It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of exploring the far corners of indie horror on PC gaming services such as Steam, where anyone can create whatever they want and make it as unabashedly weird as possible. Something I’ve noticed popping up more and more are games that I refer to as “Lo-fi horror.” That is to say, for whatever reason, they utilize deliberately dated aesthetics to convey their atmospheres and scares. Like any indie product on Steam, it’s difficult to tell when a game that falls under this category is worthwhile and when it’s best left ignored. During my years as an explorer of the dark corners of Steam, I’ve come across a few titles that are not only good despite their dated aesthetic, but work better because of it.
Some of these games are better than others, while others are worse, but each of them offer a unique horror experience that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the production values had been better.
Into the Gloom by earrgames
This is the most obviously flawed game in this article, mostly due to the storyline and possible translation. Given that earrgames only has one other Steam release, I can’t seem to figure out too much about them, but I get the impression that English is not their first language given the choppy and often overwritten nature of the game’s story. You play as an unknown individual who awakens in a building filled with dead bodies, and it soon becomes clear that you’re in some kind of parallel dimension from the real world ruled over by a being known only as “The Shadow.”
As the game’s story unfolds, things become more and more over-explained, and as is the case in a lot of horror stories, this takes away from the mood and terror of the situation. But I’d also be lying if I said that this game wasn’t effective. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve played Into the Gloom, and I really struggle to remember a lot of the late game events. But specific images have stuck with me since first playing it and that is all down to the game’s art style.
Utilizing the simple colors of black, white, and red, and restricting the player’s vision with extremely limited draw distance, Into the Gloom truly makes players feel like they’re trapped in a world eerily similar to our own. The atmosphere is spare, with the only sound often coming from the player’s own footsteps, and the fact that you can only see a few feet in front of you means that you never know quite what to expect waiting around a corner. These rather limited elements of the game’s production values somehow coalesce into something that feels unique and unnerving.
In the game’s ambition, there are quite a few missteps along the way. There are several chase sequences that become all the more frustrating as you are forced to do them over and over again. Despite the somewhat poor localization, puzzles are—for the most part—rather well done, but there are a few that can really aggravate. There are quite a few times where the path forward isn’t made clear to the player. It can be rather frustrating.
But the fact that it somehow manages to use these kind of crappy looking graphics to be genuinely disturbing is a small miracle. Its dirt cheap asking price helps a lot, too, but there’s another game that did everything Into the Gloom does, but better.
IMSCARED by Ivan Zanotti’s MyMadnessWorks
The fact that the game has the subtitle “A Pixelated Nightmare” put me off at first. Too many games seem to rely on cheap jump scares rather than any kind of tension to scare the player. It’s something I’m of the mindset Outlast is guilty of, but like Into the Gloom, the cheap asking price made me curious to check this short horror game out.
You once again play as an unnamed protagonist who is trapped in the world of some entity simply known as White Face. You are cryptically told that you need to help White Face “open a door” using a heart. It’s all extremely vague stuff, with new details being drip fed to you as you go, but it really does somehow capture the feeling of being in someone else’s nightmare. There isn’t any real logic to how the story proceeds, apart from you completing puzzles to progress. You’re brought to different environments seemingly on a whim, and there’s a deviation about halfway through the game with a new antagonist that only adds more wrinkles to what little understanding you may have of what’s going on.
But the consistent theme is that you are doggedly pursued by the game’s multiple antagonists through pixelated environments that, like Into the Gloom, have extremely limited fields of view for the player. It lets Ivan Zanotti really play around with space in the game, and they create things like endless hallways and change the environment after triggering certain events. It leads to a real feeling of unpredictability, particularly with the game’s more meta aspects.
Without getting too heavily into spoilers, this game deliberately messes with your computer by inserting a folder onto your desk top that has documents that are the key to progression. The game will seemingly crash upon failure, but then when you restart it, you’re in a brand new location or situation. It really plays with the idea that you’re not at all in control of what happens in the game, which is often the hallmark of a real nightmare. In my own bad dreams, I often lose control of my body and/or surroundings, often times in a dark but familiar place. I struggle to figure out exactly what’s happening, and seemingly random things go on around me. IMSCARED nails that feeling of lacking control more so than most other games.
Of course, on a second playthrough, you find out just how limited the game really is since everything unfolds in much the same way. But the first time through, it remains unpredictable, subversive, and viscerally terrifying with its limited view, disturbing sound design, meta elements, and sparing use of jump scares. It even has fake endings, and while the puzzle design can be frustratingly obtuse, attaining the true ending is satisfying and cathartic in a way few other horror games can brag. The game absolutely won me over, and remains a favorite because of how fiendishly clever it is during its two and a half hour run time. That might seem short, but it packs in a lot in that time, and to me, horror is always at its best when it’s unexpected.
Close Your Eyes by Yai Gameworks
Channeling the likes of Corpse Party, the granddaddy of Lofi Horror, Close Your Eyes is something I just stumbled across for free one day and downloaded on a whim. You ostensibly play as a character fans have referred to as Marshmallow Monk, although there is no name given in-game. Marshmallow Monk has been put on death row because they supposedly murdered someone. There’s a game show host who frequently halts the proceedings to ask them different questions, including whether or not they’re a murderer. You press on in the game’s bizarre and dream-like world and learn about the past, and the people affected by Marshmallow Monk’s actions.
