Heliophobia reminds me of a nightmare I once had.
I was climbing a spiral staircase before finally reaching a door at the top. As I got close to the keyhole, my breathing suddenly turned sharp and ragged. I started hyperventilating. I knew that whatever was behind that door would take the shape of something so horrible, so terrifying, that I might never recover once I laid eyes on it. When I tried to look through the keyhole, I heard screaming in my head so loud that my vision began to distort and shake. I woke up a few seconds later, still gasping for air.
I remembered all of this after I got too close to a nameless monster in Heliophobia, a first-person mystery and surreal horror game from Glass Knuckle Games that’s now available on Linux, Mac and Windows PC for $9.99. By following a nonlinear narrative structure, the game is extremely successful at amplifying feelings of unease. Tension builds up quickly; no two experiences are the same, even if you’re replaying a chapter. At one point, I tried to use a YouTube walkthrough after being unable to find a key that would get me out of a house. But every time I restarted after dying, the key was in a new place. Even among friends or people on the internet, I realized how alone I was in my experience.
After waking up inside an empty airplane, you find a note tucked into a tray table. It says to find and kill someone named “J.R.” This is how it begins: a series of notes tells you to recover your memories, piece together what happened, and get the hell out of there. A secret organization called the Gemini Society seems to be at odds with J.R. and maybe even you, the protagonist. From there, the clues give way to more questions than answers as the game’s central mystery expands in scope. Between the grotesque monsters walking around and exploring snippets of an abandoned metropolis, Heliophobia is sprinkled with puzzles and mind games that lead players down a path of confusion and — befitting its name, since after all, heliophobia is a fear of sunlight — literal darkness.
Heliophobia cleverly breaks up its stages with rooms, making it easy to put down and pick up. Some are short environmental puzzles, some are labyrinthine twists in the dark, others are about pure survival. Upon finishing each stage, you return to a theater lobby lined with doors. Signs above the doors either read “Audition,” “Encore,” or “Standby,” depending on what’s already been completed. It’s this theatrical, performative aesthetic that conveys a dark kind of voyeurism that runs deep throughout the game. You’re being watched, playing out a part that someone — or something — set up long before you woke up in that plane.
Making my way through each stage had my palms sweating, and I was constantly dreading the appearance of seeing those things again. There are no weapons, no combat, no way of killing them. I found myself actually holding my breath whenever I got close to them, listening to guttural heaving and the squelching of skinless feet as they slowly padded off into the next room. Depending on your proximity to the monsters, the screen and sound will start to glitch. The closer you are, the harder the glitch. When I hid under a kitchen table and one stopped right next to me, my monitor flickered and my speakers blared — I could barely see what was in front of me. At times, the glitching was so intense that I thought my computer was going to crash.
But for all of the cryptic clues and puzzles left in J.R.’s wake, Heliophobia never quite delivers a solid explanation at the end. There are so many questions I thought would’ve been answered before the credits rolled. By the time it was over, I was left scratching my head, wondering if there was a secret epilogue I missed. Something always feels just barely out of reach — its world is filled with symbols and secrets that tease knowledge of something greater, more sinister. I wanted to understand more about the secret society, the touch of occult-like elements that drifted in and out of rooms. Heliophobia builds up a sequence of captivating but ultimately unexplainable phenomena, racking up a debt to the player that it doesn’t quite pay off in the end.
The world of Heliophobia is both arresting and disorienting, providing just enough clues and environmental setup to pique a morbid sense of curiosity. Despite the story dipping its toe into obscure and cult-like elements, the game’s strengths lie in its strangely crafted chapters and heart-pounding moments. Everything about its aesthetic reads like a familiar series of dreams and nightmares. And like a vivid dream, I was thinking about it long after the credits rolled.
Heliophobia was reviewed on Mac using a final “retail” Steam key provided by Glass Knuckle Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.