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Best free PC games for 2019

Put your wallet away

Featured post Best Free Games
Best Free Games
Best Free Games
Best Free Games

Read this article about the very best free PC games and watch as capitalism collapses around you. There are enough that there’s no reason you should ever spend money again.

The list is presented in alphabetical order, and any one of these games is worth your time. Click the links below to leap to our write-up for each particular game.

Our picks for the best free PC games:

Before we move on to the games proper, let’s quickly run through the rules.

For starters, unlike previous iterations of this list, we’ve included both outright free and free-to-play games. All of the games we’ve selected for inclusion are relatively generous and can be played happily without you needing to spend money.

We still only include games that are standalone, which means free modifications of paid-for games are not allowed. If you need to buy a game in order to play the free game, then it’s not free.

Prefer videos to these chicken scratchings? Then the RPS video team has you covered, with their own picks for the best free PC games:

It’s almost time to read about the games, but one last thing: this list isn’t in order anymore, but if you can’t find a particular game you love within, that’s still because it’s at number 51. You can lament its absence in the comments below, but take the time to explain why you love said game. You might convince some other people to pick it up and play it – even us. (Yes, Cave Story is still at 51.)

Onwards!

2:22am

2:22 AM

Dreams are fleeting, fragmentary things that crash the familiar into the unfamiliar and the everyday into the fanciful. They loop and return and revisit, picking up old dreams and mincing them to mix with new stimuli, new ideas. The sinister becomes mundane and the mundane becomes sinister and all this spins around and around with an emotional core and narrative thread that you can feel but which dissolves into nonsense when you put it into words.

Vignette ’em up 2:22AM understands this. 2:22AM is very good. “Play alone,” says its creator. “Play at night.” Do so.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Mystery Tapes, from the developer of Secret Habitat, is a similar kind of vignette ’em up based around accessing the content of different VHS tapes. It’s pay-what-you-want.

Where can I play it: Official site

Alien Swarm

Alien Swarm

Remember when Valve released a game for free? Not free-to-play, just free. It’s called Alien Swarm, it’s a standalone follow-up to a mod, and it’s Valve’s first released game that wasn’t a first-person shooter. Instead Alien Swarm is a four-player co-op game in which you control a character from above as you fight swarms of… yeah. You do so as one of four classes: Medic, Officer, Special Weapons and Tech, who have distinct abilities such as hacking doors, placing turrets, and healing teammates, but who all spend most of their time popping bugs with shotguns and machineguns.

Alien Swarm is simple and around three-hours long, but it’s as well crafted as everything Valve does. That’s in large part due to the level design, which funnels you and your enemies into chokepoints, dramatic last stands, and achingly long waits for slow moving elevators.

Notes: The original Alien Swarm was released as an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod, before Valve hired the team behind the game. They made Alien Swarm in Source almost as a spare time project while the same people also worked on Left 4 Dead and Portal 2. It also prepared the Source engine for another game played from a similar perspective: Dota 2.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Alien Swarm’s SDK comes with tools for randomly generating levels, automatically plopping together pre-defined room shapes that can be built in the normal Valve Hammer Editor. So you could play lots and lots of custom built Alien Swarm campaigns, I’m saying. Or the original mod. But failing all of that, try Left 4 Dead, which has similar co-op ideas but in first-person and with funny writing.

Where can I play it: Steam

Perfect Strangers

Apex Legends

“This is the best battle royale game we’re going to see for a long, long time.” So reads the RPS Apex Legends review, in words that could so easily have backfired. It’s been five months though, and those words seem more true than ever.

Apelegs has more clever new ideas than you’ve got front teeth. Characters have abilities, gluing Overwatch style tactical consideration to last-squad-standing tension. The ping system has set a new industry standard for communication. Players can respawn, an idea so good that Fortnite couldn’t resist pinching it (as they should). Supply drops and supply ships give players objectives to pursue, zipwires and balloons give them exciting ways to get there. Or you can always just bumslide your way over. The bumslides are magnificent.

Those slides feed into the real star of Apex’s show: the movement. Plenty of games let you climb, but few let you do it so quickly. The winner of a firefight is still normally whoever has better aim, but sometimes it’s the person who realised they could scrabble unexpectedly onto a box.

When you marry that freedom of movement to large health pools for every player, you get encounters that evolve. Encounters you can escape. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Royales where death often arrives at the hands of enemies you never saw.

Notes: The existence of a battle royale game set in the Titanfall universe was leaked on Reddit a couple of years before Apex Legends was announced. Most of the commenters dismissed the rumour as ridiculous, but it turned out to be a strategic leak by the game’s development team.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Fortnite is the free-to-play battle royale frontrunner, whereas PUBG will cost you money and maintains more of the genre’s roots in military simulations.

Where can I play it: Via EA Origin. Start at the official site.

Armagad

ARMAGAD

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.

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

What else should I be playing if I like this: Hypnospace Outlaw costs money but goes down a similar gif-strewn road, as you solve mysteries in an Angelfire/Geocities-inspired retro internet.

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

Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden

Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden

There are few games where their appeal is partly communicated by a dry explanation of what they are, but: Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden is a free RPG in which real world basketball player Charles Barkley roams a post-cyberpocalyptic Neo New York, dealing with both the guilt of having destroyed the world with a now infamous Chaos Dunk and the murderous pursuit of the B-Ball Removal Department. It is funny, surprising, inventive and a legitimately good RPG.

That last part is worth saying because, if you haven’t played it, it probably sounds like gibberish. A novelty packed with references. It is those things, but it’s also more than the sum of its references. The world being based on basketball (and the 1993 game Barkley, Shut Up And Jam!, and the film Space Jam) gives the whole thing a weird internal consistency.

