There might be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is certainly such a thing as free lunchtime entertainment. Over the following pages you'll find a list of the best free indie games on PC – from 20-minute diversions to weekend-consuming, endlessly-expanded strategy epics.
All of the games on this list are free in their entirety. That means no microtransaction-supported free-toplay games and no shareware. We've also excluded 'pay what you want' games on the basis that developers who give you the ability to chip-in would probably like you to consider doing that. That said, there are always exceptions and you'll find games on this list that sit in a grey area – normally where there's a substantial free version with the option of also buying an upgraded paid edition. In these cases, we've gone with our hearts. Which is to say that we argued about it for hours.
Once we'd assembled our longlist we all voted for the games we liked the most and tallied up the scores to produce the top 50. The top games are the ones that have had the biggest impact on us, but that doesn't mean you won't find gems further down the list.
Developer: NASA | Link: www.bit.ly/mbaseg
Tom: Staying alive on the moon is a logistical nightmare, as Moonbase Alpha's publishers, NASA, know only too well. As an astronaut founding the first lunar structure, you and up to five friends must deal with the aftermath of a meteor strike that's knocked out millions of dollars worth of sensitive space kit. A perfectly good reason to ride around in a fancy lunar bus, build your own repair robots and utilise the low gravity to perform huge, slow-motion chest bumps when things go right. You're timed, and awarded points based on the efficiency of your repairs, so good teamwork is essential if you're after good leaderboard standing.
Developer: RobotAcid | Link: www.bit.ly/14NfIAz
Chris: You move a single icon in on an grid, solving tile-based combat challenges to progress to the next stage. What makes Ending stand out from innumerable other puzzle games is its randomly-generated roguelike mode, where you explore a dungeon that works on the same principle.
Developer: Enormous Elk | Link: www.unrealworld.fi
Graham: Roguelikes are traditionally about delving into mysterious dungeons in search of treasure. You can play UnReal World that way, or you can play it as a realistic hermit-simulator. It's set in ancient Finland, so you're as likely to die of cold and starvation as from attacking enemies. So fish, hunt, and practise your hideworking, and hope you can survive the long winter.
Developer: Dukope | Link: www.dukope.com
Chris: You're the editor of a newspaper in a totalitarian state. Each day you must choose which stories to run and how much space to give them, impacting your paper's popularity and the government's approval with the general populace. Smart, cynical, and there's a great twist near the end.
Developer: TheCatamites | Link: www.bit.ly/spacefuneral
Phil: You can learn a lot about this game from its opening menu, which takes the obvious RPG Maker buttons – New, Load and Quit – and replaces them with the less comfortingly familiar 'BLOOD', 'BLOOD', and 'BLOOD'. You play Phillip, a depressed boy, who, with the help of his trusty Leg Horse (a pile of severed limbs), cries his way through a thoroughly caustic and deliberately unpleasant JRPG pastiche.
Developer: Something Awful | Link: www.bit.ly/station13
Tom: Everyone has a role to play in this anarchic multiplayer space-disaster sim. As the ship's AI, or the captain, police officer or engineer, you'll have to complete your duties to stop the station from falling into chaos, but you might just be given a traitor role and told to assassinate the captain, or spawn as an alien monster. Even before these antagonists are introduced, the requirement for mass cooperation between internet strangers creates an entertaining state of utter shambles. Expect to explode. A lot.
Developer: Crackerblocks | Link: www.bit.ly/rssports
Phil: Each of RSSS's 15 minigames is a selfcontained challenge of QWOP-like flailing (see 60). You must click and drag on your athlete to score in the crude 2D representations of each sport. What do you click? Where do you drag? RSSS never tells you, leaving your experimentation to collide with its basic physics. People, horses and scenery go flying, and every failure is ridiculous enough to raise a laugh. But beyond the basic comedy lies a proper challenge, each event a satisfyingly tricky test of precision and patience.
Developer: Team Meat | Link: www.bit.ly/pcgmeatboy
Chris: It lacks its paid-for older brother's flashier features, but the original Meat Boy is a chunk of PC platforming history. The series' fantastic controls – at once crisp and squishy, ping-ponging Meat Boy bloodily off the environment with each leap and slide – got their start here, and the first set of vertically-scrolling levels offer a stiff challenge. Very much worth upgrading to Super Meat Boy once you're done.
