Gaming is a large part of our lives, but sometimes, we get tired of the hype and the spectacle, the sneakily-crafted ‘in-game footage’ and the outright lies. We yearn for something simpler and more humble, yet just as engrossing. It’s at times like this that we are reminded of the great developers that (sometimes single-handedly) produce games that are better overall experiences than most AAA titles out there, anyway. Come with us on a journey of discovery, excitement and MASSIVE SPOILERS, as we take a look at a handful of them. In fact, the spoilers are so massive that they’ve been censored, just in case you wanted to go off and play them first. Which you should. Because they’re fuck-awesome.
[TRIGGER WARNING] SERIOUSLY ENORMOUS FUCKING SPOILERS
A Small Talk at the Back of Beyond
It must be hard to keep the attention-span of most gamers, these days. It sometimes seems to take a constant stream of loot acquisitions, level-up dings and killstreak announcements just to keep them from looking away from the screen and going back to their primary school homework. Indie games don’t have the massive resources available that AAA companies do, obviously, so they have to go guerrilla on the whole thing.
Suspense, mystery and intrigue have to be the order of the day, and it’s something that A Small Talk at the Back of Beyond excels at. The title may make it sound like a dreary Russian post-war novella or a Neutral Milk Hotel album, but ASTATBOB lacks any pretension at all, really. Your character wakes up in what looks like some kind of futuristic cell, and is informed via a text-box by a chatty A.I that there’s been something of an accident. A war has wiped out most of humanity, and you’re in a bunker way underground because it’s getting kind of nasty up there, and you’d better settle in for the long haul. Something about this seems kind of fishy to you, no matter how much the A.I tries to assuage your fears, and it doesn’t take long to get the truth out of the stubborn compu-tosser. No, you’re actually in an ailing spaceship, gliding inexorably towards the sun. There’s an escape pod, and you’re welcome to take it, for all the good it will do you, but…here’s the kicker. The A.I is kind of lonely, and doesn’t want to die alone.
Moral choices in games usually suck, but there is something so special about this one. It’s highly likely you’re going to die anyway, and the A.I is so wonderfully responsive that it seems more genuinely human than anyone on Omegle. The main attraction of the game is chatting with the on-board A.I, and there are moments when it hardly seems to matter that it’s just a computer program. It really blurs the lines between human and machine, and there’s a deep and terrible betrayal to hopping in that escape pod. In the end though, no matter what option you choose, it’s both heart-breaking and bittersweet at the same time.
There are plenty of games out there that put us in the unbelievably squeaky-clean combat boots of the US military, but though some have learned to deal with the horrors of warfare in a fair and mature fashion, most of them still amount to little more than a morbid Arab-themed blastfest, wherein the player has to push aside their better judgement for long enough to earn that x10 killstreak. For some pretty obvious reasons, these games never deal with the knock-on effects of warfare in the public consciousness, which is where unmanned comes in.
Set around the daily life of an American military officer, unmanned gives itself the less-than-envious task of capturing the essence of life as a soldier, as a whole. Due to this, you’ll find yourself taking over the protagonist’s life as he smokes mournful cigarettes in the desert, ham-fistedly deals with his son’s attention-deficit problem and tries piteously to chat up his female co-worker while keeping one eye on the drone-cam. It does a great job of portraying the fact that when all the glamour of American media power-fantasies are torn apart, the military is made up of fuck-ups like the rest of us. They’re not trying to secure the world for freedom and democracy, they’re sitting in unpleasantly-hot countries, smoking endless cheap cigarettes and playing cards until midnight.
There’s a pervasive feeling of hopelessness in unmanned, and it’s a feeling that just doesn’t let up. The game deliberately splits the gameplay between action on the right, and dialogue on the left, meaning that it’s often a choice between whether or not you do your job, or decide to indulge in more human affairs. It plays out fantastically, and often means making a difficult decision between explaining to your son why the military isn’t like it is in his modern warfare video games or impressing him by beating his high score. Each scene offers the opportunity of gaining different medals depending on what actions you prioritise as a player, but the real beauty of the game is in the fact that earning medals seems like the very last thing that we should be doing.