Its mechanics are as likely to be part of the fun as the characters, the dialogue or the setting. But still, yes: its greatest strength is in its willingness to over-commit to the stupidest of jokes, such that there is no part of the game that is not a joke.

Notes: A sequel to Barkley was successfully Kickstarted in 2012 but unfortunately the project hit on hard times and is likely now dead in the water. Upside: they released a couple of demos in 2019 showing some of what they made.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Uh, I can’t think of anything else like it.

Where can I play it: Official site

Battle For Wesnoth

Battle For Wesnoth

The Battle For Wesnoth should be one of the first programs you install on a new PC. For ten years, David White’s turn-based hexathon has been one of the great freeware strategy games and it has been consistently updated with new content and improvements. When a tablet version appeared on app stores with a price attached, it seemed reasonable to assume that the PC version might follow suit, becoming a commercial product after more than a decade (including pre-1.0 versions). That hasn’t happened.

Wesnoth is still free. Not free to download and play up to a certain point and not free with the option of purchasing in-game currency or unlockables – free like that free lunch they said you’d never find. The (lack of a) price wouldn’t matter if the game wasn’t worth your time but, thankfully, it’s in sterling form. Not just one of the best free games on PC but one of the best games within this genre available anywhere. There are sixteen campaigns, spanning all the races of the world, and even covering the distant future of Wesnoth, and the included editor means you can design your own scenarios or simply download unofficial content when you’re done with the wealth of material included.

Notes: Wesnoth was originally a nonsensical name but The Rise Of Wesnoth campaign retrospectively explains its etymology – a combination of West and North.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Battle Brothers is a turn-based strategy game set in a fantasy world about hiring and maintaining a band of mercenaries. It’ll cost you monies, though.

Where can I play it: Official site

Bernband

Bernband

In the endless push towards photorealism, it’s easy to forget just how evocative a few broad strokes and good sound effects can be. Bernband drops you in a believable futuristic city populated by aliens – aliens in bars, aliens playing jazz, aliens at church, aliens on TV, and flying cars which we assume are being driven by aliens. That it’s mostly textureless doesn’t matter, because the fuzzy edges, splashes of neon, greebly population of sprites, and sense of scale does all the work needed to make you feel like you’re exploring a foreign, bustling, sci-fi metropolis. There’s nothing to do while touring Bernband but walk and watch, but like the best holidays, you’ll end your trip wanting to live there permanently.

Notes: Boogaart has become known since the release of Bernband for the GIFs of his games that he posts to Twitter, and the wild, curious and unpredictable things they tend to depict. He’s currently working on multiple projects, including Bernband 2.

What else should I be playing if I like this: You might like to try Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, which takes place in a similarly bustling spaceplace, or Strangethink’s Secret Habitat, which is set in a gallery of odd paintings

Where can I play it: Game Jolt

Brogue

Brogue

‘Roguelikes in ASCII are ugly!’ Except that Brogue’s shimmering colours depict floating gases and flowing liquids and surprising caves with style. ‘Roguelikes in ASCII are inaccessible!’ Except that Brogue’s mouse-controls makes it a cinch to move around, allow you to hover over each item on screen and discover what it is, and to focus on moving forward towards the anecdotes that await you.

And that’s the best thing about Brogue: you can’t play it without coming away with a story to tell. Of a potion you slugged which cast you down into the depths. Of a frog who poisoned you and made you mistake a rat for a vampire. Of a monkey you saved, who became your ally, and then broke your heart. If you’re going to play one traditional roguelike, make it this one.

Notes: There’s an iOS release of Brogue created by a fan, which is allowed because the game is open source. It works well on iPad.

What else should I be playing if I like this: ZangbandTK is harder to get into but bigger and still brilliant.

Where can I play it: Official site

Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup is a visual novel set in America about queer Asian girls playing baseball. The lead character, Diya, is Indian-American, a high school student, and a lesbian growing to understand her feelings for her friend Min-seo. The rest of the cast is similarly inclusive, but what makes the game great is that it moves the characters beyond the labels attached to them, and depicts them as whole people.

That’s in part thanks to a thick streak of the relatably mundane which runs through the game: Diya is grappling with those feelings for Min-seo, but she’s also stressing about school, chatting about baseball, going to the mall, and rushing excitedly towards potential dogs. The game is mostly made up of conversations, taking place with friends around town or in IM conversations, but those conversations aren’t structured around currying favour or attaining a goal. Instead, they’re written with a light touch and a lot of humour. There’s a haziness to it that makes it easy to fall in love with the characters and their warmth towards one another after spending just 15 minutes with them.

Notes: Creator Brianna Lei is already working on a sequel to the game, which will pick up exactly where the first ends. We spoke to her about her plans for the game last year.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Doki Doki Literature Club, for a similarly modern indie take on visual novels, elsewhere on this list. Alternatively, Heaven Will Be Mine for another queer visual novel, only with mech pilots.

Where can I play it: Itch.io

Canabalt

Canabalt

You automatically run from left to right, which means Canabalt is controlled using only a single button. That button is used to make your sprinting character jump, and by pressing it at the right time you’ll leap between rooftops, leap through windows, leap on to destructive machinery, and live out the fantasy of a cinematic, science fictional escape sequence. Canabalt’s popularity on mobile has somewhat obscured what a clever, clean piece of design it is, and how fun.

Notes: Simple games are often the hardest to make, as boiling them down to their most satisfying form takes a lot of iteration. Creator Adam Saltsman has written about the particulars of Canabalt’s feel.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Robot Unicorn Attack is a less austere infinite runner, and places elsewhere on this list.

