Games that embody the spirit of creativity, exploration, and experimentation with computers

Games that embody the spirit of creativity, exploration, and experimentation with computers

More than any other aspect, the thing that has always fascinated me the most about computers is the infinite potential for exploration they offer. You can create anything--whether real or imagined--inside a computer, and then you can make it do anything you want. You're free to try and make your creations mimic the real world as much as possible, or you're free to go ahead and bend whatever rules of reality you wish.

Not surprisingly, a majority of computer programs that embody this spirit are games. Games are fun, but games can be more than just pure entertainment. Games can enlighten people and make us think in special ways that a passive form of media, like a movie, can't. The programs listed on this page are, for the most part, clearly games, although there are a few that some might argue are some sort of software hybrid; perhaps "edutainment" (entertainment software for the purpose of education), or real-world simulation. Nonetheless, I rather loosely use the label "game", and hope that no one will be offended by this usage. I also hope that no one will be moved to think of these programs as shallow or insignificant just because they are experimental or because they're "games". Many of these programs are nothing less than art forms, capable of enlightening the human race in important ways... Although, of course, some of them are also just for fun. Nonetheless, these are programs which I believe deserve special recognition as defying the commonly held ideas about what a computer game can or should be.

Creativity, exploration, and experimentation are three rather different things, so it's perhaps appropriate to spend a moment distinguishing how each of these labels applies to a computer game. Although "Creativity" suggests originality on the part of the game designer, what's perhaps more important is how much creativity the game allows for (and encourages in) the player. A game like Stunts, the classic car-racing game, is fun just because it gives you lots of fast cars to race around, but it also developed a small subculture of track designers because of its in-game track editor. Games like this, which allow you to freely modify them, allow for you to express your own creativity, bending the game in directions that even the designer(s) likely didn't foresee. "Exploration" is the process of discovering all the little nuances that make up a computer program. Although many games today encourage exploration, they typically do so by the brute-force method of simply having very large gameworlds which require a lot of data. The classic RPG Betrayal At Krondor proudly boasted 224 million square feet of space to explore at your will. That's obviously a lot of ground, but contrast this with the ultra-simple Game Of Life, which doesn't need much code and has very simple rules, but which enthralled people for months on end when it came out. The depth of a game doesn't necessarily have to be in just how big it is; a game can derive infinite depth with the right concept. Finally, "Experimentation" is kind of a double-edged sword. As in other forms of art, like music and movies, experimentation tends to lead to genuinely bizarre things that make you wonder whether they're brilliant pushing the envelope of what a medium is capable of, or just completely wasting everyone's time. But that's part of the challenge: Trying to figure out what's really interesting and relevant, and what's not.

It's notable (and probably no coincidence) that many of the games listed here are free. The spirit that these types of games embody was once at the heart of the commercial games industry, but it has since been mostly lost, and commercial games are now just clones of each other. There are exceptions, but those tend to be exactly that: The exceptions. The spirit of creative, unconventional, fun gameplay has become the domain of free, underexposed games made by one person (or a small group of people) for the sheer joy of making and playing such games. Will the game industry ever recover the innocence and innovation it once possessed? Only time will tell. Perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the "bedroom programmers".

Note: Each game here is tagged at the end with a summary of "Key points", the main reasons why I believe the game is notable and deserves inclusion on this page.

Note 2: This page is only a relatively small list of games that have touched my heart personally, and which I've felt fond enough of to include. If you want a larger list of off-the-wall games, Underdogs has (as usual) outdone just about everybody with their list of "Unique" games.

Firestorm (Cricket Software/John Daigle)

A simulation of firefighting in a forest. Besides this unique setting, Firestorm opens up many possibilities by allowing you to set various parameters like wind direction and speed. You can also choose to have the fires automatically placed on the map, or to place them yourself manually. The game is not technical, so those without a background in firefighting can get into it quickly, but it is true to reality.

Key points: Because it actually calculates and simulates the behavior of the fire in real time, the game forms a live simulation that responds intelligently to your actions.

Download it here.

