50. Passage [Official site] (2007)
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Passage is a simple, 2D game in which you walk from left to right, and as you do your tiny sprite man experiences all the stages of life: growing old, chasing love, finding a wife, not being able to fit through one-square gaps because the wife makes you too wide…
The simplicity of its metaphors aside, Passage was released in 2007 at a time when “indie games” and “art games” were just beginning to gain traction. It helped jumpstart both, by showing a way – albeit a limited one – that games could communicate through their mechanics without cutscenes or plot or anything borrowed from other mediums. It’s now one of a handful of games regularly accepted into museum exhibits worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art’s videogame design exhibition.
Notes: Creator Jason Rohrer has gone on to make a number of interesting games, but some of his most interesting are those designed – but not necessarily ever made – for the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Sleep Is Death is my favourite Rohrer game. It’s a two-player game that allows for collaborative storytelling, in which one player sets a scene with characters and objects and then invites another to interact with it. The storyteller then responds to the player’s actions in real-time through a simple turn-based system.
Where can I download it: Official Site
49. Slave of God [Official site] (2012)
Developer: Increpare Games
You buy some drinks. You try to make conversation with strangers. You stumble into the toilet and try desperately to get it in the bowl. You connect with someone on the dancefloor and suddenly it’s hours later, and they’re gone, and you’re spilling out into the early morning street alone. Slave Of God depicts a single night in a club with a polygonal, fuzzy style the evokes the half-remembered blur of an alcohol-soaked night out. It’s short but memorable – like all the best nights out.
Notes: Graham live-action roleplayed Slave Of God unknowingly in his early 20s.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Anything else made by Increpare, as his games alternate between frighteningly smart design experiments and auto-biographical vignettes. Sometimes they’re both at the same time.
Where can I download it: Official Site
Read more: Cara’s review
48. My Father’s Long Long Legs [Official site] (2014)
Developer: Michael Lutz
There are many free horror games, often made in software like RPG Maker, which, as the name suggests, was not specifically designed for shocks and scares. Wonderfully, working within the limitations of a seemingly unsuitable engine or framework can have a deliciously unnerving effect. Like the self-imposed or budgetary limitations of some of the most effective horror films – whether the experimental makeup and special effects of The Evil Dead or the theatrical single set of Bug – apparent restrictions often bring out the best in game developers.
Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long Long Legs is a Twine game, an engine used to create interactive fiction, often using basic text inputs and descriptions. With a series of carefully chosen and positioned words, and a single audio intrusion, Lutz has created a game that has the power to unnerve weeks and months after the first encounter with its horrifying depths.
Notes: Lutz’ work has some similarities to the short stories of Bruno Schulz as well as the body horror of Junji Ito.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Cyberqueen and Horse Master are excellent and unusual Twine horror games. Traditional interactive fiction is also home to some uncanny experiences, notably the cleverly told urban legend of All Alone, the strange reality of Shade and the horrific moral maze of the intricately constructed Vespers.
Where can I download it: Official Site
Read more: Adam’s Have You Played…?
47. Rat Chaos [Unofficial site] (2012)
Nothing makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as getting the Good End. Rat Chaos understands this. It is as odd as a Twine game can get and just as funny, playing with language and mistyping in a way that evokes the weirdest of Weird Twitter. If there is a plot, it’s that of a spaceship captain who has two choices: either go about your day as normally as the game’s silliness will allow, or succumb to the inviting and ever-present option marked “Unleash Rat Chaos”.
What occurs next is a rambling, tangential flood of rat-based text, easy to understand but difficult to describe (and, ultimately, faintly sad). It’d be easy to dismiss it all as being “weird for weird’s sake” but you’d be missing the point – the playfulness of the broken language, the rhythm of it. It’s a game with a single voice you can hear quite clearly. Listen… The voice says: “chicken dinner waiting back in your Quarters”.
