Standards for gaming are growing exponentially. We’re past the level of graphics that are as good as reality. We’re past the point where plots, humor, and characterization can only be “as good” as movies, as demonstrated with games like Portal 2, Bioshock 1 & 2, Team Fortress 2, and Skyrim. But there’s still a lot out there for people with simple tastes. Games that don’t feel the need to quote philosophers to make you think, that don’t need elaborately composed and animated monsters to make you afraid, and other extravagances to engage the mind, heart, guts, and fingers. Best of all, most of these games are totally free!
A platform game where you are a tiny black, vaguely-defined thing that might have horns or fox ears. But before that, you’re shown a screen that asks you if you are male or female, and either way, the narration makes you female. This is a hint of the thing that makes the game distinct: the narrator is trying to control you, not help you. If you follow the instructions through the game, the world stays well-defined, but dark and scary. If you disobey, it becomes more colorful and pleasant, but also increasingly dreamy and vague. Considering the title, it’s one of the few fun games that makes a point in a way that respects your intelligence.
9. Achievement Unlocked
This is essentially a huge satire of the putting-“achievements”-into-games trend. It still doesn’t let that get in the way of enjoying it if you have a sense of humor. It’s a one-screen platform game where all the achievements come from exploring the screen in various ways, including by killing your character. One of those achievements (#99) is called “Too Much Free Time.”
8. The Majesty of Colors
A game inspired by the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, but without any of the pessimism or misanthropy. You play a monster stuck off the coast of a town who has a strong emotional reaction to, of all things, seeing a drifting helium balloon. The game then has several things happen around you and, depending on your ability to cope, has the humans react. There are some nice bits of humor, some good title screens to read, and the whole thing invites ambiguous behavior. The game received numerous good reviews and has been called “an electronic poem,” which was meant as a compliment.
7. Air Pressure
This game is superficially shallow and generic, but it has a nasty shock that again makes a point. It appears, at first, to be a sepia-toned dating sim, i.e. a game where still images of backgrounds feature a single character that looks at you and talks to you while you click on options to say and relate to that character. But here, if you are lovey-dovey with your “girlfriend” character, things…don’t go well for you. The game is meant to be a metaphor for self-destructive habits. It works as well as it does because it presents them in the right light: whatever bad thing you’re doing to yourself, subjectively, on some level, it feels really good. So much so that you kind of want to ignore the ways it’s wrong and just indulge it.
6. The Company of Myself
This is a platform game mocking the tendency to ignore other people’s contributions in the interest of self-aggrandizing. The game involves the use of clones of your character, which are featureless silhouettes, to clear small, short levels while you leap to the end point. Sometimes. Again, there’s a level with a nasty twist at the end.
5. Scale of the Universe 2
A nice little educational game. A cursor is at the bottom of the screen; moving it left zooms the camera in to see smaller and smaller things, while zooming it out reveals larger and larger things. Everything is thus able to be kept to scale. Without getting pretentious, it offers a neat perspective on the smallest known things in the universe, a sense of the largest things, and how things relate in-between. Also, if you click on the objects, you get explanations for what they are, some of which are pretty amusing.
4. One Chance
This is perhaps the saddest game ever made (certainly the saddest in 8-bit) but it manages to not overwhelm you through brevity and minimalism. The player, “John” works for a research facility that has created a cure for cancer (which, a la I Am Legend, has turned into a superplague.) John has the option of sticking with it in the face of worsening odds, or doing literally anything else. Even the happiest endings aren’t that happy, and it is all presented with refreshingly little melodrama.
Now this is easily the most polarizing on the list, but for the people it works on, it’s unbelievably well-done for a game that its creator claims he made alone in two days. The first thing that happens is your character is locked in a stairwell for reasons unknown. The stairwell is dirty and so dark that only the immediate area around you and your lamp is illuminated. All you can do is go down the staircase. And down and down and down, with just enough sudden moments and sounds to keep the tension slowly ratcheting up. Some might find the thing you’ll eventually run into a letdown, but others will be too scared to look at the screen.
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2. Angry Birds
Proving that people must really love destructive parabolas, Angry Birds continues to go strong, and is the most downloaded mobile game for over two years. You know the drill: you fire birds at stacks of pigs on hills or in structures trying to kill them through falling over or having things fall on them. On March 22, you can look forward to the release of a new game with levels with new complicating factors such as “zero gravity.” Hopefully this will not betray the rich themes that have been developed so far.
Quite possibly the best reviewed game of 2010, and easily the one that did the most with the least. The character is a young kid in a black-and-white world of many objects both mundane and horrifying, with only the player’s wits to guide him past numerous puzzles and difficult obstacles. There is almost nothing to guide you, nothing said, almost no music, no faces, and very few characters (the ones that do show up are mainly trying to kill you.) But for all that, the game doesn’t try to shove any artiness down your throat, and is content to challenge you to get through it.
Written By Dustin Koski