Velcro Mind (John White/Joe White/Jazz Software)

One of the first games that usually comes to my mind when I start thinking about games with unconventional gameplay, Velcro Mind is a fairly simple little game, but it has gameplay that's so different from anything else I've ever seen that it deserves a mention just for its sheer unconventionality. Rather than trying to describe it here, I'll just say that you should probably try it yourself, although it's probably more notable for its concept than its gameplay value.

Key points: Creative and original gameplay inspires both gamers and game designers by breaking the mold and coming up with different concepts.

Download it here.

Inanimate Racer (Watermelon Productions/EricSoft Technologies)

The only game I've ever seen that lets you race inanimate objects. You can choose from items like a compact disc or a teddy bear, although everyone's favorite is bound to be the chia pet. You won't want to play this one for long, but I can't help but applaud anyone who actually goes to the trouble of turning this into a polished software program.

Note that this is version 1.0 of the game, but I'm quite certain that at some point in history, I had a (now probably lost) version 1.1. If anybody has version 1.1 of this little underdog, please send it my way!

Key points: Takes a game concept that no commercial game company would have said you could make a game out of, and successfully makes a game out of it... Sort of. Exemplifies the ethic of taking your game concepts and making them real, because "I believe in this" is a good enough reason for any person's art... Sometimes.

Download it here.

God Of Thunder (MVP)

GoT isn't really all that unconventional or obscure, but it's notable for its near-perfect blending of action, adventure, puzzle, and role-playing games. I've seen very few games that put all of these together so well, then top it off with gorgeous presentation and a charming sense of humor. Perhaps the best news for all you freeloaders: GoT has been made freeware! Download it from http://www.adeptsoftware.com/got/.

Key points: Skillful blending of almost every major game style into a unique and highly playable package.

Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (Titan Computer Products)

A simulation of being lost in the woods, treated with an interface that's sort of reminiscent of an adventure game, but without the typical puzzle-solving that goes into an adventure; instead, Wilderness is more of a strategy game, as it encourages you to use your resources wisely, and is different every time you play. Besides being a truly original concept, Wilderness has the potential to teach you a lot about real-world wilderness survival tactics, as the manual is packed with information.

Key points: Real-life subject matter and modeling, overlaid with pretty graphics and lots of randomness.

Download it here.

Katamari Damacy (Namco)

Sometimes, if you want a really originaly idea, it helps to look to different cultures to find it. East Asians have something of a reputation for coming up with unique game concepts, and one which became a hit is this Japanese title with a simple premise: You control a rolling ball which, as it rolls around, picks up objects it touches. Essentially, you need to roll up the universe. Pity this game, despite its cult popularity, was never released on any platform other than the PlayStation 2.

Key points: Bizarre, creative gameplay concept that you've probably never seen before.

Porrasturvat (tAAt)

Squarely in the category of "games with concepts that are either so bizarre it's a wonder anybody thought of it, or else so obvious that it's a wonder nobody thought of it before" comes Porrasturvat (Finnish for "Stair dismount"), a game in which you score points by pushing a guy down a flight of stairs.

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: Light-hearted treatment of a simple but interesting and definitely unusual game concept, with enough options to actually make exploring it more deep than you'd think. If you can create this much depth and detail for something as simple as falling down the stairs, think what you could do with a much grander game concept. (!!!)

Ragdoll Matrix (Artturi Piipponen)

Apparently somewhat inspired by the "Dismount" games that started with Porrasturvat, this is a game that simply places you, as a mouse-dragged ragdoll-physics dummy, in the path of bullets that come at you in super-slow-motion (hence the "Matrix" reference in the game's title). Your goal is to drag yourself out of harm's way.

Key points: Once again, a concept that's just so unusual that it gets you thinking laterally.

Mondo Medicals

Often compared to the works of filmmaker David Lynch, this is basically a first-person adventure with a plot that makes no sense and level design specifically intended to confuse the player. (The levels are called "dissorientation"s. Yes, the game spells it that way.) Undoubtedly a game which transcends it game-ness into the realm of art, Mondo Medicals is confusing, illogical, and disturbing, just like the nightmares it attempts to emulate. Although nothing gory or horrifying actually appears in the game (unless you count the angry reaction of the robot in dissorientation 2), this might not be a game to play in the dark with the sound cranked up right before you go to sleep. The game has a similar sequel called Mondo Agency.