Where can I play it: The free browser version can be found on the Canabalt official site

Candy Box

Candy Box

Candy Box is a browser-based text game in which you farm candies. Part of what makes it great is the surprises that then happen along the way, so given that it’s free, runs in your browser, and can be played with minimal attention: go, go now, and stop reading.

If you’re still not convinced, then OK, fine, I’ll spoil some things. Every second you play, the number of candies you have ticks up. Gather a few of them together, and you can plant them in order to grow lollipops. Lollipops are more valuable. Sometimes a travelling salesman will turn up and you can buy things using your accrued sweets. And different items unlock still further ways to use your candies. The game is simple in the extreme, but it’s more than just charming or a silly novelty. What makes it exciting, and worth playing, is never completely knowing where the limits are. What seems initially like a simple idle game seems to switch genres four times over the course of two hours of play.

Notes: The creator of Candy Box never imagined it would be successful, and made it only as a tool for learning web design and programming.

What else should I be playing if I like this: A Dark Room is another browser game with incremental timed progression and a lot of surprises along the way. Spaceplan is also pretty slick.

Where can I play it: Official site

Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead

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 play it: Official site

Corrypt

Corrypt

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 play it: Official site

Desktop Dungeons

Desktop Dungeons

Desktop Dungeons is very, very clever. Desktop Dungeons is also very, very simple at first glance. A roguelike in which every level is a puzzle, and where survival is dependent on working out the correct order in which to approach its enemies.

It’s only when you play through level after level, death after death, that you begin to see the extreme precision of its design underneath the surface. Your hero’s health and mana are not simply meters to be emptied and filled, but resources from which every expenditure is an important choice. Make those choices unwisely and you’ll end up running out of either one, with no way to recharge and enemies left on the board to defeat. This same mechanic also makes levelling up more important, because not only does it make you stronger, it also restores your health, and at the right moment that might suddenly open the door to fighting something on a level that otherwise would have killed you. Everything requires tactical thought.

What I admire most about Desktop Dungeons is that no death is ever unexpected. The game will tell you that the decision you’re about to make is going to kill you, and you will therefore only choose that death if there are no other options. Or at least, no other options that you can see. Sometimes, though, there are ingenious methods by which to escape said death and figuring those out feels great.

Notes: There’s a paid-for remake of the game that’s worth playing if you like the free original. Among its many art updates are a range of female characters, and it goes to great lengths to depict them without resorting to gender stereotypes. That’s worth applauding and you can read about the design process here.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Brogue, elsewhere on this list, is a more traditional roguelike which is no less accessible.

Where can I play it: Official site

Desktop Tower Defence

Desktop Tower Defence

In the here and now of 2016, there is something a little glum about the phrase “tower defence.” It’s often a signal that a game that initially seemed exciting is actually nothing more than a treadmill of familiar mechanics.

Back in 2007, however, that wasn’t the case. Those mechanics weren’t familiar, and Desktop Tower Defense was the crystallization of something new and pure. A steady stream of enemies are about to start strolling from one part of the screen to another, and it’s your job to place down turrets to stop them. At the start of the game, it’s always easy: a few enemies which can be swiftly dispatched with some sloppily positioned turrets. But soon the number and strength of enemies increases until your haphazard architecture won’t cut it anymore. You’re forced to either more efficiently manage your upgrade curve – the method by which you unlock and build more powerful turrets – or to construct ever more elaborate and precise death mazes for your creeping foes to wander through.

Where so many real-time strategy games eventually decided to jettison the base-building stage entirely, Desktop Tower Defense found a way to make it tactically interesting and enormously engrossing.

Notes: Desktop Tower Defense was created by Paul Preece, who later co-founded game developer KIXEYE, creators of a short-lived MOBA called TOME, which was both launched and pulled from Steam within a year.

What else should I be playing if I like this: There are a thousand tower defence games, many of which are good, many of which are boring. Perhaps try Anomaly: Warzone Earth for an interesting twist on the formula.

Where can I play it: Armor Games, Kongregate

Digital: A Love Story

Digital: A Love Story

I hold no nostalgia for early ’90s bulletin boards, but as the delivery mechanism for Digital’s story, those blue-backgrounded email clients are wonderfully evocative. You connect via an old fashioned modem, crackly noises and all, and then browse messages to piece together the story. The interface is striking and does a good job of making you feel like a detective, but the game works as well as it does entirely because of Christine Love’s writing, which is natural and expressive and witty. A wonderfully told, gentle, and slightly sci-fi romance. To say anything more would tip into spoilers, but for a game so sweet, you can spare the 30 minutes it’ll take to play.

Notes: Though it looks like nothing else, Digital was made in Ren’py, a Python script library designed to help make visual novels. It’s a neat piece of software with a healthy community and strong tutorials if you want to try your hand at making similar games.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Christine Love has gone on to forge a career as an indie game creator, including a sort-of-sequel, Analogue: A Hate Story. Other than that, you might try Emily Is Away, a game told through early 2000s instant messaging.

Where can I play it: Official site

Doki Doki Literature Club

Doki Doki Literature Club

Doki Doki Literature Club follows the template of a thousand other visual novels: you’re a non-descript teenaged boy in a Japanese high school who decides to join a new after-school club. There in the literature club of the title, you meet four cute anime girls, and the (very occasional) choices you make amid reams of dialogue and description determine which of those girls grow to like you.

It’s sweet, and well-written as far as these things go, but also horribly cliché. If you like these kinds of games, stop reading now and go start playing. If you’re wondering why something supposedly so generic is appearing on this list however, I’ll quote just one extra line that appears at the start of the game.

