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The 23 best bite-size games for busy lives

Keep your finger on the pulse without giving up sleep

I am dad, hear me whinge. Too many games, not enough spare time, for all my non-work hours are spent kissing grazed knees, explaining why you cannot eat the food in that cupboard, constructing awful Lion King dioramas out of toilet roll tubes and being terrified that the next jump from the sofa to the armchair will go fatally wrong. I’m lucky in that my job to some extent involves playing games, so by and large if there’s something I really want to check out I can find a way to, but I appreciate that there are many long-time, older or otherwise time-starved readers for whom RPS is a daily tease of wondrous things they cannot play.

Now, clearly I cannot magically truncate The Witcher 3 into three hours for you, but what I can do is suggest a few games from across the length and breadth of recent PC gaming that can either be completed within a few hours or dipped into now and again without being unduly punished because you’ve lost your muscle-memory.

These are a selection of games that will give you a decent working sense of what’s out there these days, but don’t demand 20+ hours of your time to complete, or a daily investment to be any good at. Games you can start playing knowing that you’ll be able to finish them – I don’t know about you, but I have so many abandoned open-world games littering my hard drive. I never uninstall them, convinced I’ll come back –
but the time the chance arrives, a dozen more have been released.

So these, instead, are games which actually fit into an adult life. Clearly, these are not the only ones – suggestions below are entirely welcome.

Use the arrow keys above/below the images to navigate the list, or the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard.

Inside

[official site]

This puzzle/platformer sci-fi horror yarn is currently my go-to recommendation whenever another exhausted parent whose kid goes to the same nursery as my own mini-me asks what’s good to play that won’t take them a thousand hours. It’s exactly the kind of game you complete over a week’s evenings, and despite being ‘short’ it feels like a true journey through an increasingly unsettling (and yet quietly comic) world. You feel you’ve had a start-to-finish experience, as opposed to just glanced off the surface of something larger.

On paper (and in screenshots) it may come across as standard jumping puzzles with slick art. It is that, but it’s much more – Inside is master-crafted for atmosphere and for constant forward motion, making its puzzles part of your journey rather than roadblocks upon on it.

Most of all, this is such a complete game. It will fit into your life so easily, without feeling that you’ve had to compromise.

Firewatch

[official site]

An obvious choice, yes, but there’s a good reason for that – don’t avoid it because you’ve got some sense from afar that it’s a bloke moping in a treehouse and there’s a girl and a fire and you know how this is going to go. Beautiful first-person forest-wandering/mystery-solving game Firewatch often gets spoken of in terms of its story, but to be honest I think its actual plot is its weakest element. It folds in some extraneous stuff it doesn’t need and its ending is a bit heavy-handed on the metaphors-made-real.

Its setup, its characterisation and its atmosphere, though? Solid gold. This is a game about escaping to a place – a tranquil holiday squeezed inside your hectic day. In tandem to that, it’s a holiday inside someone else’s head, but a head it’s almost not impossible to feel is similar to your own. Put your own worries behind you, then adopt someone else’s instead. It’s over soon, and it feels appropriate when it does end, but you’ll miss it intensely.

The Signal From Tolva

[official site]

Disclaimer – co-created by Jim Rossignol, formerly of this parish. Don’t let that stop you. Don’t let the troublesome umlaut stop you from finding Tolva, either (it breaks our tags system, for instance). Expansive and bite-size simultaneously, this is equal parts open world shooter and unhurried sci-fi sightseer. An ending can be reached within a few hours, but I think it’s at its best when treated as a series of drop-in robo-skirmishes set among lost prog-rock album covers.

This is – sorry Jim – exactly the sort of thing that qualifies as a Dad Game for me. I.e. one that’s going to sit on my hard drive for forever, offering me total confidence that I can have a solid good time in a spare hour.

Rocket League

[official site]

Joining Overwatch in the very particular category of ‘multiplayer games you never actually need to get good at to get a lot out of’. If you don’t feel the scratching inside your skull that tells you to keep on climbing up the leagues, dropping into a random match of Car Football even after months away is essentially a guaranteed ten minutes of drama, hilarity and shock goals. Rocket League’s a game whose breakneck pace that doesn’t waste even a second – you will always, always feel as though you’re contributing and achieving. At its simplest – you drive a car into a giant ball really fast and then let chaos effect do its thing. Often enough, that’s enough.

