Welcome to our round-up of the best free games on PC. As of March 2015, we've expanded our list from 50 to 75 to give you even greater choice. Think of this list as the perfect procrastination hub, packed with diversionary treats. Some are short and sweet, like Gravity Bone, some may consume you for weeks, like Spelunky.
All of the games on this list are free in their entirety. That means no microtransaction-supported free-to-play 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 list. 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: Dominique Grieshofer | www.bit.ly/Refunktion
Phil: Refunktion is a momentum-based first-person platformer that's part stealth, part Mirror's Edge and, most of all, an absolute bastard. Your job is to collect the power cores scattered around each level – running, sliding and wall-jumping to avoid the patrol-bots hunting you down.
There are two approaches. You can take things slow, using vents and cover to avoid being seen; or you can make a run for it, maneuvering around, under and over your enemies in an attempt to be too quick to kill. The latter is naturally more fun, but requires a level of skill I'm as yet unable to match.
The robots are a relentless foil. The slow, inevitable charge of their lasers provides just a small window of escape. Fail to break line-of-sight in time and you're instantly killed – forced to restart from the last checkpoint. It's frequently frustrating, and requires plenty of trial-and-error tactics. Despite all this, there's lots to appreciate. With a good build-up of momentum, Refunktion's satisfying freerunning makes up for its faults.
Developer: Chaos Theory Games | Link: www.bit.ly/SwapGame
Phil: Swap, or Subterfuge Weapons Assessment Program, is a multiplayer twitch-based arena shooter that doesn't contain any guns. Instead, you fire your robot's hand at other players. If you hit, you'll swap places.
This is disorientating, and potentially deadly. For instance, if you've activated a trap, the person you swap with will then be killed by that trap. At least, they will if you hit them. Each map contains multiple hazards, punishing the unwary, as well as the recently swapped.
The player count is, unfortunately, a bit slim. Bring some friends to try it out.
Developer: Craig Perko | Link: www.bit.ly/AtomSmash
Phil: "It's pretty straightforward, you probably won't need a tutorial," says the creator of Atom Smasher in his tutorial video (www.bit.ly/ASTutorial). That proved to be a massive overestimation of my ability to understand particle physics. After watching the tutorial, though, the game became a lot clearer. At its most basic level, it's a bit like Pipe Mania if Pipe Mania's ultimate goal was to unlock the secrets of all existence.
Your job is to build a series of increasingly complex particle colliders in an attempt to achieve each level's target speed. In the beginning, this is relatively simple. You add in some Microwave Klystrons, wire them up, and watch the MeV rating increase.
Soon, though, wiring becomes an issue. The game will always select the wire closest to the wall from the selection running above the machine. To combat this, you need to pull away unneeded cables, ensuring the correct colour matches the correct socket.
There's no penalty for it being wrong, other than the machine not working. At its core, Atom Smasher is a clever yet gentle puzzle draped in a science wrapping.
Developer: Dodge Roll | Link: www.bit.ly/ProfitHike
Phil: A word of advice to any aspiring CFOs: if your company's revenue is down for the year, releasing a free 2D platformer probably isn't the best solution. Luckily for Devolver Digital, the financial crisis depicted in Fork Parker's Holiday Profit Hike is as fictional as its protagonist. In it, the publisher's balding mascot Fork takes a break from his regular duties – cameoing in Serious Sam games and tweeting at Notch – to climb a nightmarish land filled with money, jagged icicles and deadly Christmas jumpers.
Your job is to collect as much money as possible while avoiding the many hazards hindering your ascent. To help achieve this you can throw out pitons: metal spikes that attach to surfaces to form a rope that extends between each subsequent piton placement. It's still extremely difficult, and every death results in unwanted medical bills that chip away at your possibly holiday profit.
Developer: Terry Cavanagh | Link: www.bit.ly/V6-MP
Phil: Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV has been infuriating paying customers for years. Now, a version of it has been made available for free. Bad news: it doesn't contain the base game. Good news: that means you won't have to destroy keyboards while trying to complete its Veni, Vidi, Vici section.