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: A complete presentation which, from the visual style to the constant surging sound backdrop to the structure of the environments themselves, intends to produce a specific emotional reaction in the player--and succeeds.

Nelda Nockbladder's Anatomy Lesson (Scott Miller (not the Apogee founder))

One day, this game was released on the unsuspecting public. The result: The world will never be the same.

NNAL doesn't seem to have an official homepage, but it's popular enough that you shouldn't have any trouble finding a download for it on Google.

Key points: Just so plain weird that you can't not note it.

Jonny RPG (Jonathan Smeby)

Another one-man-game clearly made more for fun than anything else, Jonny RPG is also very weird. The author admits to having made some parts deliberately annoying, and he sure did a good job. Anyone looking for an easily-accessible game will probably stop playing Jonny RPG very quickly, but if you want a genuinely unique, homebrew gaming experience that combines a ton of pop-culture in-jokes with a charming, comic-strip ambience, you'll want to give this game a try. Note that the main character in the game is, indeed, supposed to be Jonathan Smeby, the same guy who wrote the game, but the game isn't really all about narcissism; it's more about having fun and creative ideas.

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: Bizarre, creative, funny, and unique. Just play it and you'll see why nobody else would make a game like this.

Liquid War (Christian Mauduit, a.k.a. U-Foot)

I'm still torn between whether Liquid War is highly original or highly derivative. At first glance, it seems to be original: How many games simulate armies of liquid which must conquer each other? Despite this premise, however, it actually boils down to a sort of real-time strategy/war game, in which each pixel representing a drop of liquid is simply a soldier on a battlefield. Nonetheless, the "soldiers" are modeled in such a way that your army does indeed look and behave like a mass of liquid, and it all makes for a game with a very distinctive and unique look. In the end, it *is* original, and surprisingly fun to play.

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: Behaves like a physical simulation, yet casts it in the style of a war game, creating both an original, intelligent game and a simulation-style program.

Lemonade Stand (Apple Computer/Bob Jamison/Charlie Kellner)

One of the earliest home computer games ever, Lemonade Stand perfectly captures the essence of computer gaming: It's got simple but colorful graphics that get their message across without being overly complicated (I did not even realize the graphics are actually made entirely with text characters until I started looking at the source code!), an intuitive interface that puts you in control, and just enough math to keep things interesting. This is a game that truly recognizes that you don't need fancy graphics or sound effects to make a game fun; text-based graphics and monotone sound will suffice, because the real fun of a computer game is in typing and math. On top of all that, the source code in BASIC is available on the web. The date on the game is 1979, and the copyright is probably still in effect, but the game gets traded so freely online that I doubt Apple actually cares. It seems unlikely, at this point, that they're going to start chasing down people for distributing a more-than-20-year-old game for the Apple II, a platform that hasn't been sold in over a decade, so I feel pretty safe including a working Apple II disk image and the source code here.

Download the Apple II disk image here.

Download the BASIC source code here.

Key points: Includes everything that's fun about computer games--keyboard typing, math, and simple graphics and sound--and nothing that's not.

The Incredible Machine (Dynamix/Sierra On-Line)

Perhaps the most gleefully fun puzzle game ever made, The Incredible Machine takes a perfect game premise and executes it marvelously. You're given a bin of parts, which can include simple structures like walls and floors, machine parts like gears and motors, and electrical devices. With this arsenal, you're given a puzzle with some (usually simple) goal like turning on a light switch or putting a ball into a basket. It sounds simple, but boy, is it ever fun to put the machines togeter. Thankfully, the game was popular, and actually spawned not only a sequel, but a similar spinoff called Sid And Al's Incredible Toons. All of these games are must-haves for anyone craving an original game experience.

Key points: Besides its obviously intriguing machine-building concept, the real strength of the Incredible Machine games is their physics engine. They don't use some canned fake physics; every moving object's momentum and gravity is actually calculated in real-time, making for a surprisingly genuine simulation. These real-world physics really do make all the difference.

