3 Free Indie Games Worth Your Time

For most of Indie Month, we’ve been doing big-picture kinda deals– looking at two talented and prolific developers, and examining some elements of the “genre” as a whole. We thought we’d close by looking at what makes indie games really exciting: the huge breadth and variety of available experiences, and the huge number of them that are free.

There’s no excuse for not playing these. They’re generally pretty short, almost effortless to get a hold of, and every one of them has something inspiring or original about it. Go forth, and remember that we live in a pretty exciting time for the medium.
Time Fcuk

“I’m in a room full of bodies. They all kinda look like you.”

Edmund McMillen makes games that are creative and sharp, but have a tendency to be muddled in tone. Super Meat Boy was a great masocore platformer which eventually turned into visually uninteresting levels full of buzzsaws. The Binding of Isaac is fantastic, and probably his best work (god knows we can’t stop playing here at the CV “offices”), but its moody atmosphere and dark humor evaporate every time a stupid meme reference or rage face pops up.

Time Fcuk does not have these problems. It’s a tightly-bound puzzle-platformer that maintains a bleak, dread-drenched tone from start to finish. From the moment you enter The Box– stepping into the time loop that you’re trapped in –the game sinks into a deep melancholy. Its monochrome level design, atonal soundtrack, and stellar sound all give it a hopeless  feel. In a genre where every game seems to want to imitate Portal, going for more of a Silent Hill vibe is a pretty daring choice.

It’s also one of the only McMillen (and co.) games where the writing really shines. Throughout the game, you’ll get communications from yourself in the past and future. However, as you spend more time adrift, going more and more mad from the isolation and puzzles, the “yous” in various points in time start to fracture and change. Partway through the game, it becomes ambiguous if you’re even yourself or playing as a doppelganger. There’s not much plot to speak of, but the writing is sharp throughout and contributes to a great sense of building horror at your situation.

 

Tower of Heaven

At first glance, Tower of Heavenis the kind of game that indie development is bloated with: a brutally hard platformer with retro graphics and

The game gets a lot of beauty out of three colors.

slightly philosophical themes. And while that doesn’t make it bad— the gameplay is solid all the way through, the Gameboy-style graphics are cool, and the music’s excellent– where it really shines is how much it plays with that formula.

Every couple levels, the game adds another seemingly-arbitrary rule that will instantly kill you if broken: don’t touch blocks from the sides, don’t touch certain blocks, no backtracking, et cetera. What makes the game so smart and interesting is that, taken together, all these really mean is “get better at platforming.” Every rule just means you need to be more precise in your jumps, avoid obstacles, keep moving forward, and evade enemies– the same basic constraints all platformers put you under.

The end result feels incredibly pure and focused in a way a lot of ultra-hard platformers don’t. Just as the game works with an intensely reduced color palette smartly applied, the core mechanics are all about taking the unspoken rules of platforming and giving you absolutely no room for error, and building an entire game out of these rules.

 

Iji

Dan Remar’s Iji is definitely the highest-profile of the games we’re looking at this week, although not on the level of Cave Story or Spelunky

It takes an entire game’s worth of planning and risk to get that gun. It’s worth it.

(which we didn’t mention under the assumption that you’ve heard of them, and if you haven’t, well, you have now, so go download them immediately). It deserves that profile– it’s a staggeringly fun action game with great vector-style graphics (think Another World) and a damn good central story.

The story’s where it really shines, although the combat, fleshed-out RPG elements, and Metroidvania-ish level design are all pretty stellar as well. It puts you as a survivor of an alien attack, cybernetically augmented and fighting to drive out the invaders. This is all pretty rote stuff, but the game keeps track of your choices and gives you real input into the narrative in a way action games usually don’t. A no-kill run will result in some enemies trying to be peaceful and helping you, whereas playing more aggressively will gradually turn the protagonist into a bloodthirsty wreck incapable of mercy. The change– from hearing Iji shriek when hurt and whimper after killing an enemy in self-defense to hearing her howl with rage or laugh when catching enemies in traps –is heartbreaking and guaranteed to make you want multiple playthroughs. It does a better job of making you feel sorry for your enemies than any other game we’ve seen. There’s tons of easter eggs hidden in the story as well– careful planning can save the lives of certain characters, different skill focuses can make boss fights and areas skippable, and it’s possible to go through the whole game with a clean conscience if you’re very, very careful.

