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Disproving the theory that there's no such thing as a free lunch, our five-year freeware retrospective continues with another twelve months' worth of indie gems from 2012-2013. (Though we recommend you don't try to eat them.) If you're tuning in late, check out Year One and Year Two and then come back for more.
August 2012 – Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator – Case 8: Relics of the Past by Grundislav Games
The adventure genre has given birth to many famous characters over the years. Few long-term genre fans will have failed to hear of Guybrush Threepwood, Gabriel Knight or Roger Wilco. The freeware scene has its own famed characters, and few are better known than the sleuth of the supernatural, Ben Jordan. His first case in 2004 put him In Search of the Skunk-Ape as he started his career. Subsequent cases took him around the world, facing eerie mysteries in England, Japan and Greece. Over time he gained a network of friends and colleagues, and his story built from a single standalone tale to a grand world-spanning conspiracy.
The release of Relics of the Past nearly eight years after Ben’s first appearance brings his tale to an end. It is truly an epic adventure, with the tales of his previous escapades woven into the story. The skills of the developer, Francisco Gonzalez, improved over the course of the series, with better graphics and sound, including full voice-work in later episodes. Indeed, he even went on to remake the original two stories as “Deluxe” editions, bringing them up to par with the later instalments. Whilst this adventure provided a fitting end to Ben’s tale, I felt a tinge of sadness that we would see no more of him. Fortunately, Francisco is now a full-time commercial game developer so, whilst you may now have to pay to enjoy his work, he is still producing quality games.
The Ben Jordan series is one best played from the start. Fortunately all eight games can be downloaded from the developer’s website.
September 2012 – This is Not an Escape by Something’s Awry
Without money for expensive software, freeware developers have used a variety of readily available engines for their creations. For online gaming, Flash was the engine of choice for years, with Unity becoming more popular recently. With This is Not an Escape, the developers eschewed an engine entirely, presenting a game through a series of videos on YouTube. Of course, this being a game, it was not a simple case of just running a playlist of videos one after another. Instead, all but the opening video were unindexed, meaning they would not appear in YouTube searches. Instead, hyperlinks were embedded in the videos over on-screen options, with a mouse-click taking you to the video that displayed your chosen action.
For the most part this approach makes the action akin to a choose-your-own adventure book. The player watches the video, then simply makes a choice at the end based on what they want to do next. However, the game does manage to include combination puzzles as well. For these a keypad is displayed on-screen, and clicking on a number takes you to a specific point in the current video rather than opening a new one. Only by hitting the numbers in the correct order will the last digit move the action on. The game is also cleverly edited, with some interesting scene transitions showing that its world is not all it seems. Whilst not a spectacular epic, this new approach provides for a surprisingly satisfying experience.
The video that kicks off this unusual adventure can be found on YouTube.
October 2012 – Pledge Quest 1 and 2 by Akril and Decaffeinated Jedi
Some people make entirely original games. Some people make games that are inspired by others they’ve enjoyed from the past. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time anyone has made a game to support the Kickstarter of a game inspired by a game from the past. The two Pledge Quest games were written in support of the SpaceVenture Kickstarter, a game inspired by Sierra’s Space Quest series. With one of the developers being the creator of the nostalgia-laden Adventure series, and the other running a major Space Quest fan site, it is not surprising that these games are full of genre references.
In the first part, the protagonist, Bea, simply wants to donate to the Kickstarter (and highly recommends the player should as well). This proves not to be an easy task, because her credit card is missing and vital cables have been chewed by her cat, Vohaul. The second game takes a surreal turn when Bea finds out that her cat thinks she should spend more on him than on games. In a quest to make this happen, the feline goes back in time to prevent Space Quest from ever being made. This includes many bizarrely humorous scenes, including when Vohaul convinces Space Quest’s programmers that he is Sierra head Ken Williams – this despite the fact that he only says “meow” and is quite clearly a cat atop an artificial human body.
The chance to pledge to the Kickstarter has passed, but you can still play these promotional games by downloading them from the developers’ wesbsite.
November 2012 – Eurydice by Anonymous
Far from being a relic of a bygone past, the text adventure format is still very much alive and kicking. In 2012, the annual Interactive Fiction competition attracted 28 varied entries. One of these was Eurydice, an adventure in a modern setting but inspired by the mythical tale of Orpheus. The player takes the role of a man newly bereaved, with the action starting at the wake being held at his house. His beloved Celine has recently passed, and the house is full of painful memories for him. Exploring further tells you more about her last days, and offers a variety of ways of dealing with the grief.
