A primer for you literati: The necessary elements of a great video game are constantly debated. Usually it’s some combination of gameplay, story, and fun with bonuses to soundtracks and replay value. Sometimes, though, I approach video games with a pocketful of superficiality—give me a cheap, pretty game that’s easy on the eyes. ‘Tis the season for sharing, so I present you Paper Darts fans with a few free indie games that are visual treats.
My increasingly short attention span has dissolved my belief in saving the best for last, so my first recommendation for you is Aether by Tyler Glaiel and Edmund McMillen.
Aether is an adventure game in which you play a boy who explores the universe on the back of a mysterious, sticky-tongued beast. The mechanics are simple—using the beast’s tongue, you swing between clouds and moons and stars to reach new planets.
It’s your job to discover and solve the puzzle in each new world (having the volume on helps with this). I failed to read those instructions the first time I played (see: attention span), but despite having no clear goals I loved it. It’s very atmospheric (pun!)—the pretty pastels and smiling celestial bodies are perfectly balanced with the sometimes-eerie, often-depressing speech bubbles. The story is excellent, and I insist you check it out and feel inspired.
You can play Aether in your browser or download it for Windows and Mac OSX here. Definitely use a mouse in lieu of a touchpad if you can, otherwise you’re signing yourself up for a terrible test of nerves.
Gretel and Hansel is an adventure game by Makopudding featuring a lot less physics and platforming than Aether.
After overhearing her stepmother’s plot to chuck her and Hansel into the woods to die, Greteltakes charge of their safety. You guide her outside their cottage to collect the necessary supplies—namely, shiny little stones. There’s a lot of puzzling and some haphazard clicking involved—the next item to grab for reuse isn’t always obvious. Part One ends at the beginning of their exile, and lucky for you, Part Two hit the scene in October.
The smudgy watercolor visual style of the game is definitely unique and the desire to see more of it is, standing alone, a reason to keep playing. That look coupled with the mischievous soundtrack make for an excellent tribute to the original fairy tale and an all-around sensational experience
Fig. 8 is an unusual little number by Intuition Games.
In it, you guide a bicycle through a series of technical diagrams, weaving around the ink and working to keep up with the moving screen. You rack up extra points by plotting straight lines, but personally I had no time to think about score multipliers. The game was popularly tagged as “relaxing,” but I crashed my little bike a lot. By the time I threw in the towel, the screen was a bicycle graveyard.
Putting aside my personal failures and new fear of biking, Fig. 8 is an optical and aural delight. The visuals may be simple and clean, but they are by no means uninteresting (just don’t get distracted trying to figure out what the diagrams depict). The accompanying soundtrack of accordion music is very Yann Tiersen and filled me with joy up until the checkpoint where I kept dying. Then it felt mocking.
Play Fig. 8 in your browser here.
Icycle is a side-scrolling platformer by Damp Gnat. Featuring it alongside Fig. 8 is totally coincidental.
Icycle takes place amidst a global ice age, and you play as one of its only survivors. This man’s one companion is a perfectly preserved children’s bicycle. You must expertly steer him through increasingly spiky and cracking environments in search of a stranger he saw zooming away in the opening cutscene.
The slapstick is incredible—naked man, tiny bike, shouts of agony as he gets impaled and crushed and so on. But for a game that is so silly, it’s actually quite pretty—the color palette and textures are stunning, and the animation is perfectly smooth. It only took me about 10 minutes to beat, so if you need a break, Icycle is the answer.
Try Icycle right here, right now.
Holly Harrison is a recent University of Minnesota graduate and the lead copy editor for Paper Darts. She doesn't like feet—not even yours. See her wax lyrical on Twitter.