There are many twisted creative minds out there. Thankfully, so many of them take up video game development and use their insane concepts to entertain and delight with indie horror games. Trust us, it’s so much better than the alternative.
While some wind up spearheading AAA survival horror projects, others are more inclined to remain independent and deliver well-crafted scares. Across pixelated and horrifyingly beautiful 3D worlds, we’re treated to tales bred by ambition and skill over budget and sales.
The following 15 games are incredible examples of the capabilities of independent horror creators. They’ll take you to depths of fear that even many big-budget horror titles can’t reach.
The game that started an unexpected horror franchise.
Scott Cawthon didn’t have a big team behind him and there was no massive budget. Yet, he was still able to create one of the most culturally important video games of the current generation. Five Nights at Freddy’s takes a simple point-and-click concept and combines it with mass amounts of jump scares to create an effective, if not occasionally frustrating, horror title.
The murderous animatronics are the height of Five Nights at Freddy’s horror. Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the Bunny, Chica the Chicken, and Foxy the Pirate Fox may look innocent on the outside, but all that changes when they pop up unexpectedly to cram you into an animatronic suit with fatal results.
14. Doki Doki Literature Club!
Developer: Team Salvato Publisher: Team Salvato
Believe it or not, there are games out there that reel you in with a devilishly bright and attractive package only to subject you to horrors sure to stick with you for weeks to come. Doki Doki Literature Club! is one such game. Don’t be fooled by the pastel pinks and purples and overly girly appearance. Doki Doki Literature Club! is far from what its outward features will lead you to believe.
As a newcomer to the titular literature club, players interact with the club’s current members to learn more about them and share poems and prose. All seems normal at first, but then unusual things start to unravel the literature club.
The game looks like it’s bugging out as the quartet of new friends become aggressive. What was once a happy-go-lucky literature club dissolves into a place for horrors to breed – and you can bet you’ll have to face them before your time with Doki Doki is through.
Though the game is really more of a visual novel, there is some interactivity on the player’s part to keep them immersed.
13. Imscared – A Pixelated Nightmare
Developer: Ivan Zanotti’s MyMadnessWorks Publisher: Ivan Zanotti’s MyMadnessWorks
A horror game doesn’t need to be set in stunning 3D worlds with graphics at the peak of the generation. Imscared – A Pixelated Nightmare is a grand example of how a pixelated horror game can work. The first-person experience puts players as the focus of a meta-horror, where the world tries to toy with your psyche. Picture Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, minus the complex gameplay.
Developer and publisher Ivan Zanotti used Game Maker 8, MS Paint, and FL Studio to bring this experience to life. The result is a horror title that knows how to supplement visual style with atmosphere and psychological trickery.
Developer: Jasper Byrne Publisher: Superflat Games
A customizable gaming experience is not one we always get, so when it’s presented to us, especially in a horror package, we jump on it. Sometimes it’s a hit and a miss. Other times, like with Lone Survivor, it’s memorable, fun, and, dare I say, scary.
Over the course of five years, Jasper Byrne crafted the mysterious world, devastated by disease, by himself. What’s more impressive is that Lone Survivor lets players tackle the game how they want.
Explore with stealth. Kill everything in your path. Push the protagonist past his limits. How you want to survive in this horrifying world is up to you. Just don’t expect everything to be as it appears. The further you get, the more the world chips away at your mental health, leaving your mind to deceive and terrorize along the way.
11. Bendy and the Ink Machine
Developer: Joey Drew Studios, Inc. Publisher: Joey Drew Studios, Inc.
Spread out across five chapters, Bendy and the Ink Machine shows us the seedy underbelly of our favorite animation studios. Sure, on the surface they produce innocent and playful content, but what you find within will give you nightmares. As animator Henry, players explore the depths of Joey Drew Studios, the animation studio behind the titular Bendy. What he finds is a studio filled with horrors, all looking to rip him limb from limb.