Make and Play is a special edition of the gravity-flipping platformer that includes only the game's level editor and a selection of user created maps. As such, there's a huge amount of content to be played, even without the original campaign. These aren't single-room challenges, either – there are sprawling, multi-segment creations to tackle. The totality of it dwarfs what VVVVVV originally offered, although, if you own the main game, these player creations are also included as part of that package.
As always, your job is to collect trinkets and crew members across an 8-bit world of bizarre hazards and repeating geometry. Many of the user-made maps continue the intricate difficulty of the original's gravity-based challenges. Progress is hard won, but the community has embraced the spirit of VVVVVV's generous checkpointing. Even the most difficult sections need only be conquered the once.
Developer: Two's Complement | Link: www.bit.ly/IKnowThis
Tom: There's a great bit in the original Jurassic Park where Lex infiltrates the park's security system, using what looks like another ridiculous mockup Hollywood hacking program. Well, it turns out this 'File System Navigator' was actually a real thing: a cool, and probably wildly impractical, way to explore a 3D representation of your PC.
Because we deserve it, a bunch of indie developers decided to turn this system into a real hacking game. The results are robust, tense, and a little bit gorgeous – hard drives seem so much bigger when their contents stretch out into the horizon.
Inspired by the ace hackertyper.net, the actual 'hacking' part of the game happens largely automatically, meaning you unlock files by randomly hammering at your keyboard. Occasionally, an Office Assistant-style paperclip will appear at the side of the screen, offering sound advice while wagging his finger at your law-breaking ways. It might seem a slim game beneath the slick presentation and that pleasing movie reference, but once you dig deeper into its mainframe, I Know This lives up to its inspiration and then some.
Developer: Croteam | Link: www.bit.ly/SigilsElohim
Phil: Sigils of Elohim feels like it should form the basis of a public service announcement about the misuse of Tetris blocks. It's all wrong: rather than a frantic parable about Sisyphean wall construction, it's a slow-paced and methodical puzzle game about oddly shaped blocks that never disappear.
Created as a mini-game prelude to The Talos Principle, your job is to place the Tetris blocks so that they fit together in a rectangle. It offers a satisfying if overlong challenge – the almost 100 levels being more than anyone could need.
Developer: Nimbly Games | Link: www.bit.ly/AltitudePC
Phil: Altitude is a multiplayer arcade dogfighter, in which two teams battle it out across 2D skies. It originally came out in 2009, but has now been re-released for free.
The control scheme makes flying a simple affair. The plane follows mouse movement, and is unconcerned by such things as accurate modelling of gravity or acceleration. You can stall your plane, but only if you fly into an object.
It's quick, enjoyable and offers plenty of variety. There are multiple modes to try, and an unlock system that rewards ace piloting.
Developer: Sanctuary Interactive | Link: www.bit.ly/LocalGame
Phil: Small English villages can be the perfect setting for creepy and unsettling horror stories. That's because small English villages are inherently creepy and unsettling. As someone who once walked into an unfamiliar country pub, only to have unwelcoming locals silently turn and stare, I understand the plight of All The Way Down's protagonist. Okay, not entirely – the only ancient evil I had to avoid was a suspicious jar of pickled eggs.
Caught in a blizzard, this unnamed outsider stumbles across an insular community. The locals aren't friendly, but his need for shelter overrides his need to stay away from rambling weirdos. This, as it turns out, is a mistake.
All The Way Down is a point and click adventure, and that means escaping its particular peril requires some light inventory puzzling. It's simple stuff, with solutions never spanning more than the room you're currently in. Some steps require pixel hunting to find the particular item you need to manipulate, but mostly the puzzles take a back seat to the story.
It's a decent tale, although the short length means it ends abruptly. Nevertheless, there are some interesting ideas at work. All The Way Down's horror, while mythical in nature, is kept rooted by locations that feel natural and mundane.
Developer: Suspicious Developments | Link: www.bit.ly/FloatingPC
Phil: Originally designed for the Ludum Dare gamejam, Floating Point [disclaimer: developer Tom Francis used to be PC Gamer's section editor] outgrew the weekend-long deadline and became a bigger project. It's now available for free, and can be downloaded directly from Steam.
