Viewpoint: The Psychology of Indie Games – How Small Developers Have Been Revitalizing the Horror Genre

Some of us play games for fun, some for family time, some for competition, and some of us like to have our wits and our desire to ever sleep again scared out of us for our own, personal enjoyment. Fans of horror games no doubt have AAA titles such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill to thank for pushing the genre into the mainstream and coining the now oft-used phrase “survival horror.” But, over the years the general mainstream horror genre has suffered from a loss of direction (think back to Resident Evil 6 before Capcom rebooted the series). The industry at large has failed to truly reinvent the genre after longtime fans became tired of the same old tropes, even when well-executed (think The Evil Within). But, as the larger studios have struggled to hit the mark, the indie game industry has managed to not only revive the horror genre, but infuse it with a fresh sense of dread, dark curiosity, and existential concepts that will keep you up at night.

Horror has always been about human frailty and probing what makes an individual through picking each aspect apart: the body, the emotions, and the psyche. Though funding issues often plague the hopes of smaller developers, not having to recover the higher budgets of AAA titles gives indie creators greater freedom to explore some of the more obscure concepts high-end developers often obfuscate. Unbridled by the pressures of larger investors, smaller developers have managed to zero in on what many bigger horror entries are missing: a sense of genuine internal trepidation brought on through feelings of mental dissonance and the subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) use of the uncanny.

Home, a game that puts the player into the shoes of a man who might be as physiologically unstable as any of Edgar Allen Poe’s narrators, tells it’s story largely through a sense that something is out of place (namely the timeframe, but also some key piece of knowledge the game never quite divulges). This sensation leaves the player with a perplexed and disquieted feeling similar to someone who might have just noticed their mind slipping a bit. The effect is small and subtle, but terrifying, and all this is accomplished in a span of only around a couple of hours in an entirely old-style, pixelated world.

The horror of not knowing the full story and the feeling of a lack of control it produces in the player was well utilized by developer Playdead in Limbo and, more recently, Inside. In fact, Inside thrives on this feeling of displacement juxtaposed with puzzles that require the player to literally control the minds of the people around them. The fact the gamer is taking on the role of what appears to be a little boy adds to the sense of helplessness and lack of control. The ending toys with the player’s psyche even further by literally dumping the player at the end of the game with no more knowledge than that with which you began, even though your character has literally become entangled with a mass of other minds (and bodies). This sense of psychological disorientation is just one way indie horror has succeeded in tackling a major element of the horror genre often left out or unsuccessfully implemented by AAA titles.


But, of course, some larger indie titles manage to get the feel right, perhaps due to the passion and determination needed to succeed in the independent market. Layers of Fear is a larger indie title that accomplishes on a more grandiose scale what entries like Anatomy by Kitty Horrorshow did on a more subtle note: create a sense of disquiet through over-familiarity with the mundane. Certainly a (possibly) haunted mansion isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the horror genre, but Layers of Fear managed to meld the psyche of the protagonist with the very building the player walks through, much like Anatomy does with a single family home. Though the stories are different, and Layers of Fear eventually takes on a more Alice in Wonderland level of distortion, both games succeed in amplifying common feelings of familial and domestic entrapment, and the fear of being unable to escape our own minds with all our worst memories and regrets, literally changing the mundane into an uncanny manifestation of the disorder in our own minds.

Of course, there are many other independent titles that deal cunningly with the terrors of cognitive dissonance that can result from everyday emotional trauma, depression, and feelings of entrapment. Titles such as Neverending Nightmares and Notes of Obsession both deal with these common enough passions and mental states from the angle of a horror title. Games like Outlast 2 and Soma go a step further, removing the player from reality to such a degree that they are then forced to question how much of our mental state dictates who we are, how we act, and what makes us human. If our minds are undependable like the players experience in Outlast 2, or if similar to Soma our humanity is as fragile and transferrable as a computer program, what does it mean to be human, and how can we really ever know who and what we are?

The indie gaming industry is not an easy place to find success in general. The difficulty in acquiring the proper funding, the need to locate a good publisher, advertising the game and hitting the right notes for the title to be widely successful make the path particularly difficult. Developers of horror titles have the added difficulty of an oversaturated market. The internet is inundated with would-be developers hoping to cash-in on the next great scare fest. But, while being a small developer is a hard road, the horror genre has seen an overall boon within the small games market thanks to the determination, creativity and passion of small developers. We can only hope the path eventually becomes a bit smoother, and more titles like the ones above can make their way across platforms into our homes, and into our nightmares.

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