Sometimes, even horror fans need a break from the crushing insanity of the modern world. While it’s great to be scared or disturbed by horror, and sometimes feeling that anxious rush or jump scare can definitely be cathartic, sometimes you just don’t want to bother. If your life’s become one massive freakout, it can get exhausting trying to keep up with everything, and you really don’t want a game that’ll keep you on edge all the time. The good news is, contrary to what Youtube would like you to believe, horror games aren’t just jump scares and creepy visuals and tense situations. When you want your horror a little more subdued and less nerve-wracking, we’ve provided a kind of starter set of titles for you, a kind of horror-nerd chill-out tape.
The Norwood Suite (Cosmo D.)
Cosmo D (Tales From Off-Peak City, Off-Peak)’s adventure games don’t look like horror games at first glance. They’re brightly colored with smooth, weird soundtracks and a kind of offbeat sensibility that makes them feel like you’re wandering around a surrealist painting. It’s only when you start talking to the people populating those environments and uncover the secrets of that surrealist landscape that suddenly the stories unravel into tales of sinister corporations, ominous groups of people in dark suits and sunglasses, and bizarre science experiments. The Norwood Suite perhaps has a bit more horror flavor than the other two, with your mysterious handler dropping you at a hotel formerly owned by eccentric composer Peter Norwood to do… something. The secret passages, odd guests, mysterious disappearance of the hotel’s namesake, and the sinister final Norwood composition, as well as the dark secret hidden within the walls of the hotel, all lend themselves to classic gothic-horror tropes, but the esoteric and impressionistic nature of the game makes it a lot more unique. You might not be scared, but there’s more than enough weirdness to make someone nervous.
Pathologic 2 (Ice Pick Lodge)
There are plenty of terrifying things in Pathologic 2. From the opening that shows what happens if you should fail in your quest to your frequent cordial dialogues with someone who’s either a horrifying plague or Satan or both to an image seen very early on involving a woman being burnt at the stake by an angry and hysterical crowd in some sort of ritual, the game is full-on disturbing, tasking you with fighting a plague and investigating a murder in an unnamed town on a Russian steppe full of strange customs and rituals that’d make the cast of The Wicker Man blush (one of the game’s mechanics has you water herbs with blood, another involves trading sharp objects to children for useful items). But within that disturbing environment, there’s an odd serenity to things (at least in the early game). Even with the clock running, you’re still allowed to explore, and while you might not see everything in one playthrough just based on choices and the element of timing, you will get to know the bleak beauty of the Town on the Steppe, and that odd serenity, combined with the strange atmosphere that permeates everything, can make Pathologic 2 seem relaxing even at its most unnerving and cynical.
Sunless Skies (Failbetter Games)
Of the two Sunless games, Skies is deceptively friendly and accessible. Upon dumping you into the cockpit of your very own star-faring locomotive engine, you’re given a couple of beginner tasks and let loose into a New Weird wonderland with an objective to seek fame, fortune, or kill the sun. Unlike its more ornery predecessor Sunless Sea, the controls are fairly accessible, things are hidden but not wildly obtuse, and it can be quite pleasant to drift from station to station, figuring out tasks to complete and avoiding the occasional monster encounter. But the game drops its deception fast the moment you explore outside the beginning regions, which range from ancient ruins to the body of a dead god that you can mine for fuel and supplies. This sense of unease only grows the longer your roadtrip goes on, which at the lightest read like the weirdest and darkest of fantasy and at the darkest involve torture, murder, cannibalism, and sanity-shattering horrors. Worse still, many of the things your captain and their crew encounter appear to be commonplace to them, making you question exactly what kind of person you’re piloting around the stars. Despite all of this, and its occasional nerve-wracking encounter with monsters, the game is incredibly chill and is perfect for just putting on a podcast and piloting around its bizarre environments.
1,000 Heads Among the Trees (Aaron Oldenburg)
An unusual adventure game from an independent creator, 1,000 Heads deposits you in a small town in the Peruvian desert and tasks you with taking pictures of spirits and ghosts. Apart from the occasional attack by wild dogs who break your camera, there’re no real threats, and the game’s objectives are fairly free-form: just wander around the town, explore, and take pictures of anything you find interesting to show to the locals. But lest this sound mundane, the pictures you take get increasingly strange as the game goes on, including bodiless shadows dancing in the ruins, photographs of people that turn into pictures of their hands you can show to a palm reader, and a variety of eerie shots of trees and the surrounding landscape that cause people to ramble about their past lives or something odd they saw. The game is less outright frightening than ominous, with its odd conversations, strange cars speeding off into the distance, and dog attacks, but what it doesn’t have in overt terror it more than makes up for in atmosphere. If you’ve ever wandered through an unfamiliar section of town just after hours in the summer, it feels exactly like this game: the vague hint of menace and the feeling something supernatural is going on around you melding with the weird conversations you have with the people weird enough to be out that late.
Yume Nikki (Kikiyama)
There aren’t any monsters that will kill you in Yume Nikki. There aren’t any jump scares, and the whole thing’s been rendered in RPG Maker, so while there’s certainly some gore, there’s not loads of gore. Instead, all there is are your character’s rather mundane life in a single-room apartment, and her wild, unnerving dreams. There isn’t much to say about Yume Nikki’s structure other than that. You enter Madotsuki’s dreams, wandering through various realms by opening doors and gaining a variety of effects and items that then help you to reach deeper parts of the dreams. It’s all a very at-your-own-pace sort of thing, and while the Red Maze section that you’re occasionally dropped into can be rage-inducing, it’s a relatively chill experience. This does not, in fact, stop it from bringing its own surreal brand of horror to the table, as Madotsuki is kind of… not okay, and her dreams reflect that in all sorts of ways, each door just as capable of bringing you to a weird-colored desert or a hallway of bleeding eyeballs. But despite the disturbing qualities and the downbeat atmosphere, it’s easy to see why Yume Nikki’s remained a cult classic and the game to beat for all these years.
Persona 4 Golden (Atlus)
Don’t let the bright colors, humorous banter between protagonists, and anime aesthetic of this JRPG fool you: Persona‘s always been all about the horror. As a transfer student in a new school, you and your friends quickly find yourselves sucked into an alternate dimension full of monsters accessible through television sets throughout the town. What first begins as a curiosity quickly turns dark when someone begins murdering people by shoving them into the “Midnight Channel,” putting the transfer student and their friends in danger. But while there’s danger and monsters and yeah, sometimes those dungeon levels aren’t exactly a walk in the park, a lot of the game is spent living the transfer student’s day to day life in Japan, building your social connections, going to high school, and hanging out with your friends after classes, all of which then give you bonuses and level up your skills and spells when you decide to go monster-fighting once again. If you just want to get lost in a small Japanese town for a while and listen to your in-game friends rant about martial arts films, this is the perfect game for that, and the sharp mechanics don’t hurt, either.