Games I Recommend

This is the list of games I've really enjoyed. I like recommending these to others in the hopes they enjoy them too. Be sure to read why I recommend them. I often enjoy games that do one thing really well at the expense of other aspects. I won't add your game to this list, so don't ask. You may notice it doesn't have any "AAA" games from the last decade or so. I don't think marketing budget and publication date are relevant to whether or not a game is worth playing.

Creeper World Series by Knuckle Cracker

  • Screenshot from Creeper World 4.
  • Screenshot from Creeper World 3.
  • Screenshot from Creeper World 2.
  • Screenshot from Creeper World 1.
Why? | Website | GOG | Steam | YouTube

Each of the Creeper World games are all essentially different takes on the same core gameplay mechanic, an asymmetric real-time strategy game based on a fluid simulation. When I say different takes, I mean that each game tries to reimagine the core concept under different constraints to add a new layer of creativity to the design. For example, the original Creeper World takes place from the top down, while Creeper World 2 takes place from the side to incorporate gravity and add an anti-creeper mechanic. Creeper World 3 goes back to top-down, brings back the Creeper vs. Anti-Creeper mechanic, adds new mobile enemies, and a new type of terrain.

At their core, Knuckle Cracker games are mechanics-driven games. I find them extremely fun. Part puzzle, part power fantasy. While story battles can have all sorts of difficulty curves with sneaky reversals, counters, unique constraints, set piece action scenes, and surprises; the procedurally generated battles emphasize what makes the core gameplay so compelling. Each battle begins with a plan of attack. You try to quickly capture as much territory as you can practically defend, and then you begin to build your strength. You need to upgrade your weapons, build units that produce resources, and watch out for unexpected weaknesses in your defences. When you have enough strength, you begin to slowly creep into enemy territory. As you go, you continue to fortify and build, each piece increasing the pace of your advance until your advance becomes a charge and a fait accompli.

When I say the games are focused on mechanics, I mean there are other elements like music, story, graphics, juice, etc., but they're not what keeps me coming back to play. The story and the writing are more flavour than fibre. Music and sound effects are there, but mostly to fill the silence rather than a focus of the game. If you buy games for thought provoking narrative or stunning visuals, I wouldn't recommend these to scratch that itch.

If you're curious but don't want to commit, the old Flash-based versions of Creeper World are available in the Flashpoint archive. If you're sold, you should definitely consider buying a copy of either Creeper World III: Arc Eternal (the one I'm currently hooked on) or Creeper World 4. I haven't played 4 yet, but these games tend to improve and expand on the formula with each instalment, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's as good or better than 3.

TIS-100 by Zachtronics

  • Screenshot of TIS-100 showing the basic interface.
  • Screenshot of TIS-100 showing the video console.
  • Screenshot of TIS-100 showing the manual.
  • Screenshot of TIS-100 showing the diary world building.
  • Screenshot of TIS-100 showing the puzzle menu.
Why? | Website | | GOG | Steam

TIS-100 is a puzzle game about programming a strange little computer in assembler. You already know if this is something you'd be into. Seriously, if your idea of a good time is opening a real PDF programming manual to learn the instructions this weird little virtual machine can execute to solve programming problems, look no further.

I like programming, and now that I work as a programmer, I have a messed up relationship with the joy I used to find in it. This allowed me to get some of it back. It's a world where programming isn't a trillion dollar industry. You're not just a middleman between a text editor and a search engine or chatbot. You don't have a thousand tools and libraries to haphazardly cobble together. There are no thought leaders espousing their one true religion of development practice. There's no tech debt, no office politics, no deadlines, no compromises, no meetings, nobody else's mistakes to clean up. Just you, the machine, the problem, and the reference manual.

What's more, statistics about your solution, such as how many instructions you used, how many nodes were involved, or how long it took to execute, are collected and compared to everyone else's solutions. Since the solutions are trivially verifiable by the leader board server, there's nobody who's solution runs in 0.1 seconds with 1 instruction. This allows you to challenge yourself, to reconsider your solution and squeeze it to improve.

