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The 50 best free games on PC

No free-to-play, just free.

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39. Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead [Official site] (2013)

Developer: Clever Raven

One of the most complex and initially intimidating games in existence, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is also one of the best, should you be able and willing to navigate the learning curve. It’s the post-apocalyptic survival simulator that games like DayZ aspire to be, packed with the unexpected and terrifyingly complex. You can repair a car and mow through crowds of zombies but you’ll also need to keep an eye on your supplies of food and drink. Cataclysm is a full-featured life simulator that just so happens to take place when there’s little life left in the world.

Notes: The developers ran a Kickstarter in 2013, aiming to raise funds for full-time work on the game. The Kickstarter updates are still one of the best places to find information about new systems.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Neo Scavenger is another remarkable take on post-civilisation roleplaying, with a superb, brutal and terrifying combat system.

Where can I download it: Official Site

38. The Grow Series [Official site] (2005)

Developer: Eyezmaze

The Grow games are one of the proudest relics in the enormous, mixed bag of Flash gaming. In each, the title is also the objective and sole instruction. Make things grow. The ‘things’ in question vary from one game to the next, and as the setting and objects alter so does the apparent genre of the game you’re playing. Perhaps it’s a God game in which you’re creating a world or maybe an RPG in which you’re guiding a hero through a series of quests. Whatever setting and theme they tackle, the Grow games are perfect little toys, in which the mouse cursor and a series of clicks are tools for creation.

Notes: The series has been running for thirteen years – the most recent game was released in July 2015.

It could be argued that the Grow games influenced the modern trend of clicker games, such as Clicker Heroes and Adventure Capitalist, but the inclusion of a correct sequence rather than the need for constant attention makes them stand apart.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Vectorpark’s games, Windowsill and Metamorphabet, are similarly charming and surreal.

Where can I download it: Official Site

37. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall [Official site] (1996)

Bethesda might have just released a shiny new edition of Skyrim, but spare a thought for the venerable Daggerfall, which became twenty years old this summer. Screaming skeletons and procedurally-generated dungeons were possible in 1996 too, and the ambition of the second Elder Scrolls game did not stop there. Hidden plotlines, spying, demons, a huge open world. “Daggerfall doesn’t just shoot for the moon,” said Adam in our retrospective, “it shoots for the moons of Jupiter.”

It’s a little rough around the edges, graphically speaking, and a lot of the landscape is actually pretty empty. But are shiny graphics and crowded roads all you want in a game? Loud dragons and glistening snow? Get out of here and pay for Skyrim then, ingrate. Honestly, I don’t know why we even talk to you.

Developer: Bethesda

Notes: Daggerfall was released with lots of buggy code – a tradition Bethesda still follow to this day. Wayooooooo!

What else should I be playing if I like this: The other Elder Scrolls,

Where can I download it: The official site

Read more: Adam dives into its Labyrinths

36. Space Station 13 [Official site] (2003)

Developer: Robust Games

There’s an entire field of boardgames based around betrayal as a mechanic. For these games to work as they should, a structure that supports varied goals and social interactions is required. Whether that’s the late game switcheroo of Betrayal At House on the Hill, which designates an unsuspecting player as the antagonist following a part-randomised mid-game development, or the tidy thematic tension of Battlestar Galactica’s paranoia.

Space Station 13 might be the closest a game has come to capturing that sense of conspiracy and camaraderie. It’s a cooperative game, in which players (often strangers to each other in real life) join a server, take a job and attempt to keep a space station operational. Things will go wrong and players must either work together to keep the station stable, or enjoy the ensuing chaos. Some players spawn as antagonists, with nefarious objectives, but their status is hidden and only their actions will betray them.

The whole game holds together thanks to one of the most complex simulations available anywhere. Almost every element of the space station can be manipulated, broken, utilised or picked up. Atmospheric, chemical and biological reactions occur as different objects and elements collide and combine, and the simulation engine itself is often a greater hazard than the antagonists. Whether you jump in for a few minutes to kidnap a monkey or spend hours playing a long-game of deception and subterfuge, Space Station 13 is one of the finest sandbox simulations available, for free or otherwise.

Notes: Space Station 13 is built on the BYOND engine. A standalone version was planned but has since been abandoned but the source code is available

Reddit has a good list of active servers, which includes a descriptor for “Shenanigan Tolerance”.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Dwarf Fortress is one of (if not the only) game with a similar level of complex simulation of individual entities and objects. You’ll find simpler, singleplayer space station pleasures in Startopia.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Quinns’ Galactic Bartender series

35. ARMAGAD (also Tetrageddon Games) [Official site] (2015)

A particular era of the internet is coming back to haunt us. A time when gifs were made of spinning skulls, and shining banners implored us to sign Angelfire guestbooks. Tetrageddon knows that era all too well. It replicates a broken desktop full of secrets, games, faux viruses, virtual pets and looping sounds. It is an almost-overwhelming box of weird treats.

At first glance it seems like it might just be a strange library of the creator’s previous games – Froggy, Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs, and so on. It is a library, you’re right, but it is so much more than that. Click around and discover the adventure of the cyber monkey, the despondency of the glitchbot, a frightened being called Igor trapped in lost windows, the flirtbot who apologises for being rude. Perhaps one day you will see it all. Perhaps.

