What's The Deal With Analog Horror Games?

Analog horror has seen an explosion in popularity over the past few years, but what about analog horror indie games?

Published: April 3, 2023 11:00 AM /


Assessment Examination Screenshot

Analog horror is an incredibly popular subgenre of horror that has been spreading like wildfire on the internet since it sprang into existence back in 2015 with Kris Straub’s Local 58. Since then, it has gone on to influence imitators, spiritual siblings, and even full-on movies such as 2022’s Skinamarink.

If you’re an avid fan of horror and gaming, you might have also noticed that the genre has been worming its way into indie horror titles too, and the ability to bring interactivity into the genre has opened up new and exciting ways to terrify the crap out of people.

Local 58 REJOICE screenshot from Skywatching
A particularly memorable scene from the Local 58 episode "Skywatching." | Source: Local 58 YouTube

Where Did Analog Horror Come From, and What Is It?

Analog horror refers to the subgenre of horror that utilizes elements of analog video and audio to scare the audience effectively. This makes it a very atmospheric subgenre, relying on things like visual and audio distortion to put the audience into the right vibe to be scared by the contents of the storyline, as well as relying on nostalgia for outdated technology to get you into a more vulnerable state to make scares more effective or intense.

The genre got its start with a series called Local 58 by Kris Straub, which is a story about cosmic horrors preying on the earth, told through several mysterious broadcasts on a regional analog TV channel called Local 58. In its time on YouTube, the Local58 channel has amassed over half a million subscribers and over 21 million views over just nine videos. 

Since then, several notable series’ have been produced that have catapulted the genre into internet cult stardom, spawning countless YouTube series' and ARGs based around the same tropes and concepts. Some of the best examples of the genre include Backrooms by Kane Parsons (soon to be a feature-length movie), the Mandela Catalogue by Alex Kister, and Gemini Home Video by Remy Abode.

Assessment Examination Screenshot Uncanny Valley Face
The uncanny valley effect is on full display right here. 

Exploring Analog Horror - The Uncanny

One major theme in analog horror is the uncanny. If you’re not already familiar with it, The Uncanny Valley is a term used to describe the emotional response produced when certain depictions of human-like objects stray too close to being human without quite managing to make it. That’s the reason why human animatronics can seem creepy or why old stop-motion animations can have a similar effect. 

In analog horror, the uncanny can manifest in a number of ways, in both audio and video forms. Depicting horribly mutated or malformed human beings is classic in many forms of horror, but in analog horror, it takes a very direct approach. Typically, storylines will feature plot points about humans being twisted and misshapen, or in some cases, outwrite copied, by intelligences who can’t quite get our appearance or demeanor just right. 

This is an area that a lot of indie horror titles online have captured with gusto, especially a group of games that refer to themselves as "Survey Horror." The three games I’m mostly talking about here are Assessment Examination by Wenderly Games, Stark County Threat Assessment Test by Reese Manse, and Maple County Police Training Tape by Thorne Baker

All three follow the same thread, and all three seem to have been inspired by The Mandela Catalogue, arguably the heaviest user of the uncanny of any analog horror series. In these titles, you’re asked to identify between civilians and unearthly threats trying to disguise themselves as humans. You have to spend time carefully looking closely at these horribly uncanny images to decipher which is supposed to be a real human and which isn’t.

This forced focus is unique to gaming interpretations of analog horror since looking away or trying to remain unfocused on what you're doing prevents you from playing, unlike passive observation, which can allow a certain level of detachment. This effect dramatically increases the chances of the scares being effective when compared with passive analog horror media and could even make the emotional response more intense. Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, the co-author of a study into players psychological response to horror video games, is quoted by ScienceNordic as saying

“The response to the scary computer game appears to exceed everything we’ve seen before. We project ourselves into the game and become more scared. Horror in literature and film doesn’t have the same effect. The game gets us to feel that we are actually inside the game universe, and the more realistic the game, the stronger the effect.”

Day178 Screenshot Showing Analog Video Elements
Some games, like Day178 here, use analog video elements even when they don't quite make sense, though it's hard to deny their aesthetic appeal for horror games. 

Exploring Analog Horror - Analog Elements

Possibly the most obvious of all aspects of analog horror is the ‘analog’ part of the genre. All analog horror extensively features the visual and audio trapping of analog media formats, whether that be the hiss and crackled of analog tape audio, the video tracking and distortion of VHS tapes, or even the harsh clicks and whirs of early media playback technology. You’ll find pretty much all of these in abundance in any given piece of analog horror, and indie games are no exception. 

Most games use analog artifacts in a very basic way. Usually, the game will have a VHS filter over the top, regardless of its supposed origin. Most of the time, these effects are used to make you feel nostalgic, vulnerable, and immersed to get you in the right frame of mind to be scared; though, they can also be used in some games to produce an unsettling feeling. When random video cuts happen or jarring audio feedback suddenly bursts out, it can really shake the player to soften them up for bigger scares down the line.