And, as said, the gameplay is a beast. It’s fast and frenetic, with gigantic weapons, hoverbike chases, colossal boss fights, and a detailed and beautiful world. Taken together, the game feels like some bizarre hybrid of Metal Slug and Shadow of the Colossus.

 

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Why Indie Games Need To Lighten Up

“Can their be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? My father? My mother? My… dog? Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt.”

–Samuel Beckett, Endgame

We’ve been talking, this month, of things in indie and art games that we love. But now we’re going to talk about something that frustrates us: a general trend in storytelling and narrative towards big-picture, misery-porn, thematic stories. It was inevitable we’d get here; one of us is an indie game developer and the other a writer and literary critic. The huge number of indie games that want, not to tell us a story or to put us in a particular mood, but to tell us a Big Idea about life. We live in an incredible age for games as art and the potential to communicate new ideas with them is greater than it ever has been– one of the best indie games (if not one of the best games) of the past few years was Bastion, which created a wholly unique fantasy setting and told a pretty powerful story about war and humanity that made the player an active participant in it. And yet a huge number of designers seem to think that the highest goal of their art is to deliver a truism about the nature of life. Lots of artists in lots of mediums think talking about Death or Relationships or other capital-letter Platonic concepts gives their work additional weight. But it’s especially frustrating in games, which should by their very nature be the farthest from the artist sitting down and talking to us about broad, impersonal concepts.

How EA Published a Better Story About Love and Death than Jason Rohrer

Truly a powerful moment of complex emotion.

You knew this one would come up. Passage is one of the ultimate “games-as-art” arguments, proof that games can talk about the big concepts, a game that has reportedly brought people to tears and which the creator says is an artistic statement on mortality. And, well, we think it’s kind of crap. Here’s how it goes: you walk right for five minutes, slowly aging. You can either hunt for treasure or pick up a wife, which increases your score. As you move forward, the compressed area ahead of you slowly decreases. Eventually your wife dies, then you die.

The game is about the inevitability of death, the trade-off of freedom and wealth for happiness and stability that comes through a committed relationship, and the pain of loss. How do we know this? Because that’s all the game is about. (Not to mention that the ultimate moral– outliving a loved one hurts, and eventually we all fade away– is the same as the Epic of Gilgamesh’s, making it literally the oldest observation in the history of human art). Because the gameplay’s boring, the characters are nonexistent, the art is grating, the gameplay can be done without thinking. The only amount of meaningful player interaction is the thought and effort required to understand the obvious symbolism.

Replaying Dragon Age: Origins lately (SPOILERS AHEAD), it was surprising how good a job Bioware (a company infamous for a “tell-don’t-

Alistair struggles with some manner of basic concept.

show”) approach managed to make the player’s involvement in the story a part of gameplay. Whereas most games with dialogue systems and player choice usually have that as an addition to the core gameplay, DA:O manages to make that as central as its RPG elements– building good relationships with your teammates and making sure they trust you has as big of consequences as leveling them up correctly and equipping them right. And in the game’s climax, depending on your choices, there can be a pretty powerful and tragic moment.

Alistair is the first of your allies that you meet and, unless you make a deeply questionable choice near the end, will be with you for the entire game. If you want, you can pursue a relationship with him (like in Passage, this is completely optional, although Passage doesn’t have deeply cheesy sex scenes). Along the way, you can help him grow as a person and become braver and more mature. And then comes a revelation near the final mission: either you ask something of Alistair that goes completely against his moral code, or one of you will have to sacrifice themselves to defeat the enemy and save your homeland. And, if you’ve done all these things– made friends with Alistair, started a relationship with him, helped him become a more heroic person, and let him stay true to his ideals– the game suddenly takes your choices away. Alistair approaches you at the climax of the game and says he loves you and will never, ever let you die. And so one of the game’s main characters sacrifices himself as a direct consequence of choices you made in your relationship with him. In a game where being friends and doing right by other characters has so far guaranteed their survival, the game reminds you that part of being in love means watching the person you love die, and it’s a sickening gut-punch.

