By EVAN MILLAR
So, 2020, huh?
Despite last year being host to a ton of horrible events and human behaviour, at least we could depend on video games to keep us from going any more insane as we bided our time between lockdowns. Though AAA horror titles such as RESIDENT EVIL 3, THE LAST OF US PART II, and DOOM ETERNAL released to their devoted fanbases this year, the indie horror scene produced some of the most disturbing, poignant, and imaginative experiences one can have with the medium.
With that, here’s a short list of my favourite independent horror games released in 2020 in no particular order.
THE HORROR OF SALAZAR HOUSE
As the debut game from Ignacio Maldonato and first title released on Puppet Combo’s TORTURE STAR VIDEO label, THE HORROR OF SALAZAR HOUSE is one of the most satisfying point-and-click adventure games for me in years, horror or otherwise. If one look at the game’s lovingly recreated Apple II visuals isn’t enough to draw you in, consider the fantastic music, sound effects and surprisingly touching story of a journalist investigating the disappearance of a famous author and his family in their remote mansion. Though I tore through the game in one sitting, THE HORROR OF SALAZAR HOUSE kept me returning to wander the mansion’s dark hallways again and again throughout this year.
Sometimes the seemingly mundane can be the most terrifying setting of all. Take for instance the initial setup of PARANOIHELL: a bar employee closes out her shift and begins to make her way back to her apartment across town. The problem? A mysterious and violent force has suddenly taken hold, transforming its citizens and the topography itself into a hellish place where death awaits in every back alley, park, and previously ordinary place of business. Though PARANOIHELL visuals may look, dare I say… cute upon first glace, developer lum worked their magic and got under my skin in ways I was never prepared for thanks to some unsettling sound design and unconventional jump scares.
I’m kind of at a loss for what to write about developer Mr. Pink’s GOLDEN LIGHT, beyond that it is supremely strange. Sure, its visuals are freaky. Yes, every moment of this first-person roguelike is deeply upsetting, but it’s also kind of hilarious? If wandering around a sun-soaked, flowery field before being thrust into a dungeon with walls, items, and enemies composed entirely of meaty flesh sounds like something you’re interested in, I highly recommend you just buy this thing immediately and take the trip yourself. I still don’t fully understand what the hell I’m even doing when I play it, but I’ve been totally enthralled every time I do. The game recently added a co-op mode as well so you can bewilder your friends and family.
It never came to fruition, but the pairing of HIDEO KOJIMA and GUILLERMO DEL TORO for Konami’s SILENT HILLS no doubt would have made for a fantastic game. Although we only got a demo of the project in the form P.T., it served as a shockwave that’s still being felt in the indie horror scene today. Case in point is VISAGE from Montreal developer SadSquare Studio, first-person nightmare fuel that takes many of the mechanics that made P.T. something special and expanding on them in new and terrifying ways. It’s been a while since something made me feel this uneasy during play, and for that, VISAGE is commendable.
SOMEDAY YOU’LL RETURN
Does the thought of trekking through the beautiful and dangerous Moravian forest in search of your missing daughter sound like a good time? Well, it should, because SOMEDAY YOU’LL RETURN from CBE Software is one of the more unique first-person horror games to come along in quite some time. There are some rough aspects such as the voice acting, sure, but nothing that survival horror enthusiasts will find particularly disagreeable. During my playthrough I was consistently amazed at how sprawling its environments felt, and though I did find myself a little disoriented at times, it only bolstered the experience and made me feel like I was actually inhabiting that space. Fans of BLAIR WITCH and SILENT HILL should definitely check this one out.
Once a year, there’s an indie game that just hits completely different than nearly everything else out there, and in 2020 that was PARADISE KILLER. With its 2D character drawings that rotate within an otherwise fully rendered 3D environment, the game shares many similarities to visual novels but with free-roam exploration gameplay across a surreal, dystopian vista that intrigues as much as it bewilders. It takes an hour or two to get a grip on the dizzying lore that fuels its narrative, but Kaizen Game Works have crafted a dark concoction of existential horror and mystery that’s going to stick with me for a very long time. Or at least until their next game, that is.
The games of Puppet Combo have been consistently disturbing since BABYSITTER BLOODBATH first came onto the scene, but with their latest game MURDER HOUSE, the pervading B-movie aesthetic transcends mere camp and dives knife-first into some truly abhorrent territory. As a shorter experience, I don’t want to give away too much of what makes MURDER HOUSE special, but it’s easily the most polished Puppet Combo game yet, a masterful summation of everything that makes them a developer horror fans absolutely need to keep an eye on.
A long-lost educational game for children about staying safe around electrical towers. I mean, just how scary could that possibly be? Well, let me tell you… plenty. A collaboration between horror writer T.W. Burgess and Teebowah Games, this “cursed” edutainment title was like an indie jolt of electricity that livened me up in a year of lengthy, brutal AAA games. High on concept and brilliant in its execution, PYLONS is simultaneously a love letter to the early days of PC gaming that stakes out territory of its own in the horror gaming landscape much like the aforementioned pylons that populate the game’s countryside.
DREAD X COLLECTION 1-3
It might be cheating to put three different collections composed of dozens of smaller games, but the truth is that no matter which of Dread XP’s horror anthologies is being played, there’s something for every horror fan to love. From the retro handheld scares of Airdorf’s SUMMER NIGHT (Dread X Collection 1) to Blood Machine‘s colourful SONIC-inspired platformer SOUL WASTE (Dread X Collection 3), the sheer range of genres and experiences here makes either of these bundles an easy recommendation for those looking to play an assorted grab bag of smaller games that are big on ideas and endlessly impressive in their speedy execution.
One of my favourite games of yore is Asmik Ace Entertainment’s LSD: DREAM EMULATOR, an experimental fever dream for the PlayStation 1 that never gives players the same experience twice. While Bryce Bucher’s FATUM BETULA is decidedly more structured, it provides the same sense of wonder I get from wandering around in a game like DREAM EMULATOR with psychedelic texture work and a mostly uncanny ambient soundtrack. The playful sense of experimentation is key to unlocking its mysteries, and there are numerous ways to reach FATUM BETULA’s different endings. Some of these are funny, some horrific, though every minute spent playing made me feel like I was sitting in my room in the middle of the night basking in the soft glow of my cathode-ray tube television.