Developer: Jenova Chen | Link: www.bit.ly/flowgame
Tom: flOw's minimalist appeal and dynamically adjusting difficulty curve has hooked hundreds of thousands. Use the mouse to guide a creature through an evolutionary mire, gobbling up smaller animals to grow, and hitting red blobs to swim deeper. When you eat, you evolve, but you can see large predators moving through the gloom on the levels below, waiting to swallow you whole. Serene yet addictive.
Developer: Asymmetric Publications | Link: www.bit.ly/11IycEl
Tom: Scratch all the layers of polish and visual fluff away from your favourite RPG, and you'll find Kingdom of Loathing underneath. You create a stick-man hero and spend daily adventuring points to raid sketched-out dungeons, kill strange monsters and level up. Your actions resolve instantly, so this is a game about making decisions rather than honing twitch skills. An irreverent sense of humour keeps the grind from getting boring. Be a Disco Bandit! Fight Sinister Fudge Wizards with your Disco Ball! It's a winning formula.
Developer: Bennett Foddy | Link: www.foddy.net/Athletics.html
Graham: QWOP is named after the keys you use to control it: QW to pump your sprinter's thighs, OP to arc his calves. The experience is what I imagine it's like to be an alien placed inside a robotic humansuit, pulling levers to manoeuvre the appendages. The result on screen is simultaneously tense and hilarious. One leg stretches out, the other hops pathetically, the runner's balance starts to slowly topple, keys are hammered in an attempt to try to return upright, and then it's over. Your score: 1.4 metres.
Developer: Increpare | Link: www.bit.ly/slaveofgod
Graham: Increpare is better known for his puzzle games, but this neon, fuzzy, abstract club night hits you in different places by capturing the highs and lows of a night out. The dancefloor is full of spinning, elbowy forms; join them, and you might get drawn into the pull of another reveller, but you'll only ever end up alone. Head to the club's toilets, and you'll start peeing on the floor before you even reach them.
Developer: Roburky | Link: www.bit.ly/135b7Ke
Graham: You're a square floating in a black void, and there are three types of objects in the environment: stars, which stick to you; cuboid objects which do nothing, and jellyfish-like creatures which move towards you and electrocute you on contact. Then, very quickly, you meet another square like you, only smaller. It's sleeping. You poke at it, and it wakes up – and hoots at you. Hello! He then follows you around, tooting curiously at the objects you find, and experimentally butting at them. Companion is a fiveminute experiment – and a successful demonstration – of how to build a relationship between a player and an NPC.
Developer: Adult Swim Games | Link: www.bit.ly/ruattack
Graham: A stylishly camp auto-running game about a robot unicorn leaping across gaps and listening to the Erasure song 'Always' on repeat. If that doesn't make you want to play it, I definitely don't wanna be with you / or make believe with you / or live in harmony, harmony, oh love.
Developer: Christine Love | Link: www.bit.ly/aintyourstory
Phil: A visual novel in which you play a high-school teacher in the year 2027. Given access to the private messages of your class's social network, you become increasingly involved with their lives and relationships. It's a thoughtful exploration of privacy, with a surprising conclusion.
Developer: Procedural Arts | Link: www.bit.ly/12IXnRT
Tom: This one-scene interactive play casts you as sole guest at the most awkward party imaginable. Your hosts, Grace and Trip, are on the verge of marital breakup and can't help but use you to snipe at each other's flaws. A wobbly but fascinating study of social awkwardness.
Developer: Chasseur De Bots | Link: www.warsow.net
Phil: This cartoony FPS takes its cues from the old school. That means twitch combat and the opportunity to boast skill, speed and precision. It's movement system steals from the best – Quake and Unreal Tournament – to create an online shooter that offers both deathmatch and race servers. Master the simple but versatile control scheme and you'll be circle, strafe, wall and rocket-jumping your way past lasers, bullets and explosives. But don't let the high skill skybox put you off – Warsow is purely transitory arcade action. There's no progression or tracking, and the bots and varied modes mean that you can just jump in, jump around and get fragging.