On the other hand, if you do find yourself with a brief spurt of few days, it’s one of those games where you’ll feel massive and significant improvement to your ability at it over the course of a few hours a day. A sense of accomplishment, but one that can be ended without the fear of missing out that characterises so many other pure-multiplayer games.

The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth/Afterbirth

[official site]

Isaac is a religion for many people. Played every day forever, in pursuit of every last unlock, every possible ending, every achievement – and they become incredibly skilled at its unforgiving bullethell/roguelite mash-up structure in the process. But there are many more still who keep it around as something to have a half-hour blast in now and again, enjoying a few power combos they haven’t seen before, maybe reaching a level they’ve never quite made it to previously, maybe finally stomping a particularly troublesome boss. Dicking about in a shit-covered wonderland.

Isaac’s greatest accomplishment is that it entirely masks how exacting it can be behind a layer of joyful-yet-brutal randomness, poop jokes and warped Catholicism. I play Isaac maybe once or twice a month and I can’t see myself ever uninstalling it, apart from in favour of another version of it. For me currently it’s the Afterbirth expansion for the Rebirth remake, as opposed to the subsequent Afterbirth+ expansion, whose ongoing learning curve makes it more appropriate for the Isaac hardcore, rather than filthy casuals such as I. Figuring out where to start with this series is a game in itself…

Abzû

[official site]

A few hours of majesty, tranquillity, fleeting heartbreak and occasional looming menace. Abstractly Abzu is a diving game, but it has a journey to it too, a story of sorts and most of all oh-so-many fish. It offers a sense of accomplishment without requiring that you do much at all – taking you to new parts of the ocean, with new creatures in it. Abzu is a week’s worth of “what amazing fish will I swim with today?”, and manages to sustain that even through repeat plays. A game you play to feel good about playing games.

80 Days

[official site]

A game of travel, and a game of choice. This steampunkish reimaginging of Phileas Fogg’s dash around the planet can be completed within a few short hours, but it’s designed to be replayed many times over, making different decisions about destinations, items and, particularly, how you treat others each time. The writing is wonderful, conjuring scenes far beyond the purview of its illustrations, making good on 80 Days’ central conceit – a series of visits to amazing new places. You can finish 80 Days on a train journey, but it’ll take you months to see it all. Or years, if you’re like me.

Portal

[official site]

The oldest game here – this is more of a keeping up with the Joneses piece rather than a best of retro one – but I do feel that a game so many of us binge-played at the time is perfectly suited to a time-starved revisit. (Do go for Portal 2 instead, if you prefer – it’s a fair bit longer, is all, so keep that in mind if you know you’re likely to leave a game unfinished if it isn’t all over within a few nights).

Portal’s (by today’s first-person game standards) uncommonly rigid level structure gives it that “I’ve just got time for a couple more rooms tonight…” place in your burnt-out life. With a focus on lateral-but-logical thinking rather than reflex, it’s also a fine option if your cursor-muscles have been seizing up lately. Also: wit. Wonderful wit. Speaking of which…

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist

[official site]

Where Portal’s humour is restrained and often dry, this short freebie from the studio run by one of the chaps behind deconstructionist first-person game The Stanley Parable is manic and gleefully winking to camera throughout. But it’s short, sharp dose of smart silliness, a playful commentary on the nature of videogames and a deft exercise in waiting for the punchline to drop. If you find other short-form interactive fiction/ambient exploration games incline too much towards the ponderous for your tastes, this might just be the remedy.

Hitman

[official site]

A big old wheelbarrow of a game if you approach it by playing each level sequentially, but although that’s how Hitman is sold these days, it’s not actually how it was designed. This is a game made up of discrete sub-games – the linking cutscenes and the tale they tell are a dismal waste of everyone involved’s time – rather than a conjoined run of places in which to assassinate people. Originally released as an episodic game, I encourage you to approach it in that spirit. Give over a full week to exploring a level, attempting all its optional targets and weirdo remixes the menus offer you – the watchmaker’s precision in how all its many parts (and many people) fit and move together, the possibility-space that opens up further the more time you spend with this.

A Hitman level is a Hitman game. You can end your week feeling you’ve really accomplished something by picking all the meat from that one level’s bones. Next week, or the next time you can return? A whole new set of challenges in a whole new place. I would love for more big-name action games to take this sort of approach: a game in self-contained segments, not one vast mountain to climb.