Developer: Nathalie Lawhead

Notes: It won the Nuovo Award at the IGF in 2015

What else should I be playing if I like this: It’s not out at time of print, but Hypnospace Outlaw looks to be going down a similar gif-strewn road

Where can I download it: Download it from GameJolt or play a smaller web version here

34. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [Official site] (1984)

“The game will kill you frequently,” says the BBC website hosting it. “It’s a bit mean like that.” They are not lying. Hitchhikers Guide is a very funny game, taking much of its story and dialogue from Douglas Adams’ original tale. But it also doesn’t mess about. Even in the opening if you spend too long fumbling in your pockets looking for an analgesic you’ll get crushed in your house by something yellow. Later, a now-infamous puzzle involving a Babel Fish can render the game unwinnable if you don’t do it correctly.

But it also something of a rite of passage for any fan of interactive fiction and parser adventures. Don’t panic: you don’t have to complete it (and even if you did it has a notoriously abrupt and disappointing ending). But it’s worth sampling nonetheless, as much for its respect to the original’s humour as for a lesson in adventure game history.

Developer: Infocom

Notes: A sequel was planned which meant to continue the story from the abrupt climax but it was cancelled in 1989 because – according to archives discovered in 2008 – there was “no solid game design” and “nobody to program it”.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Zork, 9:05

Where can I download it: The BBC has a version but there are plenty of others. Check the Interactive Fiction Database entry for some of them.

Read more: Victoria Regan’s covered it for our Gaming Made Me series and it came 9th in our 10 best games based on books.

33. Ending [Official site] (2013)

Developer: Aaron Steed

Ending is a stripped back puzzle game that might be a dungeon crawler or might be something else entirely. No context is provided to make sense of the abstract visuals but, hey, we’re controlling an ‘@’ symbol so maybe that’s a person? If so, it’s a person in trouble. Ending has a set of pre-built levels, full of traps and enemies to observe, destroy or avoid, but it can also make random levels that somehow seem almost as cleverly balanced as the prefabricated kind.

It’s a beautiful game to look at and those symbols make sense at first sight. There’s also just the right weight and crunch to movements and attacks, but the heart of the experience is that perfectly poised set of contraptions and apparatus that make the dungeons tick. Every move counts and every mistake could be your last. Beating a level is like defusing a bomb but the rapid nature of each playthrough and the ease with which you can restart and try again ensures that the game never punishes you.

Notes: The game is free (that’s why it’s on this list) but you can buy the mobile version if you fancy supporting the developer.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Desktop Dungeons is a fantasy-themed roguelike puzzler that approaches similar ideas from a completely different angle.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Graham’s short tale of trying to remember Ending’s name

32. Corrypt [Official site] (2012)

Developer: Michael Brough

Seeing the first few rooms of Corrypt will either lull you into a false sense of security or cause the sweat to start prickling at the back of your neck. It begins with a simple, understandable puzzle mechanic – “I’ve seen this a hundred times before”, you might think. And that’s when the doubt should take hold because surely it can’t be that simple?

It isn’t. As you explore Corrypt’s world, which is splendidly realised and packed with actual characters, the central mechanic of the game seems to twist in your grip. Just when you’re getting a handle on what you’re capable of and how you can influence your surroundings, everything seems to change. Importantly, the game never does anything quite so crude as altering the rules; it reshapes your understanding of the rules until your brain aches, your shoulders slump and you realise you’re face to face with a formidable intelligence. Corrypt is one of the most devious games ever made.

Notes: It’s possible to puzzle yourself into a dead end while playing Corrypt but you’re more likely to think you’ve broken all possible solutions long before that has actually happened.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Brough’s own 868-HACK is definitely worth a look and Starseed Pilgrim plays on expectations and assumptions in a similar way.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Alec’s interview with Michael during IGF 2014

31. Murder Dog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog [Official site] (2011)

Developer: thecatamites

“My Taste For Bloodshed Remains Voluminous” – The Murder Dog

thecatamites’ back catalogue contains some of the richest gems in gaming. Absurdly comic and often violent, they’re wonderfully expressive pieces of writing that deconstruct gaming conventions. Importantly, they’re not simply parodies, however, instead using the structure of point and click gaming in a way reminiscent of an absurd playwright’s use of the artificial nature of the stage to communicate meaning. Murder Dog is silly, inventive and bizarre, but it’s also startlingly clever.

Notes: Most of thecatamites’ games are free but if you want to contribute some cash, check out the 50 Short Games collection or ride the ghost trains of Magic Wand

What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything else thecatamites has ever made, starting with Goblet Grotto, Space Funeral and Crime Zone.

Where can I download it: Game Jolt, Official Site

30. Horse Master [Official site] (2013)

Developer: Tom McHenry

Horse Master initially seems like a Twine game with bolted on stats and mechanics. You’re raising and training a horse and your goal is to make that horse the best of all possible horses. Very quickly, the true nature of the game becomes apparent. It’s a warren of possibilities – victory is possible and defeat comes in many terrible forms. But even success is horrific. Horse Master peels back the skin and reveals the glistening muscle and throbbing tendons beneath. It is body horror on a scale that would make Shinya Tsukamoto, David Cronenberg and Junji Ito shudder.

Notes: Creator Tom McHenry is a cartoonist as well as game designer – check out his work at Noncanon.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Pokemon.

Where can I download it: Official Site

What free wonders await among the roaring twenties? Find out on the next page…

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