Five Years of Following Freeware: Year Two
Picking up right where we left off, our five-years-in-five-days freeware retrospective presses on through 2011-2012.
August 2011 – The Unicated by Duzz
The competitions at the Adventure Game Studio site struck again. This time the premise of the Monthly competition was “Evil Twin” and Duzz’s approach in The Unicated was an unusual one. Instead of the twins being separate entities, the twins in question are a pair of heads on a single body. One twin, Bo, is a sweet innocent, seeing good in everything. The other, Mal, is pure malevolent evil out to cause misery and destruction wherever they go. With the two being one, the player gets to play both sides, with left-click using Bo and right-click using Mal instead.
It is a fairly simple mechanic, but it is amazing how much difference it makes to the game. Unsurprisingly, successfully completing the game requires a combination of the nice and nasty approaches. That alone would have made for an interesting change from the normal operation of a single character. But despite the game being made within a single month, Duzz went well beyond the basics: every interaction within the game has both a nice and nasty response to it, so even simply playing around is good fun. Add in a black sense of humour, and this is a good, if short, experience.
Taking on the role of a pair of mismatched twins is as simple as downloading The Unicated from the AGS website.
September 2011 – The Unfolding Spider by discordance
The core of a good game is often considered to be a coherent plot set in a consistent world. This allows the player to be drawn into the game world, usually making it a richer experience. But sometimes it is fun to go in the complete opposite direction. The Unfolding Spider starts off with the apparent feel of a noir mystery. The lead character is on a quest to find someone, and is prepared to go to some seedy locales to find them. From there on in, things get a little…weird.
In recalling my experience with this very unusual minimalist black-and-white game, the notes I made to remind myself refer to it simply as “insanity in game form”. Nothing about this adventure makes sense, yet the sheer oddness of the action made it compelling for me to play. There is no way that anyone could turn this into a commercial proposition, and indeed it would have worn out its welcome had it been much longer than it is. As it stands, this is a slice of surreality that provides an undeniable escape from any sort of world that could be described as “real”. It’s like a convoluted mystery thriller, but without the clear explanation of the plot at the end.
If you want to experience the oddity that is The Unfolding Spider for yourself, it can be downloaded from the AGS website.
October 2011 – The Asylum: Psychiatry for Abused Cuddly Toys by Parapluesch
There were many fine free indie adventures released before the Following Freeware series ever started, but for the most part we have only covered games released the previous month. There are just too many new games to look at each month to dig back through any great games that predated the articles. The Asylum: Psychiatry for Abused Cuddly Toys is an exception to that rule and an extremely clever game that has you psychoanalysing cuddly toys. The premise is ingenious and brilliantly executed, with the mental illness of each patient arising from scenarios based on how some toys are genuinely treated.
So, given that it is an older title, why did I decide to put it into an article? Well, my rationale was arguably a cheat of sorts. Long after its original release, a new patient was introduced: a crow that thought it was a psychiatrist. This major new element was the excuse I needed to bring this magnificent game to the attention of our readers. Whilst I spent more time examining the new patient (who is a tough nut to crack), I also took the time to play with some of the older inhabitants. The joy of those older stories had not faded with time for me, and I was glad of this renewed opportunity to share that joy with others. Perhaps I’ll even buy a real world version of one of the patients, available on the game’s website, some day.
For those seeking a career in analysing our plush friends, The Asylum: Psychiatry for Abused Cuddly Toys can be found on the developer’s website.
November 2011 – The Visitor by NickyNyce
As the most prolific source of downloadable adventure games, I always look at every game in the AGS database each month. As the engine is free to use, and free online storage is readily available, a lot of less-than-stellar games get produced and uploaded. Understandably, the worst offenders on this front are usually first-time game makers. With the help and guidance of the active AG community, many go on to improve and produce better games. Some continue to produce bad games despite what others say. Still others disappear without trace.
Then there is The Visitor. This was the first game by NickyNyce, but you would have been hard-pressed to tell if you didn’t know that already. The story centres around Agent Moss, a big-eyed grey alien sent to Earth as part of the Omega 1 Abduction Unit. Unfortunately for him, a collision between his ship and the Statue of Liberty sends him crashing into a suburban back yard. The subsequent story is a tale of mildly dark humour. The game has alternating chapters in which you control Agent Moss and Danny Myers, an occupant of the house the alien crashed next to. It is a pleasure to play, and I especially loved the little touches that elevate it above the norm. My favourite was when, as Danny, you turn to comfort your agitated dog, only for Agent Moss to pass by a window behind your back. This promising debut has since gone on to spawn two excellent sequels.