Frozen Synapse

[official site]

It’s got something of a learning curve and the UI’s a bit crackpot, which made me slightly hesitant about including this asynchronous turn-based strategy game in this piece, but once you do have the basics under your belt this is a game that is perfectly suited to relentlessly busy lives. FS is primarily a multiplayer game, and though you can play it live, so to speak, it’s at its best as an evolution of what we used to call play-by-email.

Each player takes their turn in their own time, and the match only progresses to the next turn once both have submitted their orders. When you log back in, you get to see how it played out – if your little men shot their little men, or vice-versa – and there’s no pressure to commit your next turn until your ready.

A game you genuinely only play for five minutes a day but still feel like you’re achieving something meaningful. The hopefully even better Frozen Synapse 2 is in development, but inconsiderately the developers did not release it prior to my writing this piece.

Her Story

[official site]

Some games are short because the developers couldn’t afford to make them longer. Some games are unfairly perceived as short because internet ratbags rush through experiences designed to be savoured then loudly whinge about it afterwards. Some games are short because their creators understand the inherent value of brevity – focus, completeness, the avoidance of flab and slowdown. Her Story is one of those. Her Story is a short interactive movie, not a season of TV, and that total self-containedness is a big part of what makes it so effective. So too is its very human use of FMV – this is an interrogation of someone who may or may not be guilty of a crime, and while part of your work involves deciphering clues and ciphers, even more of it is constant scrutiny on an emotional level. Is this person telling the truth? What else are they hiding? This is intense roleplaying as much as anything else.

Done and dusted in a couple of evenings. Any longer and it’d have all fallen apart.

Kentucky Route Zero

[official site]

Like Hitman (and yet so very little like Hitman), this is a game played in episodes. While “episodic” can so often mean delayed gratification, in the case of both Hitman and KRZ it instead means really savouring one section before even considering moving on to the next. Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click adventure game without puzzles, replacing the lateral thinking of yore with soaking up its off-kilter Americana and choosing lines of dialogue that build up your own sense of your character rather than forcing you into harsh Manichean choices.

Its ever-enlarging world is made from a cat’s cradle of influence and reference to/from the scope and span of art, literature, theatre and television, but it’s not arch or impenetrable with it. Instead, it’s a dreamlike haze of half-remembered memories, a sense of yearning for places you’ve never really been and, yes, that vital sense of journey. Come its close, each two hour-ish episode will have you feeling very much as though you’ve been away for a long time, and discovered important truths about yourself in the process.

Mini Metro

[official site]

A game about commuting which you can play while commuting. In some respects this is a puzzle game, but really it’s a railway simulator distilled to its barest essence, which is the balancing of limited resources with meeting demand. What takes five hours in traditional transport tycoonery game is ten minutes of initially ambient then increasingly frantic line-dragging.

Relaxing even when everything’s going horribly wrong, this is thoughtful and compelling management simulation without the usual timesinks.

Out There

[official site]

Deep space exploration within a lunch hour (quite possibly several times over). Out There was and is first and foremost a mobile game, but it’s intense yet undemanding voyage through an uncaring galaxy is a good fit for PC too. No combat, no real-time anything – just deciding which planet to hop to next and making agonising decisions about which resources to spend, never knowing if you’ll be able to regain them at your destination or if this will be the place where your fuel runs out, your shields fail or you’ll have to junk everything you’ve fought long and hard to acquire just to make one more jump.

It’s one of those games where death – perma-death in this case – feels like a true conclusion to your voyage and your story, so you do not need to ‘beat’ it to feel satisfied by your time in.

Overwatch

[official site]

As with Rocket League, this is a pure-multiplayer game that you never need to get good at in order to have a consistently joyful time with it. Drop in, play against the similarly inexperienced or rusty and it’ll almost always feel like an equal-stakes contest rather than an hideous spanking, as would likely be the case in a Counter-Strike, COD or Battlefield after too long away.

While Blizzard always make mainstream games, so often there’s skill/time investment barrier soon after starting – but this ain’t Starcraft or a MOBA. This is the nuts and bolts of running around and shooting, and so long as you’re up to moving a cursor in tandem with WASDing, you’re going to feel like Overwatch is your game. Partly it’s the balance of character skills – there are many that don’t require anything like headshot accuracy – and parly it’s industry-best auto-matching with people of broadly similar skills to you. Basically: if you find yourself thinking “man, I’d love to play an online shooter right now, but I don’t want to get destroyed by 14-year-olds”, Overwatch is the answer.

