Never judge a book by its cover, the old saying goes – and this applies to video games, too. Well, sometimes, it does. Well, most of the time. After all, you can’t expect to find deeper meaning in titles like Fortnite or Call of Duty: Warzone (not to mention CounterStrike or League of Legends). There are, in turn, cases where under the spectacular, colorful cover, you’ll find a game with horrors that turn a playful game into a living nightmare.
The Borderlands Series
It looks and feels like a high-tech Wild West, complete with tumbleweed, guitars, and bandits all over the place. Except for the alien monsters roaming the land, the high-tech bandits with personal shields, the ruins of futuristic facilities, and the mysterious Vault, the Holy Grail of Pandora, hiding somewhere on the planet.
It’s all fun and games until you look below the surface.
Pandora is one of the many planets colonized and stripped bare by megacorporations spanning entire star systems. A conflict drives Dahl, a massive mining conglomerate known for its extensive use of convict labor, of the planet. Dahl only takes the wealthier colonists with it, leaving the average settlers – and hordes of convicts – behind to survive on heaps of industrial garbage, in a constant struggle to survive. Gangs of bandits are terrorizing the population, the fauna – sometimes even the flora – is out for their blood, and ruthless suits are competing with vault hunters to lay their hands on the mysterious Vault.
As you proceed through the game and uncover the history of Pandora, it starts to look and feel less like the Wild West but a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Don’t Starve Together
While at first sight, the game may seem a bit childish and superficial, there’s way more to it than it seems. The open world of this game is filled with birds, moles, giant turkeys, and fishes… but it also has wolves that will chase you across much of the map, giant birds that will split your skull with their beaks, spiders that bite, sea birds that overrun you if you’re not mindful of their presence, and unseen horrors – called Charlie – hiding in the dark of the night that will kill you without you even seeing them.
While on the surface, it seems like a simple open-world exploration and crafting game, it has layers upon layers of darkness and myriad ways to die. Plus, it has an entire underground world of Caves, procedurally generated just like the “normal” world, with dangers that would scare anything dungeon crawlers like Minecraft Dungeons can throw at you.
The Binding of Isaac
ZX Spectrum gamers probably thought of “Atic Atac”, one of the best arcade-adventure games on the platform, when taking their first look at The Binding of Isaac. The basics of the game are pretty much the same: you explore a dungeon (a castle in the original) where the rooms have enemies you can shoot, doors you can open, and powerups you can collect.
The simple, axiomatic gameplay in the latter comes with a dark, often brutal overtone, though. Loosely inspired by the biblical story of Isaac, the game follows the protagonist into a fantasy world filled with horrors where he escapes from his mother trying to kill him, driven by the divine voices in her head. While at first sight, it may seem playful, the game is filled with horrors and darkness – nowhere near the playful tone of its ZX Spectrum ancestor.