To see what a first-time game can look like in the right hands, download The Visitor from the AGS database.
December 2011 - Quasar by Crystal Shard
A lot of games over the years boil down to saving yet another world. Whether it is uncovering a conspiracy to seize power, thwarting an alien burger company, or making the Caribbean safe for all pirates, it all rests on your shoulders. Occasionally it’s nice to deal with something more intimately personal, and to share the load a bit with others. Fortunately, the intergalactic world of freeware had this option covered as well. In Crystal Shard’s short game Quasar, the crew of a spaceship has spent too long in close quarters. Tempers are running high, and one final incident makes them snap, each crew member making their way to their own area of the ship.
At first, it seems like addressing the problem is all down to one person, the ship’s doctor. However, once she has convinced another crew member to cooperate, they too become available. Switching between crew members is as simple as asking the new one to take over. Each brings different abilities into play, and even has their own unique inventory, though some items can be passed to other characters as necessary. As well as having different descriptions of everything on board, a nice touch is that each person has their own slightly different theme music as well. The result is a pleasant little vignette, with a story driven almost entirely by characters for a change.
The original freeware version of Quasar is no longer available. However, a deluxe version, featuring enhanced graphics and full voice-overs, is available from the developer’s website for a small fee.
January 2012 - ^-^ by Ben Chandler
Now working for Wadjet Eye games, Ben Chandler is undoubtedly a skilled pixel artist. This game takes place in just a single location – a grassy hill – but a wealth of detail is included in this small space. A twisted house sits on one side, home to a witch. The lantern hanging above the door casts a yellow light across the whole area, with realistic shadows spreading away from it. Clouds drift past in the background. A vampire hangs from a coat-stand. It is amazing there was room for any puzzles in all this artistic detail, but puzzles there are aplenty. The tale of a were-rabbit, Julian, seeking a cure for his condition is a highly humorous one, with quite a lot to do before your quest is done.
Given how much I clearly liked ^-^, you would expect that to be the reason it is included here. But whilst that belief is undoubtedly justified, it isn’t the only reason. I picked this game as much due to a unique problem it presented. As well as writing the articles, I am also responsible for adding the freeware games to our database each month. In order to be accessible in title searches and game browsing, new entries have to be added either alphabetically or starting with a number. As you can imagine, the title of this game presented me with quite a dilemma. Fortunately, our Following Freeware coverage provided a handy direct link for interested gamers, which is a good thing, because mundane technical limitations should never stand in the way of a game this good.
To enjoy fine pixel art and funny were-rabbit shenanigans, download ^-^ from the AGS website.
February 2012 – Masked by Lewis Denby
We all have our personal preferences when it comes to gaming. Various types of games have grown in popularity over the years, such that there are enough of them to be considered a new genre. Match 3, tower defense, hidden object games have all carved out their niche in the gaming world. Lurking on the edge of adventures, one sub-genre I have never really got on with is the "escape the room" game. At first glance they present you with a problem set in the real world: that you are trapped in a secured location. But the puzzles you are asked to solve to escape tend to be abstract in the extreme. Twist some paintings a certain way, collect six marbles, then have a shadow figure in a film point out a piece of wall with a hidden button on it. They just don’t make any sense to me.
Yet from time to time, a room escape game comes along that does make an effort to have a proper story. Such is the case with Lewis Denby’s Masked, in which your captor has very specific reasons for securing you in this single room. Appearing on a television screen as a plain mask, the villain reveals the story piece by piece, continually challenging you with changes to the room’s appearance. This task gives additional meaning to your predicament that I usually find single-room games lack. The final scene, presented in the neighbouring room that you escape into, presents a heart-wrenching but satisfying conclusion to the tale. Whenever I go to dismiss an escape the room game out of hand, I remember this adventure and promise to at least give the new one a fair look.
To escape a more story-driven room than usual, download Masked from the AGS Database.
March 2012 – UNGA Needs MUMBA by Tino Bensing
The advantage of making a game set in the history of our own world is that the background details already exist. The big disadvantage is that if you get those details wrong, then people are going to spot it and call you out. One way of dealing with this is to go back to a time so far back in the past no-one really knows any of the details. With UNGA Needs MUMBA, Tino Bensing has taken this approach to the extreme, going all the way back to caveman times. In this era the craggy-browed hero (Unga) must seek out a woolly mammoth (Mumba ) to keep his wife happy with him as her provider.
