In the early days of the web it seemed like weird and imaginative flash games could be found everywhere. This is when many now-popular indie developers first tried their hand at designing games and posted them on websites like Newgrounds and Armor Games.
Publishing online today is easier than ever, so the number of bizarre and fascinating games is higher, not lower. They just seem harder to find. So, go on a nostalgic journey with us and check out some games – both old and new – that will make you feel like you’re back at that wonderfully weird place that was the early internet.
Recharge your creative batteries, challenge yourself and or simply do something fun on a boring weekend. Here are 10 free indies we recommend.
“A game about people and their habits” is how indie developer Eli Piilonen describes Fixation. The story-driven puzzle platformer is also a prequel to another popular game of his – The Company of Myself.
In Fixation we meet protagonist Kathryn as she struggles with stress, her smoking addiction and relating to those around her. She is surrounded by a cast of colourful but not always helpful characters. This includes her roommate Penelope and Penelope’s boyfriend who insists on being called “TheSphinx” – his online handle. The game is moody and atmospheric thanks to the wonderful soundtrack by David Carney and art by Ben Jelter.
Fixation is story-rich and challenges us to think about the underlying causes of our vices and who we turn to in our moments of need. It is laced with allegories, which are often woven directly into the gameplay mechanics. Kathryn, for example, solves all her problems and nail-biting puzzles by smoking.
On top of that, the game has serious platforming and puzzle chops that will challenge even experienced gamers. Fixation fully utilises its medium to deliver an immersive and compelling experience. For the full story and another incredibly well-made game, we recommend you play The Company of Myself after finishing Fixation.
Ever feared that the paintings might come to life when you visited the gallery as a kid? Well, this scenario is all too real for 9-year-old heroine Ib (pronounced eeb) in the RPG Maker horror game of the same name by Japanese artist Kouri.
The lights in the art museum suddenly dim and everyone but her seems to vanish. She is transported into a dark twisted version of the gallery, where headless sculptures roam. The game has no combat and you must skilfully avoid obstacles and enemies, while solving puzzles.
Ib is soon joined by 2 other characters – Garry and Mary, who mysteriously find themselves trapped in the nightmarish dimension too. Together they encounter terrifying enemies and explore eerie rooms. To the game’s credit, it does not rely on jump scares nearly as much as other games in the RPG Maker horror genre. Even with its 8-bit graphics style, it has genuinely creepy and unsettling imagery. Under the horror elements, there is also a gripping narrative about the subconscious of the artist whose work has come to life.
Finally, Ib gives players choices in how they interact with the other characters. Those in turn lead to 7 possible endings, giving the game high replay value.
3. The Asylum
An exploration of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and dream interpretation methods in the form of a plushie toy therapy game. Yup, you read that correctly.
The Asylum (Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddly Toys) by Martin Kittsteiner is exactly that. You arrive at the clinic to fill in for Dr Kindermann and are greeted by 6 patients. Each of them exhibits a typical symptom of well-known mental illnesses, such as depression or OCD. It is your job to study their conditions and help them.
The game is set in the past and the many of the methods you use – Rorschach tests, dream analysis or others, might seem very dated. However, that does not make the game any less thought-provoking. You are given a list of options when interacting with patients and what you choose determines whether their conditions get better or worse. We suggest clicking the professional help option, as it gives you access to Dr Kindermann’s notes on the patients and their medical history.
The stories of the cuddly toys are poignant and the dream sequences surreal. It is one of the most bizarre and yet charming games you can discover online, and it will be etched into your memory long after you first play it. The Asylum also gets bonus points for being able to purchase a real plushie version of your favourite cute patient.
(Windows, Mac, Linux download – free or pay what you want)
A myth within a story within a universe. This is Lost Constellation – an eccentric yet wonderful supplemental game by studio Infinite Fall, creators of Night in the Woods. As the player you control Adina Astra – an alligator astronomer in search of the Frozen Lake and a distant ghost star.
At the same time, Adina’s adventure is being told to a young cat named Mae (main character of Night in the Woods) by her grandfather. Your actions and choices affect both stories and weave an enthralling narrative. The game’s animation is beautiful and fluid. The winter wonderland of the forest beckons you with its brilliant shades of white, blue and violet. Don’t be fooled though – the protagonist must overcome many obstacles and receive the blessing of the Forest God to complete this journey alive.
While solving light puzzles and creating strange snowmen, Adina encounters cynical characters and is forced to recite ominous prayers, in order to be granted passage. This sometimes-grim story tone contrasts with the cartoonish art excellently and makes it clear that this fairytale is more akin to a Hans Christian Andersen original than a Disney adaptation. However, there is also a lot of kindness and hope in Lost Constellation.
As Mae’s grandfather says – the story is about what you want it to be about. And whichever way you choose to view it, the Lost Constellation is profound and captivating.
Aether is the story of a boy and his monster. Developed and designed by Edmund McMillen, the game has his signature art style, which you might be familiar with from his later hit titles Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac.
Aether begins on Earth, where a lonely boy stares up at the starry night sky and wonders: “Imagine all the people up there. Could they all be as lonely?”. He finds an unlikely friend in a monster and together they decide to fly off on a voyage to new planets. After all – “Would the people on Earth really care?”
You use the monster’s tongue to attach and propel yourself from cloud to cloud, then onto asteroids. The planets you discover are full of sad and odd creatures, who you can help by solving puzzles. Yet often enough, solving their problems doesn’t make them much happier. All the while the Earth gets smaller in the distance.
This narrative might remind you of the Little Prince, but it is also a clever allegory about the loneliness, social isolation and anxiety many so-called weird and creative kids suffer. Their only escape is their imagination. If you were one of those kids, Aether is a game that will speak to you on a deep personal level. And even if you weren’t, its simple yet touching story is truly a tale none will forget.
