The boundaries of horror have long been pushed by filmmakers using tiny budgets to create raw flicks that their better-financed brethren could never produce. Videogames are no different, and in recent years we have entered a renaissance of lo-fi horror, with indie outfits crafting a variety of strange productions. While many of these games evoke the fuzzy low-poly look of early PlayStation titles, they use experimental mechanics and storytelling to recast this nostalgic aesthetic in a sinister light. To celebrate this circus of oddities, we are rounding up five excellent lo-fi horror games that can each be finished in under two hours.
5. Sanguine Sanctum
Dropped unceremoniously in the middle of a ritual you don’t fully understand, Sanguine Sanctum is a tone piece set amidst pixelated hellscapes. Walls undulate with each step as you traverse through fleshy corridors, forgotten temples, and haunted cities. There are no exposition dumps, and its logic is never fully explained, but eventually, your horrible mission becomes clear. Your only real companion is a pile of red goo that demands sacrificial orbs, which can be collected in disparate levels connected to the Sanctum via Super Mario 64-esque magical gateways. Its light puzzles are largely only there to ensure exploration of each area, but its disquieting aesthetic and odd surprises pull the player into these indifferent vistas. Sanguine Sanctum’s hypnotic visuals make it an atmospheric trip worth taking.
4. Fatum Betula
Originally debuting on the 2020 Haunted PS1 Demo Disc, Fatum Betula is an adventure title set in a dark fairytale world stuck between life and death. You are tasked with altering this limbo by feeding an all-powerful plant, the Fate Birch, various liquids. As is made clear in its arresting introduction, this experience is about moments of natural discovery. Cryptic puzzles invite both wonder and horror, as satisfying reveals give way to unease. And while some of its secrets are intentionally almost impossible to find, most are hidden just enough out of the way to inspire genuine eureka moments without proving too confounding.
While it’s less outright frightening than most entries on this list, it remains unsettling thanks to its nightmare logic turns. At one point, you come across a forest blanketed in orange leaves, shafts of light poking between foliage as an uncharacteristically harmonious piano piece plays. It’s scenic until the background music suddenly breaks into a discordant melody that shatters any feeling of peace. Further investigation of the area unearths an immortal skeleton with freakishly long legs that wants to die and a wizard in a well who wants to live forever, complicating what once seemed simple and beautiful. The many endings that come from feeding the Fate Birch different substances share this complexity, revealing social commentary, cataclysms, philosophical musings, and one very funny joke. The winding path towards uncovering all these possibilities is one I’ll be thinking about for some time.
3. Iron Lung
Iron Lung is about claustrophobia. Trapped in a rusting submarine, its porthole welded shut to enable travel beyond intended depth limits, you play a convict forced to explore a human-blood ocean on a foreign moon. Despite this insane premise, David Szymanski’s latest is an exercise in minimalism, taking place entirely within the copper red walls of a metal sarcophagus. With no way to confirm what lies outside except a grainy black-and-white camera attached to your starboard, the mysteries of these deep-sea trenches loom large in the imagination. The sound of your vessel cutting through the depths is interrupted by rumbling animalistic echoes that imply you are not alone. And perhaps most stressful of all are the noises of your ship itself—creaking steel as a hostile sea slowly crunches its hull, the hiss of exploding pipes, constant reminders of depleting oxygen, and the persistent beep of a proximity alarm as you inch through tight cave formations.
While some horror games are passive, this experience is unnerving because it puts you in control of the sub’s fate. Using nothing but a poorly constructed map of trench formations, the coordinate readouts on your ship, and a vague sonar that beeps if you approach a cave wall, you must navigate blindly through winding tunnels to take pictures of nine locations. If there was ever a game that simulated the first day at a new job, this is it. Except instead of just feeling like you’ll die if you screw up, here you actually will. And beyond its oppressive visuals and mechanics, the backstory of this world further evokes the feeling of struggling desperately amidst hopeless circumstances. Iron Lung is a perfect example of what focused experimental indies can do, a shot of compressed dread that is unlike anything else I’ve played.
One of my favorite elements about lo-fi horror games is that many draw from influences outside big videogame franchises, either building on other novel titles or borrowing from works outside the medium altogether. While Paratopic could be semantically categorized as a “walking sim,” one of the only games it resembles is the similarly out-of-sequence, jump-cut heavy Thirty Flights of Loving. However, in this case, disorienting editing is used in tandem with incomprehensible monologues and eerie backdrops to create a feverish headspace.
To summarize the plot is a fool’s errand, and while you could create a Primer-style diagram to put events in chronological order, that’s at least partially missing the point. Paratopic is committed to using surrealism to tap into spiraling fears, of being trapped in debt, border crossing agents, walking alone in the woods, being forced to commit violence, and lonely drives. By severing itself from sequential order, it emphasizes individual scenes, honing in on the sometimes amusing but usually disturbing elements of each. Its green-tinged polygons, garbled audio, and nonsensical dialogue trees all build towards a sense of fundamental wrongness channeled by many other great works of surrealism, its off-putting vignettes etched into my mind like vague remembrances of a bad dream.
It’s hard for a story to “go meta” while also accomplishing the aims of whatever it’s riffing on. Despite this, Anatomy dissects the concept of a haunted house and then uses its conclusions to deepen the terror of its premise. The game begins inside an impressively unremarkable home. While its innards are shrouded in darkness, initially there is nothing inherently creepy or grotesque to be found. There’s no rotting food like in the abandoned kitchens of Resident Evil, no bloody handprints that imply violence, just a regular boring suburban home. And then you find a tape next to a cassette player.
When you pop the tape, a dignified voice rings out, “In the psychology of the modern, civilized human being, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the house.” At first, this narration is cold, academic, and condescending. But as you stumble through the abandoned building, uncovering additional cassettes which expand the speech, you begin to understand this isn’t an indifferent lecture on the home as a sociological construct but a long-simmering condemnation. Tension builds unbearably with each additional tape, audio logs establishing horrible new possibilities that may lurk around the next corner, that might fester in the basement. As the narration turns, so does the house, its simple 3D models warping into incomprehensible geometry. What was once placid now crackles with pain and hate felt through the low-poly haze. Without relying on gore or surprise scares, Anatomy worms into your gray matter as you creep through the inky maw of this abandoned residence. Most terrifying of all, it instills the simple idea that the places we desperately rely on may not be as safe as we thought.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.