Developer: Winter K
Notes: Rat Chaos disappeared from the internet for years, forcing all who remembered it to seek out clandestine copies saved to hard drives. But it’s back now, saved from extinction by RPS contributor Robert Yang, who is hosting it on his site.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Horse Master, The Writer Will Do Something
Where can I download it: Play it on Yang’s site
Read more: Porpentine once called it the funniest Twine game she’d ever played
46. UnReal World [Official site] (2013)
Developer: Enormous Elk
UnReal World was farther ahead of its time than any other game. The elements of play were unfamiliar when the first version released in 1992 but are now a genre in and of themselves. It’s an RPG about wilderness survival, with borrowings from the roguelike ocean, and an enormous amount of things to craft. It’s also, quite possibly, the best example of its type.
While the original release is twenty two years old, the game still receives updates. Two decades of development have paid off and UnReal World has the most intricate procedural worlds to explore and perish in. The setting isn’t the usual dungeon with a dragon in it – fantasy aspects are stripped back and the game takes place in the far north during the late Iron Age. You’ll spend your time hunting, trapping, fishing, building, trading, fighting and freezing to death. Sometimes you might bleed to death instead, if the mood takes you.
Animals and people are convincing, the world is full of wonders both mundane and extraordinary – the paw prints of quarry essential to your survival in the morning’s fresh snow, a sled piled high with human meat capsized by an abandoned village.
Notes: UnReal World has been free to download since 2013 and Maaranen accepts donations to support development. In 2016, however the game was made available through Steam with a $11 price tag. It’s completely optional and the game is still available free from the official site, however, so we’re keeping it as part of this list.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Catacylsm: Dark Days Ahead is another intricately simulated turn-based survival sim, but in a completely different setting – it takes place after the fall of civilisation.
Where can I download it: Official Site
45. Spaceplan [Official site] (2016)
“Spaceplan!” sang Quad City DJ’s, “I always wanted to go into Spaceplan!” Well, now you can. Of all the clicker games on this list, this is the tidiest, the shiniest and the one with the most potatoes, we can guarantee you that. It follows all the usual rules of compulsive clickers – numbers go up, upgrades unlock, numbers go up faster, new things are revealed, on and on and on, until you can do nothing but click. While there’s nothing here that isn’t done in those Candy Box and Dark Room precursors, the story that unfolds is polished and intelligent. It involves firing hundreds of thousands of potatoes into the sun.
It’s this humour and the orbital details that make it stand out. You’re stuck in a slowly repairing spacecraft floating around the solar system. An AI wakes up and starts helping you out, bringing the ship back online – essential systems like the Thing Maker, the Fact Holder, the Word Outputter, the Idea Lister. There’s some neat details too. Much of your increasing numberpower comes from solar cells, and when you pass behind a planet, this number slows. You were in the planet’s shadow, you see.
It also has something many clickers lack – a reachable ending, and a really good one at that. Leave this running for half a day, popping in every so often to read your AI’s advice and to click-click-click, and you’ll easily reach the conclusion.
Developer: J Hollands
Notes: According to the creator, the game is based on his “total misunderstanding of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’”
What else should I be playing if I like this: Candy Box, Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room
Where can I download it: The creator’s website
44. NORTH [Official site] (2016)
It’s a good thing you don’t live in SOUTH anymore – that place was horrible. But is NORTH any better? This surreal city has you roaming around in first-person, trying to make sense of the dark alleys, the towering skyscrapers, the blob-like bureaucrats, the CCTV cameras, the church. Even understanding what you are meant to do at your new job is a mission. All the while you can use the postboxes you find to send letters to your sister, giving you hints about exactly what is going on.
It’s sometimes a confusing game, in the sense that you don’t know what it wants you to do. There are machines that dispense drinks but it’s hard to tell what the effect is, there’s elevators hidden in nooks that you thought you’d fully explored, and there’s plenty of unexplained tasks. There’s so much unknown that it can easily put off any player expecting at least some direction. But that’s life in an alien place. And if you persevere to the end, you’ll have seen so many strange and sinister things that you won’t care if you got stuck. Bewildering, political and visually stunning. It certainly is grim up NORTH.