Stunt Island (Walt Disney Computer Software/The Assembly Line)

A magnificent idea for a computer game turned into an only half-realized concept, Stunt Island's setting is a fictional island which is used for the filming of airplane-based action movies. The island has an airstrip and hangar, several locations that make for good stunt filming, and more traditional movie-industry trappings like a post-production studio, etc. What makes the game so unique is that it lets you wear *all* the hats associated with the typical movie-making process. You can be the writer and director, deciding what location filming will take place in, what will happen, etc. You can be the stunt pilot who actually flies the plane in a genuine first-person flight simulation that's actually pretty good (although of course it's not as sophisticated as hardcore flight sims). You can be the producer and editor, cutting out scenes, picking camera angles, and stringing footage together to make a final production. Or you can do all these things. There's clearly a concept at work here that could have made for a brilliant game, but Stunt Island ends up being only pretty good, largely because of technical limitations of its time; Stunt Island arrived in 1992 and already shipped on many floppies, a large and technically demanding game for that era. As a result, the island's world is a tad too small and only provides a relatively limited subset of possible locations (although there are enough to keep you busy for several hours), as well as a set of pre-made missions that you can fly through to get some inspiration for new movie ideas. Had Stunt Island been made 10 years later on CD-ROM, it could have been an unparalleled tour de force; instead, it's little more than a cool toy. This isn't the first game to come up with the idea of making a movie out of your own gameplay (that distinction might go to U.S. Gold's 1988 game Charlie Chaplin), but Stunt Island is among the most creativity-inspiring games of its half-decade.

Key points: Open-ended "studio game" that lets you wear all the hats, making for remarkably diverse experiences.

Frequon Invaders (Arch D. Robison)

If you haven't played Frequon Invaders, I'll bet you never thought about a game that makes the Fourier Domain fun.

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: Utterly under-used math concept turned into a fun, colorful game.

SimCity (Maxis)

Most any gamer is aware of SimCity, but I wouldn't be doing the computer industry justice if I didn't at least mention it. SimCity was one of the first programs to make the entire industry sit up and take notice of just what games could do to bridge the gap between simulation and reality. The possibilities in SimCity and its sequels seem as extensive as those in a real-world city, and these games offer real opportunity to learn more about how urban development actually works. The vast flood of Sim-games that followed SimCity's release were mostly very good, but few of them were as applicable to our everyday reality; simulating the whole world, a tropical island, or an ant colony are all very interesting applications of a computer program as well, but none of them are quite as immediately recognizable and engaging as the creation of the communities that we, as people, live in.

Key points: Real-world setting modeled with open-ended gameplay, creating limitless possibilities which apply directly to our everyday life.

Vette! (Spectrum Holobyte/Sphere)

Perhaps the first driving game that included a full map of a real-world city, Vette! allows you to race one of four types of Corvettes all over San Francisco. Of course it doesn't include every single street in the entire city, but all the major throughways are there, in the correct places. Of course, since the City By The Bay has so many famed landmarks, these are also carefully placed in the right places, along with some other not-so-famous landmarks.

Key points: A complete, accurate computer-game model of a real-world city. Whether you've been to San Francisco or not, the thought that you're playing a real simulation of actual city streets is special, and Vette! makes its virtual streets feel both genuine and fun.

Grand Theft Auto series (Rockstar Games/DMA)

GTA is popular enough that most people know about it; it probably needs no introduction. The game has been notorious (and widely criticized from the media-censorship crowd) for its unflinching portrayals of inner-city violence and other aspects of the unsavory side of humanity. While it's true that violence is a part of the game, GTA is much more than just another shooting game. When the very first GTA came out in the 1990s, many people made the mistake of thinking the game's only appeal lay in its depravity. While this did indeed appeal to some fans, what made GTA truly remarkable was that right from the get-go, it was a fully-formed virtual city, with cars that independently drove random routes, working traffic lights, and an entire city grid to explore (complete with maps that came in the game box). While it was far from the first game that simulated a city (see the much-earlier SimCity and Vette! above, along with countless others), it was the first to allow you to both walk and drive anywhere you wanted to go with complete freedom of movement in a dynamic environment that was entirely autonomous. This was highly appealing, and the GTA games have just gotten better since then. GTA: Vice City added the ability to fly aircraft (!), and GTA: San Andreas expanded greatly on this ability, including 3 airports in the game which you can visit at any time and use to take off from and fly yourself to anywhere in the game's world. GTA has become the most genuine simulation of a virtual city I have ever seen in any game, allowing you to walk, bike, drive, or fly freely to any place in an impressively large virtual city. Yes, the games still erupt into occasional frantic bursts of violence and profanity, but even for people who are turned off by such content, the GTA series offers so much open-ended beauty that it has a wonderful experience to offer everyone. If you'd rather explore than fight, then just ignore the game's missions and set out on your own to see what you can find. If you like exploring virtual worlds, you'll be glad you did.