“This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”

There is, needless to say, more to Doki Doki Literature Club than meets the eye. The content warning necessarily tips the game’s hand, but it also improves its early sections, when you might otherwise have given up. When whatever is going to happen eventually happens in the game – and to describe it at all would be to spoil the fun – Doki Doki turns from a standard genre pastiche into one of the best narrative games of the past few years. If you need even more convincing than that, and don’t mind spoilers for the entire game, then read one of our articles on the game.

Notes: The game was released for free, but there’s a “Fan Pack” available for £7 that includes a soundtrack, some making-of materials and other ephemera.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Butterfly Soup, also on this list, if you want a similarly modern indie visual novel, albeit one focused on comedy rather than… this.

Where can I play it: Steam

Dota 2

Once you’ve played your first thousand of hours of Dota 2, it really starts to click. It’s a bottomless rabbit hole about two teams of wizards attempting to destroy each other’s rock garden. An average match lasts about an hour, as you and four other wizard-clickers weave a path through hundreds of characters, items and spells.

Success hangs on a myriad of factors. You’ve got to think about positioning, teamwork, psychology, tempo. Every layer you peel back reveals another beneath it, a constant influx of considerations that frame the game in a whole new way. I’ve played Dota for nearly 4,000 hours. I could play it for 4,000 more, and I still wouldn’t understand it.

While other MOBAs offer a rotating pool of free heros and make you buy your faves, every Dota hero is completely free. It’s a refreshingly generous business model that reflects yet another part of the game’s appeal: restricting your options simply wouldn’t work when countering your opponent’s hero choices can be so crucial.

Dota defined a long phase of my (Matt’s) life, not least because of the people I met along the way. The journey towards mastery, or even competence, is laughably long. Rope along a friend or two, though, and it will be one of the most rewarding trips you’ll ever take.

Notes: Dota 2 is Valve’s successor to a WarCraft 3 mod called DotA Allstars, itself a variant of a custom scenario called Defense Of The Ancients (itself inspired by a StarCraft scenario called Aeon Of Strife). Valve hired one of DotA Allstars’ runners, known psuedonymously as IceFrog, to lead Dota 2’s development.

What else should I be playing if I like this: League Of Legends is Unreal to Dota 2’s Quake, also free-to-play, and you might enjoy its balance more. See also: about a half dozen other games which jumped into the genre and managed to survive. Alternatively, Dota Underlords is a free-to-play autobattler spin-off in the same setting and featuring the same characters.

Where can I play it: Steam

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

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

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 Dr. Langeskov’s development was led by The Stanley Parable’s William Pugh, while The Beginner’s Guide development was led by The Stanley Parable’s Davey Wreden.

What else should I be playing if I like this: The Beginner’s Guide, The Stanley Parable, The Static Speaks My Name.

Where can I play it: Get it on Itch.io or Steam

Duelyst

Duelyst is monster chess. Okay, there are cards involved too. But that makes it both monster chess and the best free-to-play card battler you can shake a mana crystal at. Two players stab each other across a 5 x 9 board, placing down minions and shuffling them about like horrible spikey meeples. There’s a lot of number-comparing (“oh no, that large lizard can hurt me more than my cycloptic blob can hurt him back”) but the mental meat of the game is in positioning your critters in such a way that you wear the enemy general down. You scrape away at their health turn after turn until you finally slit their final 2 points of throat with a summary swipe of your fancy fingernails.

Like most card games, the long-term fun is in building your decks of monsters and spells. So choose your flavour of cardy scum. The purple-haired Abyssians summon swarms of awful slithering bat-demons (my favourite). The scaly Magmar lay eggs and give birth to rapidly growing lizard geezers with scarily large biceps. The cool-skinned Vanar erect huge blocks of immovable ice to hem you into a corner, and then sometimes use a spell to bring these walls to life, essentially bestowing sharp teeth and invisible legs to a bunch of annoying ice cubes.

Duelyst is a tactical field of cracking pixel monsterfolk, and if you like the idea of a card game but find Hearthstone dull as an old brick, you might find some glee in the scuttling creeps and proud generals of this much better card ‘em up.

Notes: The developers of Duelyst are working on a game called Godfall, a third-person PvP and PvE action game, and hiring for it too. They ask for “Fans of: Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Nioh, Devil May Cry, and Ninja Gaiden.” Intriguing.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Faeria is another free-to-play card game played on a grid, but this time it’s hexy and you build the landscape as you fight. Gwent is a card game set in the Witcher universe where you fight in rows, but where bluffing is sometimes as important as position.

Where can I play it: Official site or Steam

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup

Some roguelikes contain everything but the kitchen sink. Others throw in the kitchen sink for good measure. Stone Soup is one of the best traditional roguelikes in existence but many of its strengths are due to the knowledge of its own limitations. Rather than including every possible thing, Stone Soup is a condensed dungeon crawl (although it’s an expanded Dungeon Crawl, the 1997 Linley’s Dungeon Crawl being the base on which it is built). It’s packed with things to see, do and be, but rarely becomes overwhelming. Balanced, user-friendly and beatable in a single lifetime, Stone Soup is one of the best starting points for anyone interested in exploring the roots of the genre that has cast its shadow over so many modern games, from Spelunky to FTL.

Notes: Linley Henzell, creator of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, the game on which Stone Soup is based, went on to create indie shmups. This interview covers his post-Crawl development habits.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Start with ADOM, TOME and Brogue, maybe.

Where can I play it: Official site

Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress

“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 – 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. There’s also a paid-for version coming to Steam later this year with a built-in tileset and a handful of other quality-of-life improvements.

