Horror is typically reserved for the Halloween season, but that needn’t always be the case. While replaying the big names in the genre like Resident Evil never goes out of style, those looking for something new can find an abundance of short, spooky experiences for the exceedingly reasonable price of zero dollars.
Indeed, innovation in the horror niche doesn’t only happen in the offices of big-budget studios. Small development teams with limited time and resources have produced some of the scariest games of recent memory, be they hidden gems, viral sensations, or old classics that are ripe for rediscovery.
Updated on January 9th, 2023 by Jordan Iacobucci: In many ways, the indie-horror genre is the future of scary video games, with countless creators offering their twisted stories without the help of top-dollar video game distributors. As a result, there are hundreds of free-to-play indie horror games available right now that far outshine the offerings of even the biggest video game companies today.
The premise behind Start Survey? is exceedingly simple. The player sits at their in-game laptop, unable to move, and answers a series of simple yes or no questions as part of a seemingly innocuous survey. That might not sound too bad, but the developer of this title was able to stretch this simple concept to some terrifying conclusions.
This is one of those games that want to break down the border between game and reality, which makes the scares all the more effective. Not content to let the horror linger at the border of its game window, Start Survey? is sure to have players checking over their shoulder in real life as often as they do in-game.
Ib is a spiritual successor of sorts to the famous Yume Nikki, the title that kicked off a renaissance of RPG Maker horror titles in Japanese amateur game development circles. Yume Nikki‘s overt surrealism and opaque objectives inspired many to develop similar titles, but, in several cases, these offshoots leaned further into explicit horror than their predecessor did.
Ib is one such example and is one of the best RPG Maker horror games in its own right. While on a visit to an art museum, the player finds themselves suddenly spirited away to a twisted mirror version of their surroundings. Their task is then to escape this nightmare world, solving puzzles and avoiding enemies along the way.
Taking place within just two sparsely-furnished rooms, September 1999 is about as bare bones as a walking simulator can be. Still, clearly inspired by the notorious Silent Hills P.T. demo, the game manages to quickly escalate tension to an uncomfortable level, and, despite its very short runtime, it manages to leave an impact.
There are dozens upon dozens of games like September 1999 available on Steam and indie-centric sites like itch.io, but the game’s razor-sharp focus and undeniable creep-factor make it something on which horror gamers should not miss out.
Cry Of Fear
Cry of Fear is a legend in Half-Life modding circles and a classic PC horror outing that all players need to try out. As one of the many successful titles inspired by the Silent Hill series, Cry of Fear follows its protagonist as he slowly loses his mind. It’s never clear what’s real and what isn’t, which seriously ratchets up the tension.
It features more of a combat focus than some other entries in the genre, but players would do well not to let being armed lull them into a false sense of security. The enemies in this game are utterly nightmarish, and facing them, properly armed or not, is always a terrifying affair.
The House In The Woods
Fans of Blair Witch look no further; this game, clearly inspired by the classic horror film, is perhaps the clearest reinterpretation of the film’s grainy, found footage vibe in a video game. True to its inspiration, this game drops players into the middle of some terrifyingly dark, possibly haunted woods.
The low-poly aesthetic does wonders for the game’s atmosphere, capturing the low-budget charm of Blair Witch. The sound design here is particularly notable, as well, supporting the terrifying ambiance with well-timed musical beats and otherworldly noises.
Released in 2020, Perfect Vermin takes something of a Doki Doki Literature Club approach in that its true nature isn’t revealed until the ending. What first seems like an interesting distraction about smashing up office furniture eventually transforms into something uniquely sinister.
Though it only takes roughly twenty minutes to beat, Perfect Vermin has a style and approach that makes it stand out from the crowd, and it evokes a sense of uncanny oddity that’s not often done as well as it’s done here.
Slender: The Eight Pages
Almost everyone with an interest in horror games—or perhaps a passing familiarity with online culture circa 2012—will have heard of the viral sensation Slender: The Eight Pages. This game was everywhere back then, catapulting its titular monster, Slenderman, into pop-culture stardom for his fifteen minutes of fame.
Behind the memes, streamers, and ill-fated Hollywood reinterpretations, though, is a competent little horror game. It’s a simple premise; the player must walk through some spooky woods and find eight scattered notes before Slenderman takes them. Still, the game is extremely effective at cultivating the sensation of being watched; there’s always a sense that he’s out there, just out of sight.
Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion
Remember that one jump scare in Dead Space 2 where a cardboard cutout of a cartoon sun drops right in front of Isaac’s face? Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion is kind of like that, but it’s extended across an entire short-but-sweet love letter to horror gaming as a genre. Across the thousand rooms of terror in this charming mansion, cute cardboard cutouts spring out in front of the player’s face, sure to make anyone feel like an idiot for getting scared.
Don’t go thinking this is a game even scardey-cats can enjoy, though, as it isn’t for the faint of heart. Designed to lull players into a false sense of security, the heart-stopping but ultimately charming jump scares betray a much more sinister climax. Those who dare to brave all 1,000 rooms of terror will not be disappointed.
Doki Doki Literature Club
In the off chance that there’s anyone out there who hasn’t been thoroughly spoiled as to Doki Doki Literature Club‘s true nature, stop reading now and play the game. It’s a title that’s best experienced with as little background information as possible to keep its many unnerving twists fresh in the minds of new players.
Spoilers and viral success aside, Doki Doki Literature Club remains one of the most successful examples of fourth-wall-shattering horror on the market. Seeing the game collapse into itself as the story progresses is deeply unsettling, and there are some truly shocking scares to be found behind the game’s disarming presentation.
