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Gaming for Nowt

Episode 1: A Random Selection of Short Free Games

Want to play a short game that you don’t have to set aside huge chunks of time for? Want to play games but don’t have the money to afford the new releases? Or do you just want to try some games where people are trying out new ideas in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a big budget commercial release? There are lots of reasons to play some of the many free games that are available. Of course, there’s so much out there and the majority of it isn’t very good, but if you know what to look far you can home in on the gems that are out there fairly quickly. To illustrate this, I’ve compiled a selection of ten games that I’ve discovered in a little over a month that I think are well worth playing.  As a starting point, I’ve tried to make it as diverse as possible, covering a range of gaming genres and a variety of concepts.  There are games that are just simple fun, ones with interesting ideas, ones that provoke thought and one particular game that scares. The only theme I’ve stuck to for now is that they’re all fairly short, ranging from a few minutes to a couple of hours. This will be expanding in future articles, but sometimes it’s good to start small. I didn’t want to rank anything, especially when everything here is so different, so I’ve placed them here in the order that I played them. I hope you find at least something to enjoy amongst them.


Game: A Story About My Uncle
Genre: First person platform
Length: 60 – 90 mins approx.
Format: PC download
Save? No.

A Story About My Uncle

A Story About My Uncle is a story driven first person platform game. Platforming in first person is admittedly usually terrible, but before running away from it, just give me a moment. This is actually extremely good. While it does involve jumping, the main mechanic here involves a grappling device. Aiming at a platform or wall and firing the device at it will start to drag you towards it in the manner of a grappling hook, and you use this to navigate the levels. The game is framed around a story being told, as a boy sets off to see his Uncle only to find that he’s missing. When looking for him he ends up in a strange world of floating platforms thanks to one of his Uncle’s inventions.  The game runs on the Unreal Engine and while the environments are simple, they look pretty good and are appropriately mysterious. The story becomes more involved later on when you find a civilisation of strange blue creatures (thankfully not the ones from Avatar), but it’s the platforming that will keep you playing. The grappling hook is incredibly well implemented and you get a wonderful feeling of speed and momentum as you fly through the air on it. As you go through the game you unlock the ability to use the hook more than once per jump, meaning you can swing towards one object and then change direction half way through. There’s a surprising amount of versatility in the way it’s used and it’s good enough that it would fit right into a commercial game. I’d love to see a longer game using it. The story also works towards a surprisingly sweet ending using the framing story. Well worth a play. Just make sure you’ve got enough time set aside for it, since you can’t save. (If you die, you just respawn and the checkpoints are extremely regular, so it’s no problem in that respect.)


Game: Depression Quest
Genre: Interactive fiction
Length: 1 hour approx.
Format: Browser
Save? Yes, if you bookmark the page.

Depression Quest

Not so much a game for entertainment but one with a worthy goal of attempting to show what it’s like for people living with depression. When people with depression are still often told to “snap out of it” as if it was all just their own choice, it seems like it’s the sort of thing that’s needed, and while Depression Quest isn’t perfect, it still manages the job quite well. It’s an interactive fiction game, though one with multiple choice options rather than full commands, and it uses this to illustrate some of the problems causes by striking out various options as ones you just can’t bring yourself to do, depending on your state of mind. The writing feels a bit strange at times, but this is due to being written in general terms, avoiding most specifics in order to allow the player to associate with it more closely. If you do suffer from depression though, please heed the warning on the site. The whole experience can hit just a bit too close to home.


Game: Fixation
Genre: Platform puzzle
Length: 2 hours approx.
Format: Browser
Save? Yes, automatically stores progress through the levels, and also has level passwords as a backup in case that fails.

Fixation

Fixation puts you in the role of Kathryn as you solve puzzle levels that are designed to reflect her mental state throughout some key events through her life. How well the level designs reflect this is open to interpretation, but the game certainly has an extremely well written storyline running through it. Rather than anything related to fantasy or sci-fi, the events are grounded in reality with believable characters facing normal  problems. It’s far from cheerful but is very well done. The gameplay itself also works well, despite the occasional sticking point where the timing becomes a bit difficult. The gimmick behind the puzzle solving here is smoking, strangely enough. Kathryn is a chain smoker, something which is dealt with in the plot, and her method of getting through the levels involves blowing smoke at targets to activate things, and later on, blowing smoke rings towards more distant targets. The smoke ring device can be slightly awkward at first, especially with the keyboard and mouse combination controls, but you do become used to it. Very good level design and a strong story make this well worth a play through. The game was released in 2012 and is actually a prequel to the following game from 2009.


