Queer retro horror games are the genre to watch right now

A screenshot from Mothered, one of the Haunted PS1 Demo Disk games.
(Image credit: Haunted PS1)

Horror games embracing the aesthetics of console games of the late 1990s and early 2000s have only gotten more popular in the past couple of years.

One of the most visible driving forces behind this re-engagement with retro horror games are communities of indie game developers creating openly queer-centered work, working environments, and forms of mutual support around the genre. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the biggest players in this new (old?) space.

Bloodborne PSX

Screenshot from Bloodborne PSX.

(Image credit: Lilith Walther)

The defining and most visible project of this kind this year has been the creation and release of Bloodborne PSX, a fan-made 'demake' of FromSoft's 2015 action-RPG game Bloodborne released by game developer Lilith Walther.

Made with the intent of emulating the bleak gothic world of Bloodborne's Yharnham with the original PlayStation's limitations, Bloodborne PSX is impressive in its technical design, attention to detail, scope, and sheer audacity.

It was created mainly by Lilith, but always in collaboration with other fans, both directly with her team members, and also in terms of sourcing information on the game, from YouTube and community wikis. 

By posting making-of threads, and short clips of the work in progress widespread attention was drawn to the impressive work on the game, and a queer audience to Lilith's openly inclusive and radical approach.

Haunted PS1

Screenshot from They Speak From The Abyss, one of the Haunted PS1 games.

(Image credit: Haunted PS1)

Haunted PS1 is the other key example of a community project operating in the same way with these aesthetics, breaking out and creating a sensation around the work of indie developers since 2019. The project has inspired some of the swell of aesthetic interest in retro horror, especially with its Demo Discs, collections of work in progress from community developers, and most recently 2022's Spectral Mall.

Speaking to one of the group's communications directors Fannon Valentine, they said it was a surprise to grow so quickly, both for the group and their role in it.

"A couple of months after I became the moderator I ended up taking over the Twitter." 

"I went mad with power and shitposted for two weeks straight and we ended up getting like 10,000 new followers, and the community kind of exploded in that time."

Screenshot from House of Necrosis, one of the Haunted PS1 games.

(Image credit: Haunted PS1)

Fannon identifies the perception of the community as one that is queer-centered and reflects on that, saying "I don't even necessarily know that it is exclusively queer, but it is a space that is heavily moderated in order to make sure the people involved feel safe."

"I feel like because the community is largely run by queer developers a lot of the priorities that are made in terms of creating a safe social space for the people running the space, the runoff of that is that it becomes a very safe space for queer folks to express themselves."

Having a moderated community working environment is an important and defining factor of that project. Fannon identifies that as also essential to making good horror-based art in this kind of wider community, since horror can lead to a kind of emotional rawness, and so being able to share while feeling safe is prioritized. 

There is also a sense of trying to resist aspects of gatekeeping, which Fannon has found useful themselves, "As much as it's not a help forum, it's a really good community of people who know a lot of things. It was a really good and nurturing learning environment for me to put together the skill set that I would need to become a game designer in the long run."

An Outcry

Screenshot from An Outcry.

(Image credit: Quinn K.)

Quinn K, a member of the Haunted PS1 community, has released two horror games in 2022, as the lead developer of An Outcry, and one of the developers of There Swings A Skull: Grim Tidings which stemmed out of a collaboration with other members of the community based on their love of RPG Maker games. 

An Outcry is the more personal of Quinn's games and forefronts an experience of queer life. Taking an experimental RPG style it takes place in and around a housing block on a busy road in Vienna, as the Unnamed, and their neighbors, are confronted by the potential of a dark and disturbing force calling out to them.

Talking to Quinn about her approach to developing An Outcry as a queer person, she explains "in An Outcry specifically what you are playing is a close approximation of the way that the world is experienced by queer people, not just queer people, but marginalized people. It's the margins."

Additionally, they speak about the inclusion of a non-binary main character experiencing more of a realistically hostile response from the world as inspired by depictions of marginalization in games generally, with the inclusion of characters that mirror player identities but avoid the realism of lived experiences. As a non-binary player, it was engaging and cathartic to see that on-screen and translated as horror in a way that I hadn't recognized I'd been missing.

An Outcry openly about the terror of a focus on queerness, along with other marginalized identities, as being portrayed as out of step with dominant imposed identities. The realist bent to these portrayals, and its focus on what Quinn refers to as "bystander apathy" means that a lot of its horror arises out of the conditions of society.

As in Horror PS1 and Bloodborne PSX, in An Outcry there's a conscious attempt to engage with the realities of the communal experience. Another way in which this is done is by putting forward games for sale in communal ways, just as in the Queer Halloween Stories Bundle of 2022 hosted on the game store itch.io.

Queer Halloween Stories Bundle

Promo image from the 2022 Queer Halloween Stories bundle on itch.io.

(Image credit: tofurocks)

This bundle is a collection of sixteen narrative games with horror themes, including An Outcry, that went on sale through October 2022.

Created by the visual novel developer and publisher BáiYù, it was an impromptu idea, sported by wanting to raise money for their own games, and then reflecting on the Queer Games Bundle, a bigger bundle with similar aims to theirs running over the summer.

"I wanted to reach out to developers that I knew, whose work I was familiar with, and say hey I'm putting together this Halloween bundle, doesn't have to be scary just as long as it is on theme, do you want in?"

On doing this he found a collection of people all willing to do the same, and some who even offered to not take a cut in order to support those most in need, "When I set up the bundle I was hoping that everyone would be able to get an equal split and it was some of the developers who opted out."

Inside the bundle itself, there is a focus on narrative games, storytelling about queerness, and specifically a kind which BáiYù had eyes on as work they wanted to support. "A large component of horror is the fear of the unknown. When you get horror that is solely written by cis-hetero creators, queerness is going to factor into that as part of the unknown. When you put horror in the hands of queer creators they're very familiar with actually scary things."

As another example of community-oriented action and thinking, the bundle represents the kind of thinking that Quinn would like to see more of,

"I feel that in a world where these enormous corporations have a stranglehold on most of the capital it's important for indie developers to have a strong web of support and uplift each other when the world has individuals down. This should reach from small-time people to big-name folks in my opinion. It's a combination of mutual aid and the willingness to hear marginalized voices out, and amplify them."

The bundle raised more than $2,000 during its month-long run, and you can still buy these games individually on itch.io.

Freelance Writer