It’s a novel little game, and it really made us think about the overpoweringly-positive media presence that the military gets in our society.
by Awkward Silence Games
There are very few videogames which actually prioritise mortality, which is funny really, considering how huge a part death always plays in them. It’s hard to think of any game where death isn’t the punishment for an ill-timed jump, a poorly-executed strafe or in the case of Sierra adventure games, having the audacity to cross a street. But it’s never all that final, is it? You respawn, having lost one of many such lives, or you jab F9 and rethink your previous shitty strategies. It’s not like death is the end. Right?
One Chance gives you just that. Your character, Doctor Pilgrim, is the very epitome of Freeman-esque non-descript, and it seems as though you’re working with a team that has managed to cure cancer, no doubt aided by the obscene wealth raised by those endless bake sales and fun runs. However, you’re also told that every living thing on the planet Earth is going to be dead in a matter of days, so it really is swings and roundabouts in the stressful field of medical research.
It probably goes without saying, but it’s all your fault. That’s what you get for trying to cure the world’s most enigmatic and deadly illness, and in those few days you have left, you are given some clear choices. Are you going to work on fixing the world, ignoring your family and the temptations of less-determined female co-workers? Are you going to resign yourself and the rest of planet to its end, and get some quality time with the missus and little Molly? Or are you going to shrug it all off, and fuck off for a couple of wild nights with Julie from Hematology? The choice really is yours. And what makes One Chance really shine is that there’s no judgement going on here. If you refuse to try and fix your mistakes, there’s no grizzled, experienced pastor to give you a talking to and set you on the right path, because there isn’t a right path, and besides, the best critic of a moral action is the self. Other characters respond differently to the crisis, too, and the game uses them to tug effortlessly at the heart-strings of the player (not to mention anyone watching them). When your scant days are up, just to rub it all in, there is no replay option. You’re left to ruminate on the things you could have done, or should have done.
It’s chilling as fuck, and it’s a damn sight more intriguing than “respawn in 5…4….3…”
by Evan Miller (MadPixelAnte)
One of the things that gaming excels at (and also manages to waste on the grandest scale imaginable) is perspective. Unlike other forms of media, which can show you alien worlds and describe the most alien concepts, only games really allow you to delve into them. This is usually squandered; urging the player to forget all that imagination shit and take on the role of LT. Burlyfuck MacRoidrage, a cloned super-soldier whose only flaw is that he can only carry two weapons at a time. When done right, however, we’re given titles like Immortall. A fair enough trade-off, in my view.
The premise seems nice and simple. A crash-landed canister from a planet unknown, and out pops a squidgy little alien bastard, who you are given to control. Slither away from the canister and a girl finds you, picking you up and showing you to her brother. After giving you an apple to eat, kick-starting your growth into a bipedal, monocular Miyazaki poster-creature, they take you home to their folks, who are initially scared but end up feeding you too. Because you’re basically innocent, and kind of cute for a cyclopean shadow-thing that just crawled out of an interstellar tube.
As you wander, your new adopted family in tow, you get a vision of this new world as it changes around you. A peaceful, serene orchard and primitive house gives rise to a barbed-wire warzone, the skies blackening with the terrifying vision of fighter planes filling the sky. As you progress, soldiers and tanks assail you and your new family from all directions, leaving you with a stark decision. Do you shield them from harm, using your body to absorb the hail of bullets and cannon-fire, or watch them die around you? It’s a hell of a decision, especially when you take into account that the player character has no idea what is going on. As the attacks continue, its movements become sluggish and erratic, and as if that weren’t enough, the ending really hammers home the meaning of immortality, while making us ashamed to be human beings.
Made all the more harrowing by the knowledge that for an alternate ending you can just hop back into your spaceship and blast the fuck away from Earth as soon as you’re fully grown.
by Jordan Magnuson
It’s pretty hard to talk about Freedom Bridge without getting pretty pretentious about it, so I apologise in advance if I happen to let certain phrases slip, like: “poetic activism” or “real-world political narrative”. That said, Freedom Bridge is a fine exercise in poetic activism, and a great example of a real-world political narrative. In simple terms, while games like Immortall can use immersion to tell a harrowing fictional story, games like Freedom Bridge can tell a harrowing non-fictional one, and use a gamer’s perspective to explain things like the Imjingak bridge, which cross the the Imjin river that spans the disputed territories of North and South Korea.The gameplay is so simple that it’s been labelled a non-game by most. You’re a block. You move that block to the right. And that’s it. The trick, of course, is one of representation. Move to the right, through the first tangled mess of MSPaint barbs, and you’ll find that the block slows down slightly with the effort. The block starts to bleed, tiny drips of red leaking out of the block as it stumbles toward the next, somehow more chilling barbed wire encounter. Alarm bells start to ring in the mind of the player when the bleeding starts, and by the end, it’s clear that no matter what it looks like, we’re not talking about blocks and obstacles any more.