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 play it: Official site

Ending

Ending

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 play it: Official site

Frog Fractions

Frog Fractions

Frog Fractions is a game disguised as a different game. There’s something exhilarating about interactive experiences that spill out of the borders of the frame, whether they’re simply breaking with genre traditions or communicating with the player in unexpected ways. Frog Fractions does both of those things simply by presenting one face and then shifting into new forms. It’s an edutainment game, that’s all you need to know. It’s an edutainment game, until it isn’t.

Notes: Following a successful Kickstarter for a sequel, it became tradition to assume every odd and unexpected game that came along might be Frog Fractions 2 in disguise. How else would it arrive, after all, but in the guise of another game? As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

What else should I be playing if I like this: A Dark Room and Candy Box grow out of their original form in fascinating ways.

Where can I play it: Official site

Gravity Bone

Gravity Bone

Gravity Bone seemed to land fully formed. It opens with you descending in an elevator, gazing through grating towards a colourful party scene. Distant biplanes are flying against the blue sky. The architecture is unusually yellow. Latin music is playing. There’s a card in your hand which, with simple instructions, gives you your mission. It seeds a feeling of adventure and mischief in mere seconds.

Everything that follows keeps up the wit and lightness of spirit. Gravity Bone is a story of espionage, assassination, double-crosses, thrilling chases, and it makes use of quick cuts and techniques borrowed from film in a way that’s still fresh now. Best of all, it’s funny. There’s no dialogue, but chasing a thief down the length of a long dining table while glasses explode underfoot is a physical and visual setpiece designed to make you chuckle.

I say that it seemed to land fully formed because, in reality, Gravity Bone is something like the fifth entry in the Citizen Abel series, each one of which is a Quake or Quake 2 mod. Brendon Chung learned his craft over years of practice, but you don’t need to have played any of the preceding mods to understand or appreciate Gravity Bone.

Notes: Brendon Chung also made space strategy roguelike Flotilla and zombie-smasher Atom Zombie Smasher, before returning to first-person with the similarly short Citizen Abel continuation Thirty Flights of Loving.

What else should I be playing if I like this: We just told you! Thirty Flights of Loving is worth picking up, but perhaps more so is Chung’s hack ‘n’ heist game, Quadrilateral Cowboy.

Where can I play it: Official site

Hexagon

Hexagon

Super Hexagon is the paid-for and better version of this game, no doubt, but the core pleasure of it is so simple that the free version is still brilliant if you’re hard-up for cash. You control a small triangle that you’re able to rotate around a central point, and by doing so you must squeeze through the gaps of a maze that’s constantly throbbing, dancing and contracting towards you. That’s it. It’s completely simple, but also perfectly formed. By offering quick restarts, and always feeling responsive to control, you’ll soon shift from only ever lasting a few seconds per life to skirting the edge of survival for minutes at a time. The maze will keep moving faster and faster towards you, but it’s never frustrating and always exhilarating. Play it.

Notes: Terry Cavanagh also made the slightly more expansive puzzle platformer VVVVVV. If you like the look, feel and sound of Super Hexagon, you’ll probably like that too – and there’s even a free version of it, which you’ll find elsewhere on this list.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Canabalt has a similarly frenetic, high-score-chasing sense of speed and simplicity, perfect for mobile or minutes skiving off work.

Where can I play it: Official site

Horse Master

Horse Master

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 play it: Official site

Murder Dog

Murder Dog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog

“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 play it: Game Jolt, Official site

My Father's Long Long Legs

My Father’s Long Long Legs

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 play it: Official site

N

N

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, N+ and N++, with better 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.

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, the original free Meat Boy is great, too.

Where can I play it: Official site

North

NORTH

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 play it: Itch.io, Steam

Off-Peak

Off-Peak

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.

Where can I play it: Game Jolt, Itch.io

Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe

Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe

Chris Sawyer created Transport Tycoon for MicroProse in 1994, and it was a wonderful management game full of the soothing charms of oil refineries, freight shipping and business simulation. Which sounds like a joke but isn’t: it was an amazing game and playing it could cause hours and days to vanish as if in an instant. If you sat down in 1994 to tweak some railway lines and looked up moments later to realise that 25 years have passed, fear not. Open Transport Tycoon is an attempt to remake that original game as closely as possible, but with a few additions which take advantage of all the technological progress of the intervening years. You’ll still be building a shipping empire, but on vast maps, and in multiplayer, and with a range of bug fixes and enormous improvements to AI over the original.

Best of all, OpenTTD comes with its own community-made art and sound packs, meaning it requires nothing from the original game. That’s what makes it completely free. There’s oodles to play with here, too. If the old maps don’t suffice, you can download the hundreds created by the community, many of which include new art assets, directly from the game’s interface itself. There are gigantic maps which let you slowly colonise Britain or Europe or North America with your own transport networks if you choose, as well as user-made tutorials that do a better job of explaining the game than anything official.

If you miss the management games of old and enjoy relaxing by making efficient vast systems with many moving parts, lose the next 25 years to OpenTTD.

Notes: Chris Sawyer created the original Transport Tycoon, before being distracted from making a sequel by production on RollerCoaster Tycoon. He eventually returned to trains and automobiles with Chris Sawyer’s Locomotion in 2004 and, in 2013, a mobile game called Transport Tycoon but which used art from Locomotion. Thanks, Wikipedia!

What else should I be playing if I like this: Big Pharma is a management game that has a similar activity in plotting routes and a similar challenge in maximising efficiency, but the routes you’re drawing are carrying and crafting pills, not freight.

Where can I play it: Official site

Path Of Exile

Path Of Exile is a gore-slick and intricate action RPG with a refreshingly antipodean setting and voice cast. While it may escalate into near-fractal complexity, it starts out as simply as any Diablo or Torchlight: you walk around, you bash monsters, you level and loot, and become an ever-more powerful bringer of death.