Notes: NORTH was nominated for an A Maze award
What else should I be playing if I like this: Executive Towers has a similarly odd vibe, but replaces darkness for colour, Kitty Horrorshow’s games are likewise very sinister
Where can I download it: From it’s itch.io page
43. Championship Manager: Season 01/02 [Fan site] (2001)
Developer: Sports Interactive
To my mind, there’s always two football management games worth playing: the latest Football Manager, to see the modern state of the series; and Championship Manager: Season 01/2, which is the epitome of a certain version of the series.
01/02 didn’t add anything particularly remarkable over 00/01, but it was the last game in the Championship Manager 3 series, before Championship Manager 4 took a leap towards greater complexity and before developers Sports Interactive parted ways with Eidos and with the Champ Man name. That means that 01/02 was the last time that you could reasonably complete a season in a day and believably take League 2 minnows to European supremacy. To me, it represents the best balance between Sports Interactive’s love of simulation and the fantasy aspect to managing your favourite football club. Good thing that Eidos made it official freeware in 2008, then.
Notes: There’s an appealing nostalgia to managing football clubs from 2001, but if you don’t feel that, the game’s community have kept its database of players up to date for the past fourteen years. The most recent data update can be found here.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The modern Football Manager games, obviously, especially the Classic mode, which aims to revive a little of the speed and charm of the earlier entries in the series.
Where can I download it: This fan site
42. Off-Peak [Official site] (2015)
Developer: Cosmo D
A model blue whale hangs from the ceiling of this train station. Stencil art, graffiti, and paintings cover the walls. In the bar, giants are playing Netrunner. Fish swim past windows. Three identical eerie schoolgirls follow you.
It’s a fascinating space, a train station “curated” for its passengers by its not-so-benevolent station master, filled with curios for their consumption. It’s delightful and surprising and exciting to explore, but all your character wants is to gather the fragments of a train ticket. Some people may have other ideas about that.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Bernband is a similarly delightful place to explore, and found elsewhere on this list.
41. Dr. Langeskov The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist [Official site] (2015)
It’s like the Stanley Parable but with more Simon Amstell. The voice of the broken comedian takes you through the backstage sections of a fictional videogame that you are supposed to be playing, always promising that you are next in line to play, in just a little moment, yes, very soon. Obviously, there are problems. The creators have been hit with a strike and the “game” won’t function properly. That means you are drafted in to press buttons, follow instructions and generally mess about behind the scenes of whatever appears to be happening to your unseen counterpart beyond the walls and separators of this silly set.
It is far more “on-rails” than its office bound predecessor, but there are plenty of funny moments to be gained from disobedience. Second-guessing the narrator and refusing to go where he says or do what he wants leads to insistent complaining. It is also one of a rising breed: games about games, although it’s much more light-hearted than it’s paid-for counterpoint, The Beginner’s Guide. In many ways they are two sides of the same meta-fictional coin. That makes sense, since one of the developers, William Pugh, worked with Davey Wreden on The Stanley Parable.
Developer: Crows Crows Crows
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Beginner’s Guide, The Stanley Parable, The Static Speaks My Name
Read more: Alec’s review
40. The Marathon Trilogy [Fan site] (1994-1996)
Before Halo, there was Marathon – a “2.5D” first-person shooter set on a spaceship under assault by aliens and staffed by artificial intelligences. Sounds familiar. When Bungie released the first game of this series in 1994, it was only available on Macintosh. Thankfully, the years have melted away and left us with a couple of free versions to play on whatever we want.
Marathon and its sequels now look like any other FPS of the era, but at the time they were very swish indeed. You could recharge health and shields at medical stations, you had clear objectives (not just find the red keycard), and you could talk with microphones while fighting in multiplayer. It also offered a good chunk more story than your average action game, and you can still see the threads taken up by Halo years later: AIs go “rampant”, your character gets stuck in a crossfire between clashing alien races, ancient species of alien are revealed. It’s all ripped straight from the sci-fi catalogues of books and cinema, of course, but Marathon was one of the first to put it all together in a polished and exciting videogame way, and it still holds up surprisingly well today.
Notes: The story of Marathon was partly inspired by The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert (author of Dune) and Bill Ransom
What else should I be playing if I like this: System Shock 2, Doom, Halo: Combat Evolved
Read more: Luke Pullen dissected Marathon Infinity’s opening level
The thirties await on the next page…