Key points: Creates a giant virtual city, then gives you absolute freedom to go where you want to go and do what you want to do. Delivers on the purity of this concept like no other game out there.

killer7 (Capcom/Grasshopper Manufacture)

By the early 2000s, it had become apparent to even casual observers that the game industry was losing much of its originality, and some commercial game publishers were actually bold enough to release games that were marketable based mainly on how edgy and unusual they were. This kind of thing was more common in the mid-1990s when CD-ROM technology opened up new avenues for games, but 10 years later the game industry was much less willing to take such risks. Nonetheless, killer7 (that's the official spelling, with a lowercase "k" and no space before the numerical digit) is a commercial game from well-known publisher Capcom that's remarkable mainly for how just plain weird it is. This is a game equivalent of your bizarre, apparently drug-influenced art-house movie with wandering plots that go nowhere, characters that have something subtly yet deeply wrong with them, and spastic outbursts of brutal violence. Definitely an acquired taste, killer7 may be enjoyable for people who like such things, but it's not for everyone, including children or the faint of heart. Unfortunately, it was never released for computers, only for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. Incidentally, Grasshopper Manufacture is a Japanese game development house that seems to specialize in this type of surreal, R-rated psychological-thriller game, but killer7 is their first to be published in North America. If you're into this kind of thing, check out their small handful of other games, most of which have only been released in Japan.

Key points: Dares to be different, and doesn't seem to care too much whether it's good-different or bad-different, making for a remarkably pure burst of creative insanity that's common in underground movies, but decidedly rare in games.

Majestic (Electronic Arts/Anim-X)

A game concept that stands out yet which ultimately failed in the market, Majestic had a conspiracy-theory plot involving secret government projects and the like. What made the game so unusual was that it linked with an online system that would actually contact you by online instant-messaging programs and also by telephone. This is perhaps the first game that would ever actually call you on the phone in an effort to make the gameworld tie more closely into reality. The idea was pretty neat, but although Majestic received a lot of media attention, it didn't seem to resonate with gamers, and sales flopped. The game's network ran for only about a year before it was canceled. It's the nature of online games like this to become basically useless when their network shuts down; even if you have a copy of Majestic now, you obviously can't really play it. In this case, perhaps that's just as well: Gamers arguably already suffer from a somewhat weak grasp on reality, and there were reports of people who already suffered from paranoia about conspiracy theories being driven off the deep end when they started playing Majestic and receiving actual phone calls about things they apparently weren't supposed to know about. For better or for worse, another game experiment in this style is probably unlikely to reach the marketplace on a large scale anytime soon.

Key points: Actually contacted players by telephone and IM to bring their stories that much closer to reality. A unique (if somewhat gimmicky) idea.

Green (Cascoly Software)

Okay, seriously, how many games have you controlling a team of farmers in a field trying to drive out an opposing team of pavers? Probably exactly one: This one.

Download it here.

Key points: A totally original game concept that's straight from reality, instead of relying on alien worlds or fantasy elements for its novelty.

Sherlock (Everett Kaser)

A lot of puzzle games are very original in their premise, but this one's notable because it uses a 16-bit generation algorithm to provide no less than 65,536 puzzles. If that's not enough to keep you busy, perhaps you're playing Sherlock too much.

Key points: Logical, fun puzzle game with an innovative randomizing algorithm to provide a practically endless supply of challenges.