Developer: Parsec Productions | Link: www.bit.ly/11IF7NE
Rich: Collect eight pages attached to stuff in some woods while a prick in a suit stands around and looks at you. It doesn't sound that scary, but the internet's own Slenderman is a powerfully creepy kind of eight-foot bastard. Your biggest roadblock to collecting all the pages is your own fear.
Developer: Andrew Shouldice | Link: www.bit.ly/pcg-hide
Chris: This indie horror game runs at a tiny resolution and is upscaled to provide a disorientating, monochrome experience. You hunt through a winter wilderness while being chased by mysterious, distant flashlights. Similar to Slender, Hide stands out through its presentation and restraint. There's no silly-looking monster to bump into, it's all atmosphere and perseverance.
Developer: Paul Preece | Link: www.bit.ly/desktoptower
Tom: A moreish maze-building game that turns a tiny patch of desk into a warzone. Increasingly powerful creeps swarm in from the left. Slow them with ice rays, blast them with missiles and craft a long intestinal catacomb of death out of gun turrets to ensnare and destroy them.
Developer: Terry Cavanagh | Link: www.bit.ly/pcg239-6
Chris: Hexagon is essentially Super Hexagon's Hexagon mode, in its entirety, for free. The premise is incredibly simple: you rotate an arrow around a circle and try to thread a path through a pulsing neon hexagonal maze. As an exercise in focus, reflexes and pattern recognition, it's every other arcade game triple-distilled: a quick, high-yield dose of flashing lights, pounding music and inevitable crushing failure.
Developer: Aaron Steed & Nathan Gallardo | Link: www.redrogue.net
Phil: This side-scrolling action roguelike posits that anyone who delves into a dungeon full of monsters is more than a little unhinged. Red Rogue's heroine feels like the most monstrous thing in the game's randomly generated levels. It's the way she and her minion calmly despatch imps: blood spurting across the otherwise monochrome rooms. That feeling can easily slip into overconfidence. Whether it's forgetting to scan for traps or making a poor deal with a chaos god, careless decisions are quickly punished.
Developer: Amanita Design | Link: www.bit.ly/1dqU4Uy
Graham: Samorost and its sequel are adventure games as Moomin creator Tove Jansson might have made them. Its patchwork art is made out of photographs of logs, plants, old cans; its white, handanimated main character speaks in whoops and illustrations; and it all takes place on asteroids in space. With no inventory, it's your job to solve puzzles by poking and prodding this world to reveal charming animations. Its creator went on to make the paid-for point-and-click Machinarium, but I prefer this.
Developer: Ivan Zanotti | Link: www.bit.ly/imscared
Chris: An inventive horror game that takes over a folder in your hard drive. Every time you boot it up it will place you somewhere new, and somewhere scarier. It only takes half an hour to complete, and the standout moment is a puzzle sequence that remixes the basic item-collecting of Slender and accelerates it over a couple of frantic minutes spent being chased around in circles in an underground carpark.
We were, understandably, a bit scared upon first discovering Imscared back in 2012.
Developer: Bennett Foddy | Link: www.bit.ly/GiRP
Chris: It's just as easy to fail at as QWOP, but I find GIRP gentler somehow. You climb a rockface (and avoid falling into the sea) by holding down various keys on your keyboard to indicate where to place your climber's flailing hands. Let go, and he lets go – turning the game into a kind of small-scale Twister – or full-scale Twister, if you're lucky enough to get to play it on a set of rejigged dance mats.
Developer: Diaspora Dev Team | Link: www.diaspora.hard-light.net
Phil: A standalone FreeSpace 2 mod set in the Battlestar Galactica universe, Diaspora dispenses with heavy-handed real-world allegory in favour of recreating the show's most iconic and exciting space dogfights. Good choice, modders! As a hotheaded Viper pilot, you battle toasters, pull 180 spins, and 'come in hot'. The presentation is fantastic, and the voice acting solid, but it's the scale of battles that sells the experience. Your first encounter with a Cylon Baseship feels as overwhelming and dangerous as the show suggests it should.
