On its own, a puzzle doesn’t necessarily conjure fear. But wrap a puzzle in the trappings of horror and see how your sense of dread grows in the dark.
That’s been the goal of numerous video games released over the past few years, many of which were made for mobile devices. The mobile experience deepens the social isolation of solving puzzles. If a truly scary book is worse than a movie because you’re alone in your fear, then a dive into the dark side on your mobile device is just as unsettling, with one creepy new element: you are the protagonist, as opposed to an observer.
With that in mind, here’s a roundup of our favourite frightening mystery puzzle games.
Along with its sequel, The Room 2, The Room establishes the conventions of many mobile mystery puzzle games: a bare bones storyline, an unsettling Victorian-esque atmosphere, and a plot that’s driven forward by solving puzzles. The plot and setting are key, because these sparse narrative elements make The Room an interactive story, rather than a straight forward puzzle showcase like Candy Crush.
In The Room, you begin in (wait for it) a small room, confronted by a safe. Your goal is to crack the safe—achieved by walking around it, peering closely at its interior, and aligning certain items with the interactive environment. Cracking the code yields yet another safe, and yet another room. Throughout this process, you’re accompanied by a nerve-wracking piano score and utilize a lens that, when worn, reveals glowing blue symbols that are crucial to finishing each level’s puzzles. As you dig deeper into The Room’s rooms, the history of a mysterious energy dubbed ‘Null’ and the madness it induces is slowly revealed.
The fear of the forest at night is written on to our psyche; our monkey brain remembers the dark woods as the place of predators, and our status as shelter-dwelling creatures causes us to fear the wilderness. Year Walk taps into this most primal of terrors, and wraps it in winter snows and Swedish folklore.
A “year walk,” the player is told, is a traditional means of Swedish fortune telling wherein the walker fasts, and then walks into the winter night, where they encounter visions of things to pass. In Year Walk, the game, you undertake this quest and are treated to devilish puzzles and creatures from Swedish folklore—the ghost of dead infants, forest spirits, and a sinister goat figure culled from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, all accompanied by the eerie crunch of feet on snow. The plot is revealed slowly, enlivened by trappings of murder, yearning, and obsessive love.
Of all the games on this list, Limbo hews closest to a classical, side-scrolling 2D Super Mario experience—the puzzles, such as they are, involve navigating platforms and oncoming enemies. But ah, what enemies, and what a world you share with them. Limbo is one of the most beautiful games you’ll ever play, painted in noir shadows of grey and black, like a chilling photo negative sprung to life.
You assume the role of a young boy who enters a forest that seems to sit at the edge of hell. Flies buzz on corpses, giant spiders stalk the bushes, and a band of feral children hunt you with spears and arrows. This is a dark game infused with powerful imagery; at one stage, you negotiate a path over a fetid pond by stepping on the corpses of drowned kids. The second half of the game, where you enter a smoggy, industrial wasteland, is weaker than the dark forest, but you’ll want to push through to a maddeningly ambiguous ending. If you want a well-defined plot, look elsewhere, or keep in mind that the holes in Limbo’s narrative have been filled by many an internet commentator.
The most quiet and contemplative entry on this list, Forever Lost is often compared to 90s click through classic Myst. This is a highly cerebral game, so the association is sound, but it’s not air tight either. Instead of a surreal floating island seemingly inspired by Yes album cover art, Forever Lost takes place within the dimly lit bowels of that most reliable horror trope: an abandoned insane asylum. This is no thriller fright night kind of game, however. The music is sombre and the build-up is slow; what fear you may experience escalates slowly via the asylum’s intensely lonely atmosphere and narrative clues hidden in scrawled graffiti, which help reveal plot points throughout the story.
Fran Bow skews to conventional horror tropes more than other games on this list: You’re a little girl locked in an insane asylum following the brutal unsolved murder of your parents. The eponymous Fran explores her surroundings in a manner similar to games like King’s Quest, clicking the interactive environment and solving puzzles via the items she adds to her inventory.
Minus the asylum setting, this is all par for the course for so many adventure games, but Fran Bow has a unique gameplay dynamic—a suspicious jar of medication. If you ever find yourself stumped, you can make Fran pop a red pill that changes the already grim world into a gory nightmare inhabited by skinned animals, mutilated children, happiness-killing phantoms, and, most importantly, potential clues to the game’s puzzles. The red pills are replaced by other elements as the game progresses, but a blood-soaked sense of madness is always waiting in the wings.
By: Adam Karlin
This story was originally featured on The-Line-Up.com. The Lineup is the premier digital destination for fans of true crime, horror, the mysterious, and the paranormal.