Bite-size horror video games!

The existence of game distributors like Steam and the Epic Store have led to a bit of a Renaissance in short form horror video games. Small teams of developers, even single people, have crafted a variety of games that make up for their lack of big studio polish with a lot of creepy creativity. As a treat this Halloween, I thought I would share a list of some of these games. This list is not complete, as I wasn’t able to finish all the games I wanted to in time, but it gives you an idea of what’s out there!

Iron Lung (2022). This game is the one that inspired me to write this post in the first place, and it became an instant favorite of mine!

In this science fiction horror game, you play as a convict, sentenced to perform a deep submarine expedition to explore a literal ocean of blood on a remote moon. (There is much more to the story, which is revealed in computer logs and I won’t share here.) You are welded into the submarine, and given coordinates of sites to visit; with a single external still camera, you must photograph the strange objects at each location.

Iron Lung is a game of claustrophobia and paranoia. You have first-person control of your character, but the only places you can go are the three stations in the sub: the controls, the camera, and the computer. Your only view of the outside comes from the still camera, which takes single photographs very slowly. You navigate using a map and a set of coordinates; get too close to a wall or hit it hard and your sub can collapse. As your expedition continues, the objects you photograph become increasingly strange, and you start to hear things outside the sub that suggest you are not alone…

Iron Lung takes a little over an hour to complete, and it is a great, haunting game that stuck with me. It is from the maker of Dusk, the popular retro 90s shooter and shares the same sort of graphical style.

The Convenience Store (2020). This atmospheric horror game is by Chilla’s Art, a two-person team from Japan that has put out numerous short Japanese horror games. The games range in style from short explorations of dread to panicked terror; The Convenience Store is one of the former and an excellent game.

You play as an unnamed young woman who works the night shift at her neighborhood convenience store. In the beginning, you will be doing mundane tasks around the shop and attending to customers, but as the nights pass, strange things start to happen and you realize that something sinister, even deadly, is afoot.

Like many of the Chilla’s Art games, The Convenience Store uses the mundanity of modern life to lull the player into complacency. The store itself leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable, as you are working alone within a brightly lit glass box, with darkness all around. There are two endings to the game, and depending on a crucial choice you make, it can be a “good” one, in which you learn a bit more about the origins of your experience, or a “bad” one — where things end badly.

The game takes only about an hour and a half to play, which is good, because it possesses no save feature. Be prepared to play it entirely through in one sitting. The game controls are quirky, but the art is lovely, and it is amazing that just two people put together such games with regularity.

If you want something more intense from Chilla’s Art, you can try the PS1 retro-style game Aka Manto — but be ready for one of the most stressful games you will ever experience! (Update: If you want to watch a complete playthrough, my friend samanthorium is the only person I know who has done a fully successful playthrough — and I was hanging out with her on the livestream when she did it!)

Lights Off! (2022). This one is free to play, and extremely short… but I couldn’t finish it the first time I loaded it up.

The basement in my childhood home was never finished, and ended up being a dark, chilly and rather unsettling place. I played down there all the time, but there was always a bit of dread at the end of play. Shutting off all the lights turned the basement into a black void, and I always hurried up the stairs as soon as the last light was turned off.

Many people must have similar memories, because Lights Off! plays off of them beautifully. The premise is simple: each night, you start downstairs and have to shut off all the lights in the house, and finally get into bed. The first night is simple enough, but as the game progresses, things get more ominous and the dread increases.

You can finish this game in 15 minutes, but I don’t recommend doing so right before bed!

Mega (2022). This is the most action-filled of the games I will mention here, and it is driven by terror!

In this first-person game, you play as a special operative who has crashed into a ruined city, and must explore that city to find the scattered components of a high-tech weapon. Why is the city ruined, and what is the weapon for? The answer is the same for both questions: a gigantic kaiju has taken up residence, and even though you are tiny compared to it, the creature will use you as a tasty snack if it sees you. What follows is a game of cat and mouse, where you try to stay out of the creature’s way while gathering up the components.

This is a game all about agoraphobia. The ruined city is a desolate, open, ruined landscape with almost no shelter. Getting the weapon components means running painfully exposed through empty squares, hoping that this isn’t the moment that the monster turns your way.

To be honest, I haven’t even finished this game yet — it’s somewhat challenging to avoid being eaten! Other people estimate that a run can take about 45 minutes to complete.

Lure (2022). Another retro-style horror game, this one is exceedingly short and to the point — and also free!

Your objective is simple enough. A man offers to pay you to catch fish at an abandoned shrine. And he has a fishing rod for you already — easy money, right?

This game probably qualifies as “horror comedy,” and takes only about five minutes to complete, but is quite effective and a fun little distraction.

Security Booth (2022). The “director’s cut” of this game came out just this year, though the original dates to 2021. It is another game that uses a mundane job to lull you into a sense of normalcy and trap you there.

Set in 1996, you are a security guard at a science lab called Nova Nexus, on a night when an important experiment is being run. Your job is simply to check the license plates of any cars that arrive against a list of employees, and only let the right people in. As time passes, however, you get the sense that something has gone horribly wrong at the lab, and that it might be going horribly wrong for you, as well…

This game plays on the terror of feeling powerless. You are a side character in whatever events are happening at Nova Nexus, and never quite sure what is going on, even as things get increasingly ominous.

There are multiple endings to the game, depending on how well or poorly you do your job. A number of these endings unlock additional scenes to explore more the mysteries of the lab.

A single playthrough takes about 30 minutes; if you are tempted to unlock all the game’s secrets, multiple playthroughs involving a couple of hours might be necessary.

Paratopic (2018). The oldest game on the list, it also takes advantage of retro-style 90s graphics, which work quite well in the context of the story.

I might describe Paratopic as an interactive movie that feels somewhat like a David Lynch movie in its style. The overall story, told through the perspectives of multiple characters in disconnected scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order, involves the distribution of VHS tapes that cause… something… to happen to those that watch them.

Like most good horror stories, you never get the complete picture of what is going on. There are lots of details to be picked out in the various scenes, and I found the strange style of Paratopic stuck with me for quite a while after I finished it, which took about 45 minutes.

Poppy Playtime (2021). This is an unfinished game, and the choices that the creators have made in releasing the first and subsequent chapters has caused a lot of controversy, but the first chapter is currently free to play and can be very terrifying!

Without much explanation, this first-person game thrusts you into exploring the factory of Playtime Co., which went out of business when everyone inside the factory mysteriously disappeared one day. Along the way, you will solve a number of puzzles and learn more about the toys and the history of Playtime, culminating in one of the most terrifying encounters I’ve ever experienced in a horror game!

I’ve also played part 2, though I found it to be somewhat frustrating and never quite finished it. But if you want to be genuinely freaked out, part 1 is amazing! It takes somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes to complete.

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This is my (incomplete) list of bite (byte?)-sized horror games! Know of any other great ones? Leave me a comment!

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