One of the best things the indie games scene has done for the broader industry is show triple-A developers that there is a fundamental thirst for great, traumatizing horror experiences. It began with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, all the way back in 2010, when that underdog gothic-horror skulker became an all-time YouTube classic — with thousands of kids recording their reaction to its various atrocities around the internet. Since then we've seen a ton of wonderfully sinister adventures coming from all angles, and in the past few years the dread has gone truly mainstream with great games based on both the Aliens and Friday the 13th franchise. Life is good.
2018 followed suit, with everything from anxious zombie survival sims, hydrophobic odysseys and at least one sparkling remaster of a stone-cold classic. Check them out below, and spend this Christmas season celebrating a true golden age for frights.
State of Decay II's technical hang-ups are well-reported. The frame-rate chugs, the A.I. can be wonky, and there are more than a few game-breaking bug reports than any triple-A title should ship with. That being said though, there's no better (or grimmer) simulation of a zombie Armageddon on the market. It is you and a chilly, windswept colony of survivors, trying to stay alive in a godforsaken forest by holding on to an ever-depleting reservoir of resources. You know what's scarier than zombies? Running out of food and water, and State of Decay II articulates that reality in perfect panicked form.
The work of H.P. Lovecraft has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately, thanks in no small part to the fact that the majority of his work exists in the public domain. (Seriously, if you ever wonder why there's so much Cthulhu paraphernalia at your local hobby store, it's because nobody has to pay any licensing fees.) Still, this indie gem that was just re-released and remastered on Steam in January is Lovecraftian hoodoo at its most tasteful and bone-chilling. Anchorhead is a text adventure where you, a married couple, retreat to a briny New England coastal town, and slowly get enveloped in an apocalyptic eldritch ritual. The spareness of the text format does the dread justice. Seriously, in 2019, it's time to bring DOS back.
We're cheating here, because obviously Dark Souls first came out all the way back in 2011. But From Software's remaster gave the sooty, rotting kingdom of Lordran new life in fabulous 4K. (It also purged some of the lingering frame-rate issues from the original edition, which means high-latency areas like Blighttown are far more palatable.) If you've never played this baroque, tough-as-nails masterpiece, now's the time to at least give it a shot. It remains the most singular experience in modern gaming, isolating the player under a deluge of wasted undead and black-hearted scoundrels. The soundless, overbearing dread and impossible odds becomes almost meditative the longer you go. And it helps that it also features some of the most awesomely gothic weaponry you'll ever have the pleasure of wielding.
There is something so simple and artful about The Forest's premise: crash-land on a densely deciduous peninsula, fight for your life against roving tribes of horrible, disgusting mutant flesh creatures. The Forest was initially released to Early Access back in 2014 as part of the initial survival-game Steam boom, but it finally hit its official release date earlier this year. It's worth checking out if you're into super-controlled bursts of ghastly video game id. Either that, or tune into the YouTube or Twitch playthroughs all over the internet, because it's seriously one of the most beloved games to ever hit the live-streaming generation.
What a bizarre, wonderful game. Paratopic is the closest you're going to get to disorienting Lynchian terror on Steam. It's also extremely difficult to describe adequately. The gameplay is similar to stuff like Gone Home and Jazzpunk, where you walking through an evocative environment and interacting with random doodads along the way. The only difference is that this environment happens to be a horrible, scuzz-layered wasteland filled with miscreants, demons and ancient, unnumbered crimes. You're delivering contraband VHS tapes or something, but that doesn't matter. Paratopic is played for its putrid, nauseous mood — like the worst possible dream about America. We especially dig the vintage PS1 graphics, it really adds to the grotesque mystique.
Subnautica is not purely a horror game, but still absolutely deserving to be on this list. You crash land on an alien planet that's almost entirely covered in salt water. It is your job to subsist out of your tiny, floating escape pod, while also finangling a way to get back home. There are intentionally creepy areas, like when you start exploring some of the darkened industrial late-game environments and uncover the twisty lore, but frankly, there is just something truly stomach-turning about paddling back to your homestead as the sun is setting and understanding you're about to be all alone in a vast, all-encompassing ocean, with who-knows-what swimming underneath you.