While some parts of the game are intimidating (the passive skill grid, while not as complex as it looks, is frightening at first glance), some of its ideas are elegant. Potions refill themselves when you deal damage. Hit monsters to earn HP and MP restoration, encouraging aggression and constant chugging. Your character’s abilities aren’t class based either, but bestowed by socketed gems which synergise with each other. A large damage-over-time projectile only gets better if you pair it with a gem that slows but amplifies a projectile’s power.

The early stages of the game are an almost absurd power trip, as the huge number of options available to you all turn you into a huge machine of death. If you want to survive the endgame however, you’ll need to make some careful choices regarding your character build – or just follow a guide you found online.

While a loot and levelling-heavy free-to-play game could be an exploitative mess, Grinding Gear Games have striven to keep the game’s business model ‘ethical’. The game is free. Every class, every dungeon, every piece of loot is earned by playing normally, with no shortcuts available. No boosters, no early unlocks. The only advantage that money can buy is additional cross-character storage space. Handy to have if you’ve been playing for months, but you won’t feel the need to expand until after beating the game at least once. Beyond that, you can buy fancy character skins (appealing, considering the improvised look of much of PoE’s armour), but it’s something to consider paying for after you’ve decided you like the game.

Notes: Of course, this is just PoE as it stands now. The game has more than tripled the length of its story since its first launch, and Grinding Gear release a new expansion every 13 weeks.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Diablo 3. It’s not free but Blizzard’s updates have altered or fixed most of the major issues it had back at launch.

Where can I play it: Official site and Steam

QWOP

QWOP & CLOP

I was working in an office in 2008 when QWOP was released and it turns out the game is a spectator sport. As players desperately tapped at Q, W, O and P to individually pump thighs and calves and try to propel their sprinter more than a few feet down the track, crowds would gather behind them to laugh, to jeer, to holler. Now there are dozens of games offering slapstick physics – Gang Beasts, Human Fall Flat, et al – but QWOP is still one of the few to elicit that response over and over. That’s because where other comparable ‘control the limb’ games are outwardly silly, there’s a semblance of dignity to your QWOP athlete. He wants to be upright. He wants to run. He’s just forgotten how to use his legs, is all.

CLOP is extremely similar, which is why we’ve cheekily paired them together here. You’re still using the four letters in the game’s name to pump legs, but now they’re the four legs of a unicorn trying to climb a gentle incline. It is a delight.

Notes: Foddy has made slapstick sports games his oeuvre, also releasing 2QWOP for competing against your friends, plus Pole Riders, Little Master Cricket, and now most famously, the paid-for Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Bennet Foddy’s GIRP, which casts you as a shirtless rock climber where G, I, R and P correspond to locations where your hands and feet can connect with the wall you’re climbing. Beware of the bird, whose attitude is succinctly described by his Twitter bio.

Where can I play it: Official site

Rat Chaos

Rat Chaos

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”.

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 play it: Play it on Yang’s site

Robot Unicorn Attack

Robot Unicorn Attack

Canabalt is the slicker, more polished infinite runner, but Robot Unicorn Attack has a robot unicorn, stars to collect, boulders to dash-attack, 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 play it: It was picked up by Adult Swim at some point, but the official page doesn’t seem to work anymore. Play it here instead.

Samorost

Samorost

Released in 2003, Samorost is a point-and-click adventure that forgoes many of the normal trappings of the genre. There are no dialogue trees, no inventory items, and you don’t directly control its main character. Instead you solve its puzzles by playfully clicking on scenery in order to discover the path forward, and the joy comes from the beauty, strangeness and gentle humour of that world. A world in which character’s inhabit planets built from tree roots, which can be travelled between by piloting soda can rocketships, and where progress might be achieved by getting a man stoned or by unfurling a proboscis into a tree’s mouth.

Samorost’s texture and pace is unusual, and it holds more in common with old, strange children’s fiction like the Moomins than it does the other games on this list. There have been two bigger, prettier sequels that you can buy, but the first Samorost game is still wonderful 12 years after its release, and you can play it for free in your browser right now.

Notes: Samorost was created by Jakub Dvorský, and among his other credits is the puppet design for the film Kooky.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Samorosts 2 and 3 obviously, but also Amanita Design’s other games, Machinarium and Botanicula. The former is a more traditional point-and-click adventure about a telescoping robot and the latter is a weird world of plants, seeds and dark spiders, with a soundtrack by Czech band Dva.

Where can I play it: Official site

Slave Of God

Slave Of God

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 play it: Official site

Space Funeral

Space Funeral

Before Undertale, there was Space Funeral. An absurdist waltz through the blood and smoke of a hazily remembered JRPG world, it stars the saddest boy in existence and Leg Horse, a horse that is all leg and no head. On your journey through WHATWHEREWHY, you’ll encounter muscle hedonists, criminals (they’re afraid of Bibles), blood blood blood, Dracula and a genie. Don’t look for a deeper meaning. If one jumps out at you that’s great but Space Funeral is maybe just weirdness for its own sake, and it’s funny enough to exist happily as a big blob of weird. Almost nine years after release, it’s still one of the oddest games you can download and the only reason it hasn’t been emulated by a million wannabe surrealists is that being this weird without losing the shape of things entirely takes a lot of skill. Nowhere is that skill better shown than in the game’s final moments.

Notes: Characters in thecatamites’ games are often defined by one trait, which might be a name, an aspect of their appearance or an animation. They’re brutally minimalised.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything else by thecatamites and then Undertale.

Where can I play it: Game Jolt

Space Station 13

Space Station 13

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.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Dwarf Fortress is one of the few games with a similar level of simulation of individual entities and objects. Barotrauma, currently in Steam Early Access, has a similar same mix of simulation and multiplayer shenanigans but in a fantasy-world deep sea submarine.