Dragon Age works where Passage doesn’t because of specificity– it’s a story, not an allegory. Because Passage tries to be so broad, so universal, and puts its lesson above all else it feels cold and obvious. By wanting to make a point and express an idea more than telling a story or being fun to play, it ends up feeling empty and didactic. Dragon Age’s story is all manner of cliche and hokey, but it actually has characters to get invested in and real conflicts, and Alistair’s possible death is a result of gameplay choices the player made, rather than how far right they walked. In terms of both narrative and games, these are advantages.

Seriousness is the Death of Art

Game designers want to be taken seriously as artists, and that’s understandable. This is especially true of indie designers, who have both incredible freedom and strong financial limitations that encourage finding some manner of unique style or theme. But great art doesn’t have to as serious as so many game designers want it to be.

Cute, cartoony, and colorful. The only time you’ll see that in this entry.

One of our favorite indie games– one of our favorite games of 2011, to be honest –was  Bastion, and it’s a fantastic work of art. It’s lush and beautiful, well-written, combines story and gameplay almost seamlessly, has fantastic music, and raises some really serious questions about war, society, and responsibility. The creeping dread as you go through it and gradually realize that the civilization you’re trying to rebuild was in fact cruel and oppressive is a beautiful example of making the player and their exploration a major facet of the story. It’s also really, really fun— combining varied hack-n-slash gameplay, RPG elements, clever and dynamic level design, and a creative and original fantasy world. You don’t just walk away from it thinking “man, war and the cycle of revenge sure is brutal,” you also think “oh man remember that time I fought a giant sandworm-gator using a pike and a pair of revolvers? That was awesome!” It had genuine emotional moments and it earned them through being a fun game.

That issue– earning an emotional payoff –is where a lot of the serious indie/art games fall down. Limbo was an unrelentingly oppressive black-and-white experience that made you feel hopeless by pitting the world against you, making you struggle to survive, and having a general tone of decay and entropy reflected in the crumbling, barren level design. The Graveyard  is a black-and-white game with a sense of despair because the old lady you play as might die and old ladies dying is sad. Loved may well raise some points about free will in a relationship and the need to be an individual, but those points would seem a lot more meaningful if it didn’t express them through finicky platforming in an uninteresting level with no story or characters– think of how Portal felt like a portrait of an abusive mother-child relationship, and used its puzzles as a way to create conflict between you and GladOS and give you a sense of struggling against her.

The general issue seems to be that “fun” is the opposite of “serious” and that serious art about serious things has to be serious. There’s something to this– if Mario suddenly stopped, turned to the camera, and lectured us about the evils of monarchical rule it would be jarring –but the purpose of a game is to be played. Of our three core principles, agency and satisfaction both require the game to give the players choices and to be fun, and so many art games either ignore the first in favor of making sure their message comes through, or the second to make sure they stay artistic. In the worst case, they’re so serious and so obsessed with having a big bold idea that they go past “unfun” and just become ugly.

