Scratching That Itch.io – Four Short Horror Games for the Season

I admit to being unable to commit to a game some nights, even if I’m hip-deep in the plot and I’m super excited about it. Bouts of wanting to check something else out will creep in on occasion. That almost always translates into having to start up another game which can lead to having another six to 100 hours of gameplay to complete. If that chain continues, my backlog starts to look a lot more formidable than it already is; a task that in and of itself seems impossible if you take a glance at what I’ve stored up to play.

Recently, I’ve been checking out some smaller games on itch.io, a website that prides itself on hosting indie game developers from all levels and genres. Some of the games have gone on to bigger and better things- “The House Abandon” episode from Untold Stories started here, for instance- so there is a lot of potential and folks trying to make it into the business of creating games. Not only that, but a lot of the games tend to wrap up within 15 minutes to an hour, perfect for scratching that need to check out a new game without having to commit to an entire campaign to do so.

In honor of the end of the Halloween season coming up (I mean, it never ends for me but for regular folks), I pulled aside a few titles from the site to check out and found a few that I enjoyed, whether it had to do with their potential or the actual final product. Bearing in mind that most of these games were created either for 48-hour Game Jams or other contests, the fact that folks are putting out pieces like this astonishes someone like me who has almost no experience in the game development field.

Maria1.jpgThe Missing Parts of Maria Gwodzek
senokos
2016
Horror Visual Novel
Run Time: ~20 Minutes
URL: https://senokos.itch.io/maria-gwozdek

Everyone’s had a time in their life where they wished things were different; a time where things seemed hopeless and if just one thing changed, it would feel like things would improve dramatically. What would you have given in that moment to ensure that you would land that date that would cure your loneliness or find that perfect place to live so that you could start a new life? The Missing Parts of Maria Gwodzek explores that premise, placing you in the shoes of Maria as she tries to find her way out of her mess of a life- and what she is willing to give up to get what she wants once she gets too deep.

Maria2.jpg
Created for the Asylum Jam, a 48-hour game development project, in 2016, the game feels a bit short- but what it does with that time has some gravitas. While Maria’s lot in life feels excessively disparate with the rapid description to set the game up, the empathy involved in the few choices of the novel got me thinking, and I was a bit surprised about what I was choosing by the end. The most striking part of the whole game lies in the visual presentation. Everything has a black-and-white minimalistic style to it with pops of two distinctive colors that feel more prominent as the story progresses.


Conclusion: The game feels like it could have been more effective as a longer novel, but it makes the most of its time and has some really interesting ideas. It’s well worth taking a half an hour and checking out.

SearchParty1.jpgThe Search Party That Never Came
Dizlen
2019
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: 15-30 Minutes
URL: https://dizlen.itch.io/the-search-party-that-never-came

Being a Final Girl or Guy in a slasher film is probably a bit tough. No one can help you, there’s a seemingly unstoppable murderer stalking you, and escape feels so close but so far. Slip up once, though, and that’s all it takes for you to wind up on the wrong side of a sharp object.

SearchParty2.jpg
This is the situation you’re thrown into in
The Search Party That Never Came. There is no real plot to speak of, but your objective as a would-be victim finding themselves in a warehouse district of sorts is to escape from a chuckling madman with a chainsaw as he searches the area for you. While the game starts out with a bit of a jump scare, it actually does a bit more with environmental lighting and sound effects to create tension as you try to figure out how to escape than I expected it to. It’s a bit rough graphically and design-wise, but seeing as it was a university project by the creator, Search Party feels like a passion project hearkening back to the early Playstation horror library and the few technical missteps are more charming than annoying, as they could have been.

Conclusion: This won’t leave you scared sleepless after its over, but the amount of potential and a clear love for the designs of the genre make this a pretty neat game to take a dip into, atmospherically and aesthetically.

Emulator1.jpgThe Emulator
T Allen Studios/Studio Snowspot
2018
Adventure Survival Horror
Run Time: ~30 minutes
URL: https://t-allen-studios.itch.io/the-emulator

The night before Halloween, Sean has lined up a dinner with his girlfriend, Sarah, and her parents. He arrives at the house, nervous but ready to spend a night with the Rourke household but as he arrives at the door, something seems… off. The power is out and even though dinner is still steaming on the table, there is no one to be found. It isn’t long before Sean finds a receipt for something from the Deep Web called “The Emulator”. While he isn’t sure what it is exactly, his night stuck in his girlfriend’s house will quickly shine some light on the situation.