Where can I play it: Official site, where you’ll also find details about currently running servers.

Spaceplan

Spaceplan

“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’re 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.

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, A Dark Room or the paid-for version of Spaceplan on Steam.

Where can I play it: The creator’s website.

Spelunky

Spelunky

This list isn’t in order anymore, but Spelunky – Spelunky! Spelunky. Spelunky. Spelunky. Spelunky – was in the top spot when it was. If there was still a top spot to be had, it’d still be there now.

Spelunky isn’t just the best free game ever. It’s also probably, maybe definitely, the best game ever. And it’s not because of its procedural level generation, or the mixture of roguelike and platforming that spawned a genre of imitators, but because of the design of its items, traps and enemies. Spelunky is a tightly wound machine, precision-engineered to create moments of anticipation, drama and comedy.

Anticipation. You’re stood upon a ledge looking down at two spike traps, a caveman and a man-eating plant. You know that you should drop calmly atop a spike trap, jump on to the other, and then over and away from plant and man.

Drama. You make the leap and immediately overshoot it, missing the surface of the first spike trap and instead grabbing onto its side. You are moments away from being spiked to instant death.

Comedy. You leap away from the spike trap just in time, but in your panic dive directly into the mouth of the waiting plant. You are dead.

Or maybe you carry out this simple challenge perfectly but some levels later are floating towards an exit when you are defeated by an inanimate rock. It leaps up off a bounce pad and hits you on the head, knocking you unconscious. Before you can wake, it hits you again. And again. And again. You are dead.

Or maybe you get much further, gather the tools needed to reach the city of gold, and gently set down your just collected Scepter while you bomb through a wall. But the splash damage of the bombs propel the scepter backwards, over a ledge, and directly onto your head. You are dead.

Spelunky doesn’t have the brighter high definition art of its paid-for remake, Spelunky HD, nor its co-op or daily challenge modes. But it is still a masterclass of game design; a perfect loop of rules for creating infinite fun situations. And free!

Free. Free. Free. Free.

Notes: The free version of Spelunky was made in Game Maker, a game creation tool which is remarkably easy to get started with. Before that, creator Derek Yu was the artist on underwater puzzle adventure Aquaria, and made the default tileset for the free release of Desktop Dungeons, elsewhere on this list.

What else should I be playing if I like this: As always, the paid-for release. Dungeons of Dredmor, for a similarly accessible take on old roguelike formulas. Or Binding of Isaac, for something as deep and as rewarding.

Where can I play it: Official site

Super Crate Box

Super Crate Box

Vlambeer are known today for Nuclear Throne. And Luftrausers. And Ridiculous Fishing. But before they became the reigning kings of “game feel”, they proved their skill by releasing Super Crate Box, a free, single-screen shooter. It has two rules: one, enemies flow along platforms from top to bottom, and if they fall into the firepit at the end, they re-appear at the top in faster, angrier form; two, you score points by collecting the crates that drop at regular intervals, but each crate also randomly replaces your weapon.

These two rules, when combined, create a game which is frantic but tactical. You’ll be battling to keep the crowd under control, but while one moment your melee weapon will require you to get close, the next you’ll have a rocket launcher and be trying to keep out of the blast zone. It’s an exhilarating score attack game – and yes, it feels great.

Notes: Vlambeer were founded to create commercial games, but Super Crate Box was released for free to help the two-person studio create a brand and grab attention. It worked.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Nuclear Throne takes everything Vlambeer know about gun feel and applies it to a top-down shooter. It costs money but it is also Quite Good.

Where can I play it: Steam, Official site

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 was released 12 years ago, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. For starters, its cartoon art style is as impressive now as it was at the time. Polygon counts don’t matter when we’re talking about colour choice, animation, or how much personality is expressed through character design. There have obviously been other cartoon-like games in the years since, but none do as good job of communicating through design as TF2. Example: you can tell what kind of character class the Heavy is just to look at him.

Beyond the art, the game feels modern because it re-made the formula for online shooters in its own image. TF2 turned the drip-feed of new levels and weapons – familiar if you were a Counter-Strike player already – into a part of the game’s entertainment. Patch notes were accompanied by blog posts filled with jokes; new modes came with in-game develpoer commentary; every major update and character got not a trailer, but a finely scripted and animated short film. MMOs were already doing the games-as-a-service thing, but none with so much craft and care.

Those updates have dried up now, as Valve’s focus has moved onto other things (some of which also feature in this list), but thankfully Team Fortress 2 remains great fun to play. Its initial strength was in making explicit through design the natural dynamics that would happen on multiplayer servers. In-game taunts and rivalries took text-based smack talk and made it a part of the fiction. The ability for Medics to ubercharge comrades was the perfect antidote to chokepoint-based stalemates. Spies could have the fantasy of sneaking around the bowel’s of an enemy base, while Scouts and Soldiers basically played Quake.

The neatness of this design has been lost to updates which added new abilities, effectively creating sub-classes for each of the nine characters, and at the same time making it harder to read what’s happening moment-to moment when you don’t understand what weapon your opponent is using. But what it has lost in neatness, it’s gained in variety, and I wouldn’t give up my Sniper’s bow and arrow for any perceived purity.

As for its free-to-play trappings: its mostly hats, which I’ve never spent a penny on. You can also unlock crates for a chance at getting new weapons, but they’re also craftable if you don’t want to spend anything.

