Always short of a few bob and looking for something a bit different, each week I scour the internet for fun, interesting or just plain curious Indie Freebies. This week’s highlighted titles are: Tenebra, an intense and brutal yet visually captivating horror experience; Anxiety: Lost Night, a tense horror puzzler that puts you under pressure; and NIVA, a soothing and beautiful journey through a fairy-tale forest.
Psychological horror games are common on the indie scene, especially the free variety, and many of them play out like interactive ghost trains – a linear gallery of terrors for you to explore in the comfort of your own home. Tenebra is no different. But what sets it aside from other efforts is the sheer artistry.
As with puzzle-platformer Limbo, its visual roots lie firmly embedded in German Expressionism, film noir and the movies of the silent era. Set in first-person and viewed through a heavy vignette and a flickering texture of film grain, dust and scratches, you find yourself in a mysterious unreality. A grimy, monochrome world of extreme light and dark – overblown highlights, impenetrable gloom, silhouettes, and dramatically elongated shadows.
Tenebra commences with a brooding and vaguely misanthropic monologue that takes place in a descending metal-gated elevator, evoking the scene that plays during the ending credits of Angel Heart. You then journey through misty forests and countryside, a dilapidated apartment, grungy basements and tunnels, enormous caverns, a deserted subway, and a creepy school, jumping from locale to locale in a disorientating and hallucinatory manner.
Some of the spaces are large and open, nearly all are impossibly dark, but intuitively the game always steers you in the right direction. Infrequently, you’ll encounter Silent Hill-esque monstrosities. All you can do is hide and wait for them to pass. Transitory glimpses of unspeakable terrors sometimes flash by, but this is an experience that relies far more on apprehension and unsettling mood than cheap jump scares. The ambiance is vivid, industrial and nightmarish yet strangely captivating – a sparse but pleasingly melancholic and melodic guitar soundtrack filling in the gaps.
The plot is a bit thin on the ground. From time to time it tosses you scraps of a loose and ambiguous narrative (there’s more than an hour’s worth of gameplay here), mostly via environment details and a series of gruesome Polaroids. Some of the imagery and themes are genuinely disturbing with very strong sexual overtones (you’ve be warned). And the ending, open to interpretation, of course, is a tad predictable.
Nevertheless, as a package it’s a fascinating and mesmerising experience. It’s highly cinematic. Every scene and vista has been carefully considered – the light sources, the shadows, the heavy use of negative space, the arrangement of props, the incredible attention to detail. There’s a raw beauty in Tenebra’s depiction of hell, and I’m glad I visited it.
Tenebra is available for Windows and can be downloaded from itch.io for free here. Note that to run this you need Steam with the free “Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer” tool installed. Full instructions are detailed on the game’s page.
Anxiety: Lost Night
A re-release of a game originally created as part of Ludum Dare 33, Anxiety: Lost Night is a first-person point-and-click adventure that puts you in the role of a stranded woman. Unsure of how you get here, you find yourself lost at night in the forestland of a national park. “It’s okay. Everything is gonna be alright. Just need to calm down and drive,” you unconvincingly reassure yourself.
There’s a map on the dashboard, maybe you can walk to the nearest bus stop or a ranger station? But then you hear and glimpse something moving outside, a cougar perhaps? Suddenly, you’re desperate to get the car started. As you rummage around the interior, personal affects hint at your past and events just prior to now – something rather disconcerting.
Anxiety: Lost Night is a short, atmospheric and entertaining interactive horror tale. It’s a tense and unnerving experience that requires you to perform a series of simple tasks, in the form of mini-games that require a steady hand, under pressure. A respectful nod also to the lovely graphic novel-style 2D/3D hybrid visuals and the fabulously moody intro music.
Anxiety: Lost Night is available for Windows and can be downloaded from itch.io for free here.
Okay, time to move away from all this murder and terror onto something a little lighter and more uplifting. Describing itself as a “pacifistic exploration art game”, NIVA throws you into a delightfully enchanting fairy-tale forest as a mighty, godlike beast – a majestic antlered feline with a two-pronged tail.
Visually, it’s like a cross between No Man’s Sky and the Borderland games – vibrant pastel tones, simple textures and strong lines, with a cartoonish quality to it all. It’s a magical landscape of soft light and god rays, where everything is swaying gently in the breeze. There’s a delicate ground mist, leaves and blossoms fall constantly from the trees, fireflies hover lazily in the air. And it’s teeming with life and activity, fantastical and alienesque flora and fauna – spiny frogs, maned squirrels, glowing humming birds, luminous mushrooms and all manner of strange vegetation. The animals run about foraging and feasting on the fruits of the forest.
It’s a joy to just meander and take in the sights, but there is an aim to NIVA. A nefarious moth-like infestation has taken hold and is at the root of the conflicts between some of the forest’s inhabitants. Using your ability to nurture or wither certain plants, it’s up to you to restore harmony. It’s a case of solving a number of environmental problems through observation, interaction and experimentation.
NIVA is a soothing, pretty, and charming experience, though rather short and marred slightly by the somewhat fickle AI and collision detection. It can be played on mouse and keyboard, but a controller is strongly recommended.
NIVA is available for Windows and Mac and can be downloaded from itch.io for free here. However, it is listed as name your own price, so if you do enjoy it, you should consider making a small donation to the developers.