and play. These short but scary experiences grab you by the lapel, shake you up, and then cast you off into the woods. It’s nice to have these memorable experiences — even if they are, on occasion, followed by nightmares.

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