Edmund is the worst case. It won contests and praise for putting the player in an uncomfortable place and exploring mature topics, but once you

Maybe if this is the level of tact you’re capable of using you should try a less sensitive topic.

get past the description “the game where you play as a rapist” there’s not much of a game there. Some platforming (because big Mario-hops over bottomless pits is thematically appropriate in a bleak game about sexual assault) and a couple rape minigames– wait, what? The combat consists of beating a woman and then pressing X repeatedly to rape her, and that’s the core gameplay. This is an extreme case, but it’s symptomatic of the problem that art and indie developers have– Paul Greasely was so focused on making a game that was dark, serious, and explored real-life issues that he thought marrying the button-press-satisfaction mechanics of platformer combat to the act of rape was a bad idea.  It doesn’t raise any serious questions, it doesn’t flesh out the female characters more than “they are there so you can play as a rapist,” and it doesn’t have any real reason to exist besides its creator’s original mission statement: “I want to make a game where you play as a rapist.” The general shallowness turns it, basically, into a gritty noir version of Custer’s Revenge. It’s the ultimate case of what we’re looking at: a fixation on being serious, dark, and meaningful, to the point where that’s the only purpose the game has.

Rape itself shouldn’t be fun, but it’s possible to talk about sexual violence in a game and still have the game be worthwhile. In No More Heroes, it’s pretty clear that Travis on some level is a sadist who gets a sexual thrill out of murder. When Travis Touchdown kills people and his phallic sword grows more and more erect, it says something about our culture’s issues with sex and violence because he’s a fleshed-out character whose dysfunctions grow from his pop-culture addiction. And the game has context that offers to flesh out these issues– it’s a game about how modern culture and geek culture combine sex and violence, how the escapist nature of violent media is scary, and how living a life defined by pop culture makes you dead to humanity. Edmund is a game about rape– not its effects, not the societal causes of it,not why people do it, just the act itself. Edmund doesn’t say anything besides “rape sure is ugly” because fleshing out characters, putting in human elements, or adding personality to the game would have made it less grim and serious.

Is There A Solution?

Yes, and it’s an obvious one. If you ever take a creative writing course, one of the first things any good teacher will tell you is to put ideas and themes on the back burner. Focus on making the language sound right. Write good characters with complex emotions. Have an interesting plot that grabs the reader. While the greatest books marry theme and story, and while philosophers made great books out of great ideas, a well-written work of fiction with an interesting plot beats one that has big ideas but nothing else every time.

Games are fiction, and they need to follow the same rules. They don’t have to be fun all the time, but they have to be more than a vehicle for the big idea.

Terry Cavanagh: Less is More

One thing that we at Cardinal Virtual can always respect is when a game designer is able to do a lot with a little. It’s always satisfying to see a solid game concept taken to it’s full potential without any unnecessary gimmicks bogging it down, and indie game designer Terry Cavanagh has mastered this skill to a fault. His games often have very simple, traditional mechanics with one or two slight twists which the game itself is built from. His minimalist approach doesn’t end with game mechanics though– the art style and sound design of Cavanagh’s games all have an equally pared back feel. Here are some examples:

Don’t Look Back

Trapped.

This short flash game is the first of Cavanagh’s library that either of us played. The game is based on the Greek myth in which Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his wife back with him, on the condition that he doesn’t look at her while they are escaping. This condition that Orpheus receives in the myth is one of the things that makes this game unique, as for the entire second half of the game, you must preform typical platforming stunts (running, jumping, shooting) without turning around, or your wife will vanish and you’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint (which thankfully are frequent). This simple additional rule will cause you to think about basic platforming challenges in a totally different way and adds a refreshing twist to the more shooting heavy first half of the game (apparently Orpheus traded in his lyre for a pistol). It’s probably the best example of Cavanagh’s signature technique– imposing one or two limits and pushing the player against them in every way possible.

All the colors you will see in the game.

The art style is about as minimalistic as you can get but still manages to leave an impression. Don’t Look Back uses a total of three shades of red against a black background and still manages to create an immersive experience. The blocky Atari 2600-style graphics (all in red) help emphasize how alien and disorienting a place the underworld would be, while also giving the game a washed-out and bleak feeling to match the protagonist’s grief. It also makes the game more memorable and recognizable, since with this color pallet, you’re not likely to confuse a screenshot of this game with any other out there. Many of the sound effects are also more realistic than you would expect (most 2D games for example don’t have realistic sounding footsteps) which, along with the somber music, help with immersion and set it apart from other games that use a retro art style.