Get it from Everett Kaser's homepage

Lamers (Cocktail)

Lemmings was an innovative game, and so is Lamers, in its own endearingly sophomoric way. The premise here is reversed: If the lamers get home, they'll destroy a computer, so you need to kill them all, not save them!

Download it here.

Key points: Original concept despite an obvious inspirational ripoff.

Zipman III (ZIPTEAM/D'India Software)

Although this game itself is pretty much just a standard jump-and-run platform arcade clone, the in-game documentation has such a wonderfully indie flavor that I couldn't not include it here. The docs reveal that the game was made by two teenage developers, with time found in between school and chores, with an added note that this game-programming stuff leaves no time for girls. It's also difficult not to love the included instructions on how to register (steps include "Lick the envelope" and "Put the envelope in a mail box"). Perhaps the best part, though, is at the end, wherein is listed the previous games the team has done, most of which come with added notes that the games were never distributed beyond the programmers' school. Full of teenage humor and enthusiasm, the docs for Zipman III are much more interesting than the game itself and deserve a read by anyone who likes reading text files from BBSes of the pre-Web era.

Download it here.

Key points: Made by amateur gamers, for amateur gamers, with docs that richly reflect this atmosphere.

Floor 13 (Virgin/PSI)

A very different kind of strategy game, Floor 13 places you in the role of the director of a fictional (?) British agency whose raison d'ątre is to keep the current Prime Minister in office. The game simply drips with uniqueness (though this isn't necessarily a good thing); it takes place almost entirely in your office and consists mostly of you simply shuffling through intelligence reports and choosing what to do about various people and organizations that might pose a threat to the standing PM's political dominance. Even with its lack of varied graphical content, the black-and-white film-noir feel is slick and appropriate. Overall, the game is worth a look just because of its unique premise, but its lack of gameplay depth might make it tiresome before long (even though the game is random, and therefore quite different every time you play).

Key points: Unique premise meets open-ended gameplay, producing a notable combination.

Robot Odyssey (The Learning Company)

Before Robot Odyssey existed, how many people would have believed you could make a computer program about digital electronics, market it toward children as an educational tool, and pull it off in a package that's not only wildly fun, but also genuinely educational and seriously mind-bending? Probably not many. But Robot Odyssey succeeded on all these levels. Today, it forms a model of what educational software should be like.

Key points: Open-ended system that models real-world electronics, made fun and easy for maximum absorption of material while still providing fun entertainment.

Alter Ego (Activision)

A pioneering early "life simulation", Alter Ego is not a game-of-Life type of artificial-life game which simulates a virtual world filled with hundreds of tiny organisms, but rather a simulation of a complete human life cycle. The player starts from birth, and makes key decisions throughout the game that will shape the course of their life. The games ends, of course, at death, at which point the game will endeavor to tell you something about your real-world personality type. Obviously you should take these types of psychological assessments with a grain of salt, but if nothing else, the game is notable for its intent. Note that Alter Ego is available in separate male and female versions; you're obviously supposed to get the one that applies to you, but you'll probably have fun playing through both of them.

Key points: Attempts to simulate a full human life, something not done by any major game before or since.

Little Computer People (Activision)

From the same publisher as Alter Ego comes another simulation of a human life, but from the almost polar opposite perspective. Whereas Alter Ego is a serious game that lives out your life as though it were a story, Little Computer People (LCP) creates a little person who isn't meant to be you, but instead is supposed to live inside your computer. Whereas Alter Ego is a one-shot game that you can play through in a single sitting, LCP is meant to be an ongoing virtual creature (sort of a "human tank") which you're meant to check up on and attend to every now and then. Alter Ego takes itself seriously and intends to be revelatory, whereas LCP is nothing more than silly fun. And it *is* fun; you can do cute little tasks with your LCP like play card games, or you can simply watch them bustle about their house doing chores and passing time. Together, Alter Ego and Little Computer People form the grandparents of the much later (and much, much more successful) game The Sims.

Key points: Takes the everyday life of a person and virtualizes it. Sure, it seems simple, but how many games actually do this?

