Thank goodness- it's finally above freezing here in Chiberia- er, Chicago. My workplace closed for two days during the big chill. This allowed me to make HUGE progress on my wedding. I also got to put some quality time into my favorite activity of all: sweet, sweet video games.
At long last, I got a Steam account. I figured I could buy some short, low-commitment indie games. Now, I can't stop! I'm up until the wee hours, putting a cartoon princess into cute outfits and making a tiny robot walk back-and-forth a thousand times. I have to admit, though- I'm having ALL the fun.
Here are three of my current PC game obsessions that are as affordable as they are addicting:
Developer: Amanita Design
The Premise: A point-and-click puzzle adventure through a gritty but adorable robot society. One brave robot, Josef, quests to find his missing girlfriend. He confronts brain teasers, hidden objects, and organized robo-crime along the way.
Why I Love It: Machinarium has a mind-blowing soundtrack. The music balances clattering, mechanical noise with the occasional "real" instrument. The score is also timed impeccably. More than once, a musical flourish hit just as I discovered some detail or character- truly inspiring.
This is also the first Czech title I've played (I will most certainly tackle Botanicula now that I've fallen so hard.) The visual environments are striking, keeping to a color palette of rust and dirt. I can't imagine any living thing feeling happy in the world of Machinarium, but that's just the thing- they're all robots. They're delighted with the land they've created.
In terms of difficulty, Machinarium is adequately challenging. Amanita kindly provides a tiered system of hints for those who need them. I DON'T NEED THEM BECAUSE I AM AWESOME, I SWEAR.
What Could Be Better: Several times in Machinarium, I knew the answer to a puzzle, but had no idea how to execute. For example, at one point I knew I needed a plunger. I had to wander through 4 different maps for an hour, searching the tiniest bits of background imagery for the object. The plunger required no thought- only staring. When this happens, Machinarium isn't a brain teaser- it's a chore.
Score: 8.75/10 - Takes place in a world as beautiful as its music, challenging and cute, though occasionally the player gets stuck in a most unpleasant way.
How to Get It: Machinarium is over 4 years old, but was recently released as part of a Humble Indie Bundle. The title, on its own, can be purchased for $9.99 on Steam or the Official Website. Machinarium is also available for iPad, Android tablets, and on the PlayStation Network.
2. The Stanley Parable
Developer: Galactic Cafe
The Premise: Originally a mod built on Valve's Source engine, The Stanley Parable was re-released last October as a standalone title. Stanley himself is a boring office drone type. Then one day, all of his coworkers disappear. If Stanley follows the Narrator's storytelling, the game is over in less than 15 minutes. If he resists, though, a bigger, much darker world appears...
Why I Love It: The Stanley Parable is deceptively simple. My first time through, I was bored. My second time through, the game's physics began to warp. Soon, the environment degraded, and I realized I was in for a surreal and wonderful ride. Even the game's achievement system scoffs in the face of regular gaming. The Stanley Parable is a satire, but only just.
The shining star of The Stanley Parable is its Narrator. Played by Kevan Brighting, the voice in Stanley's head (or not) can transition from cheeky to sinister instantly. He will encourage Stanley forward, and taunt him mercilessly for standing still. The Narrator should marry Portal's GLaDOS- they're made for each other.
What Could Be Better: This game has its share of oddities- buttons that do nothing, areas of the map that cannot be accessed, etc. I cannot tell if these are bugs or features of The Stanley Parable. Clever PC users have been able to code their way around these walls. I am not so talented, however, so my Stanley feels a bit more limited. Build a bridge but prevent me from walking on it? How cruel!
Score: 8/10 - Creepy, clever, funny- a daring reflection on gaming and storytelling, with a few more glitches and frayed ends than I care for.
How to Get It: The Stanley Parable is available on Steam for $14.99. Since I bought it, it has already been on sale twice! The game can be played on PC or Mac, but currently has no presence on consoles.
3. Long Live The Queen
Developer: Hanako Games
The Premise: Long Live the Queen is a princess life simulator with a gruesome twist. Through a few simple menu screens, Princess Elodie grows into a woman. She attends classes, learns skills, meets boys, and dresses up. Then, each day, she has to pass a series of skill checks to avoid bizarre deaths. Brilliant!
Why I Love It: Each run of Long Live the Queen only takes about 15 minutes. This means it's a simple, quick activity... that you just might find yourself doing for hours. Elodie can branch down many paths- elegant dancer, religious historian, naval strategist- or, more often than not, a corpse. Long Live the Queen is totally brutal. Its feminine packaging is a lie- I know more gentlemen addicted to this game than ladies.
What Could Be Better: The most addictive trait of Long Live the Queen can also be its most annoying. There are many paths to coronation, but once one is chosen, the player is doomed to watch the same cutscenes over and over. With each run, victory grows closer. This mechanic urges repeat play, but prevents story branches from being explored. I know there are monsters in the forest; never saw 'em. I know there's a birthday party to attend; never went. The Princess MUST win, story be damned.
...Also, there are only 4 songs in this entire game. Get ready to hear them for 8 hours.
Score: 7.5/10 - Fun, wide-branching character choices that eventually funnel the player into a grueling routine.
So, that's that. I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty smart right now; I just turned the thing that was making me unproductive into a very fetching blog article. If you own any of these titles, or have one to recommend, comment below. If you'd like to see more game reviews, well, I'm game! Tell me on Facebook or Twitter.
Coming soon from GGC: Our Fair City launch party, "fake" geek girls, and local Mass Effect tribute band Geth Prime. Don't miss any of it- subscribe! Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.