It's based around a grappling hook system, similar to that used in the Worms games. Once attached to one of the procedurally generated floating platforms, you can swing to gain momentum and release to soar across the level. The smoother your arc, the more the red bars on each platform elongate. It's these you must collect to progress to the next map.
It can be tricky to control at first – getting a smooth parabola takes some practice, and even once you're gracefully swinging between points, it can fall apart as you queue up the next motion. It's especially difficult in each level's underwater section, where physics is dramatically altered. Luckily, the penalty for failure is minimal, meaning you've plenty of room to experiment. Get it right and you're rewarded with an intensifying tail and a much bigger score.
Developer: Jak Locke | Link: www.bit.ly/BlackLodge2600
Phil: Twin Peaks is coming back for a new series, and what better way to celebrate than by playing a game based on the ending to the second (and, at the time, final) series? You know, apart from rewatching the show, or listening to its theme tune on repeat for hours.
Black Lodge 2600 is notable not just for being based on David Lynch's eerie soap opera, but also for mimicking the style of the Atari 2600. It's incredibly basic – abandoning the show's building narrative in favour of a score attack game about working your way through endless red-curtained rooms. Sometimes there's an owl shooting minigame.
Your objective is always the top-right corner, which leads to the next room and increases your point total. A few rooms in, Agent Cooper's doppelganger begins to chase, and, if he catches you, it'll reduce one of your three lives. Not only does he go faster as you go, but the residents of the lodge will also impede your progress. Laura Palmer is a particular hindrance – her screams disorienting Cooper and reversing the game's controls.
According to the game's faithfully created manual, "something special" will happen if you can get to 5,000 points. I don't know what it is. I haven't come close.
Developer: Milkbag Games | Link: www.bit.ly/Photo7DFPS
Phil: Photobomb is an investigative "shooter" about crime and social media. Set after an explosion in a town square, your job is to find the perpetrator by searching a timeline of photos and matching them to the scene.
Every photo contains one of the suspects, each depicted by a different colour. Find the exact location of the shot, and you can take a picture – painting the suspects so that they can be identified as they move around the map. It's up to you to find the one that planted the bomb on the designated bench.
You can scrub back and forwards through both the social feed and the square itself. Despite this, there's a hard time limit of two minutes, after which you're forced to choose and kill one of the suspects.
The time constraint makes it extremely difficult to accurately identify the perpetrator. That's deliberate, as is the fact that the feed may not contain the information you need. While the main objective is compelling, Photobomb also serves as a critique on the dangers of trial by social media. There's no punishment for killing the wrong suspect. In fact, you're thanked even if you erroneously end an innocent's life.
Developer: Free Lives | Link: www.bit.ly/WolfensteinHD
Phil: I am out of throwing knives. This is bad, because flinging throwing knives at stuff (read: people) is fun. What I do have is a shovel, and a dead Nazi who, for reasons related to my predicament, is wearing an abundance of knives. By hitting the aforementioned Nazi with the aforementioned shovel, I can dislodge the knives and subsequently pick them back up. This is why Super Wolfenstein HD is a good game.
SWHD is a reimagining of Wolfenstein 3D with added physics. It was created for the Indies vs PewDiePie game jam, a 72 hour challenge to make something dumb and fun. In this, it succeeded.
Thanks to the added physics, the rubber-faced Nazis wobble about the map, flailing their arms around as they shoot. Despite this, they're remarkably deadly and your initial ammo is limited – at least until you get the shovel. You do, however, have access to a neat trick or two. Every wall is destructible, letting you open passages from which to ambush unsuspecting enemies.
Super Wolfenstein HD is short and highly entertaining. There's not much depth to it, but it's always amusing to watch your enemies ragdoll around.
Developer: Rob Fearon | Link: www.bagfullofwrong.co.uk/bagfullofwords/
Tom: Rob Fearon makes shooty, arcadey, Mintery games called things like War Twat and Squid Harder, and he's just made his entire oeuvre available for free (minus the game he's currently working on, natch). This is not a time-limited offer: he's decided that he's made quite enough money off these games thankyouverymuch, and he'd like to give something back to the gaming world.