Being a text-only adventure, the quality of the writing is key to this game’s success. You truly feel the sorrow of the character, and even simple item descriptions have their own poignancy. There are not a huge number of puzzles to solve, but those that exist allow multiple solutions. These in turn lead to four very different endings, ranging from accepting your loss and moving on to getting lost with no hope of return from a fantasy world yourself. Playing the game is an emotionally draining experience, but one that is well worth taking on.
Should you wish to discover the joy of text from the sorrow of life for yourself, then this game, along with the other entries from that year, can be downloaded or played online at the IF competition website.
December 2012 – The Old Man and the Sea by TheBitPriest
Adaptations have a bit of a chequered history. Often something that works in one medium just doesn’t fit an entirely different one. When I started playing The Old Man and the Sea, I was pretty sure I was getting into something that would not translate well. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found that I was playing an enjoyable little game that still managed to retain the important parts of Hemingway’s source material.
Santiago, the titular Old Man, is a fisherman who has had a run of bad luck. In the first part of the game you play Manolin, a young boy who has assisted him with his fishing in the past. Your task in this section is to encourage Santiago to take his boat out one more time. With the old man deeply depressed, that is not an easy thing to achieve. In the second part you play Santiago out on his boat. There you must set lines to fish before facing a struggle with a formidable piscine foe. With the developer describing the novella as “a hint book” for the game, the more well-read might find it easier than others.
To take on this challenge of classic literature in game form, grab the game from the AGS database.
January 2013 – Patchwork by Ilyich
Far too often we seek to fit things into neat little categories. Whilst they are often both enjoyed by the same sort of people, fantasy and science fiction are usually considered to be separate genres. In this game originally made for a pay-what-you-want bundle by Ilyich, the two combine to make a satisfying little tale. In our world, scientist Daniel prepares to power up his experimental teleporter for the first time. At the same time, in a realm of magic, trainee mage Lin attempts a last summoning practice before her exam. The two experiments intertwine, mixing Daniel’s lab with Lin’s home, and they must work together to separate the two.
The first thing that struck me is how beautiful the graphics are. A fine art painterly style has been used, which manages to portray the austere lines of the lab and the more organic nature of Lin’s world perfectly. Full facial close-ups for dialogue provide a real feel for the characters, and the look is complemented by a soundtrack that varies appropriately from location to location. The game also gives free range to switch between the two lead characters at any time. Not only do all the reactions of other characters change depending on who you control, but so does the look of the world, such as Lin seeing spirits where Daniel only sees a mundane fire.
Mixing the realms of fantasy and science fiction just requires a quick trip to the AGS database.
February 2013 – 400 Years by scriptwelder
One way that tension can be added to games is by having the player work against a deadline. While the actual passage of time is often fudged for game purposes, having to complete your quest quickly enhances immersion by giving players a sense of urgency. Usually such a time restriction is only a few hours or days though. 400 Years quite literally gives you that much game time to complete it. But what at first seemed like a generous time limit actually proved to be a lot tighter than I expected.
The puzzles are very much tied into how much time you have available. Whilst time passes slowly by itself, holding the space bar accelerates the clock. Early obstacles are simple, including a lake that is only passable when frozen over in winter. Later you have to plant seeds and wait for trees to grow, and even assist in the rise of human civilisation so they will build a bridge across a wide gap. You can carry a single item at a time, but many of these will crumble away quickly in a season or two. I found this to be truly an original concept, and felt a real sense of achievement when I averted the foretold disaster at the end.
Should you have 400 years to spare, then I highly recommend going to Armor Games to try this out.
March 2013 – The Last Door: Season One - Pilot Episode: The Letter by The Game Kitchen
I have long been a fan of horror, across all media. But I’ve always thought far too much horror relies on throwing hideous monsters and gore at you. Far better to keep the horror hidden, leaving the audience to conjure up terrors from their own imagination. To my mind, the blocky pixel graphics of The Last Door series achieves this effect nicely. A high-resolution model has to be perfect in every detail to be convincing, whereas this game gets the player to fill in those details for themselves. Add to that a dose of good writing in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft, and this is not a series for the faint-hearted.
This debut episode has you take on the role of Victorian gentleman Jeremiah Devitt. When he receives a letter from an old friend simply bearing the motto of their old school club, he fears the worst. Rushing to his friend’s side, he arrives to find an apparently deserted house. The exploration of the house is highly discomforting, with many dark, shadowy corridors. What’s more, there is evidence that things have gone very wrong for a while in this place. The fact that the game eschews gross spectacle makes the more disturbing scenes, such as when you find a previously empty room suddenly very well occupied, all the more effective.
With Season 1 having since been updated and re-released in a commercial Collector’s Edition, the later episodes of the series now require a moderate fee to unlock, but you can still experience this very first episode for free at the developer’s website.