Developer: Awkward Silence Games | Link: www.bit.ly/1chancegame
Developer: Toribash Team | Link: www.toribash.com
Graham: This turn-based, physics-driven fighting game arrived in the PCG office in 2006. We would crowd around a single PC to watch each other flail, directing limbs individually in a hopeless attempt to connect a punch. Search YouTube today and you'll find slickly edited montages of players performing the most absurd tricks, but it's no less fun to fumble and feel your way towards some gory end.
Developer: SCP CB Team | Link: www.scpcbgame.com
Rich: Seen in the cold light of day, your main antagonist – a bulbous white Tellytubby of a thing – couldn't frighten a particularly frightened child. But put it in an endless succession of gloomy rooms and its Tinky-Winky arms suddenly look like they could snap your neck in a second, its Po-face becomes a scary mess of yonic slashes and sick-green eyes. Containment Breach's power is doubled by drawing on the SCP mythos: a set of invented (or are they?) internet stories about horrors and monsters locked up by a shadowy organisation. The terror-Tellytubby is SCP- 173, and later versions of the game have added more monsters.
Developer: Vlambeer | Link: www.supercratebox.com
Graham: A single screen of platforms, with a steady stream of monsters pouring in at the top. A crate appears. Grab the weapon inside. Collect as many crates as possible to reach high scores, but each crate gives you a new weapon, and each weapon forces you to adapt your tactics.
Developer: OpenTTD | Link: www.openttd.org
Graham: Transport Tycoon Deluxe is a classic of the management genre, created by Chris Sawyer before he discovered rollercoasters. This open source recreation was built by and for those who would rather vomit over an improperly balanced spreadsheet than a stick of candyfloss. One of the best, and most frequently updated, indie strategy games ever made.
Developer: Brian Walker | Link: www.bit.ly/brogue-game
Graham: It simplifies roguelike controls by using the mouse, but it's the monkeys that made me love it. Free them from their goblin captors, and the little thieves become your friends, following you on your adventure until you drink the wrong potion and teleport yourself over a cliff.
Graham wrote many more words about Why He Loves Brogue (not to mention Brogue's monkeys) here .
Developer: Team Nitronic | Link: www.nitronic-rush.com
Chris: Initially a university project by students at DigiPen, Nitronic Rush is an arcade racing game inspired by Tron, WipeOut, and F-Zero. You drive a transforming virtual future-car in a twisting neon city, and a series of jet engines mounted around the chassis enable you to twist, airbreak, spin and even fly, limited only by your vehiclefs heat level. The gamefs fantastic presentation enables it to compete with the best arcade racers on the PC, if you ask me . and Team Nitronic are clearly having more fun with the format than most of their peers. A Kickstarted successor, Distance, is due later in the year.
We made Nitronic Rush one of our Free Games for the New Year way back in 2011.
Developer: Valve | Link: www.bit.ly/swarmgame
Rich: Valve's four-player arena game has a deep understanding of the kind of cooperative interaction that makes you love, hate, love, and then really hate your friends in the space of a 20 minute mission. It's chest-burstingly full of opportunities for both heroism and public failure.
It turns out Tom Francis wrote a lot of words about Alien Swarm, including a touching tale of heroics, a guide to playing the game in first-person, and an interview with Valve revealing why it was released for free in the first place.
Developer: Tim Baker | Link: www.zangband.org
Graham: Released in 1990, Angband was a traditional roguelike – ASCII graphics, permadeath, fantasy setting. It begat Zangband, based on Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber series, and which in turn begat ZangbandTk, which added a graphical interface, sound effects, and other things to make the game playable by human minds. A great starting point.
Developer: Christine Love | Link: www.bit.ly/15nobck
Phil: Part visual novel, part investigative adventure, Digital returns you to the world of the late '80s internet. You dial up BBSes, message their users and hunt through their forums. All to understand the mysterious disappearance of a girl who sent you poetry.
Developer: Nadeo | Link: www.trackmaniaforever.com
Graham: Your first time around any of the user-created tracks is a minutes-long exercise in failure: you'll round the first corner and fall down a pit you had no way of seeing. Instant restarts are a salve for frustration, and it's not long before you know when to hit the accelerator hard, when to prepare for a jump, when to bank hard left when sailing through the air. After that, it's all about becoming the fastest in the world.
