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!

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

Love (If You Like) in a Time of Quarters – PC – Arcade Spirits – 2019

20190602025435_1.jpgArcade Spirits
PC
Fiction Factory Games/PQube
Genre: Romantic Comedy Visual Novel
2019

In the early 1980s, the Atari was king of the home consoles for video gaming. As with anything that turns a profit and is fairly innovative, everybody wanted a piece of the new “home gaming” pie and between 1982 and 1983, the home console market became saturated with more systems and titles than anyone could truly afford or have space for at the time. Believe it or not, the stories of cartridges of E.T.  for the Atari 2600 being buried in the desert because retailers couldn’t hold them on their shelves and the poor quality due to rushed manufacturing times are factual, if not a bit inflated, and they were just one piece of the puzzle that nearly stopped heavy hitters like the Nintendo Entertainment System from reaching US shores.

But what if that hadn’t happened? What if the industry had practiced a bit of moderation with their excitement or retailers had sufficiently embraced this cutting-edge technology and had met the demand for supply? What if game manufacturers had been more worried about crediting their programmers and putting out quality product rather than rushing to try for the highest sales they could?

Wow. A lot of this is starting to sound kind of familiar…

In any case, my first introduction to Arcade Spirits was an explanation that it took place in a world much like you may imagine those “what if” situations could have produced. While it’s clear that the game industry is flourishing and not in much immediate danger of history repeating itself, how would arcades, now a bit of a novelty rather than commonplace as they were in the 80s and 90s, have fared if there hadn’t been a video game crash at all?

Well, the chance to see one potential outcome awaits you right behind the neon and brick title screens of Arcade Spirits.

(As a quick note, if you’d like to read more about the gaming crash in 1983, the Wikipedia page here has a ton of information to start with!)
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In Darkness, A Steady Light – PC – Claire – 2014


20190402222940_1Claire
PC
Hailstorm Games
Genre: Horror Adventure
2014

Games can pull you in for a number of reasons. The obvious ones involve an ongoing series and brand familiarity. Other can be promotional art and media buzz. Sometimes, it can be just as simple as a name and brief description. I can’t remember where or how exactly, but I do remember hearing about an indie horror game and aside from the title, I had no idea what it was about. That title?

Claire.

Now, something you should know about me is that if you name anything something that appeals to my inner psyche, I’ll probably attempt to partake in it; cocktails, books, and obviously video games all fall under this umbrella. Speaking of Umbrella, Resident Evil is a big reason why the name Claire has cemented as a favorite of mine. I even named my second car “Claire”. It may sound oddly philosophical, but when you use a name in your title, you make a lot of mental connections for your potential audience.

For me, the combination of the title and the genre were enough to garner my attention. Looking into it, it seemed right up my alley and most likely, as with most of the games I buy on Steam, it was on sale. There was only so much to potentially lose so I took the plunge and decided to give it a whirl.
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An Eerie Echo of Time and Place – PC – Perception – 2017

20181006201905_1Perception
PC
Deep End Games/Feardemic
Genre: Survival Horror
2017

Having lived in New England my entire life, I’m no stranger to films that involve the Boston and general North Shore areas of Massachusetts.  Given that authors like Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft also center quite a bit of their work around the New England area, there is plenty of horror related literature to reference that center around Maine and Rhode Island.  Gaming has also recently had a few prominent settings in the area, notably Fallout 4 which takes place in The Commonwealth a.k.a. Massachusetts.  In most media, you only have to look in a general direction to find work that centers around this section of the country.  I mean, it’s been around long enough to gain some kind of attention.

I had originally heard of Perception at PAX a couple of years back and while I didn’t get to check out the demo, my friends did and raved about it.  I threw it on to a list of games I would keep an eye on and when I looked into it, I realized that not only did the game take place in New England, but it was also developed by a company based right out of Boston.  From that point, I don’t think the game fell off of my radar until I purchased it during a sale on Steam.

Given my backlog, I had tried getting into the game once before and wound up distracted by other things in my life (and probably other games, to be honest) but given the time of year, I’ve been trying to work through some of the spookier games in my library.  I settled on the fact that I owed it to myself to play through Perception to see if my initial hype could be lived up to, especially given the unique mechanics of the game that I had heard so much about.
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