April 2013 – No One Has to Die by Stuart Madafiglio
When we take on the role of hero in a game, we often get tasked with the job of saving everyone else. Going by the title, you would think that was the aim of No One Has to Die as well. But for the vast majority of the game, the title appears to be a lie. Taking the role of a delivery person, you arrive at an office to find the security staff dead, and the building on fire. With only limited access to the building systems, you see the staff trapped in the burning corridors die one by one. Only by learning the truth behind the mysterious Fenix Corporation do you have a hope of achieving your goal.
The mechanics of this grid-based game are actually relatively simple. You are able to lock one door remotely, and can instruct the survivors to move around and turn water systems on and off. In each chapter a casualty is inevitable no matter what you do, and even saving everyone else can prove a challenge. But where the game really comes to life is between chapters, when the remaining characters communicate with you through the network’s chat system. The dialogue is very well written, with each pattern of deaths providing you with a bit more of the story. The tale is a surreal but compelling science fiction story, with all elements naturally arising from conversation. Only when you understand the story completely will fulfilling the game’s title become a possibility.
Should you wish to lead a succession of characters to their deaths in the eventual hope of saving them all, the game is available online at the developer’s website. (Note: Link does not currently work with Internet Explorer.)
May 2013 – The Search for Oceanspirit Dennis by OneDollar
I’m pretty sure that Oceanspirit Dennis is meant to be a joke. He has extravagantly pointy hair, a ridiculously over-sized sword, and a tendency to talk in leetspeak. The most obvious influence for the character is the Final Fantasy series, though various other game conventions are lampooned through him. The Search for Oceanspirit Dennis stars his long-term companion, Life-Partner Ray, and is set at the time they first meet. Ray’s village is under threat of attack, and only the legendary Dennis is capable of saving them. Unfortunately, he is in the next town over, and Ray is too low-level to pass the guard blocking the only bridge between them.
The ensuing game ruthlessly mocks many well established tropes of the role-playing genre. The most prevalent is the fetch quest, with pretty much everybody in town ready to assign you a ludicrously mundane task to gain the experience you need. To become a true hero involves moving tables and collecting milk and cookies, right? An underground bunker houses a character that embodies the stereotype of the antisocial computer gamer, who challenges you to play two games that are incredibly dire. In poking fun at these otherwise-less-than-desirable elements, the overall result is most enjoyable, with good production values as well.
To see where one of the great relationships of freeware first started, just download the game from the AGS database.
June 2013 – Shitty Quest by JimMakesGames
Normally game-makers will set out to make their creations look as good as possible with the resources and skills available. If a game’s graphics look bad, that often bodes ill for everything else. But occasionally a less-than-stunning appearance is a deliberate choice by the creator. Such is the case with Shitty Quest, where the look matches the title for reasons that are not immediately obvious. The ugly exterior houses a witty game that breaks the fourth wall in a clever and satisfying fashion.
The opening appears to present a generic escape game. The protagonist is trapped within two minimalist rooms almost devoid of decoration. The only other inhabitant is the world’s laziest man, who provides no help at all. Escaping this initial location opens up a wider world where you discover that there is more at stake than just the fate of this one character. To say more about the plot would spoil it, as the twists and turns come out satisfyingly through play. The puzzles aren’t overly complex, mostly involving dialogue with limited but cunning inventory use. However, it is the writing together with the perfectly voiced delivery that make this supposedly shitty game an actual real gem.
Those who wish to try polishing a turd have only to visit the AGS database to download this game.
July 2013 – Educating Adventures of Girl and Rabbit by L&S and Projectoholic
Educational games have gained a bad reputation over the years. Paper-thin plots and overly forced gameplay too often turn them into a chore rather than fun. Educating Adventures of Girl and Rabbit is a game deserving of a different kind of bad reputation. The bright colours and upbeat personality of the player character may lull you into thinking this is a game for children. However, when she meets her in-game “teacher”, you are soon disabused of that notion. This lagomorph is astonishingly foul-mouthed, and ready to inflict violence on his charge at the drop of a hat.
The ensuing lessons are probably not ones you would want a small child to learn. The rabbit has a very dark view of life in general and humanity in particular. This is reflected in what he considers to be the right answers to the series of challenges he presents to the girl along the dusty forest road they travel together. The dark cynicism of the rabbit is offset by the irrepressibly chirpy female protagonist, making for a darkly comedic tale. The final obstacle does involve a modicum of dexterity, requiring the girl to shoot various people according to rules the rabbit sets. However, the “targets” are fairly slow-moving, and the lack of a time limit avoids making this too frustrating.
For a black comedic take on edutainment, you can download the game from the AGS database.