Emulator2.jpg

Shortly after the plot kicks in, the player is tasked with finding a way to survive. The Emulator proves to be pretty open-ended with this objective, offering a number of ways to escape and put an end to The Emulator and its influence. While it has a limited soundtrack, this game’s aural and visual standard is fairly high. In a fun homage, you can set the graphics to PSX resolution at the start of the game (though I found the notes and dialogue a bit hard to read in that mode). As a pursuer, though, the Emulator appears to take on the form of some object in the house that, once approached, will spring to life, shifting Sean’s POV into red hues until it is outrun. Juggling this amidst searching the house for any way to survive is subtly tense and gets the player’s gears turning about what method they are going to use to get out. With multiple endings and a relatively simple-AI, The Emulator’s only real problem is that if you muck around in the Options screen a bit, you will most likely restart your current run by accident due to the interface.

If this is what the team can do with a week to a month or so worth of work, I’d love to see what they could do with more time and budget.

Conclusion: If you want a challenge that will get your mind working and has an interesting mythos set-up the more you explore, this is a fantastic way to spend a part of your night.

VHS1.jpgV.H.S. – Video Horror Story
pinataMAN
2017
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: ~10 minutes
URL: https://pinataman.itch.io/vhs-videohorrorstory

Some indie games don’t give you a premise- even more so when they are short and working as a prototype for a particular mechanic. What V.H.S. does is dumps the player into an environment, teaches them the controls, and lets them play around with their surroundings while avoiding death. Opening in an office building of sorts, V.H.S. places you in the perspective of a video playback (indicated by the ever-constant PLAY status displayed in the upper left corner) and invites you to escape a small office building with just a flashlight and the camera’s technology in hand. By using the shoulder buttons on your controller, you can slide the frequency on the camera left and right, an important mechanic as one frequency lets you see objects that define your surroundings like desks, chairs, and computers. The other frequency allows you to see the unearthly horrors that are stalking the area.

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This game- which is really more of a demo than anything- is incredibly short, offering a small playground to toy around with a very unique mechanic with little to no consequence. The deaths in the game could have been handled as obnoxious jump scares but are actually a bit creepy. Even thinking of this as a prototype that was completed in 48 hours, the game looks and sounds professional, even implementing controller support.

Conclusion: The runtime may stop most folks from spending the time with this game, but it’s worth a look, even if just to check out the neat gameplay and the relatively surprising ending. Please be aware, though- there is an epilepsy warning due to strobing lighting effects at some points.



Whether these games strike your fancy or not, it may be worth taking a look at the site to see if there is something that might. Aside from these bite-sized offerings, there are some full sized games on there and a ton of games that aren’t horror related. Seeing some of the other titles, I’m glad I’ve had a few friends who have recommended the site to me to browse around. For me, seeing some of the efforts from folks who are trying to make their own games or join development teams feels invigorating. It’s like having a friend who’s really excited to show you their work, and each of the games that I’ve seen has some kind of commentary from the developer about their process and aspirations. Even the forums for each of them seems to be more about constructive feedback than the usual comments you’ll see on platforms like Steam.

If you’re looking for some quick scares or some interesting game design work, feel free to check these out! If you have any suggestions for games to check out otherwise, I’d be more than happy to take a gander at some other games that folks have experienced on the site and would like to talk up.

Whatever you decide to do today, though- be safe, have fun, and Happy Halloween!

You’ll Have to See For Yourself – PC – Stories Untold – 2017

Image result for stories untold gameStories Untold
PC
No Code/Devolver Digital
Genre: Text-Based Horror
2017

Before all of the fancy graphical wonders and high-octane action sequences that developers have been crafting and hooking audiences onto in recent years, the wonders of the imagination ran free in a genre now referred to in most circles as “interactive fiction”. For anyone not familiar with these types of games, they tended to consist entirely of words describing the action and environment. From there, the player has to type out what they want to do with a series of commands or directions- want to go down that hallway to the north? “NORTH”. Think that desk might have something interesting? “LOOK AT DESK”. Everything was in your mind’s eye- for better or worse.

While the style has generally fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of folks who put together games akin to the old text-based adventures. One such group who has paid homage to the genre recently is No Code, the minds behind a moderately known game called Untold Stories. At first glance, it might look like the title card was swiped directly from an episode of Stranger Things. While it might seem derivative, though, it’s actually designed by Kyle Lambert, the artist who designed the posters for the show. Finding that out was step one to ending my hesitation about checking the game out.

Of course, amidst the ridiculous backlog hacking I’ve been doing recently, recommendations from trusted friends help pull certain titles forward. After a bit of praise from my buddy Brad over at Cheap Boss Attack (who you should totally check out, by the way), I decided to push up Untold Stories on my playlist since it seemed short and also seemed to have left quite the impression on my fellow horror gaming buff. I recently got to pop the game on and got ready to type my little frightened heart out. Continue reading

A Nine-Point Guide on How to Scare The3rdPlayer

20160731192339_1.jpgI would never call myself an expert on horror. I’ve watched a ton of horror films and played my weight in horror games so I’m no stranger to the tricks and tropes of the trade, either. I’ve gained enough of a reputation to be considered an aficionado, though, somewhere closer to an expert than a layman. What I do know is that after spending probably half of my life taking in an appreciated horror media is that I know what works for me and what doesn’t.