The big issue with this one aspect of analog horror games is that it could be used in a much more effective way, and there are examples that already exist in mainstream gaming. The two biggest examples of what I mean are found in Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Both of these games use very similar gimmicks to those found in analog horror to make the player question exactly what is happening. The screen would flicker and change sources randomly, and the game even pretended to delete the players' save data in the case of Eternal Darkness

In both cases, the use of fake screen UI and analog-style video elements are great examples of taking the passive elements that are still being used in videos to this day and turning them into ways of subverting the expectations of the player. It would be great if more modern indie games could take these lessons to heart, but it’s still relatively early days for analog horror as a gaming genre. Still, gaming has a unique opportunity to shape analog horror, more than it already has, if we can latch onto the horror elements that are unique to gaming. 

Andy's Apple Farm - Bugging Out
These sorts of graphical corruptions make a lot of sense for a game that isn't supposed to exist. 

Exploring Analog Horror - Mimicking the Real World

Analog horror is a type of un-fiction, i.e., fiction that tries to mimic the real world and make the viewer think the story is real. Immersion as a device to induce fear in the audience is a major concept in horror generally, so to find it’s a big part of analog horror specifically isn’t shocking. It’s easy to find yourself immersed in the world created by the story, especially when the story is being presented in a way that would pass for a real-world piece of media. Probably the most obvious examples of this are series like Local 58 or Gemini Home Entertainment, which ape a real-world TV station and a home video company, respectively. 

Of course, all three of the survey horror games above would also work here. They present themselves as existing in the real world, full of trappings that make their ‘faux’ nature a bit more obscured. That said, they only purport to be part of the real world in the way that they mimic Mandela Catalogue. Indie analog horror games have a much better way of playing off this trope, and weirdly, it’ll be a game called Andy’s Apple Farm that proves it to you. Incidentally, this one is also an early access title you can purchase on Steam, with new updates reportedly coming every 3-6 months, so check it out if this piques your interest.

Part of the reason that the aforementioned Local 58 and Gemini Home Entertainment both work is due to their delivery method being believable. In both cases, the delivery method makes sense because there’s a pretty obvious logical line from someone owning said tapes, then digitizing them and uploading them online.

In game form, having a VHS-style presentation doesn’t make anywhere near as much sense. Why does it look like a tape? If it’s a tape, how are we interacting with it? It’s not a big problem, but it ignores the huge advantage video games have in interactivity. 

Andy’s Apple Farm takes the form of a long-lost PC game from somewhere in the late '80s to mid-'90s judging by the graphics. As you begin to play the game, things are immediately creepy yet believable. The crackling audio, the glitchy and stilted presentation, even the controls: These are all things we expect from a video game lost to time that never got finished. It makes it all the more believable when the world starts glitching out and acting weird, and you have to reboot the game to continue it. It also has the advantage of a believable origin, with old "lost" games being discovered and re-released relatively regularly online. 

In a way, these are the video-game equivalent of analog-video elements. They exist to cause jarring effects so that a story can be gleaned through the fractured telling of an unfinished product, but also to make its existence more acceptable to our brains. While we might consciously be aware that it’s not really a forgotten game and that it (probably) isn’t haunted, the use of these moments can help fool your brain. When your brain is fooled, that’s when you’ll get your best scares. 

Moonlight Acers Sign in Lethal Omen Screenshot
The crossover from YouTuber series to Game makes Lethal Omen one of the better known examples of the genre. 

The Future of Analog Horror Games

Looking back at the way that indie games have used the tropes of analog horror, it feels like there’s a lot of ground still to be explored. In many cases, tropes and cliches of analog horror have their basis in fundamental concepts of horror, like obscuring information, use of the uncanny valley, and intentionally creating an unsettling atmosphere. However, games have unique ways they can utilize these tropes, but right now, it feels like most of the games available, while enjoyable, don’t take advantage of some of the unique features that horror gaming provides. 

To a degree, it would be nice to see some developers launching larger-scale productions that have similar inspirations to these smaller itch.io and indie titles. We’ve seen many anthologies and shorter experiences use these elements, and use them well, especially from the release of Haunted PS1 and DreadXP.

That said, it’s nice to think that we’ll start to see full-scale analog horror games start to appear more often in the near future. There’s fertile ground to be explored when it comes to analog horror gaming, and it’s these early pioneers that will lead the way for everyone else.

Have a tip, or want to point out something we missed? Leave a Comment or e-mail us at tips@techraptor.net

Will wearing an Odd Future shirt.
| Staff Writer

Will has been writing about video games professionally since 2016 and has covered everything from AAA game reviews to industry events and everything in… More about William