Developer: Arcane Kids | Link: www.bit.ly/zinethgame
Phil: A high-speed skating game that's somehow more stylistic and exaggerated than Jet Set Radio. There are missions to complete, secrets to uncover and a bizarre Twitter obsession to ponder. But all are distractions next to the effortlessly cool feeling of building momentum through the weird cel-shaded city. You can grind, slide and wall-ride your way to improbable speeds, using the ever increasing velocity to launch yourself towards the game's ultimate goal. For reference: the game's ultimate goal is skating to the moon.
Developer: Battle for Wesnoth | Link: www.wesnoth.org
Chris: This is a massive fantasy turnbased strategy game developed, run, and continually expanded by a dedicated community. Battle for Wesnoth is one of my favourite netbook games because there are so many campaigns that you'll basically never run out of things to do – and the turn-based pace is perfect for short sessions or gaming in places where you can't use a mouse. Extensive guides for creating your own races, campaigns and maps make it easy to shift from player to developer, too.
Developer: FreeCiv Community | Link: www.bit.ly/16DE1zd
Rich: It's Civ, right, but it's free. Oh, if only the developers had thought of a way to express that in a name. We'll just have to make do with a version of the classic turn-based strategy game that we can play in our browsers thanks to the witchcraft of HTML 5. There's an installable version, too, and although FreeCiv doesn't have the glitz or polish of Civ III and onwards, it's still tapped into that voodoo current of compulsion.
Developer: Tales of Game's | Link: www.talesofgames.com
Rich: The best freeware JRPG about ex-NBA basketballer Charles Barkley and his flight from an evil Michael Jordan in Neo New York after he performed an illegal chaos dunk that caused the post- Cyberpocalypse I've ever played. The combat is acceptable, but it was the freewheeling funnies that kept me playing. The creators had a shared love of taking the piss out of indie games ultrareverential to SNES-era JRPGs, and made their own game – but instead of filling it with earnest heroes and bad bishonen, they used sewer-dwelling poet furries, the giant floating head of ghost Bill Cosby, and a monster made entirely of sugar.
Developer: Adam Atomic | Link: www.bit.ly/16Dolf6
Chris: The game that invented the endless runner, and also the game that proved that it is impossible to jump through a window if you are actually trying to do it. I love Canabalt for its atmospheric, low-key sci-fi visuals and Danny Baranowski's amazing soundtrack.
Rich: Those pissing windows, man.
Developer: Curve Studios | Link: www.stealthbastard.com
Phil: It's a stealth game: there are traps to avoid, patrols to evade, shadows to cling to and terminals to hack. But Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole repurposes these genre staples to neatly fit into a 2D puzzle platformer. Time spent waiting is kept to a minimum. Instead, you're encouraged to sneak, leap and clamber through the darkness, activating switches and buttons to progress through the intricately moving levels. The expanded, money-costing Deluxe version has overtaken the majority of the game's website, but you can still access the original through a tiny link in the bottom corner of the page.
Developer: Doukutsu Monogatari | Link: www.bit.ly/12CJrYX
Rich: The sheer size still impresses. It's a vast, shooty platformer in the Metroid vein, and stands out for having been developed in one Japanese man's spare time over five years. Paid-for versions have had their graphics retooled, but the original, free version is just as tight and rewarding.
Developer: Metanet Software | Link: www.bit.ly/17fdpXq
Graham: It's all about the replays. After hundreds of attempts in which your walljumping ninja is sliced by lasers, burst by missiles and crushed by thwomps, you get a replay of your successful run to the level exit, in which you seem to dodge each threat with psychic reflexes. There are hundreds of levels, and thus hundreds of opportunities to feel so satisfied.
Developer: Iron Helmet | Link: www.bit.ly/neptunep
Rich: Or, How To End A Friendship In One Easy Strategy Game. The action is simple: move ships to conquer planets, then build an economy on those planets. The glacial pace ensures that as you set nefarious plans in motion against your best friend, they have hours to marvel at your cruelty.
We like Neptune's Pride so much we made it our Webgame of the Year back in 2010.
