4 Indie Games Getting Cosmic Horror Right

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By Madison May on August 9th, 2021

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The Black Iris

At face value The Black Iris is ostensibly just another glitch-art PSX horror title, but booting the game and running headlong into a live action “credit” sequence of insidiously warping flora and and text pulled straight from 1980’s video nasties shows dev Jamie Ferguson has done their research.

The plot is a bit like looking at a Jeff Vandermeer novel sideways: you are a decommission agent – whatever that means – sent to Northeast Scotland by the insidiously named “Institute for Divergent Sciences”. Your job is to shut down drilling stations that have worn holes into the earth, all of which are now leaking out eerie psychic damage to anyone in spitting distance. Tapes and notes, big as novelty checks, are a blunt instrument for plotting and imply that the suspiciously missing researchers investigating these boreholes had a hankering that something more sinister was brewing beneath the earth. Us as the players, lucky ducks that we are, have a clear hint: the game opens with a psychedelic black hole, purple and alive, pumping and churning like the eye of a storm.


The game is a visual spectacle in the best possible way, all blurry scan lines and dirty water grain, but it stands above its peers in the crowded lofi genre by seeming to intimately know the material it’s referencing. It’s a playable Panos Cosmatos fever dream (complete with an explicit Mandy easter egg), committed to leaking color and charmingly hokey Resident Evil camera angles, then topped off by an impeccable outrun-meets-ambient soundtrack created by the dev themselves.

As an indie title there are admittedly a few bumps: the map, a grid of unfussy polygons in approximate relation to one another, is near useless, and the intentionally clunky graphics make it nigh impossible parse the specifics of what’s going on in certain scenes. Yet even with minor hiccups, the game is still a stunner of a solo project. Oh, and did we mention 100% of game proceeds go to a local food bank in the dev’s hometown of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland? Play something great and do some good while you’re at it.

Play The Black Iris on itch.io

Pink

AugoGames’s Pink is a sleeper horror title hidden behind a sweetly aesthetic veneer that dares you to call it cute, then bites back. Navigating a tediously neat apartment cast in a haze of Millennial pink, you’re thrust into the life of a young woman whose banal days are spent caring for the things, both inanimate and eerily alive, keeping the aesthetic of her lifestyle just right.

A tongue in cheek jab at the dark side of Youtube influencer culture, Pink name drops aesthetic moods and decorating blogs, only to show you a woman slowly unraveling – both physically and emotionally – while the game hints that the world is literally collapsing around her. It’s a quirky little horror show neatly tailored to Millennial anxieties (agoraphobia, climate change, erratic wifi) while building off of the broader cosmic horror mythos in the process.

Play Pink on itch.io

World of Horror

A pitch perfect love song to Junji Ito manga re-skinned for fans of extra crunchy resource management, World of Horror is the 1-bit adventure Lovecraft fans didn’t know they needed.

The gameplay is structured similarly to the tabletop game “Elder Sign”, with the player managing the nuance of limited stamina and reason while up against the clock of a an additional “doom” counter that will unchain repressed gods. While there’s only a few scenarios to play through, the possibilities within them are nearly endless with a cast of allies, random encounters, and items to keep each play through fresh. Lucky for that, too, as the game ensures you’ll get cozy with failure: inevitably your time, money, or fortitude will flag – even with careful management – making the gameplay ripe with jangling, nervous energy perfectly in tune with the noisy visual style.

The overwhelming amount of information on-screen at any given time can make newbie players a bit nauseous – and if the interface doesn’t, the visually unsettling enemies certainly will – with so many options to manage making progress a tricky proposition. But then again, who said saving the world was easy?

While World of Horror deals primarily in existential anxiety and warped body horror, the most evil thing lurking inside of it is much more banal: its fan community. Ignore the Twitter discourse and perpetual braying by way of negative reviews about when the next update will come or, more troublingly, what is owed to the fans by the dev. Buy the game. Even if you only play through it once, it’ll be money well spent.

Play World of Horror on Steam

Dispatch

Dispatch on itch.io
Image courtesy of Justin Kirkwood

More of an interactive short than a traditional video game, Dispatch is a walking simulator that plays all the greatest hits of the horror genre: a midnight ritual, an unsuspecting bystander, and a spooky house on a hill bathed in technicolor haze. In it, you play as a paramedic on night patrol summoned by way of a homebody’s Life Alert, and instead of finding geriatric distress you instead find a house bloody and askew, occupied by patrolling occultists with the awakening of a dark god on their minds.

The meat-and-guts recipe for summoning this elder god is more deus ex machina than sensible plotting (It’s thinly implied an occultist hit the medical alert bracelet to summon you, a mental image that jukes towards slapstick) and the “gameplay” is entirely on rails, which may be a turn off for players looking for more heft in both the story and interactivity departments. Nevertheless, the experience is tightly wound like clockwork and the sound design alone does the heavy lifting of creating a haunting experience spent chasing shadows and triggering neon strobes that give more than a passing nod to The Color Out Of Space.

Play Dispatch on itch.io

Madison reads everything, remembers nothing, and likes to argue everywhere except the internet.

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