Game: Company of Myself
Genre: Platform puzzle
Length: 10 – 20 minutes
Format: Browser
Save? Yes, automatically stores level you’re on.

Company Of Myself

Released three years before Fixation but set after it, Company of Myself is a downbeat game that contemplates feelings of loneliness. In terms of mechanics, it involves co-operating with previous versions of your character. At any time you can hit the spacebar and you’ll start at the beginning of the level again, but with a shadow version of yourself carrying out all the actions you previously did. New obstacles are introduced as the game progresses and you have to collaborate with the previous versions in different ways to get around them. Some levels only allow you one copy where others allow infinite versions of your character to work with. It’s very short but another very strong game in both gameplay and story.


Game: Queen of Snakes
Genre: Point and click adventure
Length: 20 – 30 mins
Format: Browser
Save? No.

Queen of Snakes

Queen of Snakes is a short but enjoyable tomb raiding point and click adventure. The puzzles are pretty good, with nothing too difficult and requiring more exploration than thought. What makes the game is the fact that it looks beautiful, being made up of artwork by French artist Jo99. Added to a wonderful soundtrack that builds up as you progress in the game, it makes this a worthwhile experience. The down side is that the cursor doesn’t change to identify hotspots, so you have to try clicking on everything that looks interesting, and the environments can be quite detailed. It never turns into too much of a pixel hunt though since everything you need is clearly drawn and not obscured, but you’ll have to click on everything else to find which ones you can pick up or use. It’s short enough that it doesn’t really spoil anything too much and it doesn’t take long to click on a few items. It’s still worth playing for the visuals.


Game: Barely Floating
Genre: Point and click adventure
Length: 2 – 3 hours
Format: PC download
Save? Yes, anywhere.

Barely Floating

When it comes to adventures, comedy games are probably the most commonly attempted amongst free game developers, but not many of them work particularly well. It’s nice to come across one of this quality. Originally part of a pay-what-you-like indie bundle, Barely Floating is now available for free, and it’s a short adventure game that’s well worth playing. For a change, you take on the role of an old man as one of the passengers on a cruise which gets attacked by pirates. They’re taken hostage and it’s down to you to rescue them, thanks to the ineptitude of the agent sent in to help. Graphically it looks very nice for a cartoon game and is in a much higher resolution than most games made in AGS. The soundtrack is decent, though there’s no voice acting. It’s not a major issue though, and sometimes no voice acting is better than bad voice acting. The puzzles are mostly fair and the game is fun and amusing. The humour can be quite coarse but it’s often funny, if rarely laugh out loud so. All in all, a solid game that I do recommend giving a go.


Game: Save the Date
Genre: Visual novel
Length: 1 hour approx.
Format: Windows, Linux or Mac downloads
Save? Yes, anywhere.

Save the Date

This one is brilliant, but I can’t say too much about it without spoiling it all. Basically, you’re taking a girl out for a meal, but things pretty quickly take a turn for the worse and you end up trying to, as the title suggests, save the date. It’s a game that involves replaying several times, but each play is very short and each time is likely to be very different. The way you go about saving the date is clever, and the game develops as it goes along. It’s quite hilarious at times, but there’s far more to it than there first seems to be. That’s all I’m going to say right here. It’s vague, but anything more would be a spoiler, and this game is free so there’s no reason not to go and try it out for yourself. Highly recommended.


Game: Fragment
Genre: First person stealth action
Length: 15 – 20 mins approx.
Format: PC download
Save? No, regular checkpoints for if you die but you can’t permanently save if you quit.

Fragment

Another full 3D first person game, this time made using the Unity engine. This one is incredibly short and is pretty easy, but it has some interesting ideas. It plays out more like it’s a way of testing out some gameplay mechanics that could be used in a much bigger game. The gameplay revolves around defeating enemies by making use of a sort of holographic replica of yourself that you can deploy anywhere. While this in itself isn’t unique, you can use it in different ways. As well as simply acting as a decoy to draw enemy fire to allow you to sneak up on them (you take them out by somehow making them shatter it seems), you can also swap places with it at any time to allow you to reach previously unreachable places or to move rapidly behind enemies. In this respect it works a bit like the Blink power in Dishonored. You can also charge it up by killing enemies which allows you to then detonate your duplicate to destroy anyone surrounding it. It’s a fairly straightforward game but an enjoyable way to pass the short time that it lasts. I could imagine it becoming an interesting full length game with a plot added and some more work put into it.


