When it comes to video games, there is a whole lot more than Mario and Halo. Although the perpetuation of tricky obstacle courses and first-person shooters makes it seem like the landscape is filled with similar shallow joyrides that “non-gamers” wouldn’t get into, the world of gaming has expanded far beyond that.
In fact, there are plenty of games out now that have no enemies, no guns, and very little gameplay at all. These four indie games are just a sampling of how indie developers are stepping outside the lines to create games about stories, relationships and experiences that go far beyond what the original Donkey Kong intended.
Better than that, they’re all under $20 and available for purchase right now for either PC or Mac.
It’s late on a stormy night in 1995, and Katie Greenbriar has returned from a year abroad in Europe to her parents (new, larger) home in Portland, Oregon. However, no one is home, and there is a note from Katie’s sister, Sam, telling her to not look for her. Alone in an empty house, it’s time to wander.
Don’t expect to see another living soul in Gone Home, which takes its pride in showing just how much our belongings say about ourselves. Players meander about the home in first person, uncovering clues hidden in drawers and stacks of nostalgic knick-knacks — including a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper and Bratmobile mix tapes. The game only goes as deep as the player is willing to look, and after rummaging around and finding piles of seemingly unrelated information Gone Home comes together to tell the story of a flawed, if well-meaning, family.
Being a cog in the machine is hard. Being a cog in a fascist 1980’s Soviet machine running a hotly contested border outpost is even harder. Checking passports for fictional Soviet region of Arstotzka, the main goal of the game is to simply approve the right visas and reject the wrong ones. Discrepancies and false information are worthy of rejection, and when everything checks out, a green stamp awaits. However, as days go by, the rules get more complicated — border tickets, proper descriptions and body scans for certain nationals are imperative to stop terrorists and prevent docks in pay for sloppy work. And every dollar is needed to keep food and heat for your small family.
While finding sneaky errors hidden in passports and calling people out for their wrong information produces a sense of glee (and perhaps weird, given the concerns about today’s surveillance state), Papers, Please doesn’t allow you to revel in your work. In addition to looking at each face that passes by and listening to some of the stories of the people, players have to make some big decisions: is it worth it to risk taking two warnings to line pockets for a little extra pay? Should you send someone through with a faulty passport so he can stay with his wife and child? Do you let a dangerous terrorist in when he bribes you for medicine for your sick son? There isn’t very much “winning” in this game, but its dystopian intrigue makes it fodder for plenty of political philosophy discussions.
One of the weird things about life is each person’s unique approach to death. Grieving the death of loved ones, particularly those who have gone too soon, is personal and at times difficult to describe. As a lost man on a deserted island with nothing but time, Dear Esther invites the player to take a peek inside one grieving process — and it changes every time the game is played.
While much of the game is close to Gone Home in its experimental nature, there’s very little to interact with. Rather, the player is invited to simply explore the unsullied island, which has been rendered in lush and graphical detail. Throughout the game, the narrator reads letters to Esther, whose fate is ambiguously wrapped in a fatal accident. As the player uncovers more sights on the island, more of the story is told, almost as an introspective meditation on death. While there’s very little to do in Dear Esther, there’s plenty to see and hear, which work together to create a moving and important story.
In six weeks, the Yawhg is coming, and no one knows it. But four townspeople are tasked with going about their lives, making decisions that may ultimately decide whether the village survives the Yawhg’s onslaught.
Played like a cross between Choose Your Own Adventure and Dungeons and Dragons, the Yawhg invites players (up to four, although one can control them all) to venture around town and do different activities — from hunting to drinking in the tavern to filing paperwork. As weeks go by, the characters gain individual skills and endure random events both good and bad. At the end of the sixth week, the Yawhg comes, and the skills accrued from the previous weeks are finally put to the test. With random chances that have lasting effects throughout the story and many different endings, the Yawhg is about the power of life and decisions, and how they can help or hurt us in the long run.