His newly free games include Death Ray Manta, which can be topically abbreviated to DRM. (There's no DRM. That's the joke.) DRM, like his other games, is a game about shooting colourful space things with colourful space lasers, as explosions and lights and funny text and arrghhh what's going on happen all around you and now I'm dead. The scoring system is beautifully simple: one point for beating a stage, another point for grabbing the 'space tiffin' along the way.
Developers: Rob Dubbin and Allison Parrish | Link: http://jetpackconference.biz/
Phil: This month's winner of the Best Name Award is International Jetpack Conference. It's an adventure game made in ZZT, the DOS operated ANSI-based game creation tool. If that wasn't strange enough, it stars a freelance journalism, and explores themes of self-discovery and rampant militarisation.
You play as Taylor, a freelance journalist tasked with covering the International Jetpack Conference. Once inside, you can explore the small conference floor; looking at exhibits and talking to their owners. Lee, for instance, is a pun-loving creator of jetpack capacitors.
Also on the floor is the "designated protest area," and its sole protester. Its here that you pick up the mission that sparks the rest of the game: bringing down the conference. What follows next is best experienced unspoiled – it's strange, surreal and often very funny.
To an extent, the conversation-driven nature of the game fits awkwardly in its engine. To talk to characters you need to repeatedly walk into them, and more advanced actions are even further abstracted. Really, though, it adds to the charm of the piece. International Jetpack Conference cleverly plays with its roguelike aesthetic to a calculated and disarming extent.
Developers: Kevin Zuhn, Kevin Geisler, Chris Stallman, Devon Scott-Tunkin | Link: www.bit.ly/Antbassador
Phil: Antbassador was the winner of the Ludum Dare 30 "jam" – a separate three-day event with more relaxed rules than the official competition. It still used the theme "connected worlds," which here has been taken to mean a diplomatic visit between two very different nations.
One is a nation of ants; the other a nation of giant fingers. Both were, until recently, at war. You play as an ambassadorial finger sent to formalise the peace treaty, and that means being on your best behaviour. Unfortunately, as a giant, lumbering digit, you need to be extremely careful not squish any of the small, vulnerable ants. You'll need to perform some delicate actions using a mouse-driven control scheme that is entirely unsuited to the task.
It's funny. The action leans towards QWOP-style slapstick comedy, and the brief story is filled with silly detail. The ants have a hat-based society – their headwear defining their position in life. In order to gain the trust of your wary new friends, you'll have to retrieve or remove these hats as ordered.
59. VA-11 Hall-A: Prologue
Developer: Sukeban Games | Link: www.waifubartending.com
Phil: As a former barman, I can empathise with the events of VA-11 Hall-A. Not the cyberpunk setting, obviously, or the sci-fi chemical drink mixing, but rather the way that an increasingly inebriated clientele offer up miniature snapshots into the fears and worries of their lives.
The game, which the developers call a "booze-'em-up," is being made with the help of former PC Gamer contributor Cassandra Khaw. In it, you play the server of the titular bar – known colloquially as Valhalla – mixing up drinks for some unusual customers.
This prologue is the first part of a planned full release. Early on, it's revealed that you'll be serving the employees of a canine toy company – a company that is itself staffed almost entirely by corgis. Or rather, intelligent, English speaking corgis.
Each drink that they order must be created from a set of five basic ingredients. The game tells you the ingredients, and any special instructions for mixing, then leaves you to put it all together. At various points, you can even tweak the customers drink. The designated driver might ask for something non-alcoholic, but slip a dash of Karmotrine in and he's more likely to open up – further expanding out the details of the homogeneous corgi corporation.
Developers: Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, Bethany Hockenberry | Link: www.bit.ly/LostConstellation
Phil: Lost Constellation is a 'supplemental' chapter to the upcoming adventure game Night In The Woods. It takes the form of a tangential bedtime story between two of the latter game's cat characters. That story is of an astronomer's attempt to reach a frozen lake.
Along the way, she meets a variety of unusual characters, gets involved in ancient forces she doesn't understand, and builds a snowman or two. You play this all out by exploring the frozen forest, and performing actions for the inhabitants. It's surreal and charming, and helped along by an excellent soundtrack.