The game’s certainly not perfect. The difficulty ramps up fast and since the game respawns you without much warning, cheap deaths will occur. Also the ending, while hard-hitting back when the game first came out, might not seem as original these days. Still, Don’t Look Back is definitely worth playing and if nothing else, will be a memorable experience.

VVVVVV

The hardest challenge in the entire game, caused because you can’t step over a waist-high block.

This is not only Terry Cavanagh’s most important and well polished game, but one of the best indie games ever made. VVVVVV is a metroidvania-style game where the player controls Captain Viridian, who’s on a mission to rescue his lost crew members from a strange dimension that they’ve landed in. Unlike other metroidvanias, you don’t look for weapons or gain new abilities to progress. In fact, other than moving right and left, you only have one maneuver in your arsenal the entire game: rather than jumping, you have the the ability to reverse your own gravity (or flip). This skill instantly allows you to do things you never thought possible in a platformer, like escape a deep pit by flipping up to the ceiling or crossing a gap by using the bottoms of moving platforms. It also makes other platforming challenges much more difficult, like when you have to go up and then back down a deadly spike laden shaft to get over a tiny block in your way. Like only being able to travel in one direction in Don’t Look Back, flipping completely changes the way you experience a platformer and the game is structured around this unique ability brilliantly.

You wouldn’t see these kind of manners from I Wanna Be the Guy.

In VVVVVV, Cavanagh’s expanded his color pallet to six colors (eight if you count white and black), one for Viridian and each of his other five crew members. Each screen in the game has one background color (with numerous shades) and these colors change from screen to screen. In addition to creating a unique feel, this artistic choice shows what a jangled mess of a dimension that Viridian and his crew-mates are stranded in, creating a more cohesive and interesting world while still using very simple graphics. The soundtrack is also incredibly catchy, that kind of video game music that you’ll find yourself humming later. The the additional game modes (like Time Trial and the infamously hard No Death Mode) help add a lot of replay value making this easily the biggest of Cavanagh’s games (which makes sense since it is a commercial game).

Overall, we can’t recommend this one highly enough. If you’re interested in indie games at all go pick it up now. It originally cost around $15 but you can easily find it for much cheaper now.

Xoldiers

The chaos of war, in 8-bit form.

This game was actually a collaboration between Terry Cavanagh and Cactus (subject of last weeks entry) back in 2008, before the two games we just discussed. The minimalistic and brightly colored graphics certainly evoke the other projects of these designers. In Xoldiers, you control small squadron of troops who must destroy a specific target on each stage (always a purple temple like structure) while fighting their way through enemy tanks and soldiers. You move the squad as one object, meaning the more xoldiers you have alive the less maneuverable you are but the more firepower you have. Controlling the xoldiers as a squad helps evoke the sense of war surprisingly well. The xoldiers all shoot, duck, and move as one, and individually they’re helpless. No xoldier has any identity– it’s entirely about the squad. The massive explosions and giant plumes of blood (which can obstruct your tiny xoldiers from view) adds to the sense of chaos that the game presents and also makes destroying enemies more satisfying.

The following mission is easier if you let some of your xoldiers die, because you have too many to fit in the door.

And yet, instead of just reveling in its extravagant violence, the game has a harsh satiric edge. The incredibly over-the-top General who briefs the player before each level is hilarious but also is clearly intended to show the callousness and brutality of war. In one mission, the General declares that “A xoldier never retreats, and never looks back!”, and then you enter a mission where you start on the opposite side of the screen, only to find that your xoldiers can’t turn around to shoot. So you have to advance into enemy fire backwards all because a xoldier “never looks back!” In another mission, your xoldiers’ adherence to a solid block formation makes infiltrating a base nearly impossible. It’s not exactly subtle satire, but it fits for the style of the game.

All in all, Xoldiers is definitely a fun little game to pick up and spend a half hour or so with, and manages to be one of the only anti-war games out there.

Other Games by Terry Cavanagh:

Self Destruct: An entertaining vertically scrolling SHMUP where you try to survive  as many waves of enemy fighters as possible.