If you're curious, the TIS-100 Reference Manual is available online at the Zachtronics website. You'll have to read the manual to play the game anyway. Why not read it first to see if it sparks some joy?

Antichamber by Alexander Bruce

  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing the strange hypercube beyond moving floors and green particles.
  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing the strange hypercube in a hallway.
  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing a puzzle with a couple of the blue cubes and closed doors.
  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing an extremely colourful room with a few crates and windows to other rooms beyond.
  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing a puzzle involving green cubes and a laser grid.
  • Screenshot of Antichamber showing red cubes through purple forcefield in the shape of the letters WTF!?.
Why? | Website | Steam

Antichamber is a first-person puzzle game. That's not why I recommend it. Instead, the game is a puzzle game in a world that routinely defies the laws of Euclid, stylized with some of the coolest shader art in video games. Kind of like playing The Stanley Parable and Portal at the same time, without a narrator, while the hue and contrast controls freak out in a good way.

There's no plot or story, just a world to explore and experience as you overcome the puzzling obstacles in your path. You just start walking around, and almost immediately the world shows you that every expectation you have about how physical space works doesn't apply in the antichamber. After toying with you the game begins to slowly introduce mechanics. I found that most of the puzzles have that wonderful sense of "Ah, ha!" where once you know the solution, it doesn't drag on unnecessarily. Soon you'll find the manipulation tool that allows you to pick up and place the colourful blocks of the world, and from there you're off on an adventure.

The game has an ending. It's visual and beautiful, but it was also kind of sad. You know it means it's over. You've experienced all the visual delights and wondrous geometry that the game has to offer. This game is an experience. It doesn't try to take hundreds of hours to play, and I'm very grateful for that. I find that too many games drag on until they're no longer fun, and I'm left to either push through with brute force or I just give up. Not this one.

It's a game that really explores the possibilities of video game world design. It clearly shows you that video game worlds don't have to follow the same rules that govern our own. That it's not necessary to push harder and harder for realism and immersion, and that trying to make a video game mimic the real world is but a fraction of what they have to offer.

Evoland by Shiro Games

  • Screenshot of Evoland showing how it starts with little more than the ability to move left and right in a monochrome grid.
  • Screenshot of Evoland showing the moment you get free movement in full colour.
  • Screenshot of Evoland showing you can buy and sell items at a merchant with dialogue menus.
  • Screenshot of Evoland showing you and your party in timer driven turn based combat.
  • Screenshot of Evoland showing the game when it's in full 3D as you traverse lava and fireballs in a dungeon.
  • Screenshot of Evoland showing forced prospective prerendered background city complete with other animated NPCs walking around.
Why? | Website | GOG | Steam

Ever wanted a crash course through the artistic and mechanical elements of early Zelda and Final Fantasy games and their clones? This game essentially plays out what that looked like, with some flair of its own. I like to think of it as the game design equivalent of Coles Notes. In this case, of course, because it's about games and not books, it's a game and not a book.

If you want a mechanically deep game or a game with a complex narrative, this is not the game for you. It's very one-dimensional. You go on an unspecified adventure until you find out there's a BigBad™. Defeat it and the world is safe. Mechanically, it's all rudimentary versions of the mechanics from the source material it's based on. They could use more polish, but the game is also constantly throwing away art and engine code that any other game would reuse and build upon. I'm not surprised that compromises on were made in the feel of something that the player will experience for maybe twenty minutes. Don't get me wrong, it would be nice to have a deeper game, but I still recommend it.

I find this game interesting as a concept. For those who study game design, I think it's a great piece to think about how upgrades in technology often present trade-offs. There will be some upgrades you unlock that you wish you could undo because they take away something you enjoyed. Much like fans who wish the new game didn't remove that thing they enjoyed from the last one. If you engage it critically, it helps you appreciate what you can dissect when you bring so many styles together in one game.