Thirty Flights of Loving

[official site]

Probably the shortest game in this piece, but quite possibly the one that’s lingered longest in the memory afterwards, which makes it a value proposition as far as I’m concerned. Hyper-compressed storytelling by implication – the best spythriller you never saw, made up of equal parts scenes that feel instantly familiar and scenes which feel loaded with mystery and character drama.

To play Thirty Flights Of Living – and also its predecessor, Gravity Bone – is to fill your head with solid arguments about how much more games can do, all in the space of a few minutes.

Trackmania Turbo

[official site]

We don’t have Mario Kart on PC, but we do have Trackmania, which though very different, entirely meets the “racing game you can play if you don’t play racing games” criteria. Short races, easy controls, emphasis on DRAMATIC EVENTS such as terrifying drops and loop-the-loops as you race, plus instant reset buttons so you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time if you balls up.

In Trackmania Turbo, you will always feel like you’ve done something incredible – and if you are able to put a few hours into it, you’ll also get to see yourself rising up the local ranks, sufficiently so to convince yourself that you are The Best so that you can then quit and never play again.

Devil Daggers

[official site]

DEVIL DAGGERS IS LIFE. DEVIL DAGGERS IS RELIGION. DEVIL DAGGERS IS EVERYTHING. And you only need to play it for ten minutes a week to feel that way. The best first-person shooter in this piece, but there’s no story and even no multiplayer here (other than score comparisons) – it’s just about how long you can survive in an arena full of various hell-things.

What begins as eight seconds of punishment soon becomes a minute of heroism. Even the slightest snatched moment means a meaningful experience when you own Devil Daggers. Its pixels flash so gloriously, too.

Proteus

[official site]

In a busy grown-up life full of bills and nappies and emails and oh god has that brown patch on the ceiling gotten bigger, we play games to get away from it all. Usually that getting away involves pretending you’ve got a really big gun and there are baddies everywhere. Sometimes, though, it’s better to actually get away from it all. Sure, there’s yer Dear Esthers and Everybody’s Gone To The Raptures if you feel you can’t find reason to escape to a quiet place unless there’s narrative attached, but for me it’s the delightfully aimless Proteus that is my go-to way of leaving the usual contents of my head behind for an hour or two. A blissful pastel island of abstract-yet-recognisable shapes and an adaptive soundtrack that says “calm down, everything is OK” in a thousand different ways.

I appreciate that, for some people, Proteus might look from afar like self-indulgent art school noodling, but it’s really not – this is a game about being in nature, a call we all feel sometimes, but which makes the very sensible decision that trying to recreate photorealistic nature really is not the best way to achieve that. The impression of nature – that’s the key.

Stories Untold

[official site]

Four short, maybe-possibly interwoven tales, which jump dramatically between genres and… it’s dangerous to say much more. “80s horror influences” and “from one of the people behind Alien: Isolation” is one way of getting people on the hook, I guess, as may be “olden text adventure games”, but really, this is doing its thing and hugely effectively so.

Perfectly suited to playing in short bursts and with the sense of completeness that only a consciously brief game can achieve, Stories Untold will reassure you that games can be very, very clever indeed, without actively requiring you to think hard in the process.

Hexcells Infinite

[official site]

Number-puzzling without bloat, with challenges played in minutes rather than hours, and which rapidly blossoms from simplicity into wild ingenuity. Despite appearances, Hexcells doesn’t require a maths brain – once you learn to see the matrix, you will never stop seeing it. There are several Hexcellses now, and though Infinite has a slightly harsher learning curve, it is the one that keeps on giving, which you can mine for minutes at a time over the space of months or even years.

Take a laptop with you every time you visit the loo, basically.

itch.io

[official site]

If you want to feel like you’re plugged into the veins of modern gaming but don’t have the time for all those endlessly-long sandbox action games that are increasingly the mainstream norm, a far better alternative is go scratch that itch with Itch. A storefront for what some call ‘indie’ but, given how woolly that term now is, is better described as endless experiments in game design. If you have an hour free, just picking six or so random freebies from Itch will almost guarantee you delights and surprises, even if you do run into the odd stinker. The best aspects of videogames can end up choked by the budgets and bureaucracy of the mainstream – over on Itch, ideas run free.

An endless box of delights, many of them free, but with the option to lob the creators a few bob if you dig their work.

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