Developer: Bohemia Interactive | Link: www.dayz.com/minidayz
Phil: DayZ recently received an update allowing players to 'collect' and consume human flesh. When people refer to a dog-eat-dog world, it's rare they mean it so literally. If you too find the prospect of being a cannibalistic role-player's tasty treat terrifying, maybe MiniDayZ will prove a much-needed break. It's a top-down retro-styled demake, originally created as a fan project before being sanctioned and hosted by Bohemia Interactive. More importantly, it's entirely singleplayer, giving you some respite from the casual sadism of the full game.
As in DayZ, you wake up on the shore with no food, water or weapons. Status bars show whether your character is hungry, thirsty, cold, or rapidly losing blood. Your job, at the most basic level, is to stop each of these bars from bottoming out. Doing so requires travelling inland, and scavenging for supplies.That, in turn, requires facing off against a small horde of pixelated zombies.
The zombies are more difficult to deal with than in DayZ. It's not that they're any tougher, or more deadly, but they're harder to avoid. You'll find plenty hanging around towns or villages, and they're hard to take down without sustaining a major injury – at least until you can find a good melee weapon. They are, at least, extremely dumb. Break line-of-sight by, say, running around the corner of a house, and they'll stop undead in their tracks. By carefully shepherding them around, you can buy yourself the space to safely search houses for clothes, food and weapons.
It's still a challenge. Over multiple playthroughs, I've died in almost every conceivable way. Most harrowingly, I starved to death while nearing hypothermia after tearing up my shirt to bandage a near-fatal wound. Another time, I died of thirst because I hadn't noticed that my backpack full of drinks cans had been irreparably damaged while fleeing a village full of zombies. Then there was a time I was shot dead by a bandit. While there are no other players, the NPC humans are just as deadly.
Developer: Free Lives | Link: www.expendabros.com
Phil: There should not be a good game based on The Expendables 3. There definitely should not be a good, free game based on The Expendables 3. This has nothing to do with the film and everything to do with the fact that movie tie-ins are bad. It is their default state. Just as The Expendables 2: Videogame was a crime against functional control systems, polish and game design, so too should any computerised version of the series' follow-up be equally atrocious.
That it isn't is initially bizarre, but makes sense when you realise that it's Broforce. In an ingenious crossover, The Expendabros takes the characters and – to use the term loosely – plot of The Expandables 3, and stuffs them into a condensed version of Broforce's all-action assault of guns, explosions and patriotism. It's dumb, silly and hyperbolic, which makes it everything a game filled with aging '80s action stars should be.
It's great, because Broforce is great. At the start of each level you're deposited via helicopter into a hostile environment, and must work your way to the left, killing everything that moves. You're fragile – able to die in a single hit – but carry overpowered weaponry and a limited special attack. Each Expendabro has a different loadout, and, as you rescue the team, you'll be wielding grenade-launchers, miniguns and shotguns. Whether you're playing as Broney Ross, Bronar Jenson, Broctor Death or one of the four other Bro-named characters, you're equally equipped to liquidate enemies and demolish environments.
It's a great showcase for the early access main game. As in Broforce, The Expendabros is best when you're gunning through an enemy encampment, caught in a chain reaction of death and explosions. It serves as a brilliant demo, giving you a sample of the full game's variety, and offering a taste of the four-player co-op carnage.
Developer: Cosmo D | Link: www.bit.ly/OffPeakGame
Tom: Welcome to the weirdest train station this side of Severn Tunnel Junction: a church-like structure home to pizza salesmen, giants, exquisite jazz and reams of abstract art. When you arrive in Off-Peak you're asked to retrieve a scattered train ticket – a search for glowing scraps that leads you to many hilarious, odd and thoughtful conversations, to secrets, to shrines, and to an ending determined by your actions along the way.
There's a great dollop of the unsettling Pathologic in here. It's not a creepy setting, exactly, but it is a place you feel is watching you at all times, as you unlock shortcuts, as you steal pizza and vinyl, and as you restore that ripped ticket to its former glory. There's some stunning visual art in Off-Peak's interactive installation, but it's the soundtrack that impresses most, all fractured jazz and moody ambiance. It's not a game you'll unravel in its entirety, but I very much enjoyed picking it apart.
