Written by Jonathan Wojcik
The Year in Horror Games!
A lot of credit has to go to my wife Margret, since she's the actual gamer who actually played any of these games while I watched. It's my favorite film genre.
LISA: The Painful RPG
(And LISA: The Joyful)
I don't think anybody could have predicted that this would serve as the prequel to a ridiculous, yet equally horrific post-apocalyptic adventure featuring drugged-out mutants and talking fish. In The Painful, you take control of the aforementioned abusive father's other child, now a grizzled middle-aged man in a world where a mysterious "flash" apparently killed every single woman, anywhere, ever. How this flash even worked, how it came about, and why are left ambiguous, but the end result is a society dominated by angry, horny men who believe they are the last human beings who will ever walk the planet. To put it gently, things get kind of messy from there, and that's not even counting the magnificently horrifying mutants, the final product of an addictive drug with an ambiguous connection to the events of the flash.
I'd devote an article to those mutants, but there's only so many different ways I can keeping saying "my god, this distorted heap of flesh is everything I've ever wanted a mutant to be."
Billed as one of the most "brutal" RPG's ever conceived, Lisa isn't content to let players grind their levels until they can breeze through the rest of the game. It will repeatedly set you back every time you're getting comfortable, and repeatedly force you to make incredibly difficult decisions, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of morality. Where the more recent Undertale uses friendship and love to deconstruct video game violence, Lisa takes the polar opposite route, making the violence of its world as ugly and reprehensible as possible with more or less the same result: by the time you're done, you might start to question why even purely fictional violence has to be so prevalent and increasingly so savage.
The Painful is followed up directly by The Joyful, originally planned as a DLC expansion but upgraded to its own distinct title, and if you enjoy the first game's bitter darkness as well as grotesque visuals, you'll definitely come away from The Painful pretty satisfied.
But also maybe nauseated.
Stray Cat Crossing
It's just too bad that I can't think of any more to say without spoiling the experience. It's not too difficult - other than a notorious chase sequence I believe has been patched - and it's not too long, so why don't you try it yourself? It's only a couple bucks on Steam!
Albino Lullaby takes place in the mysterious, subterranean home of the grandchildren; absurd, sausage-shaped monsters who leave a trail of slime wherever they go and enjoy the finer things in life, like gorging themselves on fetid meat products, collecting narwhal tusks, comparing bowel movements, hanging the same painting of a beetle up in almost every room and kidnapping people to turn into more grandchildren. It's a grotesque parody of an upper class, high society lifestyle, the extravagant bedrooms, carpeted walls and indoor pool contrasting the infantile brutality and diminutive reasoning skills of the grunting, cackling monsters.
So, exactly an upper class, high society lifestyle.
The gameplay of Albino Lullaby is, for better or worse, fairly simple and straightforward. Your goal is simply to escape, and the mechanics are like most other first-person exploration games. This is a game that hinges entirely on its imaginative world building, stylish look and morbid humor, which won't be for everybody, but it's definitely up my alley, capturing a particular mood I've always tried to aim for in my own work.
Sylvio basically takes all the most interesting aspects of real-world, "professional" ghost hunters, cuts out the nonsense (and admittedly, there is a lot of nonsense), and distills it all into basically an audio-puzzle haunted house adventure.
It's really just that gun stuff that drags it down. Not only are the controls for it rather awkward, but arming yourself with a gun to blast ghosts feels weirdly out of place for the premise, and rather breaks the mood. I'd have hoped that, if we had to have a way to "fight," it would have somehow still involved the functions of the sound recorder.
Granted, the game didn't feel all that scary to us for long, even when you're later stalked by a teleporting technological phantasm with seemingly nowhere to run, but that's probably our jadedness talking again. It's easy to see this one disturbing the hell out of many players, from its claustrophobic underwater setting to the maniacal gibberish of its malfunctioning cyborgs.
Spooky's House of Jump Scares
It seems like a cheap joke - especially when you're told you have to endure a thousand of these rooms to reach the end - but the deeper you delve into Spooky's realm, the more menacing things get, and through a series of notes and files, the story behind the seemingly harmless little ghost only grows darker.
There are some who even feel that this game becomes absolutely terrifying later on, and again, I have no difficulty seeing why, even if we personally only thought it was amusing and clever.
Layers of Fear
Layers puts you in the role of a wealthy, critically acclaimed artist lost in his own sprawling house, littered with artwork and the evidence of an ongoing war against himself. Clues and notes around every corner weave together the story of his miserable private life, abusive behavior and self-loathing, and as you explore, things just keep going from worse to worser.
Not only does our protagonist seem to be a terrible human being who probably did terrible things, but either his grasp on reality is unraveling or reality is actually unraveling around him. The house itself will constantly change around you, hallways changing shape and doors leading to new places almost every time you turn around, your senses increasingly assaulted with unreal phenomenon, the most unnerving of which revolve around increasingly distorted, classical paintings. This is a "haunted house" game where the house truly feels like an active adversary, rather than merely a scary place in which a series of scary things happen.
My favorite creepy little thing about this game, though? The mice. We haven't even seen them, but we've seen the protagonist's sketches and notes on the bizarre rodents he believes hang from their tails from his ceilings, grow in his lungs like mold and breed in his hair like lice. Whatever role they end up playing in the next chapter, large or small, I'm pretty eager to find out.
The Five Nights at Freddy's Series
A little over a year since its release, the Five Nights saga now has four games under its belt, a movie deal and a seemingly insatiable fan base, all of which feel hard earned for a series created almost exclusively by a single person, and a series tapping in to a flavor of horror so rarely captured so effectively in any entertainment medium.
Everyone knows that animatronic animals and mascot characters are almost inherently creepy. They continue to be marketed in earnest to young children, but even the best made are constantly teetering between "inoffensive at best" and "lifeless soul-eating puppet-monster." Why that hasn't been tapped far, far more often for horror is a mystery, and even when it has, it's never been milked for all its worth like it has to such great effect in Freddy's. For that matter, I can't even think of all that many cases where robots were played so effectively as horror characters, either, until the aforementioned Soma came out more recently, making this franchise a two-for-one special on long under-utilized themes.
Perhaps the coolest thing about these games, however, is how much they give players to chew on long after they're over. Each game adds new layers to the story of Freddy Fazbear's Pizza, a pitch-dark murder mystery fans are still working to piece together and left widely open for conflicting speculation. The fourth game even promised to put the pieces together once and for all, but at the last minute, Cawthorn decided it was a whole lot more fun to leave that element of the unknown for players to interpret their own ways, and I have to agree.
It's been a genuine pleasure to see such an oddball little game climb the ranks of infamy, and perhaps more amazingly, I haven't even any exceptional issues with the obsession-level of its fandom.
Not even a fandom this obsessed. There's a jump scare by the way.
There are, of course, many more horror titles that have landed since Halloween 2014, but we only have the time and money to pick up so many. We did at least take a shot at a couple of more mainstream hits like Resident Evil: Revelations 2 and The Evil Within, but neither of us got quite sucked into them like the games we've discussed here so far. The independent scene really has turned the industry completely on its head these past couple years, taking is straight back to the age when a bestseller could be cobbled together by a couple of nerds in their own basement.
Pretty much everything we've seen here, with a fraction of the staff and budget, far outshines whatever Konami is putting out now. Ping Pong machines? I don't know. Who cares about the big names anymore if it doesn't involve new pokemon?
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