Even with our sketchy knowledge of the times, I think few would accept this game as an accurate representation. Indeed, for a prehistoric cave people, Unga and his kind seem surprisingly civilised at times. The game is well-drawn, with each character having its own distinct design. It is also extremely humorous in tone, with the stilted grammar of cave-speech proving especially effective. This is further enhanced by a rarity in freeware games: good quality voice-work throughout. The quest for Mumba may not be an easy one, with a god to please and rival tribesmen to contend with, but it is an enjoyable outing nonetheless.
If you want to bring home the Mumba yourself, head on over to the AGS archives.
April 2012 – The Kite by Anate Studios
More often than not, successful completion of a game tends to give you a happy ending of some sort. Achieving that happy ending is considered the reward for your efforts in meeting the game’s challenges. Even from the start, The Kite from Anate Studios does not feel like a game that is headed for a happy ending. The very graphics set the grim tone of the game, with a muted palette of greys and browns. Despite the lack of colours, the graphics are highly detailed, accurately depicting the sad expression of the protagonist and the squalor of her small apartment.
The look fits the story well, as this is not a tale for the easily depressed. The only light in Masha’s existence is her son Andrew. Struggling to feed him, and suffering at the hands of her alcoholic partner Oleh, her life is not a happy one. When Andrew flees the apartment at night to play with his beloved kite, Masha will do anything to find and protect him. The result is a powerful and disturbing tale, and even just looking at screenshots reminds me of the impact it had on me while playing it.
Those wishing to discover a truly unhappy and disturbing tale can download the game from Indie DB.
May 2012 – Gamer Mom by Mordechai Buckman and Kyler Kelly
To non-gamers, our hobby can seem like a strange way to pass the time. One way to get people to understand us better is to get them to have a go themselves. Such is the challenge of the titular Gamer Mom, who has decided that today is the day that she will try to get her husband and daughter interested. Sadly, her family seem to be less than enthusiastic about the idea. Her husband is too wrapped up in work, whilst her daughter seems unwilling to engage with her at all. Can she coax them on-board and get the family to bond over a game?
Presented as a series of simple cartoon stills, the game is controlled through on-screen buttons. These present actions and dialogue approaches available to you as you seek to pique interest. The resulting conversations may be all-too-familiar from real life for gamers, with neither of the family keen to join you. The best I ever achieved was a vague promise to play, and that may well be the most you can hope for. That does seem to be the way these things go in real life, after all.
For an all-too-authentic experience of trying to get non-gamers to join you in your hobby, check out it out online at the developers’ website.
June 2012 – Wages of Darkness by Baron
With no budget to hire skilled artists, the graphics of freeware games depend on the skills of those with enthusiasm for the project. The result varies widely in quality, ranging from stunning full-motion 3D to distorted 2D illustrations. Wages of Darkness solved the problem in a new and surprising way. For the majority of the game, the play screen is entirely black, with the inventory section only containing silhouettes of objects. The setting is an underground base, with you playing a young soldier trying to find an exit when the power goes out.
The result is disturbingly effective. Using the mouse to sweep the screen for hotspots feels a lot like trying to find things by touch alone. Even with frustrating pixel hunts avoided through moderately large hotspots, finding everything you need is no easy task. But you need to find things quickly, as you are not alone in the darkness. Something – or things – with hostile intent are lurking there, and you don’t want to wait around for them to catch up. By the simple method of displaying an all-black screen, this proves an astonishingly tense adventure. Perhaps it was for the best it is a relatively short adventure. I’m not sure I could have stood the strain of a longer version.
You too can scrabble around in the darkness searching for salvation by downloading the game from the AGS database.
July 2012 – The Epic Escape of the Carrot by Pyrozen
Adventures are often about grand quests to save the world starring chiselled heroes or feisty heroines. Harry is neither a chiselled hero, nor a feisty heroine. He isn’t on a grand quest to save the world either. He is a carrot, and he is simply on a quest to save himself. That is the premise of The Epic Escape of the Carrot, a game set entirely within the unusual locale of a fridge. In it you will hop around the shelves of the fridge, enlisting the help of the other residents as you desperately seek a way out.
The apparently innocent concept of an anthropomorphic carrot shouldn’t lull you into thinking this is a game for children. Despite its crisply-drawn cartoon art style, this is undoubtedly a game for adults, with an extremely saucy sauce bottle and a variety of fully-voiced, foul-mouthed foodstuffs. It would appear that some of the residents have been in the fridge for some time, forming attachments to one another and even starting relationships. The result is a surreal and quirky experience that is definitely a break from the norm. There is even bonus content available, with certain interactions opening links to external videos in an extras menu.
To start your quest to escape the fridge just head over to Games Free.