If we had to describe Samorost in two words, they would be cute and quirky. The game is one of the earliest (2003) in Amanita Design’s catalogue – a studio you might recognise thanks to their popular game Machinarium.
Like Machinarium, Samorost is a point-and-click puzzle adventure with a small but determined protagonist on a mission. Gnome lives on what resembles an uprooted tree floating through the endless void of space. This is also where the game’s name originates from – “Samorost is a Czech word that is used to describe objects sculpted from discarded wood (roots, trunks, branches, etc), usually for decorative purposes.”
Gnome finds himself on a collision course with a similar celestial body and flies off in his spaceship (which resembles a food can), desperately trying to prevent a catastrophe. When he arrives, he discovers a planet full of peculiar residents and strange landscapes. It is the art of Samorost that brings all of it to life – it combines photo-realistic sprites with gorgeous hand-drawn elements and brighter moving objects animated in Flash.
The game is relatively short but don’t fret – if you enjoy it, the point-and-click adventure has 2 sequels and a free demo of Samorost 2 is available on the Amanita design website.
7. Alice is Dead series
Give yourself an un-birthday present and play this gritty noir re-imagining of Wonderland by Mike Morin. Published on Newgrounds, the series contains 3 separate games (or episodes) full of crime, murder and mystery. Oh, and Alice is dead.
The games strongly resemble escape room puzzles as they allow you to visit only a limited number of areas at a time. Unlike other point-and-click titles, however, the cursor does not change to hint on where to click next or how to proceed. The game also gives witty responses when you try to use items in inappropriate spots.
Your goal in episode 1 is to remember who you are. While searching for clues on the protagonist’s identity and wracking your brain for puzzle solutions, your ears are filled with the sounds of an upbeat 30s song about the Bogeyman. Despite its catchiness, it is as creepy as the nursery rhymes in Nightmare On Elm Street. This only makes it more fitting to the game’s disturbing aesthetic.
Great soundtrack choices are also made in episode 3, where we hear Hania’s melancholic and haunting song Alice is Dead. The lyrics reference bits of the original Alice in Wonderland story but also hint at plot points in the convoluted narrative of the game series. And let us tell you – although the grimmification of Alice might seem cliché, Alice is Dead is imaginative and unique in many ways. It stays true to the original in one way, however – we’re all mad in Wonderland.
(Online, Android, iOS)
With all the tycoon-style games lately, why not a werewolf one? We guess this was the thought process of creators Sam Twidale and Joe Williamson. You’re not a werewolf on Wall Street, though. The setting is a London park during the full moon.
As is typical for a creature of the night, your goal to hide in a bush until you can find an opportune moment to snack on unsuspecting park visitors. It is important not to be seen though, especially by journalists who might snap and publish pictures of you. Businessmen should be your preferred meal, since their suitcases contain boosts, such as coffee and sandwiches. Coffee, of course, makes you faster but we’re still not completely sure what sandwiches do for a werewolf.
The game is pretty casual – controls are just clicking or tapping, but it is worth it for the great humour. A newspaper called The Daily Obituary reports on deaths at the park after every level. The headlines are as ridiculous as they are hilarious. The same applies to the hints you receive between levels: “Humans taste great deep-fried or terrified”. Werewolf Tycoon has no defined end goal, but it is fun to try and top your own high scores, as well as unlock many of the ludicrous achievements.
(Online: press enter twice to start the game)
Text-only or interactive fiction games were all the rage before the Internet even existed. With limited graphics processing power and storage space, they were a clever innovation that relied on the gamer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Hunter in Darkness is part of this criminally-underrated genre.
Andrew Plotkin’s award-winning 1999 game thrusts the player into a dark claustrophobic cave, where he must hunt the monster lurking within unless he wants to become the hunted. This tense game of cat and mouse happens in complete darkness, as the protagonist is not given any matches, torches or flashlights. All you can rely on is your trusty crossbow.
The descriptions of each area and event are detailed and well-written, immersing you in the tense atmosphere. Hunter in Darkness does not hold your hand, however. Drawing maps (common in interactive fiction) is pointless, as the ground beneath you can cave in at any moment. You will often find yourself in areas that seem like dead ends, but you have to rely on your creativity to solve the puzzle and escape.
The game has some mercy though – if you fail and die, the option to undo your previous move and continue exists. If you enjoy this old school nail-biting monster hunt, you can also visit the Interactive Fiction Database, which contains thousands of similar games.
(Windows download, free or pay what you want)
Wire Wood Daughters is the most experimental and mystifying game on this list. It is dreamlike, transitory, ethereal – like a fleeting memory you’re barely holding onto.
The setting is a monochrome 8-bit forest and the protagonist is a ball of light. There are no instructions or tutorials, just a desolate landscape. Many locations look confusingly similar, but the game has non-linear exploration, focusing on tone and storytelling rather than forcing the player to navigate a maze.
As you travel, you hear tape-recorded narration of a disjointed story. The sound design quality is astonishing for a free indie game. Sometimes the voice becomes distorted before you can hear them finish their monologue, but that is intended and in keeping with the strange moody atmosphere of the game.
As you wander around, you will also find mundane objects scattered on the forest floor – pieces of wire, jade glass and others. They evoke an odd sense of déjà vu. However, the “puzzles” are probably the most intriguing part – as you walk over black squares on the floor, they light up – almost resembling the illumination of a forgotten memory.
Wire Wood Daughters is similar to another experimental game, despite the jarring difference between their settings and aesthetic – Dear Esther. They share the fragmented narration and both games pose intriguing existential questions beneath the surface. If you enjoyed Dear Esther, do not miss the experience that is Wire Wood Daughters.
All images courtesy of the game developers. Main image: Lost Constellation