This is one of those games that really cannot be done justice from a basic plot description alone. The overall aesthetic set the tone for Yai Gamework’s visual design in later games. That is to say, it combines an almost childish feeling of hand drawn art with sheer visceral, gruesome horror, but in a way that makes the game feel like a really dark bedtime story told by a maniac. The plot feels like something Lynch might have concocted in that you constantly feel like you’re missing one key piece of information in order to fully understand exactly what’s going on. Even obtaining the game’s various endings do little to clear things up. In fact, most of them lead to more questions than they answer.
In a lesser game, or a less creative developer, all of this, combined with the fact that it was made in the sometimes-rocky RPG Maker engine, this game wouldn’t work as well as it does. But, like the other games on this list, its simplistic visual design puts the player off guard, which means that when it gets scary, it’s horrifying. There’s a very early example where the player must try and find a key hidden in a pitch black room. There’s only darkness around you, save for a twinkling that indicates the pickup. Then you hear rustling in the dark, and a creepy laugh. It’s minimalist horror at its best, and it sets the tone for the rest of the game; horror can come at any turn, and it will always catch you off guard due to the anarchic nature of the game’s storytelling.
Yai Gameworks as a whole is an extremely fascinating developer, with other titles like Take the Dream IX and Red Haze offering even more ambitious and obtuse stories, sometimes to a fault. It can be frustrating to encounter a puzzle that requires some seriously outside-the-box thinking; later titles in particular are guilty of this, including one called Close Me where the game changes every time you shut it down. Close Your Eyes is my favorite of the bunch, but they all offer enticingly esoteric experiences that combine childish whimsy with real, disturbing horror, and they do it using the rather limited RPG Maker engine. I can’t think of a better way to present the games than to have them as top down 2D titles; there’s a hand-crafted charm to them that makes them stand apart from the glut of other RPG Maker titles and pixel horror available on Steam. They utilize space and sound to set the player off-kilter during their entire run time, and are the result of a singular vision that wouldn’t be nearly as effective with hyper real graphics.
EW/WE by Date/Time
EW/WE sees players put in the shoes of someone trapped in an apartment. They can hear the ocean waves outside their window, and sometimes the phone rings, but for the most part, they are entirely alone. You can usually fall asleep in bed, which passes the time, and wake up to something slightly changed. Each “cycle” typically sees the apartment with something new in it, like a hole in the wall or something to that effect. The game clocks in at about a half hour, but like something such as PT, it makes the most of its extremely limited space to get inside players’ heads.
Since it is so short, it’s very difficult to discuss without spoiling things, but suffice it to say that, like the other games on this list, the fact that the graphics are so low quality does little to diminish the impact of the game’s horror. The apartment you reside in comes to feel like a safe space, so later on when things start changing, you almost feel like your security has been violated. It calls to mind the likes of home invasion movies, where the core horror is that the people who think they’re safe in their own house really aren’t. In EW/WE, you get to know this space intimately well, which means that the changes to the environment almost feel like personal attacks. And yes, it uses sound very well, with simple effects doing what they need to do while also letting the player’s mind fill in the blanks.
Faith by Airdorf Games
Faith sees players in control of a rogue priest who returns to the scene of a botched exorcism to finish what was started a year ago. The presentation is highly reminiscent of the very early era of adventure games, with gigantic, chunky pixels, and a simple but effective sound design. This one is fairly short, clocking in at an hour to an hour and a half depending on your skill level, but it uses its presentation in that short time to thoroughly freak players out.
The central theme of most possession stories, aside from a lack of originality, is the invasion of the unknown into the real world. The Exorcist is so effective because it really feels like the characters are regular people dealing with something beyond anyone’s understanding. The graphics and sound of Faith echoes this element of the unknown; in basic gameplay the visuals are as simple as they come, but during certain key sequences, we are treated to brief animated cut scenes of the horrors of the game, including a pale crawling creature, and an arm coming out of a woman’s face. The player’s mind automatically fills in the blanks during gameplay, which makes these scenes of more detailed horror all the more effective.
Special mention must be made of the game’s sound. The priest you play as speaks frequently throughout the game, but his voice is garbled and warped, which is in and of itself rather unnerving. The heavily synth-based soundtrack is hypnotic, drawing the player in, and during random attacks by the aforementioned pale crawling creature, its demonic voice is piercing and disturbing. It all adds up to a game that manages to terrify by way of suggestion, despite the fact that you are given a top down perspective, which traditionally lets players see a lot of in game detail.
Faith got a sequel, and is actually receiving a third entry at some point in the near future with an official Steam release courtesy of the good people at New Blood Interactive, who also published the magnificent throwback shooter DUSK. As of the time of this writing, I’ve only played the first two, and the second one significantly expands the world and play time of the first game, but I do believe it suffers from some bloat, particularly in the form of its one hit kill boss encounters. Still, the second game brings players to some truly eerie locations, and continues to push the limits of its own primitive presentation. The first game, though, offers a tight, focused experience, and unlike other games on this list, it has a fairly straightforward, if disturbing, story that is given to the player through the environment and documents left lying around the small game world.
There’s an old philosophy in horror that the less you see of a monster, the better. After all, most times a movie monster is just a dude in a costume. These games with decidedly less than stellar graphics apply that very principle to their visual design; the low level of graphical detail and sound quality in these games mean that the player is left to fill in the blanks on their own. In essence, it allows developers to channel the uncanny valley, keep production costs low, and freak players out when these elements are used creatively. These kinds of games are a soft spot for me. They almost feel like ghost stories you might stumble across in the late hours of the night while exploring the internet. They might be crude, they might be rough around the edges, but there’s a certain low quality element to them that sticks with you and worms its way into your brain.