At A Distance: A two player puzzle game ideally played on two computers side by side.

Radio Silence: A first-person game where you have to locate and collect several radios based on the sounds they release. Great atmosphere.

Hexagon: Hard to describe this one. It’ll really test your reflexes. Very hard, but very addictive.

My Brain It’s Swollen: A Cactus Primer

[We’re back from hiatus, and ready to spend all month talking about our favorite indie games and developers!]

A little while ago, Jonatan Soderstrom, aka Cactus, announced his first for-sale, distributed, studio-made game. It’s called Hotline Miami, and

Get ready for fun!

it’s a fusion of several of his loves: neon colors, brutal violence,  the horrors of consumption, trash culture, and psychological horror.

There aren’t words for how excited we are about this. Cactus is amazing. You need to know some of his games. He’s right up there with Ken Levine, Valve, or Suda 51 for people who are taking games forward as art. And, while all of them are doing large, well-funded, mass-market projects, he’s doing tiny psychedelic nightmares on the fringes. His main focus seems to be using games– often with deliberately ugly graphics, controls, and themes –to explore the dark and ugly parts of ourselves. He’s said before that, in the realm of art, he considers himself more in line with Jodorowsky, Lynch, or Burroughs than the James Camerons that most mainstream game designers picture themselves as. But, like those artists, his work can seem a little unwelcoming and requires an introduction to its more palatable examples. That’s what we’re here for.
Norrland

Norrland  is, at first glance, a game about the mundane. You play a blue-collar Swedish hunter going on a trip to the wilderness to shoot animals (or, if they get too close, punch their heads off). There are minigames where you drink beer, piss, and swat mosquitoes. Then, after a full day of hunting, you go to sleep and have a dream where you’re forced to dance to a beat you can’t keep up with and are screamed at when you inevitably fail.

Also, the sound is horrifying. Because Cactus.

As the game goes on, it becomes pretty clear that the hunter is filled with some pretty ugly issues. His dreams inevitably end in his destruction, and escalate in violence and anger– one early one has you driving a car through a city where the only way to wake up is to crash, whereas a later one involves slowly pushing a hunting knife into your own skull. Every dream is loaded with creepy imagery and fairly unsettling symbolism, and gain a lot from the basic controls. You always know what buttons you’ll use, but what they do and what your goal is are made up each time. The overall feeling is one of helplessness, frustration, and uselessness: you end up feeling like you can’t do anything right and the world is actively against you. It becomes fairly clear as the end approaches that the hunter has gone into the woods to die. (There is, to be fair, a fairly rich vein of absurdist humor running through the game as well).

Where these gain their power, though, is in contrast to the “normal” game. You’ll still spend most of the game hunting, fishing, drinking beer, and taking care of your bodily needs, but the fun leaches out of them when you know what you’ll have to face at the end of the day. When you’re outside his head, the hunter seems like a normal guy who likes shooting birds and reading porno, and if you had never seen his dreams the game’s dark ending would come as an absolute surprise. There are countless indie games about depression and isolation, but they’re almost all melodramatic and obviously bleak. Norrland is about how depression and self-loathing creep in through normal life, and how ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people can still have a huge amount of fear and pain in them.

One minigame has you playing Russian Roulette. Even after five clicks, you have to keep playing.

Hot Throttle

See? Perfectly sensible.

If Norrland is about the dignity of a troubled soul, Hot Throttle is about pointing and laughing at how ugly the soul can be. Released by Adult Swim games and collaborated on with Doomlaser, it’s probably Cactus’s most playable and “fun” work. It’s a kart racing game about naked sweaty men who think they’re cars and crawl around at top speeds, brutalizing pedestrians and eventually traveling to Hell. It’s grotesque and colorful and wacky, pairing the themes of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the style of Yellow Submarine.

