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.
The Missing Parts of Maria Gwodzek
Horror Visual Novel
Run Time: ~20 Minutes
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.
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.
The Search Party That Never Came
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: 15-30 Minutes
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.
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.
T Allen Studios/Studio Snowspot
Adventure Survival Horror
Run Time: ~30 minutes
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.
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.
V.H.S. – Video Horror Story
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: ~10 minutes
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.
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!