The Best Horror Games That Go Meta

Highlights

  • Meta horror games break the fourth wall to unsettle players and make them feel personally involved in the scares.
  • Some horror games interact with the player’s computer, changing backgrounds and logging users out to add an extra layer of terror.
  • The illusion of safety is shattered in meta horror games, as players are confronted with unexpected twists and the characters in the game become aware of their presence.

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Horror is made to unsettle you and make you feel unsafe. Despite this, it can be easy to get a bit secure in your distance from it. Everything bad is happening to the character in the game after all, not to you.

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Sometimes though, you’ll get a horror game that isn’t content to be confined to its window. It knows that you’re there and it is going to reach right through the fourth wall and grab you. Sometimes this is clear from the start, others like to lull you into a false sense of security before cracking the story wide open. Either way, expect the unexpected.

Updated on November 29, 2023 by Jouanna Bondakji: One of the guaranteed ways to scare or creep you out in horror games is not confining the horror to the game itself. It’s always shiver-inducing when the characters of a game seem to be aware of who you are outside of just being a random player. That’s what these meta horror games do best: break the fourth wall in one way or another to send chills up your spine. We’ve cleaned up this list and added another entry for more meta scares.

11 Pathologic 2

Become Painfully Aware Of Your Place

Pathologic horror game tragedian pointing down path

Pathologic and its remake, Pathologic 2, are weird games about a plague, or possibly they’re games about a play. Maybe they’re games where you are in a play about a plague. As you begin, you’ll find yourself in a theater, with the three protagonists on the stage below. They’re arguing about which of them is the real hero of the story, and you’ll have to make that choice to pick your character.

Masked tragedians litter the streets, and even though you’ll probably soon be starving and dying of disease, you can enjoy feeling thoroughly mocked by the reminder that you are only playing a role. Brecht would be proud.

10 IMSCARED

It’s Not Confined To The Game

imscared horror game

An appropriate title if there ever was one, IMSCARED creates a game within a game. What appears to be a straightforward game of object puzzles and pixel-styled graphics soon takes a turn.

You are introduced to the malevolent entity known as White Face, which will stalk you through the environment, crash your game, and leave you unsettling little .txt files in the game’s folder from time to time. To succeed, you have to learn to take nothing in the game for granted, as the grinning face will change the rules to suit its own agenda.

9 I See You

A Helping Hand…?

I See You screenshot screenshot of a low poly white room with a bed and a table.

In I See You, all you need to do is explore the halls of a strange hospital, trying to find a door marked with a red cross. You go through the door to a new area, then repeat. Simple, right? Well, you might be clued into things being a little off when the tutorial pop-up messages start to get increasingly threatening. What follows is a descent into a surreal nightmare.

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Graphical pop-in is weaponized to terrify you, and the end of the game is something that should not be spoiled. Just don’t let your guard down.

8 A Dark Place

Your Computer Is Theirs Now

A Dark Place screenshot, showing a patch of grass with a large tree, surrounded by wooden flooring.

A Dark Place is definitely not a title that you want to go into unprepared. It comes with a warning that, while harmless to the machine itself, the game will interact with your computer, and it certainly does that.

You start out in what seems like a fairly normal puzzle game, where you try and open doors while avoiding a train that circles through the level. Soon though, the game will quickly extend beyond its window. It will close itself, change your desktop background, and even log you out of your profile. All the fun of a computer virus, though hopefully none of the risk.

7 No Players Online

You Are (Not) Alone

No Players Online screenshot showing a record player in the middle of an FPS-style map.

There’s something particularly strange and sad about abandoned multiplayer servers. They’re the shells of dead games, removed from their purpose.

No Players Online has you wandering through a seemingly deserted multiplayer map for a Quake-style shooter. It’s lonely, and the game mechanics are pointless, but beyond that, something else is a little strange. There was almost certainly a figure in the distance for a moment. Then you get a notification that someone else has joined the game. You can’t see any other players, but unfortunately for you, you are not alone.