Game: ir/rational Redux
Genre: Puzzle
Length: 30 mins approx.
Format: Browser
Save? A level select so you can start back at any point anyway.

ir/rational Redux

A logic puzzle game in the purest sense, ir/rational is built around propositional calculus. That might sound daunting, but the game is told with some surprisingly witty writing as you wake up in a room with no memory of how you got there. There’s a machine presenting you with logical problems that you have to solve. The mechanics behind what you’re doing is hidden until the end when what you’re doing is revealed. It’s an original piece of work; I can’t think of anything else quite like it, and it was enjoyable for its short length. Unique, entertaining and even educational too. If that hasn’t scared you off, go ahead and give it a go!


Game: Kraven Manor
Genre: First person horror adventure
Length: 30 – 45 minutes
Format: PC download
Save? Yes, checkpoints.

Kraven Manor

Kraven Manor is extremely impressive. It’s basically a commercial quality game being given away for free. It’s not long, but the playing time simply keeps everything focused and makes sure the game doesn’t wear out its welcome. As with the first game on this page, this is made in the Unreal Engine. Set in a spooky mansion, it looks amazing and has an atmosphere to beat most full priced games. It’s also very scary because of this. The main focus of the fear is something I can’t mention since it would ruin the surprise, but it works extremely well. It also has unusual mechanics, such as a way of piecing together model rooms which then change the layout of the manor around you. There are a few puzzles along the way, but this is one to definitely play for the atmosphere. Very highly recommended.


The Ones That Didn’t Make It

Not all free games are good, obviously, and you have to wade through a lot of rubbish to find the ones worth playing. Knowing what to look far can help you avoid the worst of it but even then not everything is going to be a masterpiece. Here are a few games I played between the others which didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another. Most of these are ones that have something interesting about them, but just aren’t quite high enough quality for me to put them on a recommended list.

Good Morning, Commander

Good Morning, Commander: Another game with outstanding atmosphere, and one that I was really on the borderline as to whether to include in the main article. It’s certainly stuck with me more than any of the others down in this section. You start by being woken up by an alarm clock on a grey Moon-like planet. Your goals are unclear so you just set off exploring to discover what’s going on. It feels like it’s borrowed stylistically from the film Moon (which, to go off topic briefly, is excellent and is something everyone should watch) and it works very well, with the sparse mostly monochrome graphics and sparse audio which leaves most of the game with the slightly unsettling soundtrack of just the hiss of an oxygen tank and your character’s breathing. It’s got a deliberately slow pace, and that is what could put people off. It works, but it can at times turn into tedium when you have to backtrack. That, along with a sudden ending, just knocked it off the main list, but I’m still glad I played it.

Blues for Mittavinda: At first glance it seems to be an interesting surreal adventure game using stop motion animation, but actually turns out to be some sort of new age self-help tape in disguise. You get about 10 minutes into the game and it suddenly tells you to close your eyes and starts playing a voice over saying the usual nonsense like  “let your mind be the open space in which sounds and sensations arise” all while sounding like it’s spoken by an Elcor from Mass Effect.

Egress – The Test of STS-417: Excellent graphics, great atmosphere, completely spoiled by dreadful puzzles. The solution to the first puzzle is just plain wrong unless you ignore perspective, with it only working if you assume the world is a flat picture. The other major puzzle in the game is just completely underclued.

Tales from the Minus Lab: You visit a lab where you end up with the ability to shrink and grow at will. It’s in first person 3D and you smoothly change size, growing to gigantic proportions or shrinking down to the point where you have to jump over pencils. They’ve implemented the engine from scratch, and unfortunately the whole thing is a buggy mess to the point where I couldn’t complete the game, or even get more than a few minutes in. Wonderful idea, dreadfully implemented.

Coming Next…

This was a random sample of games that I’ve played over the last month or so that I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve focused on short games that can be finished in one or two sittings. There’s far more diversity available and not everything is short. For the next article I’ll be looking at games that have a very specific reason for being a lot longer. For now, enjoy the games!