Today is Halloween! Tomorrow we’ll have to change our punny Twitter names back to normal and clean up rotten pumpkins. But for now we have a publicly acceptable excuse to trigger our fight-or-flight responses. Games are especially good at that. They put you in the shoes of monster victims better than any other medium.
So we’ve collected a handful of fantastic little horror games (emphasis on little). Each of these can be beat in a couple hours, tops, and most only take a few minutes. They’re also free or damn close to it. So you have no excuse not to shove all these spooky stories into your brain before bedtime.
I don’t exactly know what’s going on in Paratopic, but I like it. By which I mean it made me feel perpetually queasy for about 45 minutes.
The jagged, gibbering, lo-fi mess kinda-sorta tells the tale of some very bad VHS tapes being transported across the border. Which border and what’s so bad about the tapes isn’t clear. What is clear is that Paratopic understands the frightening power of mundanity.
Much of the game smash cuts between incredibly normal, even boring elements of life—like driving an immense stretch of road at night or filling up on gas. It uses PS1-like graphics to mimic the empty, vague spaces that are allowed to exist in an entirely-too-large country like the United States. It reminds us just how quickly the mind fills in that space with equally vague horrors. Then it unleashes them.
It’s like a Blendo game meets a Lynchian nightmare, with just a dash of Hotline Miami. Give it a whirl!
Are there jump scares? Yes. There’s one near the very end.
Some of the best horror—whether it’s in games or otherwise—does a lot with a little. That’s definitely the case with September 1999. You can beat the entire game in just over five minutes. There are no real jump scares or monsters; just an incredible sense of atmosphere. The game stays committed to its found footage aesthetic all the way down to the menus. So even pausing the game in a fit of fright doesn’t feel like you’ve truly escaped its abrasive grasp.
I’ll leave it at that. It’s short (and free) enough that you should just check the rest out yourself.
Are there jump scares? Nah. This one is all about atmosphere.
SCP: Containment Breach
SCP: Containment Breach is an older indie on this list. So it doesn’t look great by today’s standards. Not to mention a lot of other games have done what it accomplished in 2012, only better. But I can’t think of many other games with a whole button dedicated to blinking.
Here’s the setup: you’re a death row inmate remanded into the “care” of the SCP Foundation. They mean to use you as a guinea pig for all the horrible things the foundation monitors. Then all those things start getting loose… One of which can only move if nobody is looking directly at it. Hence the blinking.
The SCP Foundation is actually a collaborative fiction project. Users submit horror stories in the form of research documents that describe sometimes harmless—but usually horrendous—supernatural creatures and objects. It’s like a very big, very organized creepypasta. And Containment Breach makes a fantastic introduction. It’s worth playing just for the loading screens that direct you to various examples of the micro-stories online.
Are there jump scares? Yup. This is a pretty standard Amnesia-like first-person horror game.
Anatomy starts like a lot of indie horror games these days. It’s full of lo-fi polygons and objects to collect in a creepy location. In this case the objects are cassette tapes. The location is an empty house. Collecting the tapes unlocks voice-over of a woman making an extended metaphor. Houses, she posits, are just like human bodies.
That’s about it… At first. You can “beat” the game in less than 10 minutes. Boot it up again, however, and things start to change. You still collect cassette tapes. Except the words are all different. The house isn’t the way you left it. Each subsequent playthrough is more deeply wrong than the last.
There’s no specter on your tail or slasher waiting in the basement. It’s more like the basement itself—plus the bathroom, bedrooms, hallways, and everything else—wants to remind you who’s boss. We give ourselves over to the mercy of these big, unknowable organisms called “houses” every day. Anatomy reminds you why that’s so terrifying.
Are there jump scares? Not really. There are some very loud noises, but you decide when to play them.
My Father’s Long, Long Legs
My Father’s Long, Long Legs was built in Twine. So it’s more like a slightly interactive short story than a traditional “game.” But the mild interactive elements do add a lot to this very unsettling tale about a basement.
Basements are, of course, among the creepiest locations on Earth. That’s just science. And this game manages to make its central location extra creepy, despite the lack of any real antagonist. There is no monster in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, exactly. There is just a very horrible event that keeps on happening. The horror is in the protagonist’s slow realization that this isn’t normal.
We all grow up thinking certain things are totally mundane. Meeting other people contextualizes just how weird and sometimes harmful our families’ individual bullshit is. The weirdness just happens to be genuinely supernatural in this game’s case. That doesn’t make the realization any less relatable.
Are there jump scares? None at all.