We Went Back
The lone effort from indie outfit Dead Thread Games, 2020’s We Went Back expertly emulates the tension and intrigue of titles like SOMA and Alien: Isolation while introducing its own time-travel twist. Set aboard a space station beset by a malevolent horror, We Went Back asks players to thoroughly think through puzzles while being scared out of their wits.
We Went Back only takes about an hour to beat, but, as far as free horror games go, it’s about as good as things could possibly get, offering a surprisingly fun time without a large level of time commitment.
SCP: Containment Breach
Containment Breach remains one of the most successfully terrifying video games to bear the SCP mantle. Based on the online horror writing project “Secure, Contain, Protect,” Containment Breach sees the player assuming the role of a lowly Class D test subject when everything goes terribly wrong in the containment facility.
The highlight of the game is its faithful interpretation of many of the SCP project’s most famous entities. For example, an innovative “blink” mechanic is used to great effect, giving players a meter denoting how long they can avoid averting their eyes from SCP-173.
Poppy Playtime became a viral sensation when it was released in October 2021, and, though the first chapter of the episodic title originally went for a fiver, it is now free. However, future entries in the Poppy Playtime saga will come at a premium.
Playing on the so-called mascot horror fad made popular by unexpected hits like Five Nights at Freddy‘s, Poppy Playtime is an adventure puzzler of sorts that sees players quest to escape an abandoned toy factory while being pursued by the horrifically toothy eponymous antagonist.
Ie No Majou
Another classic RPG Maker horror title, Ie no Majou (or, The Witch’s House) is an excellent obscure horror game that sees players solving assorted environmental puzzles as they attempt to escape a spooky haunted mansion. Uncovering the mysteries of the house while trying to stay alive is a hauntingly good time, as are the many horror-themed puzzles.
Beneath the low-budget exterior and simple premise, however, is a surprisingly detailed backstory that feeds into the game’s multiple endings. Some of these endings hit pretty hard both as emotional beats and scares, so it’s best to get into Ie no Majou as unspoiled as possible.
No Players Online
Anybody who’s played a dead or dying MMO or logged into an abandoned Gmod server will be able to explain the acute eeriness that comes with inhabiting an abandoned virtual space that ought to be populated. What kind of things once happened here? Where did everyone go? What if there’s still something out there?
No Players Online is a short and sweet horror game built around exactly that sense of anxiety. The player logs in to an empty capture the flag server in a long-dead shooter and sets out exploring the desolate map. It soon becomes clear, though, that there’s something else online.
Perhaps the most famous video game demo of all time, P.T. initially masqueraded as a promising horror project from the up-and-coming 7780s Studios. However, a lengthy community-led Easter egg hunt eventually revealed that the title was actually an early teaser for Konami’s Silent Hills. Tragically, the game was subsequently canceled, and the demo was removed from the PlayStation store.
Though it’s no longer available, P.T. deserves to be remembered as one of the most powerful and frightening horror experiences in the long and storied history of the Silent Hill franchise. Rumors of a Silent Hill resurgence persist, but it’s hard to imagine newer titles hitting the same highs that Silent Hills could have.
Dead Frontier 2
Dead Frontier 2 capitalizes on the popularity of the post-apocalyptic survival genre, forcing players to navigate a treacherous world filled with the infected undead. Players must struggle for survival, making every bullet, every resource, and every second count as they combat the rising zombies in a world consumed by darkness.
In an online world filled with other players trying to survive–and some that might be more dangerous than the zombies themselves–Dead Frontier 2 offers a surprisingly in-depth world for a free-to-play game, making it one of the best offers on the market.
Gorilla Tag is a free-to-play VR experience that allows players to embody a gorilla. While it may initially be fun to run, jump, and climb through the trees, players must also avoid infected gorillas, making for a surprisingly intense game of tag.
While Gorilla Tag may not seem like a horror game on the surface, tensions rise significantly as each game session goes on. And, with the surprisingly creepy design of the gorillas themselves, players wouldn’t be blamed for finding a tinge of fear amidst an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Ever since The Shining, there has always been something inherently creepy about a maze. Dark Deception capitalizes on this creep factor, putting players in a dismal labyrinth, which they must attempt to navigate while being pursued by a ruthless and bloodthirsty enemy that is sure to haunt their dreams for a long time to come.
Dark Deception increases its horror vibes by ensuring that there is no real way to escape the creature living in the labyrinth once it has found you: there is no hiding, only running. The only way to ensure survival is to complete the maze before being caught.
Cube Escape: Paradox
Cube Escape: Paradox lets players become Detective Dale Vandermeer, who has recently woken up in a mysterious room without any memory, any recollection of how he got there, or any way out, save for playing alone in a twisted game concocted by his captor.
Players must solve puzzles to complete the game and gree Vandermeer in this tie-in to Paradox: A Rusty Lake Short Film. And, though the game itself is free to play, it also comes with a premium package that offers new endings to this thrilling story.
Dagon: By H.P. Lovecraft
Based on the short story by horror legend H.P Lovecraft, Dagon takes players into a world plagued by the might of the classic Lovecraftian monster Cthulu. Complete with an immersive narrative twisted by the untrustworthy protagonist, Dagon is a perfect accompaniment to the infamous original story.
With only about thirty minutes of gameplay, Dagon is a short but scary descent into the twisted mind that created Cthulu and its forsaken world. Players looking for even more to the story can even purchase DLCs to enhance their experience, with all profits on Steam being dedicated to war in Ukraine.