As another Halloween approaches (the best holiday), spending time indulging in the horror genre is a must. Whilst American and Japanese horror tends to dominate the genre, both in sheer numbers of releases and popularity, this year I have found that Eastern European games are really scratching that horror itch.
Horror tends to reflect societal fears and anxieties. Godzilla came about with the dawn of nuclear weapons and fear of radiation and mass destruction and the Cold War brought fears of invasion and sedition, with movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers coming out.
With a global pandemic and lockdown dominating the last couple years, it seems likely that we will see this influence the horror genre as well. New movies such as Rob Savages Host suggest that this is already underway.
Thankfully, for those who may wish to indulge in and address these feelings of isolation, there are already several games coming from Eastern Europe that feature these front and centre. Eastern European horrors are rich in lore and insight and are a must for anyone looking for a horror experience with less focus on jump scares and shooting monsters (although you do get to do this) and more focus on character and atmosphere. Most importantly, they leave you with something to think about. After gushing about the genre and what makes it work so well, I will leave you with a few suggestions to get you started on your journey.
Eastern Europe has been a popular setting for horror for a long time (thinking of you Dracula). The bleak weather, old buildings, dark history, and a healthy dose of creepy lore make it a prime setting for a spooky story. Resident Evil: Village and Amnesia: The Dark Descent spring to mind. The mysterious forests and vast steppes also allow these games to capitalise on the feeling of isolation. You are often far from help and escape is not an option.
The setting feeds into the atmosphere. In my experience, these games are typically grim and depressing, much like the last few years during the pandemic. They neglect over-the-top jump scares for a slow-paced build-up with dread and uneasiness being pertinent feelings. It evokes popular games such as Silent Hill 2.
You won’t be spoon-fed the story or lore, much like classic games and the ‘souls’ series, you have to figure things out for yourself, which encourages you to take in the sights and sounds crafted by the developers. Those sights and sounds will have you an anxious wreck as you play, whilst often allowing you to come to your own conclusions. And as we have all heard, the scariest thing is the unknown.
There are some trends you’ll find in these games. Resource management takes centre stage. Bullets, medkits, and light are all things you will need to carefully manage, leading to tense organic situations as you have to prioritise on the fly. Every bullet counts it’s up to you to decide when it’s worth it. Combat as well is often difficult and brutal, encouraging you to pick your battles. Exploration as well is key, with there being many secrets and hidden areas to find.
THEMING AND PHILOSOPHY
Where I’ve found Eastern European Horror really excels is in its themes and introspection. These can end up being especially poignant because they tend to leave it to you to come to your own conclusions.
One recurring theme is that you are not a hero in the traditional sense. You are the protagonist for sure, and you likely align with your character and their faction, but your actions are not always entirely virtuous. You might be another cog in a machine dealing with problems that are vastly outside your grasp to change, or a character with their own morally ambigious purposes or a lack of information that is key to their, and thus your, decision making. This might be the effect and legacy of the realism of Soviet Bloc art and their experiences in the USSR and Post Cold War world.
The moral questions make the fear so much more tangible as you will be encouraged to reflect on your own actions and participation in events. There isn’t always a morality system, where you have the good and bad paths (such as the Paragon/Renegade alignments of Mass Effect).
The emphasis is less on defeating supernatural scares or bombastic monsters. The focus is on the character and their actions. Perhaps the best example is in Metro: Last Light, wherein you will read diary entries about the destructive nature of violence and man’s propensity for it, right before you go through an area full of enemies before you make the decision to kill, or take a non-lethal approach.
If all this has perked your interest, here are three recommendations for you to try out for some horror this Halloween.
THE METRO SERIES BY 4A GAMES
If you lean towards action, the Metro series is for you. The latest in the series, Metro Exodus got great reviews and moves away from the train tunnels to explore more of post apocolypse Russian. Personally, I’d highly recommend Metro 2033 as your starting point as the story is best experienced chronologically. Based on the novel of the same name by Russian-Israeli author Dmitry Glukhovsky and developed by Ukrainian-Maltese developers 4A Games; this game is set in the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon, following Artyom, one of the survivors living in the harsh Moscow Subway system.
Whilst this is more of a first-person shooter that ruminates heavily on violence, fear of the other, and its consequences; there are some seriously strong horror elements to this series. It is quite overtly anti-war and is still as relevant today as it has been for years. Even the ‘good guys’ so to speak, can be destructive and misguided. Metro 2033 is fantastic, as are its sequels, but it is a series that must be played in order.
The game wants you to think on your actions and understand the world you are in and the impact of your actions. If you haven’t played it, there’s a sale for the whole series on Steam at the moment.
PATHOLOGIC 2 BY ICE-PICK LODGE
This game has gotten fantastic reviews (including from yours truly) as a masterpiece of horror. It is a thoughtful game where you battle time, superstition, and the plague. It is certainly not for everyone as it is intentionally extremely difficult. But if you have it in you to endure the creators’ intentions, you will be treated to a phenomenal story and experience like no other.
Russian developer Ice-Pick lodge makes intense and dark games for sure, and Pathologic 2 is no exception.
It may hit especially close to home as disease is a major part of the game. This game is survival horror, with a strong focus on time and resource management. It is first-person with minimal combat. This is all supplemented by one of my favourite soundtracks and a beautiful art style. Check it out here on steam to see if you are interested. It’s niche, but worth it if you’re really into your horror.
DARKWOOD BY ACID WIZARD
If you are more inclined towards roguelikes, then Darkwood is a great shout, and at the time of writing, it is currently on sale. Coming from a small team in Poland, this game executes a strong story, fantastic art style, and a fresh style of gameplay for horror fans, somewhat reminiscent of Don’t Starve.
A top-down horror with a day-night cycle that sees you scavenge for supplies and complete tasks during the day, and hunker down in a safe house at night. It’s a challenge, but much more accessible to the average gamer than Pathologic. The light is your friend, and the dark is full of horrors. The sound design as well will have you biting your nails as you pray for the sun to rise (I’d recommend headphones if possible). Resource management is important, so think hard before setting out to explore
It’s a dark story where even ‘good’ actions can have horrible consequences. It also made it onto Metacritics ‘top 100 best videogames of 2017’ and for good reason. It is the best I have seen horror implemented into a roguelike and has a lot of replay value, I’m still discovering new things to this day. Until the 28th of October, it’s on sale on Steam
WHY THIS ALL WORKS
What makes Eastern European Horror so effective, is that these games don’t stop the horror when you turn the game off. It will keep you thinking. For me, Resident Evil: Village was great when playing, but ultimately I will forget it, whereas Pathologic 2, Darkwood, and Metro have all had lasting impacts on my perspectives of not just what gaming can be, but on the world as a whole.
It’s a bonus that many of the themes and aspects of these games are extremely relevant and pertinent to the experience of the pandemic we had been through, along with a world becoming more introspective.
As the creators of Pathologic (ice pick lodge) put it ‘our general philosophy is that games should give players food for thought, not just fun’, and I think that is the real future of gaming.