Something I’ve talked to a few folks on Twitter and in my life about is not necessarily what is done well or isn’t but what actually works to give you the creeps and keep you entertained. When it comes to films, for instance, a solid slasher movie will keep me watching while a lot of movies with possession or vampires don’t tend to strike the right chords for me. On the other hand, I know people who have the exact opposite inclinations. Some people are claustrophobic and can’t take certain camera angles. I know plenty of folks who can’t stand when movies victimize children because it feels like low hanging fruit for the sake of a reaction.

Games are a little different, though. There’s another level of immersion because you’re the one controlling the person going through the ordeal. By extension, these things are happening to you and if you want to finish the game, you’re going to go through a gauntlet of jumps, creeps, and “You Died” screens to see the end and find salvation. How do you know which horror games are for you, though? Do certain mechanics work more effectively toward embedding that dread into your bones? Are there effects that make you roll your eyes a bit or get so frustrated that you need to put your controller down for a minute to compose yourself?

Allow me to open up my own discussion with five ways that games can creep me out- and four ways a number of games have rubbed me the wrong way while trying. As always, since this is discussing a multitude of game mechanics and situations from video games, there will be spoilers below. Nothing that will ruin a game entirely, but it may take some of the punch out of some scares you might not want ruined. Consider yourself warned!
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A Divisive Step Into the Unknown – PC – Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition – 2013

20190627160221_1Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition
PC
Shadowshifters
Genre: Alternative Horror
2013

I have a strong love and hate outlook on media that comes packaged with the tagline “based on a true story”. When it comes to drama or biographies, obviously there’s a lot more authenticity to be had. It’s when it comes to my favorite genre- horror, in case you didn’t know that about me yet- that it becomes a strange mess of “facts” and embellishment. A Nightmare on Elm Street is technically based on a true story. No, none of what happens in that film is an actual part of the news clipping it was inspired by.

This is where “CreepyPasta” comes in. At its core, CreepyPasta makes up the urban legends of the current day including the now-familiar figures of Slender Man and the Rake. While it knows it’s not real from the get-go, there are some very convincing efforts to make them seem legitimate. The things you can do with technology these days make these efforts even tougher to poke holes in at times. There are some fascinating stories to take in and consequently lose sleep to.

Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition is a game that, much like some other small indie games, capitalizes on creating its own story rather than building on an existing mythos. Shadowshifters, the developers of the game, seemed more intent on creating something like the Slender Man and Rake tales by creating an experience that was not graphic or violent in its telling but would leave the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps as to how the story plays out involving its victims. Stumbling across this game among others in one of the many Steam sales, I thought it would be neat to see how this was handled given the plethora of other modern urban legends being created in the gaming landscape. Continue reading

Near Perfection of the Digital – PC – System Shock 2 – 1999

TitleSystem Shock 2
PC
Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts
Genre: Horror First-Person-Shooter
1999

There are always games that sound like they will be right in your gaming sweet spot that will somehow turn you away from them. It took me a while to try out Final Fantasy XII and once I did, it became one of my favorites in the series. Another game that I’ve warmed up to but still haven’t completed is Bioshock. A little known fact about me is that I really enjoy first-person shooters and based on what I’ve heard about the Bioshock series, it seemed like a bunch of games I’d easily be able to sink my teeth into. Sometimes, it’s worth taking the chance to overcome your hesitations and just try a game if you can.

Oddly enough, another game that is closely related to Bioshock called System Shock 2 had been on my radar for a while. I was told it was a cyberpunk horror first-person shooter with RPG elements. Literally, nothing in that description does anything to deter me. Looking up the game, though, it looked like a very basic FPS and between the fans online having such fervent positive reviews of the game and the fact that its marketing in the current day felt all over the place, it was tough to get excited about giving it a whirl.

It was the connecting threads from Bioshock to System Shock 2 and the suggestion of a friend (who I will publicly thank “anonymously” as ‘The Horror’) that finally pushed me to install the game. Seeing that Ken Levine and a handful of others were involved with both titles helped me feel like the atmosphere from Bioshock could easily have been translated from System Shock 2. It’s also been rare that Horror has suggested a game that I didn’t enjoy once I got into it.

Eventually, as I was sitting at my computer one day browsing through games in my backlog, I mentally threw my reluctant hands into the air and said:

“Y”know what? I’m gonna give System Shock 2 a go.”
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