Alien Isolation is one of my favourite games ever. I tell people this all the time, I discuss the game in depth, I recommend it to everyone — only, I’ve never actually finished it.
The game is just so long — which isn’t a bad thing when you like a game, but with a genre like horror, sometimes shorter is better. In fact, the genre is just crawling with amazing, contained experiences, many of them free to download: here are my favourite six.
Length: Procedurally generated survival levels (2mins-2 hours)
If you’re after a quick horror fix, or a fun pass-the-controller game for a horror night, check out Monstrum. It’s a procedurally generated game that plonks you inside an abandoned ship in the middle of the ocean. All you have to do is get to safety. Easy, right? Not so much.
You’re being stalked by one of a selection of three lovely monsters, and the items you need to cobble your escape together are randomly strewn throughout the ship it’s prowling through. Oh, and you don’t know which monster is hunting you until it chases you down the deck/pops out from an air vent/corners you in your hiding spot. Have fun!
Monstrum was actually released in Early Access, with only one monster and a far easier game balance. If you were one of the ones who finished it easily in its beta state, consider picking it up again. The current version of the game is hard. Rounds last anywhere between two minutes and two hours, depending on how lucky you are.
Length: Approx. 30 minutes
Erie is a little bit reminiscent of horror classic Penumbra, only a lot shorter. It’s a pretty standard setting — you wake up in a research facility of some sort, things are a little creepy, there’s blood everywhere and, for some reason, dead cats. It’s also a free download, which is nice.
One really cool thing Erie does is give you a spray can of paint. You can use this to mark your way through the game — use arrows to point to your goal, or mark the doors you want to be heading through. Of course, it’s such a warren that it doesn’t really help, and you can’t actually erase marks so you could end up confusing yourself more than helping, but the way that it plays out is really interesting.
The other good thing about Erie is that once the monster is released, it never stops hunting you. There’s no carefully scripted scares, no hiding and waiting for the creature to disappear. It just keeps stalking you. There’s only one place where you can properly escape from it — which is why the spray can is so important. If you do manage to escape it for long enough, the game should take you around half an hour.
Length: Approx. 40 minutes
Kraven Manor was created as a student project, which only makes the scope of what they managed to pull off more impressive. It is quite short, and plays like a collection of proof-of-concept scenes that could have been amazing if pushed even further. That being said, it’s still one of the best free horror games out there.
It plays a bit like a mix of Amnesia and Layers of Fear — albeit before the latter was released. It has the same inventive scares and messed up spaces as Layers of Fear, however, including one of the best horror monsters I’ve encountered in an Amnesia-esque game. It works a bit like Doctor Who’s weeping angels, being a full sized poseable mannequin that can only move when you’re not looking at it. The difference is, it makes an amazing squeaky-joint sound whenever it’s moving, always reminding you that it’s there.
I always wished that Kraven Manor had gotten a full-game follow-up, but at least this short game is free, and still works well as a self-contained adventure.
Length: Approx. 40 minutes
One Late Night seems to be the product of someone saying “why has no one ever made a horror game set in an office?” and continuing to do exactly that. Built by a single developer early in his career, both the controls and the graphics are a little clunky, but it makes up for it by building some thick tension. It’s a solid little experience that will leave you with a fear of balloons and sad piano music.
While it’s another entry in the “collect things to survive and escape” genre, the setting makes it feel quite different from your average haunted mansion/creepy asylum horror. Bonus points if you actually play it in an office after hours. The generic ‘Webcom’ web development company has some charming little details to it, and the computers in game act like real Linux terminals — you use these to save, but you can access further details if you’re a little familiar with the Linux command line.
One Late Night actually got turned into a full game called One Late Night: Deadline, but by all accounts it’s pretty terrible (“Without coffee, the hero can literally fall asleep during a chase,” says one review on Metacritic), so you’re probably better off just to stick with the free version.
Length: 4-5 hours
Oxenfree is the least outright scary game on this list — you won’t have monsters or ghosts popping out at you here. It is quite creepy and unsettling, however, with ghostly voices communicating with the characters through a haunted radio, in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Silent Hill.
Lack of jump scares aside, Oxenfree is what you might get if Until Dawn was an art game. It features one of the best-written casts of teens that I’ve encountered in any type of horror media, and the story is as much about their interactions as it is about the ghosts as they navigate a night of paranormal events on an uninhabited tourist island.
At four to five hours, Oxenfree can be played in a long single session, or broken up into a couple. Though the length usually depends on how thorough you are with collectibles and exploration, it’s worth taking the extra time to explore the world of Oxenfree just for all the little conversations the characters have throughout.
Oxenfree is out on Steam and Xbox One, and will be released on PS4 on May 31.
Length: 6-10 hours
While Until Dawn isn’t exactly a short game, its ten episodes are a little less than an hour long each, and they’re perfect to play over a week or so if you take it one or two episodes at a time. It’s also an amazing game to play with friends, whether you’re a fan of passing the controller or just gathering a couple of spectators.
Of course, Until Dawn can be played in one slightly longer four or five hour session if you’re really bad at it. The more teens you save, the less scenes you have to play as the game progresses.
The game equivalent of every teen slasher/horror movie ever, Until Dawn is as kitsch as it is scary. With a surprisingly enjoyable QTE-heavy play style, it’s a welcome addition to a horror market that for so long has tended to stick to the first-person survival or third-person shooter genres.
Length: Approx. 30 minutes
While it’s not really fair to put this in here since it was pulled from the PlayStation Store, it’s definitely worth a mention for being perhaps the first game to prove to the world how good a short horror could be. Even though it’s essentially a 30 minute long demo, it was still easily one of the best horror games released in recent years — and one of the best games to have been released in 2014 overall.
Having an approximate length for P.T. is a little misleading, as anyone who’s played it will understand, though it should take around half an hour for someone who knows how to solve its final puzzle. Even if you spend hours wandering in circles to get that damn baby to laugh, at least they’ll be hours well spent (getting the pants scared off you).
Have you got a favourite short horror game? Tell us about it in the comments!