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The 50 best free games on PC

No free-to-play, just free.

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5. Robot Unicorn Attack [Official site] (2010)

Developer: Spiritonin Media Games

Canabalt is the slicker, more polished infinite runner, but Robot Unicorn Attack has a robot unicorn, stars to collect and boulders to dash-attack through to smash, and Always by Erasure playing on repeat as you try and try to beat your high score. If any of those things make it sound like a novelty, then go, play it, and see if it doesn’t grip you. The music is repetitive, but it puts you into a kind of trance. The art is crude, but colourful and relaxing and fun. The variation in the position and distance between platforms feels occasionally unfair, but bursting through those boulders is more satisfying even than Canabalt’s windows.

Notes: There’s a sequel, a Christmas edition and a Retro Unicorn Attack that swaps in 8-bit graphics, but the original is the purest and best.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Canabalt, obviously, if you’re looking for another endless runner. CLOP if you’re looking for another game about a unicorn. Any other song by Erasure on Spotify, if you like Always.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Kieron’s article for Eurogamer’s games of 2010

4. Masq [Official site] (2002)

Developer: Alteraction

Masq is a choose-your-own adventure-style storygame that casts you as the head of a fashion design company. The opening few minutes establish multiple points of drama. You’ve a big fashion show coming up, but you lack the money to fund it. You suspect your wife might be having an affair with her boss, the only man who might be able to give you the money. And to make matters worse, your friend and colleague has just been murdered – and you’re a suspect.

What follows is a series of single frame comic panels with choices to be made underneath, where doing nothing at all is a valid choice.

Masq was released in 2002, but its format is similar to the modern Telltale adventure games like The Walking Dead. What’s different is that Masq features no puzzles whatsoever, and that its soap opera setup justifies a narrative that can diverge in the wildest of ways. Over a single fifteen-minute play session, you can end up divorced, or in prison, or bankrupt, or having an affair, or in a caravan with a gun pointed at a naked man waiting for a snake to bite him on the balls.

Every session of Masq ends with glimpses of some scenes you might have missed during your story, and it provides an endless compulsion to play again. You’ll have had this incredible journey, see the previews of paths not taken and… Who is this kid? Why am I on a beach playing frisbee with some kid? Who are you?

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in narrative-led games, and that’s a wonderful thing. Many of those games will be better written than Masq, more likely to affect you emotionally, personally. But I’ve yet to find any that are as thrilling, or which reward your choices as well as Masq does.

Notes: Masq was originally released for a fee, then ad-supported, and is now completely free. Its creators left the industry for a long time before returning with a series of similar games, all of which are in Spanish and designed to support product placement.

What else should I be playing if I like this: 80 Days is a similarly excellent choice-based game about humans and dialogue, while The Walking Dead is still the finest distillation of the Telltale formula for dramatic, life-and-death choice-based adventures.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Masq featured in Graham’s article about failing in games

3. Dwarf Fortress [Official site] (2006)

Developer: Bay 12 Games

“Etar Patternedtombs was a mint green demon. It was the only one of its kind. A gigantic feathered ass twisted into humanoid form. It undulates rhythmically. Its mint green feathers are patchy. Beware its deadly gas!”

But enough about your dad – let’s talk about Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress is a fantasy simulation game that’s become famous for the endless anecdotes produced by the collision of its teeming forts, its emotionally unstable dwarves, and a world of elves and goblins and terrible hellbeasts that want to destroy them. It’s also infamous for its obtuse interface, which by default renders the world’s absurd detail with simple ASCII graphics. If you can overcome such challenges to your patience – and there are plenty of friendly tile graphic sets, as per the one seen here – then what awaits you inside is a management game unlike any other, with characters whose fingernails grow, who mourn the death of their pets, whose grief can trigger city-destroying events, and who write poetry about their infinite sadness. Even if you can’t play Dwarf Fortress as a management game or in its more accessible roguelike adventure mode, it’s worth following it as a decades-long, one-of-a-kind development project. It is, despite appearances, the most ambitious game ever made.

Notes: Although free to download and play, Dwarf Fortress development is funded by donations via PayPal or Patreon. If you play it and like it, consider checking those out – rewards include a short story or drawing about a Dwarf Fortress character of your choice.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Prison Architect offers a similar simulation and building game, but about prisons and with less of a focus on individuals. RimWorld is smaller scale but applies Dwarf Fortress’ formula to a space colony.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Graham breaks down how easy it is to play, Quinns’ diary from 2010 and us naming it one of the best RPGs and strategy games of all time.

2. N [Official site] (2004)

Developer: Metanet

N’s single-screen levels have umpteen methods of tearing apart your tiny stick-figure ninja and sending his parts flinging across the level. What makes it worth persevering with is its physics, which are a joy to learn to manipulate. Whether it’s air control, wall jumping, bounding up ramps just so in order to launch yourself to greater heights, N is precise and rewards your practice with a graceful replay of your ultimate success.

There’s more variety here than in many paid-for alternatives, too, owing to the game’s menagerie of different enemies types. Sliding electroshock droids, slow-targeting lasers, heat-seeking missiles, squashing blocks, mines, and many more; there’s more to learn to master in N than simply spikes to avoid.

There are paid-for versions of the game available, with nicer presentation and music, but the free N2.0 still has hundreds of levels, the ability to watch replays of other player’s fastest times with the click of a button, and all the satisfying platforming a person could want.

Some of you might wonder why N is in this position over, say, the original free Meat Boy release. Here’s the answer:

I like N better.

Notes: N developers Metanet spent a number of years working on a grappling hook game called Robotology, but after years of research and the development of their own physics engine, decided that they couldn’t technically create what they envisioned.

What else should I be playing if I like this: N++ was released recently for monies, and its music and presentation and new levels are very nice. Otherwise, yes, the original free Meat Boy is great, too.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Here we are. The best free game on PC awaits you on the next page… assuming you didn’t cheat and head there first.

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