Interstate 76 (Activision)

If you want to know why commercial games aren't good now, take this as an example of everything that made them good when they were. Interstate 76 takes a brilliant alternate-history twist (what if the 1973 U.S. oil crisis hadn't come to an end, but just kept going?) and takes it from there. I76 is a Mad Max-like world in which vigilantes drive around in the desert in cars armed with guns and missile launchers to try and restore justice in a world gone crazy. No prizes for guessing that you're one of these vigilantes, a sort of antihero who fights for what seems right, but inevitably has to kill several people to do it. The graphics in I76 seem simple by today's standards, particularly the characters, who contain an almost ridiculously low polygon count (the cars are actually more detailed than the people), but this helps to accentuate the dreamlike, otherworldly feel of the setting. It also aids the "experimental" feel of the game; although this is certainly not the first game to feature armed cars (and arguably, other games have done it "better" both before and since), it remains one of the most fun. Everything about I76 oozes cool: Gameplay is fast, absorbing, and intense, the music that's featured in the cutscenes is highly appropriate '70s-style funk, the storyline is compelling, and it even has an "Unlimited Wiper Fluid" feature that literally does absolutely nothing. Living proof that a game doesn't have to be unpolished to be edgy.

Key points: Original alternate-history scenario gives way to superfun gameplay like no other game out there.

Stalin's Dilemma (Edward Bever)

Resource-management strategy games are sometimes irksome because they seem to have very strange rules that they use to calculate what happens next. It's this arbitrary nature of such games that sometimes tends to turn me off. But Stalin's Dilemma has no excuse for having problems in its model, because the whole game is literally nothing but a calculation. There are no graphics (except a photo that appears at the beginning) and no music or sound; what you do get is a screen full of options that allows you to set your allocation of food, transportation, and manufacturing for Russia during the political and economic crises it faced in the years prior to World War II. The game is almost absurdly short (it takes only three turns, before each of which you perform your resource allocation), but it provides a crucial glimpse into the workings of real-world history that many games just can't offer.

This game used to be hosted on Home of the Underdogs, which in its time was arguably the best website on the entire Internet. When Underdogs went through a couple of rebirths, some of the files were lost, and most sites on the web still link to the (now dead) Underdogs page for this game, so I've taken the liberty of making the game available here.

There's a little-known second version of Stalin's Dilemma which, as far as I know, is not available anywhere else on the web. (By "little-known," I mean that it's even less known than the first version, which is saying quite a lot since the first version is already pretty obscure.) The second version is primarily a cosmetic improvement, adding several historical photographs as well as significantly beefing up the in-game help screens, although the logic of how the game's numbers stack up has been modified somewhat as well. All those additional photographs make the second version of the game a MUCH larger download. Both versions are available for download here.

Download the first version here. You can also try here.
Download the second version here.

Key points: Numbers-heavy historical strategy simulation that serves up gritty, real history.

Tong (Owen Swerk)

A game that's Tetris and Pong at the same time. Need I say more?

Get it from the official homepage

Key points: Although it's really just a fusion of two well-known games--which means it's actually not all that creative--the fusion is done in such a skillful, original way that the result feels like a brand-new game.

robotfindskitten (Leonard Richardson)

A very simple game whose opening blurb pretty much says it all: "In this game, you are robot. Your job is to find kitten. This task is complicated by the existance [sic] of various things which are not kitten." It's a sort of meditative experience or something, but rest assured that if you keep trying, eventually robotfindskitten. Incidentally, robotfindskitten is also one of the most-ported games I've ever seen, having versions available for DOS (the one available for download here), the Apple II, AmigaOS, Java, Flash, PHP, Python, JavaScript, the Atari 2600, the Atari 7800, the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, PalmOS, the Sega Dreamcast, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation Portable, and Windows (which is called "OpenGL" on the site). What a platform base!

Download it here. You should also check out the homepage.

Key points: Ultra-simple concept in a game populated with enough object types to actually make it worth replaying a few times.

