Horror has always been one of the most popular forms of fiction, with frightening themes appearing in art stretching back to the oldest traditional myths, as well as in modern media spanning film, television, literature and games - but you don't need to buy the latest AAA shocker to get a good fright. Some of the scariest experiences can be found in indie games, for free, on Itch.
Due to their interactive nature, video games are uniquely suited to give their audience a good fright. If you're not just a passive observer, the level of immersion will make the anxiety and tension hit different. The psychology of horror is well studied, and there are many methods to send shivers up someone's spine - many AAA horror titles rely on all the fancy graphics to make viscera glisten ever so stickily on the newly-split skull of whatever mutant zombie is nipping at your heels (not all, we definitely acknowledge that!) while some cheaper titles coax out YouTube-worthy reactions by flashing an over-contrasted face on the screen when you least expect.
There is, however, a strata of horror games that eschew these devices in favor of a more unnerving, subtle approach. Decidedly less common than the bolder takes on horror which have been hyperpopularized by YouTube and streamer culture, some of these games won't scare you outright but rather instill a lingering sense of dread and unease. Some don't even have any real scares at all, but rely on atmosphere to become creepy. Ultimately relying on such primal sources of fear instead of a monster work in their favor - no monster design is scarier than the unknown, and after a game finally reveals its boogeyman, the magic is gone. When there is no monster to reveal, the mystery remains.
Itch.io has long been the home of free and cheap indie titles which places the developers and the players first, becoming a storefront that cultivates originality and experimentation. Even so, it is full of more formulaic horror games, so we've collected 5 of the most unnerving and unusual atmospheric horror titles you can play for free - or, if you want, you can support the developers too.
The Black Iris
Cosmic horror and abandoned secret research facilities are pretty common tropes in horror, but the tone and execution of The Black Iris makes it stand both out and apart. We definitely don't want to spoil anything here - this is true of every title on this list, making speaking about them all the harder - but this extremely stylish lo-fi game doesn't fall back on clichés.
Whenever you're not busy being freaked out, take a few moments to appreciate the lovely aesthetic and art direction that went into The Black Iris - masterful application of colour and space deliver on the otherworld feeling, and the occasional use of fixed camera angles bring out the retro sensibilities.
Adding to the overall inescapable atmosphere is the fantastic soundtrack and sparse use of real footage to lend the strange happenings in the research facility a sense of authenticity. The indirect storytelling approach will leave you hunting for notes and such to uncover the truth of what happened, and if you miss some you might end up confused - but then, that's sort of the point, isn't it?
Beyond being a great atmospheric horror game you can play for free, Arboreta Games deserves extra credit for forwarding all revenue to West Dunbartonshire Community Foodbank - they proved their donation with receipts. Try out The Black Iris by downloading it, and do kick some money their way too if you can.
If you're looking for a masterclass in short atmospheric horror, look no further. September 1999 can be played through from start to finish in around 5 minutes. Honestly, being free and so brief, there really isn't any reason for you not to just go and play it right now, unless you're scrolling through this article on your phone while commuting or something.
Without saying anything about what happens, many of the reasons why September 1999 works is how it happens. Found-footage horror is hardly a novel idea, but this game uses the chromatic aberration and interlacing typical of cameras from the era to sell the environment. You don't need a beast of a gaming PC for this, nor was it made on an insane AAA budget, but still the game is surprising photorealistic - not to reality, but to what actual home-video looks like from the late 90's.
This sense of realistic immersion is what really pulls you in, alongside the surprisingly mundane and believable content. The visual cues, sound design and subject matter all sell the illusion - September 1999 could very well be actually real. Not only real, but commonplace. When horror is framed around the fantastic and the paranormal, or the extraordinary, it's easier to detach. This stuff, on the other hand, can happen to you.
While there are no jump scares or monsters, the way the game builds tension and absolutely stretches it will have you looking at innocuous things like rooms and hallways in your house very differently.
While Bleakshore definitely stretches the definition of horror, is absolutely scratches the same itch. This title gets the sense of unease down to a science, subtly building tension as you travel across a coastal area mired in fog. The title really does the best work of describing the setting.
Sharing the lo-fi pseudo-PS1 graphics that a lot of indie horror games have adopted recently, Bleakshore is more meditative than most other titles in the genre. You won't be rushing, you won't get an adrenaline kick, but you'll definitely feel the game. It's akin to an abstract treatise on anxiety, which is quite different from fear but in the same ballpark.
Unlike most horror games, the ending is one of relief so the overall fruition is very different this time around, but regardless, Bleakshore absolutely belongs on this list. The message being conveyed here is more important these days than ever, making it the most relevant game we've picked. This too will linger in your mind a good long while after it's done and over, but not in the way that leaves you jumpy.
Dying of Thirst
The type of horror that gets under people's skin the most is the kind that invades our safe spaces and plays on the fears we had as kids. As a child, a midnight trip to the bathroom or fridge may as well have been a stroll through hell, forcing us to run a dangerous gauntlet before returning to the unassailable fortress that was our blanket. If you, for whatever reason, miss that particular flavor of fear, Dying of Thirst is for you.
While this game definitely has a much more traditional approach to horror than the other four on the list, you can't deny that it works. You wake up in the middle of the night and want a cup of water for your parched mouth. You don't want to wake your parents sleeping in the other room, so you don't turn the lights on. The game mechanic is very, very simple - you have a cup, and you need to fill it, then go back to your room.
While the denouement of Dying of Thirst is a tad formulaic, it absolutely nails that exact feeling that we had as children, fearing things that "go bump in the night". Like the other titles we picked, here again the atmosphere and building of tension elevate the experience. You'll surely be running to the toilet while turning on every light along the way for a while after playing this.
After our previous entry veered back towards a more classic take on horror, our final entry on the list is possibly the most distant from it, arguably even more removed from what most people would associate with 'horror' than Bleakshore. Routine is billed as a "narrative experiment" with horror themes, which though accurate undersells how troubled it could make you feel.
We spoke about the power of mundanity in when describing September 1999, and while that holds up, combining that mundanity with subtle things that 'aren't quite right' can be an even more potent mix in crafting an atmospheric horror experience.
Many people these days have a tried and true routine. Routines help us organize our days, keep things efficient and have a comforting sense of familiarity. After all, that which is different is scary. Those of us who have routines also know how one misstep can cause a cascading string of catastrophes, empowering even the slightest hiccup with frightening agency.
Routine (the game) plays off of these effects and feelings, giving the players a repeating scenario where subtle, disquieting changes each cycle push the whole experience further and further along a downward spiral. The idea that 'the hustle' is increasingly pushing people to serve their routines instead of the other way around is an often explored theme, but few examples handle it as effectively as this title.
While these five free titles stand out from the crowd on Itch as far as free atmospheric horror games go, the platform is a huge repository of other hidden gems as well, so stay on the lookout. Maybe the next best fright is behind you right now.