This makes it a lot harder to march the block off to its eventual death in attempting to cross the titular Freedom Bridge. Sure, it’s not fully humanised, but it takes a heart of stone to ignore the obvious message here. The block gets slower, the trail of blood grows more dense, and the game becomes a lot less intriguing, and a lot more personal. The ending is quick, followed by a poignant message that brings together all the set-pieces of the narrative into coherence, and it’s with this complete outlook that the player fully realises the scope of the whole thing. Hard-hitting stuff.
(I fell in love with) The Majesty of Colors
by Gregory Weir
It’s a weird one, this, but it certainly gets extra points for being the only game I can think of where you play as a hyper-evolved squamous nightmare from the deep. The game starts out innocently enough. You play as the aforementioned horror from the depths, and you’re given control of one spindly tentacle, which, in your innocence, you use to catch a balloon that floats by, presumably close to your underwater lair. That’s when things seem to get tricky. Your creature has never seen colours before, and as the title of the game suggests, has grown quite fond of them. The trouble begins soon after, and it becomes clear that for better or worse, this creature is now inextricably invested in the human world now, part of it in a way that it probably hadn’t accounted for when it decided to pluck a balloon from the sky. Especially when the angry submarines show up.
It’s another game that places importance on moral choices, but also on the moral understanding of the protagonist. Like Immortall above, the protagonist is not human, and does not see the world through human eyes, but it is up to the player to decide whether the creature is one born of malevolence, slinging torpedoes back at the frail human machines of war, or a purely innocent creature who wishes only to help humanity out. Despite the shortness of the game, the things you do have an impact on the ending you get, which is certainly something that AAA titles could take to heart. (IFILW)TMOC is a quick, poignant tale about social interaction, and the consequences that build up around even the more minor things we do, and how they can snowball out of control.
Like many of the other examples on this list, the interactions that we can make are limited, but each one feels like it has actual weight behind it, and it’s certainly something you’ll be playing through to get all the endings.
by Intuition Games
The set-up of Gray is about as simple as it gets, and that’s what makes it so powerful. You’re stuck in the middle of a riot, white figures streaming across the screen to the accompaniment of a constant siren. Your task, as the only black figure, is to persuade the white horde to your side of the fence. If this is starting to sound like a ham-fisted race-war metaphor to you, then you’re hardly alone. Persuasion is done pretty simply. You just have to time your ‘speech’ to coincide with theirs, and if done properly, then their pasty white pallor will be replaced with a solid black definition.
Of course, there are only so many of them, and eventually, after quite some effort, you’ll get them all. They’ll all agree with you, and instead of pushing against the ranks of the ignorant, they ranks of the enlightened stand by your side! That is, until your colour begins to flash, and finally settles on white. Again, the entire crowd is against you, and you have to persuade them back to the original colour, and now for the sole reason of making them agree with you.
It’s simple and it’s endless, but it’s just so very on-the-nose. Political bias is never nuanced, always black and white, and the masses (ie. us) are always being convinced toward one extreme or the other. Gray not only manages to make a mockery of the player, keeping them running on an endless, horrible treadmill of pointless back and forth, but makes a pretty good job of mocking government, belief systems and most major facets of modern civilisation based up around the idea of black-and-white thinking. There’s no endearment here, either. It’s a straight-up, in-your-face pisstake of a game, but it at least has the decency of not sugar-coating the message it puts out.
American Dream is a neat little simulation about the titular myth of fame, fortune and success in the New World, which we imagine is somewhere just west of Pembrokeshire. It takes the form of a neat and quirky little 80’s stockbroker simulation, where one plays the markets, investing in several 80’s personalities from Mr. T to Michael Jackson, buying low, selling high, and keeping your pad furnished with the most fashionable gear. All with the ultimate goal of becoming a millionaire. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a straightforward satire on the futility of the American Dream, and that no matter how much you earned, you’d always be stuck in a consumerist cycle of spending that keeps you eternally poor. However, that’s really not the case. You can become a millionaire, and it’s rather easy to do. You can keep your swanky apartment looking swanky, and still have enough money to buy all the cocaine and parachute pants you’ll need to keep the 80’s party going.