Line Rider (Bostjan Cadez)

A modern case of the classic story of the indie production that became so popular it grew into a cult phenomenon, Line Rider is a simple Flash game in which you use ultra-spartan line-drawing tools to create a line structure. After drawing these lines, you can launch a little sled-riding sprite to ride your line drawing. That's all there is to it. The concept and the execution are about as simple as a computer program can be, but Line Rider has become an Internet phenomenon, going through several revisions to add significant features and, perhaps most amazingly of all, commercial interest from InXile Entertainment, who have announced plans to release versions of Line Rider for the Nintendo DS and Wii. This after the game received mentions in several major forms of media, including the New York Times. (!) All of this less than a year after the initial beta of the game was first released on the web. Living proof that original ideas can still result in great things. Line Rider can be played online at its official website. The game's popularity has spawned a small subculture of Line Rider video directors who film their creations in action and post the videos on YouTube; just search for "line rider" or "linerider" on YouTube and you'll find plenty of videos for your viewing pleasure.

Key points: Ultra-simple idea and execution don't stop a game from being not only fun and addictive, but a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

Life And Death (The Software Toolworks)

One of the most exciting things about computers games is that they allow us to experience things which really happen to some people, but which most of us will never be able to experience in real life. One of the most prominent examples is flying; most people, unfortunately, will never be able to fly a real airplane or helicopter, but computer flight sims make it possible to simulate that experience. A much less simulated experience, however, is being a medical doctor. Life And Death is a classic which fills this void, albeit with questionable accuracy and very limited scope. The game starts off with you making a few simple diagnoses--see kidney stones on the X-ray? Refer the patient to a kidney stone specialist--but to win the game, you'll need to successfully complete the game's two types of surgeries: An appendectomy and a grafting of an aorta. The game obviously takes some significant liberties with its portrayal of real-life medical procedures; for example, you can't seem to get fired. If you're feeling really excited, you can go ahead and make picking up the scalpel the first thing you do in an operation (no gloves, no anesthesia), which emits a really impressive scream from the patient (this, predictably, sounds a lot more real on non-PC versions of the game, since the PC version uses the PC's internal speaker) and earns you a brief trip back to medical school to try again. You can mess up as many times as you like, and all it'll get you is a reprimand from your superior and a brief review at med school. This gives you a level of freedom to "experiment" on your patients which is not afforded a real surgeon. Life And Death wasn't exactly a runaway hit, but its unique concept garnered it enough popularity to spawn a sequel: Life And Death 2: The Brain, which as the title suggests focuses specifically on brain disorders and surgery.

Key points: Takes a real-world concept that most people will never be able to experience, and gives you a chance to try it. Truly a case of art imitating life.

The Colonel's Bequest (Sierra On-Line)

I've always loved Sierra's adventures, but I'm listing this one here just because there's something vague, yet special, about its structure that seems to make its world especially endearing. The plot of the game is okay (it's basically just a murder mystery, nothing too especially notable), but what really draws me to the game is the realization of the game's location: The entire game takes place in an old, spooky mansion and its surrounding property (the mansion is on an island), and what's great about it is just all the little details that go into it. The house is quite large and comprises many screens, but before the game is over, you'll have seen most of the rooms several times, which is exactly what happens in real life when you live in a building. After playing for a while, the house in the game actually starts to feel like your home; it's just that nice. I get the same effect from Maniac Mansion for the same reason, but Maniac Mansion is an intentionally humorous game with a house that's just a little too silly to be believable. The house in The Colonel's Bequest, on the other hand, just grows on you in a way that few computer game houses do.

Key points: Fully-realized house which has enough style and size to feel like a virtual home.

The Quest For Glory series (Sierra On-Line)

After bringing out a basic adventure game, I probably better do Sierra some justice and mention a truly innovative title: The Quest For Glory games remain, to this day, among the most effective combinations of adventure with role-playing games ever.

Key points: Takes two rather different game genres and keeps the very best of both worlds, creating a unique hybrid experience that doesn't over-emphasize one or the other.

That Flash animation about Sound Recorder

I've heard artists from all walks--painters, sculptors, musicians, and filmmakers--complain that they don't have the materials necessary to make really great art. While it's true that expensive equipment can make art more impressive, there are many works of art that truly show us how much can be done with very little in the right artist's hands. This Flash file isn't a game, but it truly embodies the same spirit that I've been trying to encourage all along with this page, and since it is a real work of art done for fun with a computer, it deserves a mention here.

Get it here.

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