Bendy and the Ink Machine is a twisted tale that works well as a survival horror game. Players will engage in puzzle solving and exploration as they try to get Henry out in one piece. With monstrosities like the evil version of Bendy and the Ink Demon lurking about, however, it won’t be an easy task.
There are many wonders in our world, some terrifying and deadly, others mystifying and passive. At the SCP Foundation, you’ll learn all about these unusual entities. Or, if you’re brave enough, come face to face with them in SCP – Containment Breach.
As test subject D-9341, players must escape the underground facility in the wake of a containment breach. With all of the foundation’s most horrifying inhabitants loose, escaping is no easy feat.
Joonas Rikkonen, otherwise known as Regalis, does the source material justice as players come across a host of different subjects scattered about randomly generated rooms. Your path to safety is hindered by entities like SCP-106, SCP-096, and SCP-682, all more terrifying than the last. Fans of the SCP Foundation website will be delighted by the numerous Easter eggs scattered throughout while those unfamiliar with its history are in for a horrifying treat.
SCP – Containment Breach is free-to-play and even has an HD remake built on the Unity engine. Either version is worth a playthrough, though the Unity remake is a more complete and better-looking experience.
Developer: Illusion Ray Studio Publisher: Movie Games S.A.
I don’t often put faith in full narrative adventures developed by an independent studio. Illusion Ray Studio reminded me that it’s okay to let my defenses down and get sucked into the fascinating and horrifying story being laid out in front of me. The Beast Inside pits players as a CIA cryptanalyst, which fits surprisingly well into the plot that spans generations of his lineage and the game’s complex puzzles.
Along with the abundance of scares, both subtle and aggressive, The Beast Inside utilizes cryptic puzzles to further immerse players. At its core, The Beast Inside is a well-rounded horror game that requires patience, skill, and a strong heart to make it to the end. Fans of jump scares and disturbing imagery will find plenty to enjoy in this independently developed title.
Developer: SadSquare Studio Publisher: SadSquare Studio
How well do you know your home’s past? Has it always been yours? Or have their been prior owners, creating imprints of nefarious deeds and horrifying acts?
Visage really makes you wonder as you explore what appears to be a normal, suburban home. Deep within its roots, however, lies a history that’s sure to make your spine chill and your heart race.
It’s up to you to uncover the murderous past, but be mindful of what you dig up. The more you reveal, the more it will come back to haunt you. Literally. Visage is a haunted house movie wrapped up in the package of a video game, and it’s beautifully done.
You’ll be brought to the brink of insanity by demented visions as the world around you twists into a perverse version of itself.
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio Publisher: Acid Wizard Studio
There is something to be said for Acid Wizard Studio’s ability to create a top-down survival horror that is atmospheric and terrifying. Right from the start, Darkwood isolates you from the typical and familiar staples of gaming, like quest markers or tips on where to go. You’re thrust into a gloomy world and forced to work things out as you go along.
Blocking your path is a horde of monsters that you can escape by barricading yourself in sparse shelters or bring down with scarce weapons. Darkwood has elements of a survival game to freshen up a genre that’s seen and done it all. Scavenge for supplies to survive the night or brave a world full of things itching to tear you apart.
Incredible use of lighting and sound design further enhances the tone and ambiance as you explore randomly generated cursed woods and abandoned homes.
Not every successful horror title has to rely on frequent jump scares and grotesque monstrosities. Some can earn praise for their effective use of psychological horror and dark themes. Bloober Team SA approached Layers of Fear with the latter method in mind, hoping to terrifying players with subtle hints of horror. While it’s so easy to miss the mark and fall short, Layers of Fear has no trouble making players tremble.
Playing as an artist setting out to create his masterpiece, you’ll come to find that the creative process is not without its potential for insanity. Uncover the truth behind the painter and their creations in a game that’s heavy on exploration and unraveling a deep, but dark, story. It won’t take long into your time with Layers of Fear before you’re turning on the lights and fearing the fragility of your own mind.