Developer: Bay 12 Games | Link: www.bit.ly/10VSmYQ
Graham: Climbing DF's mountain of menu madness means a weekend of reading guides and scratching your head, but once you've scaled its ASCII peaks, the world's most complex simulation game stretches out in front of you towards the horizon of PC gaming. After ten years of development, the game generates religions, political histories, entire societies, and then challenges you to build and manage a thriving underground city, starting with seven depressed, alcoholic dwarves and a few supplies. You're as likely to starve to death as you are to be trampled by wild elephants, and you'll definitely fail, but you'll have fun dying.
You've read the tale of how seven drunks opened a portal to Hell, right? Well if you haven't, go do that here .
Developer: Alteraction | Link: www.alteraction.com
Graham: When you complete a playthrough, you get half a dozen images showing other scenes you might have missed. In the 15 minutes it took you to reach an ending, you attempted to keep your fashion design company solvent, solve your best friend's murder, and resolve some tension with your wife. You probably failed at all of those. But then, in among those frames at the end, is a shot of you tossing a frisbee for a young kid on a beach. A kid? You didn't even meet a kid. Why are you playing with him, and how do you get to that beach? You go back and try again... and again, each time stumbling down new branches of Masq's seedy, soap opera world.
Developer: Blendo Games | Link: www.blendogames.com
Graham: We often condemn linear games, but Gravity Bone makes it obvious that all we crave is more interesting worlds and stories to be pulled through. It communicates your instructions through posters and notes, it populates its colourful world with blockheaded spies and bossa nova-style, and its use of ultrashort flashback vignettes is structurally more interesting than anything most mainstream games even attempt.
Tom: Using the Quake 2 engine was an inspired move, removing the loading zones that might scupper the sporadic smashcuts that make Gravity Bone so pacey and exciting. The use of filmic rhythms and references show that 'cinematic' needn't be a dirty word in games.
Developer: Mossmouth | Link: www.spelunkyworld.com/original.html
Graham: By crossbreeding roguelikes and platformers, Spelunky solves longstanding problems with both genres. The clear graphics and controls of its platforming forebears make the traditionally awkward, ASCII-graphics roguelike genre easy to understand, while the random level generation of its Rogue heritage prevent Spelunky's platform dungeons from ever becoming boring or predictable. The result is a game that looks superficially like Mario, but where playing it is a long series of meaningful choices, and where a wasted bomb can be the difference between finding the fabled city of gold and being hurled over a cliff by an angry yeti.
Phil: It's the combination of difficult platforming, random level generation, and a reliable ruleset that makes Spelunky one of the few roguelikes where death isn't just an educational experience, but an inventive and funny one too. It's not just that an angry yeti can throw you off a cliff; it's that afterwards, you can land next to even an angrier shopkeeper, who's still pissed off about an incident earlier in the game when a stolen statue triggered a boulder that crushed his friend's shop. He'll either shotgun you to death or erratically plunge into the abyss himself. If – by sheer luck of interweaving game systems – you do survive, seconds later you'll mistime a jump and land in a pit of spikes. Because Spelunky.
Tom: Spelunky's flair for the unpredictable refuses to fade after hundreds and deaths. The level generation formula will always throw up tricky new formations, its denizens will spawn in new configurations. That bat you've dodged hundreds of times before can kill you on the 101st attempt. Spelunky is here to mess you up, and it will continue to mess you up forever. Experience helps, of course. You might start to recognise dangerous set-ups that you'd once try and blunder through, but when total mastery isn't an option, you can only fall back on your wits. That's the key to Spelunky's brilliance. It never stops being interesting. You're always improvising, making plans, and getting killed trying to outwit a goddamn bat.
Chris: The way Spelunky uses slapstick to salve the frustration of an accidental death is my favourite thing about it. Failure is an integral part of roguelike design, and finding a way to turn it into a source of fun feels like the final piece of the puzzle.
Graham: If Tom Francis was still here, he'd talk about his hours-long pursuit of the city of gold, and how he eventually found it. I have played Spelunky for as long as Tom, and I haven't found it. I haven't even completed the game, even though I can now reach the final boss with hardly a wrong-placed rope along the way. If a game can hold my attention for so long without that ultimate gratification, I think that's a pretty good sign.
Tom Francis went on a quest to discover Spelunky's mythical City of Gold.