6 Irisu Syndrome

A Seemingly Innocent Slowburn Horror

Irisu Syndrome screenshot showing a shape puzzle, with a character stood behind the board, and strange cat pictures in the background.

Irisu Syndrome is an intensely anime-styled puzzle game. You match shapes to score points and have to chain together combos to make the shapes disappear. You must also keep your health from dropping to zero.

This seemingly casual matching game has higher stakes than you might initially think. These concern the figure in the background, a girl in a hat with rabbit ears. As you play, images and text files will be added or altered in the game’s folder.

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Though these games may mix different genres, it doesn’t dilute any of the horror.

A story will unfold and will play out very differently depending on how well you do in the game. Eventually, you may work out how the two things tie together, which only makes zapping blocks a more stressful experience.

5 Slay The Princess

Whom Can You Trust?

slay the princess screenshot depicting the princess smiling, with the dialogue:

You are on a path in the woods. Up ahead is a cabin. Inside the cabin is a princess. You must kill her or the world will end. That is the premise given to you in Slay The Princess. How much of it you act on or believe is up to you.

At least, you are led to think that it is up to you. The forces at play in this world will place blocks in your way if you deviate from the narrator’s intended storyline. You probably shouldn’t put too much trust in the princess either. There is definitely something off about her. Who is the real prisoner here, anyway? Check out our review of the game to know the answer… or not.

4 Pony Island

The Devil Is In An Arcade Game

Pony Island: startup screen

Pony Island is a game about ponies. It’s also a game about you playing a game about ponies. Most alarmingly, it’s also a means for a demon to ensnare people’s souls.

In this game, you play a character playing a seemingly simple platformer that is corrupted by some kind of diabolical influence. The malevolent entity that controls the game will absolutely not play fair. You must hack the game’s code in short puzzles, wrangle a collapsing options menu, and safeguard your pony against the machinations of Satan. Hope you weren’t expecting a game about unicorns to relax to.

3 Inscryption*

The Most Terrifying Card Game… With A Twist

The Trapper selling pelts in Inscryption

Pony Island’s developer, Daniel Mullins, didn’t stop there. Inscryption is a game where you’re trapped in a cabin and forced to play a card game or perish. Mullins seems to be partial to games that mess with the meta a bit, as Inscryption does it too. Granted, it’s a bit of a different case. The game is divided into three acts, with the second one being pretty different to what you’d gotten used to in the first act’s deadly first-person card game.

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The third act brings that initial gameplay back, but with new cards and mechanics. It also brings a meta twist that had already started developing in the middle of the first act. It’s hard to talk about the details without spoiling it, but Inscryption is definitely worth trying out if you like self-aware characters.

2 Doki Doki Literature Club

A Dating Sim With The Illusion Of Choice

Doki Doki Literature Club Yuri Glitched

Doki Doki Literature Club Yuri Glitched

Perhaps one of the most abrupt and left-field examples of meta-horror is the supposed visual novel dating sim nightmare that is Doki Doki Literature Club. It puts a lot of time and effort into placing you into a false sense of security with its beginning. You will find yourself in the shoes of a socially-awkward protagonist, navigating the difficult situation that springs from being the only boy in a school club.

Compose poems, talk to the characters, and pick one of the romance options; none of these will save you from the horrible surprise coming your way at the end of the first playthrough. Something in the game is not happy with how things are turning out, and that’s bad news for everyone.

1 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

Don’t Trust What You See

Launching into madness

Appropriately titled but still liable to surprise you, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem has a very fresh take on the Lovecraftian idea of madness-inducing horrors. The player character has a sanity bar, which drops when they are perceived by an enemy.

When the sanity bar drops too low, things get weird. In addition to in-game hallucinations, you as a player will start to doubt what you’re seeing as well. Your game will begin cutting to stills, showing errors, and even muting itself. Combined with the player character screaming about things not being real, you have to wonder if they just realized they were a character in a Nintendo game.

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