5. Little Nightmares
Developer: Tarsier Studios Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
In the depths of The Maw, you wake up a much smaller version of yourself. The world around you is intimidating, impossible to navigate, and filled with terrors hellbent on making a meal out of you. All you can do to survive is run. Run and seek out an exit that may not even exist.
Welcome to the life of Six, a small child trapped in a world of unspeakable horrors. Little Nightmares amplifies the fear of exploring The Maw in a few ways, but the most effective is with its vile and abnormal inhabitants. The Janitor, The Butchers, and The Lady are designed to terrify, and their inhuman, clay-like depictions are sure to haunt your dreams for many nights to come.
“Even if it is going to grab you by the throat for just a few hours, Little Nightmares is one game you won’t want to shake free from.”
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
In the deepest parts of the North Atlantic Ocean, Simon Jarret awakens to find himself trapped in the PATHOS-II underwater research facility. As if the unusual surroundings aren’t bad enough, he finds that he’s also awoken 89 years after a near-fatal car accident left him brain-damaged.
Finding out how he jumped 89 years into the future is one mystery to solve. The other is discovering the truth behind the inhuman creations and mutations stalking the PATHOS-II base.
Relentlessly pursued by deadly fiends, Jarret has no means of defending himself and must run and hide to survive this horrifying undersea adventure. SOMA takes many twists and turns and will surely leave players with jaws wide open. It’s a heart-pounding experience that makes use of the player’s helplessness to weave an unforgettable survival horror game where not everything is as it seems.
Psychiatric hospitals are a staple in horror movies, used less so in video games as there are only so many ways to demonize the mentally unstable and make it more scary than depressing.
Red Barrels takes the risk with Outlast and sends players into the belly of Mount Massive Asylum in the wake of an inmate outbreak. Investigative journalist Miles Upshur inadvertently puts himself in harm’s way after responding to an anonymous email about inhumane experiments at the desolate facility.
Rather than gather the story he intended to find, Miles is trapped in a world of horrors where the deranged and sadistic have gruesome plans for him. Outlast enjoys the occasional jump scare, but Miles’ defenselessness and limited night vision build up the tension every step of the way in Red Barrels’ first foray into survival horror.
2. The Forest
Developer: Endnight Games Publisher: Endnight Games
After their plane crashes on a mysterious, forested peninsula, Eric LeBlanc and his son, Timmy, find themselves in a real horror story. Timmy is dragged off, leaving Eric to navigate the depths of the forest and scour nearby beaches for supplies to help on the hunt for his son.
The Forest came at a time when survival games were abundant and growing stale. However, Endnight Games knew what the genre needed, and the result is a thoroughly scary survival experience that also goes down as one of the best indie horror games.
Eric’s survival in The Forest is about more than eating, drinking, sleeping, and keeping warm. A tribe of cannibalistic mutants inhabit the peninsula and stalk Eric as he constructs shelters, crafts makeshift weapons, and hunts for food. At night, the mutant tribe bands together and comes down on the survivor.
To survive, players must strategize their daily activities. Is it more important to build defenses or hunt for a healthy supply of food? You only know you made the right choice if you survived the late-night horrors that come to feast on your flesh.
“A smart port of a PC cult favourite, The Forest on PS4 is simply one of the best survival experiences you will find on a console.”
1. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
Before terrifying players in the underwater facility of PATHOS-II, Frictional Games sent them running through the dim and gloomy halls of Brennenburg Castle. As Daniel, an amnesiac protagonist with a fear of the dark, players have to stick to the light and uncover his forgotten past. Of course, that doesn’t come easy when the Shadow starts its pursuit for the hapless hero.
Along with running from the deadly Shadow, players must also watch Daniel’s sanity. The longer he stays in the dark, the more unhinged he becomes before passing out, leaving him vulnerable to his foe. The darkest corners of the castle are his only safety, but he can only stand them for so long before succumbing to his fears.
There’s only one way to survive the depths of Brennenburg Castle – to flee and leave the grotesque horrors behind.