The genre of horror lends itself to stories that draw on primal fears dredged from childhood. What better way to dig at the roots of these horrors than retro-styled games filled with ghosts haunting the gaps between pixels? Itch.io is a Pandora’s box of short and experimental games that will spook you in one sitting.
All of the games on this list are free to download, or you can play them in your browser window. They’re presented in order of how long a single run through the game takes to complete. These games are intended for a mature audience and have the potential to contain upsetting imagery, so please prepare yourself accordingly as you turn off the lights, turn on your computer, and pretend not to notice any strange reflections in your screen.
Time to play: 5 minutes
Candypink is a cute, pastel-colored game that teaches you how to make marshmallows. You play as a pastry chef who has just been promoted to the kitchen of a company that makes heart-shaped confectionery. The recipe includes sugar, corn syrup, water, and a secret ingredient… love!
Just kidding! The secret ingredient definitely isn’t love, and people who are squeamish about gore might want to avoid this game. Depending on what exactly you decide to do with the knife in your hand, however, you might be able to unlock a more savory ending.
Time to play: 7 minutes
See You Soon begins with a ringing phone that wakes your character in the middle of the night. The house feels oddly unsettling in the dark, and this creepiness is compounded when something ever so slowly begins to emerge from the shadows.
This classic setup takes an interesting turn with a fun twist that recreates the feel of urban legends about cursed internet content that drives people to commit terrible deeds. But don’t turn off See You Soon before it’s finished! After all, you never know who’s watching you play.
Time to play: 10 minutes
In Opossum Country, you play as a rural pizza delivery driver who finds himself stranded in an isolated trailer park where something isn’t right. Opossum Country was created from a place of deep sympathy for people on the margins of society, and it’s very punk rock in its rejection of conventional wisdom about the working poor.
Despite its sympathetic perspective, Opossum Country is extremely creepy. The pixelated character portraits are genuinely disturbing, especially once you venture into the woods behind the trailer park. The members of this community have banded together to keep a secret that keeps them safe, and they’ll go to great lengths to protect their privacy.
Time to play: 15 minutes
A Time for Giving is a dark cottagecore Game Boy adventure in which your character explores and solves puzzles in three areas: a cozy family cabin, an isolated village preparing for its winter solstice festival, and the haunted woods encroaching from all sides. If you make the right choices, perhaps you won’t become a child sacrifice… but is it really possible to escape the forest?
A Time for Giving was created within the time limit for a game jam, so the creator wasn’t able to add sound. I prefer to see this lack of background music as an artistic choice. In the oppressive silence of the snow-covered woods, no one can hear you scream.
Time to play: 25 minutes
It’s Not Me, It’s My Basement is a cult classic RPG Maker gothic horror game along the lines of The Witch’s House and Mad Father. You play as a child named Embry whose parents have been eaten by monsters. Embry has managed to padlock the basement door, but the monsters are still hungry. As food becomes scarce, the monsters become restless.
It’s unclear what these monsters are or where they came from, just as it’s something of a mystery what Embry has been feeding them. Although Embry will eventually have to unlock the door and venture underground, the player never learns exactly what’s in the basement. Sometimes not knowing is worse.
Time to play: 30 minutes
The Open House invites the player to take a 3D tour of a lovely suburban two-story house that just went on the market. During the tour, you can open all the doors and inspect the cupboards and closets to your heart’s content. It’s possible that you may encounter a mysterious stain on the wall that wasn’t there before, but it’s best to ignore it. It’s a tough market, after all, and you don’t want to ask too many questions about the house’s history.
In its commitment to creating an uncanny atmosphere within the familiar structure of a normal suburban home, The Open House reminds me of Mark Z. Danielewski’s infamously labyrinthine novel House of Leaves, but perhaps a more fitting analogy would be the “My House” Doom mod, in which “the house map shifts and flips around you.” If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to feel lost in what should be a sane and rational space, The Open House is one of the more accessible doorways into the unknown.
Time to play: 45 minutes
In Leftovers, you play as a small child living with your mother in a rundown apartment building. Your mother has ten servings of leftover food, and she’s asked you to deliver Styrofoam containers to the other tenants. The building’s dirty corridors and poorly lit stairwells are creepy, and the tenants are even creepier, but your mother won’t take “no” for an answer.
The hand-drawn 2D character designs are deliciously horrible, as is the writing. A great deal of suggested story fits into just a few lines of dialog, and it’s unnerving to realize how the individual dysfunctions of each tenant fit together into a cohesive narrative. No matter how scary it gets, however, you have to keep going. Your mother is very skilled with her kitchen knife, and it seems like a very bad idea to make her upset.
Time to play: 50 minutes
Lily’s Well begins when a young girl hears a voice calling for help from inside the well by her isolated cabin in the woods. As Lily, the player’s job is to come to the rescue by exploring the house and its surroundings while collecting materials to make a rope. Depending on how many materials you assemble, you’ll be able to descend to a different level of the well. Every level save for the last is a swift “game over” communicated through a unique and gruesome ending.
The game doesn’t indicate which materials are useful, but I found the guide posted on Rice Digital to be extremely useful. If you manage to make it to the bottom of the shaft, Lily’s Well rewards you with even more horrible areas to explore. First-time players are encouraged to die a few times, though, as the game includes a number of fun secrets and hidden events triggered by multiple playthroughs.
Time to play: 1 hour
Deadeus is set by the sea in a small town whose children are suffering from nightmares. In these dreams, a horrible monster warns them that the world will end in three days. The town seems charming and quaint; but, as your character talks to dozens of NPCs and reads various documents in the library, you learn that the area has a dark history. There have been waves of unexplained disappearances, as well as a surprising number of attempted murders.
If you play the game straight, you quietly enjoy your remaining time in the small seaside town before climbing a scenic hilltop to watch the sky fall. If you discover the hidden passageway underneath the town church, however, you can join an evil cult and get the party started early. Why wait for an eldritch monstrosity to murder everyone in town when you can do it yourself?
Time to play: 2 hours
In Soul Void, you play as a young woman who has found herself in an eerie liminal space on the border of the afterlife. Many of the souls she encounters in this strange place are friendly, but others have been warped beyond humanity by their fears and anxieties. Soul Void is a nonviolent adventure game with no combat, but you must nevertheless brave a gauntlet of terrors if you wish to return to the world of the living.
Through the uncanny magic of its retro Game Boy graphics, Soul Void offers a panoply of grotesque and unsettling imagery. Despite its goriness, the story is filled with hope and ultimately offers an uplifting message. For a deeper dive into the mysteries of Soul Void, check out our review.