For as much as it charts its own way into the darkness, indie horror is often created in conversation with—and appreciation of—the more mainstream titles that dominate the genre. Resident Evil loomed large in 2021—not least, one assumes, because the franchise received its first major installment in almost half a decade. The broader tendency on the outer edges, then, was to transpose the familiar gloomy architecture and ammo-hoarding of the series to 2D environments: There’s a gorgeous mashup between Village and the first level of the original Castlevania available for free over at itch, for example, whereas the just-released Evil Tonight opts for an aesthetic that harkens back to SNES-era JRPGs, even while its crest-coded locks and furniture-rearranging puzzles remain instantly recognizable.

But the standout homage of the year (and most faithful translation of its inspiration’s oppressive atmosphere, albeit with a sprinkling of existential dread) has to be Obscure Tales’ Lamentum, an old-school take on survival horror—limited saves and all—infused with the Romantic fatalism of Edgar Allan Poe. Set in 19th-century New England, the two-person studio’s impressive debut casts players as Victor Hartwell, the wretched young aristocrat trying to find a treatment for his wife’s incurable malady. His search takes the unhappy couple to the countryside estate of Count Edmond Steinrot, student of unconventional medicine and peddler of hope to the desperate. But after the first troubled night at Grau Hill Manor, our protagonist wakes up injured, Alissa is nowhere to be found, and the formerly lavish residence has turned into a decrepit labyrinth, the marble floors pierced by strange, tendril-like vegetation and the candlelit hallways patrolled by bloodthirsty abominations.

Except for some persnickety controls (aiming, in particular), the traditional formula works remarkably well on two dimensions. The genre’s typical tension between fighting or fleeing torments you tantalizingly throughout, and the heavily shaded pixel art serves to generate a sinister mood elevated further by some genuinely creepy bosses, like the towering arachnid with long, slender arms lurking at the cellars or the demonic violinist presiding over the grounds’ unkempt gardens. References to Capcom’s classic abound (most overtly in the puzzle to retrieve the powerful shotgun from its trap-triggering mechanism), but Lamentum’s melancholy darkness is all its own.

Opposum Country

Ben Jelter claims to have been similarly inspired by Resident Evil, though his Opossum Country paints a vastly different picture of rural Americana, extracting unease from a more contemporary set of circumstances and a markedly less privileged cast of characters. Created in under nine days for the Scream FM game jam last December, it is a short, highly original slice of weird fiction making extremely effective use of a toned-down Game Boy Color palette. Instantly hooking you with the haunting melody of its title screen, this browser-based adventure sends you off to the boondocks for a pizza delivery inside a trailer park whose hostile inhabitants keep garbling apocalyptic inanities and directing you toward Bill, a mysterious father figure. When your protagonist discovers that a number of missing locals have been congregating in the remote community, he decides to investigate beyond the trailers and into the nearby marsupial-infested woods.

Beautifully drawn static images combine with menacing synths to lend an otherworldly aura to the proceedings, while rudimentary first-person sequences, once you get your hands on a gun, provide a refreshing break from the Game Boy horror formula (yes, that is a genre). But what lingers most after Opossum Country’s brief 10- to 15-minute playtime is a supremely eerie premise and a shocking final twist that cleverly subverts the reactionary trope of the degenerate country hick (Outlast 2, anyone?) by turning your prejudices on their head and revealing the victims of its backwoods cult as escapees from the city’s even greater horrors.

Night Delivery

In a year dominated by a pandemic and a set of measures that were almost aimed as much at curtailing the threat as they were preserving an unjustifiable economic status quo, it’s no surprise that another notable release would revolve around one of the global lockdown’s most essential and precarious jobs. In Night Delivery, you park your truck and distribute packages inside an alarmingly silent, mazelike apartment complex. Starting with only the usual occupational hazards (receiving a water bottle in the face for a perceived delay; getting bullied by a feral cat; getting pestered by demands to help assemble the bulky furniture you just hauled up three floors), your rote tasks gradually turn complicated and the night ominous.

People quietly observe you from the walkways above with inscrutable intent; doors creak open of their own volition; occupants disappear from inside their own houses; and a missing toddler is found inside an abandoned living room staring blankly into empty space, as if mesmerized by an invisible presence. What connects the briefly glimpsed lives of Night Delivery’s haunted tenement, aside from its almost overwhelming sense of place, is a kind of exhausted wariness that still feels relatable even after the brutal crime that lies at the center of its narrative has been revealed. As in most of the striking urban dystopias created by Chilla’s Art, the glitchy VHS aesthetic is used here not as a callback to 1980s video nasties, but as a signifier of broader societal regression, a visual reminder of how safety nets have been failing, communities splintering, and empathy eroding in this strangest of years.

Critters For Sale

Needless to say, horror can encompass the unfathomably bizarre as much as it does the uncomfortably familiar. A simple point-and-click with a unique look, Critters For Sale blends grainy stock photos, old YouTube videos, mystical iconography from assorted religious traditions, and a whole lot of coiling geometrical shapes and migraine-inducing strobe-light effects into a work of dazzling visual imagination. The overarching narrative furtively peeking behind the game’s jumble of pop culture references and conspiracy theories is, however, much harder to encapsulate, even if its distilled weirdness remains fascinating throughout.

After welcoming you with what is presumably a portrait of its creator flashing a terrifying Aphex Twin grin, Critters For Sale allows you to freely start anywhere within a quintet of short episodes that traverse historical eras and continents, from the deserts of 10th-century Jordan to the nightclubs of near-future New York. Attempting to glean the cryptic connections between these preposterous vignettes is optional—you can simply revel in the surreal landscapes and unexpected cameos on the road to Armageddon. This is a game in which Michael Jackson summons a cadre of extradimensional entities via the power of rhythmic pelvic thrusts, and Death Grips’ MC Ride is revealed as an immortal harbinger of humanity’s destruction. While a few of its dozen or so alternative endings and simplistic mini-games feel more like concessions to conventional genre expectations than integral parts of its tripped-out apocalypse, Critters For Sale is both irreverently funny and profoundly disturbing in its sheer otherness.

Of course, it could be argued that such games are diminished by the spotlight—underground horror grows potent in obscurity and is best experienced when stumbled upon by the unsuspecting. If that is the case then, at least this discussion may, hopefully, prompt further investigation beyond the spooky season and further than Steam’s front page. There are others like the handful of titles presented here. You only need to dig a little deeper to discover them.