Notes: Team Fortress was a Quake 1 mod and Valve hired its creators to re-make the mod for Half-Life 1. That became Team Fortress Classic. Team Fortress 2 was started and scrapped multiple times before it was released as part of the Orange Box, alongside Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Overwatch takes a lot of Team Fortress 2’s ideas and carries them forward. It also leaves certain ideas behind, like the ability to throw jars of piss at people, so you can decide where your interests lie.

Where can I play it: Steam

The Grow Series

The Grow Series

The Grow games are one of the proudest relics in the enormous, mixed bag of Flash gaming. In each, the title of the game 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 seventeen years, though releases have been more sparse recently. This is partly because the Japanese developer had been experiencing health problems and underwent heart surgery in July 2019.

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

Where can I play it: Official site

UnReal World

UnReal World

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-seven years old, the game still receives updates. More than 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 developer Maaranen accepts donations to support development. In 2016, however the game was made available through Steam with a $11/£8 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 play it: Official site

VVVVVV

VVVVVV: Make and Play Edition

VVVVVV is a superbly designed puzzle platformer in which you navigate its rooms not by jumping, but by flipping your smiling protagonist beteen floors and ceilings. From this it finds a dozen different ways to challenge you, either using selective screenwrap for fiendish navigation puzzles, introducing objects that forcibly reverse your orientation for you, or by offering dastardly reflex puzzles as in the famed Veni, Vidi, Vici series of rooms. That it’s also a funny game, full of heart, and with a great soundtrack, makes it a classic of the genre.

This Make And Play edition meanwhile is the icing on the cake. After moving the original game to a new engine, Cavanagh and collaborators added a level design tool to the game so that users could create their own. It was released alongside a number of levels made by popular indie game devs, including Minecraft’s Notch, and then later made available for free. That means you can now play any custom made levels without having to buy the original game; though you should probably still do that, too.

Notes: Terry Cavanagh also made the even simpler, more challenging Super Hexagon. If you like the look, feel and sound of VVVVVV, you’ll probably like that too – and there’s even a free prototype for it, which you’ll find elsewhere on this list.

What else should I be playing if I like this: The decision to add a level editor and release it for free was partly inspired by Knytt, a platform game with a sombre atmosphere and no enemies.

Where can I play it: Official site

Warframe

Warframe

And the award for most improved free-to-play game goes to Warframe. In fact, ‘improved’ does Digital Extremes’ space ninja looter-shooter a great disservice; it’s almost unrecognisable from what launched in 2013. What was once a handful of level tilesets to endlessly grind through is now a proper solar system, featuring two vast open world areas, a Gundam-like suit for dogfighting missions, a hoverboard (swapping resource grinding for handrail grinding), a series of AI companions (ranging from a mini-Metal Gear to a full-on space wolf) and a roster of 66 Warframes to learn and master. It makes Destiny look like a tiddler.

Everything can be earned for free, but it requires patience and regular consulting of a Warframe wiki to parse the baffling din of terminology and options available from the start. The game has a new player problem and is in the midst of fixing it with a rework of the story’s opening, including a new cinematic intro and revamped tutorials. But once you cut through the noise and find the basic throughline you’ll amass weapons and suits and lose yourself in a deep modding system. And the game has added so many story quests and new locations that it’s going to take over a hundred hours before you really begin to hit serious grind. Any by that point DE will have probably added a whole lot more.

More than anything, Warframe is a great advert for itself. Every level you’re surrounded with co-op partners doing seemingly impossible space magics with their alien frames; it’s a tantalizing glimpse of your potential future, and, as long as you resist the siren call of a Platinum currency purchase, all the inspiration you need to put your head down and grind your way through the shopping list of required ingredients. And with the upcoming Empyrean update set to add spaceships, multi-squad co-op and a Shadow of Morder-ish nemesis system, that to do list is only going to grow.

Notes: Warframe’s online space ninja world was the original pitch for Dark Sector, which eventually manifested itself as 2008’s middling third-person action game. It did give you the glaive from Krull as a weapon, mind, so wasn’t all bad.

What else should I be playing if I like this: For free? Eesh. There’s not a lot out there. In terms of vibe, there’s a bit of Destiny in the mix, but Warframe is much deeper.

Where can I play it: Official site or Steam.

World Of Tanks

World Of Tanks

I played World Of Tanks for the first time out of professional curiosity, expecting to find it too grognard-y, too clunky, too free-to-play. Instead I was hooked pretty much immediately, because it scratched a Counter-Strike-shaped itch on my back. In each WoT round, small teams of players, each controlling their own tank, rush out from their starting positions to do battle across mid-sized maps that alternate open areas and claustrophobic chokepoints. The tactics required are all about positioning: how do you get an angle on an enemy without exposing the vulnerable side of the angry house you’re driving? Can you position yourself on that elevated ridge such that your artillery tank can hit its target, without simultaneously exposing yourself to a half dozen enemies rolling around below?

Those artillery tanks are a particular favourite, because they’re basically snipers – snipers with the ability to view their targets from a magical top-down perspective. This feels like it should be ridiculously overpowered, but you’re still burdened by both needing line of sight, and having to lead your shots to account for the long travel time on each shell fired.

I played World Of Tanks for a merry twenty hours and never spent a penny, which is why I’ve included it here. There are definitely high level tanks which will take a huge grind to unlock unless you spring for them with real money, but the last time I played, that wasn’t an obstacle to having fun or to destroying a few enemies.

Notes: World Of Tanks was a big enough success that it took Wargaming.net, a developer of relatively minor real-time and turn-based strategy games like Massive Assault, and turned them into a free-to-play juggernaut.

What else should I be playing if I like this: World Of Warplanes and World Of Warships, presumably, which trade the tanks for planes and warships respectively, within much the same round structure and progression systems. Tanks are better than planes and boats though.

Where can I play it: Official site

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