The message of the piece isn’t the reason that this game made the list at all. It’s here because it’s so very addictive, despite its simplicity. There’s a curiously-moreish quality to playing the markets, getting insider tips from total strangers at a drug-fuelled soiree and blowing all your hard-earned money on newer consumer goods. Perhaps that IS the message. That the allure and glamour of the lifestyle is what keeps people burdened by it, but there is very little judgment going on. It’s just so gleeful, the way that you throw out all your old stuff because the new catalogue says it’s rubbish now that panelled wood is in fashion, and we at least felt a little pang of sadness when we did actually become millionaires, because the ride was over, and we’d won, and we were just getting used to being rich and getting richer. Maybe we’re just shitty people.
Today I Die
By Daniel Benmergui
Forget Depression Quest. For anyone who’s ever actually been depressed, or has had to help a loved one through it, there’s very little merit in constantly reinforcing the finer points of just how shitty everything is for them, and how very difficult simple tasks can appear to be. It’s all about the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope that one day it’s going to be better and despite the rather hopeless (at least, at first glance) title, Today I Die is a videogame experience that does a lot more than explain in pandering terms why it’s okay that you can’t do anything right, because you’re special. It’s a game about change for the better.
The game itself is simple enough, but has stunning impact. You take control of a pained, drowning protagonist, surrounded by ghosts, and though you have the option of changing her perspective, the only other options are just as bad, and just as painful. However, the game is not just about the changing of the player’s (and therefore the character’s) perspectives, but the opportunities that brings. Even a little bit of positivity can bring light to dark places, and that in turn can change the entire world around her.
It’s heart-warming, really, changing the world, piece by piece, into something less despairing, and defying the shadows and ghosts that plague her. The ending isn’t exactly going to blow anyone’s mind, and is pretty predictable as far as they go, but the essence of Today I Die lies in the pure simplicity of it. Making things better is not something that is very often done in video games. They’ve recently come to pride themselves on being gritty and dark and edgy, and there’s something supremely enjoyable in taking part in an actually happy story, even if it is only for a few minutes.
Because you weren’t planning on sleeping any time soon, there’s Covetous. Nominally a game about “the right to exist”, it’s one of those short, angry games that puts the message up front for all to see, and lets the rest kind of take care of itself. You start off as a tiny blob, nothing more than a flashing pixel residing in an otherwise happy body, but a pixel given another start at life. What follows is less an epic quest or a heart-warming tale, but a dischordant and bitter look at the human condition.As you play, swallowing up healthier-looking pixels, the mass you control grows and grows, flashes of text giving you a pretty good idea of what’s going on, even as you leave marks and tumours on the once-happy body you inhabited. It gets worse. Much worse. OH GOD, so much worse. The mass you control grows, getting more powerful, and more bitter, and it’s not just about another chance at life any longer, but the chance to end one, too. The ending is left to the player, but either of them will become the fuel for at least a week’s worth of nightmares.
The point here is not just one of meaning, or even just of scaring the player, but bringing those two elements together. Even after the player realises what is going on, it doesn’t end. The flashes of text (and therefore context) the player is given become darker, the form of the ‘protagonist’ becomes more ferocious and the music finally gives way to a loud and angry pulse, but we kept playing, no matter how disgusted we were. We’d become strangely complicit in something sick, and there aren’t many modern games that can pull that off. In fact, we can’t think of a single horror game that made us feel so wretched, because we’ve never been an accomplice to the darkness before, always being the one to defy it. It’s quite liberating, in a depressing sort of way.
Agree? Disagree? Are we stupid? Do we need a slap? Tell us below!
After flying into a jealous rage after playing Custer’s Revenge, WASDuk writer Arkworthy decided to market his own indie smash-hit title that would live throughout the ages as a cult classic. Not even claiming a basic knowledge of the programming skills required to do so, he instead ended up serving a 12-month suspended sentence for fraud, trying to flog pirate copies of Carmageddon at a jumble sale in Walthamstowe. He maintains to this day that the game was ‘his idea’.