There's a lot of tiny little weird horror games out there right now. Small experiences that can last 3-4 minutes, maybe an hour, that pack in way more scares than their size would suggest. I love them, and I'm always hunting them out because they can be amazing little hotbeds of creativity; coming up with ideas that could only work in a run time of – in some cases – barely seconds, or working an idea with such an economic minimalism that it has a purity that a full sized game could never manage. Often the fear comes from their unpredictability – you've never entirely sure what these little slices of horror are going to do.
Nearly all of these tiny horror games are in the PSX low-poly style which is basically a genre in its own right now, using a wobbly PS1 style rendering to create atmosphere as much as let developers do more with less. With that in mind, I will mention that I haven't covered anything from Dread XP and Haunted PS1. These are two demo disk style compilations of low budget horror that release new stuff all the time. They're fantastic collections of widely varying quality and creativity, but I can't really highlight single games easily without you having to get the whole 'disk'. Definitely check them out though, as there's some really good stuff there.
Instead, the list here contains all standalone things and some of the best short little horror games you can get. I would say 'enjoy', but I'm not sure that's the right word…
1. The Convenience Store – playtime 1hr
This is a game that gets under your skin initially without you ever really being able to pinpoint why. The characters' leering faces are so very wrong, the shop is too bright, and everything just has an unpleasant dream-like quality that makes it feel like a liminal space you just want to get out of. Then there's the mundanity of it all initially: waking up every morning to go to work, the insistent bing-boing of the door, and stocking endless shelves. Somehow, though, it all slides into something nightmarish. It's a gradual process, but by the end of its brief play time you've slipped into a full on Silent Hill meets '90s Japanese horror cinema hell. The developer, Chilla's Art, has made a lot of very similar games, nearly all set against a background of working mundane Japanese retail jobs. This is an older one but still my favourite.
2. Iron Lung – playtime 30-40 minutes
It might take a little getting used to Iron Lung, but it's well worth it. It has a fascinatingly claustrophobic setup and very literal pressure, as you guide a tiny windowless sub around the bottom of an alien blood ocean. The depth means you can only see outside via a single camera that you can activate one picture at a time, forcing you to use map coordinates to locate objectives. Most of Iron Lung sees you pressing buttons to move your sub up and down and left and right to match the coordinate you need to reach, and then taking a photo. It sounds basic but there's something extremely compelling about manning the controls and slowly gathering pictures of the ocean floor. There's a surprising amount of scares and tension in a game where you can only walk about two steps in any direction and interact with five buttons, but I can't really say more without giving anything away. This a lean, expertly crafted piece of short form horror everyone should play.
3. No One Lives Under the Lighthouse – playtime 45-60 minutes
Like a lot of small, short horror games No One Lives Under the Lighthouse uses the routine of mundane tasks to frame its fear. As an isolated lighthouse keeper you'll have to tend to your duties – everything from keeping the lamp lit, to basic maintenance of the lonely, sea swept island you inhabit. It soon, unsurprisingly, becomes clear that the game's title is probably a lie, and before long you're mixing investigations in with your daily chores, to find out what's really going on. It's a great little short horror story with a strong period setting, unearthly atmosphere and multiple endings to discover.
4. Sagebrush – playtime 45-60 minutes
Sagebrush is probably the most fully formed game on the list, and has been released on almost every platform. It's a great little narrative exploration game where you're checking out the complex of a defunct cult to find out what really happened. It's more about dread than full on terror but what makes it work so well is the fact you're really doing the investigating – uncovering and using clues, notes and so on to piece together objectives as much as what happened. It's a well balanced experience with a compound small enough to explore quickly, while feeling like a real, meaningful space. Be warned though it claims to be based on real cults and comes with the content warning: "Sagebrush contains implications of sexual assault and child abuse and contains explicit descriptions of self-harm."
5. Slide in the Woods – 10-15 minutes playtime
A children's playground slide doesn't sound like the most obvious source of horror but somehow Slide in the Woods takes you on a journey. For most of the time all you can do is ride the slide from top to bottom, only the world is never quite the same when you come out the end. Despite that simple premise, there's a strong sense of wrong here that ultimately reveals some cosmic horror vibes. Saying any more, however, about where it all goes would spoil everything so just know that it does a great job of turning such an innocent activity into something horrific.
6. In the Mountains – 15 minutes playtime
In the Mountains is probably the most trad horror experience on this list, as you explore a deserted military base in a stealthy, monster-avoiding adventure. The premise is simple: you arrive at a strange facility, clearly once a hive of activity with labs, offices and more but now everyone's gone. As you explore you'll learn more about why, and while this is one of the more basic games here conceptually – open doors, avoid monsters, etc – it's got some great scares and a good atmosphere as you piece things together.
7. There are Ghosts in these Stalls – 3-5 minutes playtime
Honest to God this is one of my favourite horror games. There are Ghosts in these Stalls barely lasts three minutes, takes place entirely in a toilet stall, and still manages to get a decent scare in. The idea is simple but beautifully executed as you sit on a toilet seat, only able to look around and peek under the door into the rest of the room. You can only interact with things by looking at them and, once you realise you're not alone, you start to see symbols in the world you can add to the back of your stall door. With such a short play time saying anything else would obviously be a spoiler but this is a beautifully constructed few minutes of terror.
8. Our Lady of Sorrow – 20-25 minutes play time
There's a classic format here in Our Lady of Sorrow as you 'watch' everything take place on VHS tapes hidden away by the church, documenting strange goings on at an old Irish religious site. It's a found footage horror game then, as you explore a small area, slowly unearthing clues and pushing deeper into the mystery of what these tapes are hiding. There's an ancient tale involving a witch, persecution, a haunted well, and more. It's a nice, creepy little wander about, full of moving statues, riffing religious and satanic themes in a very satisfying way.
8. The Otherside – 10 minutes playtime
Based loosely on the Wool books, The Otherside sees you as the inhabitant of a rusting old bunker, trapped inside for your own protection against the apocalyptic outside world. Except in this case you've had enough and have decided to get out. That involves manning and maintaining a drill to cut through a door to reach freedom, all while alarms ring and people head your way to stop you. It's less of a horror game and more of an exercise in tension as you fight against the clock. Drill bits will break, or batteries run out, oil might need topping up and so on – forcing you to remove the drill each time, carry it to a workbench and then fix whatever needs attention. So you might be grabbing screwdrivers to access panels, or watching chargers slowly count up against the clock before rushing to get the drill back in place. It doesn't really have any scares, and an ending that would have actually been better with less, but everything up until that point is a good little stress test.
10. The Crypt Terror – 5 minutes playtime
There's nothing fancy in the The Crypt Terror, just a short sharp shock as you explore medieval catacombs, believed to be the source of a curse plaguing a local village. It's a simple maze exploration set up as you wander the crypt, trying to get deeper inside and closer to the source of the mystery. It's quite cleverly designed to make you feel like you're getting lost all the time, while clearly guiding you towards… something. It's a well paced few minutes, biding its time to build to a deceptively simple but memorable ending that will have you cursing the devs once it's over.