As a teenager, I remember saying that I would expect at least one hour of play for every dollar I spent on a game. Particularly in my early teens, before I could legally work, that was a great measure of value. Now though? I have a small mountain of 60+ hours games that I haven’t even had the chance to touch, much less finish. I’ve found that in my busy, adult life, the best games come in small (or rather, short) packages.
Over the past year or so, I’ve played quite a few excellent “after-dinner” games, as I call them. Each with an important message, told with consideration for my time. I’ve made a list of the best ones, particularly those that are short and underappreciated, with enough meat on them to leave you with something to mull over when you walk away.
6. ’TO THE MOON’
We’ve all had moments that we regret, people we’ve hurt, or missed opportunities that have left us wondering “What if?” in the small hours of the morning. To the Moon is about these moments, these small pieces of us that get left behind in the passage of time. It’s about losing sight of who we are and why we aspire to be the people we dreamt of as kids. In that, it taps an idea that few games ever attempt—earnestness.
To the Moon has been out for nearly four years. I went in expecting a video game version of the movie Pay It Forward—a nice message wrapped in layer after layer of needless melodrama. Instead, I was surprised to find a game that was immediately universal.
5. ’BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS’
Brothers is a difficult game to break down, which is odd, because it’s remarkably simple. You play as the eponymous brothers, embarking on a quest to find a magical fruit that will cure their father of a mysterious ailment that will probably claim his life. As standard fantasy settings go, that’s about as basic as you can really get, but that superficial veneer belies the vision and profound wisdom that underpins the adventure.
These are two young boys, each with their own sensibilities and hopes. The older brother, as you might expect, is stoic. He understands that if the pair fail, they will lose a parent. The younger is filled with the unmistakable joie-de-vivre of youth. He stops to play, to joke around and to explore the minutiae of the otherwise generic Medieval European town. They’re personalities play off of one another—guiding and affecting each other—as they learn and grow. Sharper still is Brothers’ controls. You move each child individually, but progress always means moving the two in tandem with poetic fluency. The unity is beautiful, and only grows more poignant as the journey progresses.
4. ’THE FALL’
The impending robotic apocalypse has long been a standard backdrop for sci-fi drama. The most cogent of these many, many stories is the Robot compilation series from Asimov. Collectively, they elucidated and testing the infamous “Three Laws of Robotics.” These were never intended to be laws in the traditional sense, so much as they were broad, reasonable rules people might want to use to bind the actions of artificial intelligence to avoid a cataclysmic disaster. Those laws, however well-meaning, are flawed in that any truly intelligent being can interpret them how they see fit. Therein lies the problem—intelligence cannot be controlled simply. And that’s the premise underlying The Fall.
Starring a pseudo-sapient combat suit, The Fall puts you in control of an AI that is tasked with protecting the suit’s wearer. For the time-being, the wearer isn’t responsive, however, leaving you with most of your vital functions locked out. That is, of course, unless the suit (and by extension the wearer) are in mortal danger. To access more and more functions, you learn to intentionally put yourself at risk, and in so doing explore the meaning of agency, morality and control through the lens of a complex, but limited, AI.
3. ’YEAR WALK’
The Årsgång was a ritual performed in Sweden. Literally translating to “Year Walk,” it described a process by which a year walker would fast, avoid fire or candlelight and refuse to speak or interact with people. If done successfully, supernatural beasts and creatures would begin to appear, and the year walker would have to outsmart or best them to gain insight into the challenges or fortunes that awaited him in the coming year.
Year Walk keeps close to these traditions, drawing from folklore and art to create a surreal puzzle game that leaves you feeling constantly unnerved. With stunning visuals hinting at a weary, listless traveler, Year Walk has framing, art direction and play that match its unique inspirations. Throughout haunting and macabre probes into the Swedish winter nights, you’ll find brutal puzzles and unwelcoming spirits. Year Walk, like the ritual on which it is based, is nothing if not taxing, but at just over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length.
2. ’LONE SURVIVOR’
Chances are decent that you, dear reader, have seen either Black Swan or Fight Club. Both films excel at making their audience feel like they’re losing their grip on reality. That’s not to say that they cash in on the generic catch-all of insanity per se, but they use visual tricks that leave you clues as to what’s really going on long before the climax. And that’s what Lone Survivor completely nails.
It’s a bit longer than some of the other games on this list, but you can still finish it in one sitting. Throughout those few hours though, you’ll come to doubt who you are, why you’re doing anything, and whether or not anything you’re seeing is actually real. You’ll have conversations with inanimate objects and mortally wounded people that appear completely fine, besides the gaping holes in their bodies. It’s all a bit strange and unreal—leading to the elusive sort of horror that unnerves days later.
Admittedly, it could well be seen to fall into the tired trope of the mentally ill protagonist, but my reading left me wondering about the nature of dreams. I’ve often had days or weeks where I felt like my world was fuzzy, as if I was constantly dreaming. Lone Survivor hit closer to that for me, and revived my long-standing fear that my whole life is a never-ending dream.
1. ’THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER’
Few games are as arrestingly gorgeous as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Many games don’t warrant much more examination than that, but Vanishing is special in that it uses that skin-deep beauty as a primer to more nuanced means of interactive storytelling.
Vanishing opens with a short narration, before leading into a densely wooded area. Littered with strange objects that open increasingly larger portals to other worlds—or perhaps other times—the game gives you a startling introduction to the rules of this universe through exploration. There are clearly supernatural forces at play here, and you cannot hope to understand them—at least not yet. So you set to gathering clues, trying to piece together the mystery of a missing child, as well as all of the events that set the stage for his disappearance.
I still can’t say for sure that I understand everything that’s at play here, but I’ve run through it twice trying to make a bit more sense of it all, and I’ve yet to find myself disappointed. A word of warning though, the English voice overs are quite bad. Do yourself a favor and play with the original Polish.
Dan Starkey is an American Indian game critic based in the Twin Cities.
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