Indie studio Chilla's Art describes itself as 'just a couple of Japanese brothers making Japanese horror games', which is wonderfully modest considering this mysterious duo is breathing new life into a once-dying genre. Truth is, triple-A failed horror games. The publishing giants have become more risk averse than ever, and have realised the genre isn't a comfortable fit for service shooters, open-world games, or other money-spinners. So they gave up, because unless you're Capcom, or wheeling out a remake of a series that's already made a name for itself like Dead Space, a horror game probably won't make you much money.
It's fine, though. No great loss. The indies have taken over, and they're now at the forefront of the horror genre: making the kind of weird, interesting, provocative games a major publisher would never take a gamble on. It's for the best, because horror will always suffer when it's aimed at a broad, mainstream audience. The current state of horror games is reflected in genre cinema, where the best horror films now come from independent distributors like A24, Arrow, and SpectreVision, not major Hollywood studios. Freed from the shackles and meddling oversight of money-obsessed publishers, indie horror developers are free to do whatever they like—and the genre is thriving because of it.
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There are a lot of great examples out there. Taiwanese studio Red Candle released two games, Detention and Devotion, to great acclaim, sealing its reputation as one of the best horror developers in the business today. Mundaun by Hidden Fields is a wonderfully surreal, atmospheric slice of folk horror. Jamie Ferguson's The Black Iris is a trippy cosmic horror story with striking psychedelic visuals. The Static Speaks My Name by Jesse Barksdale is a quietly chilling story of obsession. No Code's Observation takes the scariest part of 2001: A Space Odyssey—HAL going rogue and murdering the ship's crew—and builds a uniquely tense sci-fi horror game around it. I could go on. The indies are killing it.
But it's Chilla's Art, the studio founded by those two Japanese brothers, whose work I've really fallen in love with. Its games are incredibly cheap—we're talking $5 or less—but they're inventive, unsettling, incredibly atmospheric, and most important of all, scary. Its standout game is undoubtedly The Convenience Store. Set in a Japanese konbini in a small, quiet town, you spend the first chunk of the game working a shift: serving customers, restocking shelves, and accepting deliveries. It's as tedious as it sounds, but then the game starts to mess with you in subtle ways: like the automatic doors opening and closing by themselves.
This Lynchian marriage of the mundane and the terrifying is masterfully, artfully done. Some of the tricks the game pulls to unsettle you are among the most subtly effective, and gnawingly unpleasant, I've seen in the genre since the early Silent Hill games. I also love how it flips the traditional idea of a haunted house—dark shadows, old walls, creaking floors—into a place as blandly modern as a convenience store. The bright fluorescent strip lights don't lessen the horror at all—they heighten it, making the spirits that haunt the place seem even more uncanny and unnerving.
Night Delivery is the studio's most recent game, and it's just as good. This time you're working as a courier, delivering packages in a large apartment block. The grimy, lo-fi aesthetic is magnificent, reminiscent of the Siren series, and there's something about this big, silent concrete building that is highly disconcerting. Similar to The Convenience Store, Night Delivery uses repetition to lull you into a false sense of security before throwing a scare at you. The genius of Chilla's Art is that these are always perfectly timed, catching you by surprise at the worst possible moment.
Chilla's Art is a great horror studio because it understands restraint. The brothers have a deep understanding of how horror works. They know precisely how long to hold back, letting the player almost get bored before they pull the rug out from under them. This is something you could only do in an indie game. A major publisher would never let a player get bored, because a bored player might go and play something else. But when you have no one to answer to but yourself, you can make clever, restrained horror games like this—and thanks to platforms like Itch, you can still find an audience. Triple-A had its chance, but it blew it. The indies are in charge of the haunted house now, and it's never been scarier.