The Creepy Indie Horror Game Trope That Embodies the Times

Dustin Koski
7 min readAug 15, 2021

Cult film director Stuart Gordon once said that “big ideas are not scary.” Horror is all about intimate, primal feelings. By that philosophy, indie horror games have a sort of built in advantage over Triple A horror games in that their limitations tend to force a more bare bones approach that often leaves the player feeling more isolated and immersed. It’s a significant part of why made-in-a-weekend game Slender: The Eight Pages(2012) was a surprise hit that took the internet by storm while it’s much more elaborate sequel Slender: The Arrival(2013) didn’t leave a fraction of the cultural impact.

It’s also a section of the horror gaming market with more room for experimentation as the financial stakes are so much lower and the deadlines much looser. Or to be less charitable, it’s sometimes because people might not know what they’re doing and thus are more likely to hit on a winning formula completely by accident if they don’t know the conventions they were supposed to follow. The trope that will be discussed here definitely feels like it could be included in a game accidentally, but it still is deeply creepy, deeply resonant, and utterly timely every time it’s been included in a game lately.

Let’s first look at the semi-viral game Saiko No Sutoka, a September 2020 game that was introduced to the world in a state so unpolished it’s still in development at the time of writing nearly a year later. As implied by the fact its title translates to “Psycho Stalker”, it’s very grindhouse and flamboyant in style but also simple. The premise is that the player character is being pursued around a high school at night by a classmate who professes to feel affection for and a desire to disembowel them, and the ability to do just that.

The premise and graphics are so stripped down and basic that it could be confused for a fetish game. There are versions of this game where the only color is the redness of Saiko’s eyes and the blueness of almost everything else. Still the game has been praised for developer Habupain creating an unusually well-developed artificial intelligence for Saiko. She’s better able to set traps, to deal with exploits the player attempts, and in general to be unexpected than the average predator in this sort of game. It’s a feature that’s been invaluable to the numerous videos of people playing this game that have received millions of views.

Yet for the purposes of this article what’s most interesting is the how the game ends if the player successfully evades Saiko, a “good ending” for want of a better term. The way for the player to escape the school is to acquire a key in a safe in the principal’s office and unlock the front entrance, and when you do that, a cut scene occurs which plays out like this:

Then there’s a title card saying “You Escaped! Good Ending”. It seems potentially quite deliberate that even though the game up to this point has been played from a first person perspective, this scene of the protagonist escaping is shown in third person and at a distance. Not only that, but from an angle where the player character shrinks until they disappear into the darkness while the same ominous music from the rest of the game keeps playing.

It’s like an anti-catharsis, the opposite of the game telling the player “YOU’RE WINNER” for beating it. This reinforces in the player that their character is a non-entity. All that really matters in regards to this game is Saiko and the creepy school she chases you through. Which is certainly valid as the protagonist is an empty vessel for the player to project themselves on, but usually games don’t go to the trouble of including a scene that non-verbally reinforces that point. If a horror game feels the need to express that, traditionally it’s been to give the player character more of an underdog status and make their narrow victory all the sweeter. It’s admittedly a small touch, but coming where it does, it is the single most impactful moment of the game.

The other game we’ll be featuring in this article that employs a variation on this trope is No One Lives Under the Lighthouse, which also came out in 2020. Despite having a few decently popular videos of people playing it, NOLUtL hasn’t reached the popularity of Saiko No Sutoka. This is likely in no small part because Sowoke Entertainment Burea designed it with retro PS1 graphics and because the storytelling is much more linear.

Here the player fills the role of a 19th century lighthouse keeper in a manner meant to defy gaming conventions. That is to say, there’s a bunch of time devoted to performing the sort of menial chores that drove Robert Pattinson’s character insane in the 2019 indie darling The Lighthouse such as scrubbing soot off a windows and fixing a roof.

Still it’s not long before night falls, and a completely different side to the lighthouse emerges and starts chasing after the protagonist. With these chases comes the most practical and inspired section of the game.

Showing the villain’s POV as they stalk victims is hardly new, as that’s been codified since at least 1978 when John Carpenter did it for Halloween. And clearly this is done as much to prevent the player from getting a good look at the monster before they might be used to the retro graphics but also because the Sowoke needs there to be some action beat before the player gets too bored to finish the game. What makes it much more interesting as a choice is how small the player character is from the monster’s POV and how small the player character is on the screen as a result.

Among players this design choice has received mixed feedback. It’s the element most consistently brought up in negative reviews. It’s difficult to steer a character when they’re such a small figure on screen in a low-poly environment and controlled from a remove. Not to mention that the appendages extending from the ends of the frame is very distracting.

It could be argued that this difficulty makes the sequence more horrific and like many games the difficulty makes the process of beating the level more satisfying, but that’s not what’s important for the purposes of this article. The more significant matter is what this says about the nature of the player and their environment. And that statement is again that this monster and this chase is more important than the dull cypher of a lighthouse keeper. If the lighthouse keeper were left to his own devices would just go through an even duller routine. No one would come close to finishing this game without the intrigue of the monster.

And here we arrive at how this relates to the times in which we (at least, most of us in the Western Hemisphere in a relatively wealthy society who might be in a position to read this article) find ourselves. We are constantly looking for new sensations, new thrills, new ways to define ourselves, while in the back of our heads suspecting there’s nothing to us. It’s the opposite of one of Tyler Durden’s screeds in Fight Club: We are the products we consume, we are the experiences we seek out, the games that we chose to play. In fact, we’re even less than that. We are the player that Saiko or the monster from under the lighthouse will keep chasing for let’s play video after let’s play video, for one copy of the game or another. Long after we’re dead, some version of Saiko or another will keep chasing some replacement of us or another into a death animation or oblivion.

Not that telling the audience how irrelevant they are is new to fiction. Hell, 1926's The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous story, devotes its first paragraph to making that point. Yet these games are uncannily able to show that irrelevance, and to make the point of how there is something bigger, more lasting, more compelling than us and our transitory, empty lives. It’s just that the bigger thing is actively hostile, yet is designed to give us a sense of purpose.

Dustin Koski cowrote Return of the Living, a postapocalyptic supernatural comedy.



Dustin Koski

Dustin Koski is a stagehand with IATSE Local 13 and a librarian who has written numerous articles and scripts with millions of views.