Developer: Tomasz Wacławek | Link: www.bit.ly/RoninPC
Phil: Ronin is a 2D game about a stealthy guy who breaks into buildings, steals data from computers and then quickly escapes – usually through a window. Also, when you hold down the mouse button, a dotted line extends out from your character showing the planned arc of your jump. If you're getting deja vu, it's because you've played Gunpoint.
Ronin is not Gunpoint, though. It even tells you this in the tooltip that appears when you initiate combat. That's because its fights are turn-based. When you jump into view of some enemies, the action pauses and laser sights are trained in your direction. You need to make your way towards each guard, making sure your next move takes you clear of their incoming fire. This is what keeps Ronin fresh. The battles are an engaging process of careful placement and stylish takedowns. You'll die from a single shot, so the need to stay mobile provides a tactical challenge.
The other difference is your grappling hook. It can be attached to any wall or ceiling – not only letting you easily traverse the game's buildings, but also swing down into a window below. Right now, Ronin is at the prototype stage, but it shows enough promise to be worth checking out.
Developer: Daniel Linssen | Link: www.bit.ly/Roguelight
Phil: Roguelikes were already hard enough, what with their procedural generation and permadeath. The absolute last thing they needed was to be shrouded in darkness. Roguelight does it anyway. It's a 2D platformer in which you work your way deeper through a dungeon, shooting enemies and – for the most part – struggling to see where you're going.
Torches are placed strategically through the levels, giving you a basic idea of the route. They don't provide enough light to illuminate an entire area, though, meaning you'll often need to take some exploratory steps into the darkness.
To mitigate the danger of unseen traps and enemies, you've a limited supply of fire arrows to use. Nook one, and you'll have a portable, yet dwindling, source of light. More can be collected from around each level, and there's a strategy to working out the most efficient place and time to light your way.
If they can be seen, the early enemies won't provide too much of a problem. Hooded figures patrol through the level, but only across blocks connected at the same elevation. Flying skeletons are more mobile, but their large size and slow speed make them an easy target. Primarily, you enemy is the unknown – never knowing what's waiting beyond the next jump.
Developer: Tom van den Boogaart | Link: www.bit.ly/Bernband
Phil: Out there on the internet, a battle rages over the exact definition of what is and isn't a game. Is Dear Esther a game? Is Microsoft Excel a game? Is this magazine a game? These impassioned philosophers now have a new maybe-game to add to the list: Bernband. I say we let them get on with it, and instead retreat to enjoy the remarkable world it depicts.
Set in a futuristic alien city, Bernband has no real interaction beyond that of walking to a place and looking at a thing. What makes it worth trying is the number of things to be walked to and looked at. There's a feeling of life about the city. While the streets are often empty, many contain rooms that bustle with activity. You might stumble across a jazz concert, an art installation, or a night club. Or you'll simply step through one of its maze of elevators and emerge on a bridge – flying cars swishing above your head.
The sounds are all diegetic – emanating from the place you'd naturally expect them to, and thus giving an extraordinary sense of place to the lo-fi pixellated environment. It won't take long to find most of what it has to offer. It's still worth taking the time to do so.
Developer: Blendo Games | Link: www.bit.ly/ExCowboy
Phil: Thirty Flights of Loving developer Brendon Chung took a break from making the upcoming Quadrilateral Cowboy to participate in the Space Cowboy gamejam. It's exactly what it sounds like: a competition to make the most Firefly of games. Chung's entry, Expat, fits the bill perfectly. You're a lone bounty hunter, taking on contracts and searching through backwater planets to find your target.
On selecting a bounty, you're given a list of former associates, and must text them for clues to potential hideouts. Armed with a last known address, you can search through the local bars and shops until you stumble upon their exact position. At this point, a shoot out begins. It's rendered simply – you must stay within the target's radius to chip away at their health, avoiding their bullets and hoping they don't come across an abandoned ship. If they do escape, there's a small window in which to disable their vehicle, as they'll be lost forever should they make it to an open warp gate.
More valuable targets are harder to take down, but there's also a social aspect to the game. Spending time and buying drinks at the galaxy's spacebar will unlock new contacts, who can be called in to help you catch those tougher quarries.
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.