Strap in for a bloody good time this year! Horror videogames are thriving, even as other parts of the industry continue to struggle.
The bat whips through the back of the skull as if it’s made of nowt more than tissue paper, sending the eyeballs – stalks and all – flying.
One deviates slightly to the left, as if it’s just spotted someone it knows and wants to say hello, whilst the other makes a beeline straight towards you, tumbling through the air in a lazy forward roll. It looks suitably wet and squishy, crimson drops darting off it right and left. You’re left with the distinct impression that if Dead Island 2's loading sequence hadn’t ended when it did, it would’ve plopped directly in your lap.
There’s more, of course, ostensibly different but very much in a similar vein. One time, there’s a knife embedded in the skull. Another time, raw intestines dangle around the zombie’s knees, conjuring images of pink, fleshy sausages hanging in a butcher’s windows. It’s deliciously gruesome but strangely balletic, too, as though your undead friend may leap up and pirouette at any moment.
But just when I think Dead Island 2's ready to take home 2023’s Most Gratuitous Horror Game award, The Outlast Trials pops up and asks Dead Island to hold its bloodied beer.
We already know the Outlast games have a propensity for violence and nakedness, and Trials – the latest in the series that deviates from its usual blueprint by offering a cooperative horror adventure this time around – does not disappoint on either front.
It’s not just that everything is slick with blood (which it is), or that there are body parts hanging all over the place (which they are) – it’s those things and more; much, much more. The Outlast Trials is gross and obscene and, yes, kind of awesome, somehow fusing the thrill of a co-op shooter with the dread of a jumpscare simulator. Throw in the Dead Space remake, Resident Evil 4 remake, and the incredibly dark fishing sim, Dredge, and 2023 has already delivered a bevvy of intensely satisfying horror experiences – and we’re not even halfway through the year yet.
It wasn’t always like this, though, you know. For a long time, horror games – not unlike horror movies, I guess – were the campy, slightly awkward sibling that ‘real games’ and the people who played them looked down upon. Unambitious in scope and substance, they fell out of favour and away from the auspices of the bigger studios, eventually becoming synonymous with indie development.
That’s not a slight on indie horrors, by the way; I’ve no doubt that without them, the entire genre would’ve died an untimely death a decade ago. Inside, Phasmophobia, Little Nightmares, SOMA; I don’t just put those near the top of my favourite horror games list, but my favourite games full stop.
Five Nights At Freddy's spawned an entire sub-genre of imitators. Doki Doki Literature Club! remains a stone-cold classic, inverting visual novel tropes and serving up a delightfully unsettling premise that doesn’t break the fourth wall as much as beat you to a pulp with it. Whilst the AAA-ers chased the live-service, battle-royale bandwagon – which I’m still partial to myself, of course – indie horror devs kept us horror fans fed.
But you know what they say: the only constant in this world is change, right? This means that shortly after we saw horror movies get a well-overdue revival (in a wonderful marriage of film and game, there’s even a Five Nights At Freddy’s movie dropping just in time for Halloween 2023), so too came the rebirth of horror gaming, spurred in no small part by Supermassive’s brilliant – and very accessible, particularly for more casual gamers – The Dark Pictures Anthology, which just keeps on getting better and better which every release.
Yes, it took a little while to get back here, but the future is looking terrifyingly good, my fellow horror junkies. Amnesia: The Bunker will release in a matter of days. Alan Wake 2, Layers of Fear, and a Silent Hill 2 remake are on the way, whilst The Dark Pictures developer Supermassive is doing the inverse of Outlast developer Red Barrels by taking a multiplayer horror and adapting it as a singleplayer Dead By Daylight adventure. And just to ensure we still get our fill of blood and guts and dismembered limbs, Sumo Nottingham’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre game is set to drop in August, too.
But the very best bit? Just look at that selection! Look how different those games are! The horrorsphere is made up of many, many sub-genres, which means even the hardiest stomach may struggle with jumpscares, and someone else’s cool nerves may jangle not at chase sequences but body horror.
Me? I like slow, creeping dread and oodles of environmental storytelling, which is why I think games like Silent Hill and Layers of Fear are pretty special.
But how wonderful it is that, regardless of your own particular preferences, quality studios are making quality horror games again, spanning so many disparate styles, there really is something to suit everyone this spooky season? It sure does feel like it’s a bloody good time to be a horror fan again.