This demonstrates one of Cactus’s greatest skills: to wring real substance out of gibberish. Even the most narratively deranged of his works (probably Stallions in America or Stench Mechanics) have some real meaning and satirical meat to them (the inanity of action movies and the transformation of sex into an illicit commodity, respectively). Hot Throttle could have just been an insane and surreal kart racer, but there’s a real sense of both humor and dread to it. It carries the modern world’s obsession with cars and better living through technology to their logical ends: a man for whom anything that isn’t a car is a waste of time, who loves driving and cars so much that he wants to become one.

It’s an ugly game, and the deliberately off-putting art style is only part of that. Every race you win takes the hero one step deeper into his delusions, as his increasing belief in the fact that he’s a car hurts more and more people (in one level you trample someone during a race, injuring them further as you try to carry them to the hospital on your back). If you win most of the races, you leave your wife and children, take all their money, and spend it on surgery to turn yourself into a car. Whereas every other racing game on the planet is about how cool cars are and how fun they are to drive, Hot Throttle questions our automotive obsessions.  Whereas most driving games don’t even have characters beyond the cars, Hot Throttle puts us in the mind of a character for whom that’s a utopia, where literally the most important thing in the world is racing better than anyone or anything and being the best car.

The most bitter ending since GTA IV.

Mondo Agency

Mondo Agency is our favorite Cactus game, and for good reason. Whereas most of his games have kind of a breezy, amateur feel (given that a lot

“MY BRAIN IT’S SWOLLEN.”

of them were made in 24 hours or less), Mondo Agency has a level of polish and of narrative depth that many of his others lack. It’s also one of his only games that is hardly ever laugh-out-loud funny, using his usual surrealism instead for an atmosphere of extreme dread and oppression.

The premise is that you are a secret agent trying to preserve modern civilization by preventing the murder of the President (because, in the game’s deliberately distorted English, “president am much like world!”). You do this by navigating monochrome, agoraphobic levels, fighting Natives (the only things in the game that are brightly colored), combating cancer, and shooting everything. Even if the game didn’t have a lot of meaning to it it would be remarkable– the atmosphere is Silent Hill 2 levels of  creepiness,  the puzzles are interesting, and the sound and art design are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a freeware game. But Agency also has a pretty heavy amount of cultural commentary in it.

Because despite your goal of saving civilization, the game is a walking tour through the horrors of the modern world. The entire world is gray, sterile, and made of cubes– the “mountain” you have to climb in the second level looks more like a city skyline. Everyone you speak to has a TV for a head and communicates in garbled static. You are given your “shooter” by a gun-obsessed bureaucrat who thinks everyone should be armed all the time. Cancer is explained by your boss as a “mistake” that can be removed by building a better world. One of the later missions (fittingly titled “Massacre”) sends you to the home of the Natives to murder them for sabotaging the security technology (“what is a natives?” muses your boss in the briefing. “Is it worth much money?”). When you finally meet the President, he’s a horrible shrieking monster made of televisions. The game views western civilization as fundamentally evil and soulless, driven by violence, obsessed with technology, and ultimately self-destructive. Even though you’re doing action-hero duty– curing cancer, killing natives, and saving the world –you feel like the world you’re saving is toxic and wrong.

“What is a mountains?”

Also try (a lot of these are in the Cactus Arcade packs on his website):

Xoldiers: a collaboration with VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanaugh, which criticizes the absurdity of war and is also full of explosions and showers of blood. We’ll be talking more about this game next week in our profile on Cavanaugh.
Space Fuck: A short, simple game with 2-bit graphics and a pretty cool twist ending.
Mondo Medicals: Agency’s predecessor– a lot less fun to play, but still horrifying, smart, and creative.
Psychosomnium: A quirky platformer that predates most of the modern wave of quirky platformers. One of his most popular, but the cute, gentle graphics and whimsical tone make it not very representative of his style.
Clean Asia! and Burn the Trash!: two very well-made shoot-em-ups with unique art styles and inventive mechanics. Great games in their own right, but don’t have as much narrative depth as the three we singled out. If you’re a fan of shmups, though, definitely worth playing.