Who Has the Time? The Very Best Short Games

Oh, to return to the days of near-limitless free time. Sure, homework needed to be done, chores finished, but in high school the evenings and weekends were wide open for gaming. (Yes, I didn’t have the most active social life.) Nowadays, with a job and responsibilities, getting in a full gaming experience is more challenging than I’d like it to be. That’s why I’m glad for the recent trend of narratively rich and compelling gaming experiences that are finishable in less than 10 hours. Here are 10 of the best that are more than worth the small amount of time you’ll need to invest.

What Remains of Edith Finch

More like a collection of bizarre short fiction than a traditional “novel-like” story, Edith Finch tells the story of the cursed Finch family. All its members seem to die in the strangest ways. Each Finch’s tale is told in its own unique way — one moment you’re a young boy trying your best to swing all the way over the bar on your swingset, the next you’re a bird in flight, the next you’re moving panel-by-panel through a comic strip. At at around two hours of playtime to see it all, you’ll still have half your evening to do with as you please.

Spec Ops: The Line

Where most shooters at best don’t actively glamorize war and at worst do actively glamorize it, Spec Ops: The Line takes the complete opposite approach. Its story deals with the horrors of combat and the terrible decisions people can make when backed into a corner. Explorations of such heavy topics can often come across as heavy handed, but this game dodges that bullet (so to speak). Clocking in around six hours, you’ll need two or three gaming sessions to get through it, but the destination is worth the trip.

Gone Home

Probably the first “walking simulator” I was ever aware of, Gone Home is atmospheric storytelling at its finest. As a student returning home from overseas, you find your family’s new (and gigantic) house oddly empty. A miscommunication means you’re left to piece together where everyone is and what’s been happening on your own. Narration from your sister pops in periodically to add flavor, but the real joy is exploring what truly feels like an authentic home, using your intuition to solve a real mystery. You can wrap it up in about two hours, too, and it’s time well spent.

Flower

A game where you play as a flower petal flying through open fields might sound like a hard sell, but Flower is an incredible experience. Somehow, this lightly told tale of flowers reminiscing about their lives before the cities came is deeply moving and, at times, even scary. With a gorgeous musical score and graphics that hold up even today, it’s a must play for anyone with even a passing interest in video games. And it’s another you can finish up in around two hours, so you have nothing to lose.

Undertale

A Kickstarter success built largely by one person, Undertale is a retro-style RPG with undertones of Earthbound and bullet hell shooters, to name a couple of influences. As a voiceless protagonist dropped into a world of monsters, you must make your way to the monster king in the hopes of finding a way home. Along the way, you’ll meet hilarious and heartwarming characters and toe-tap along to one of the most infectious musical scores in recent gaming history. It’s a beautiful game, and at around six hours, it still feels like a full RPG experience.

Journey

From the makers of Flower comes an adventure about solitude and companionship across a desolate land. As a robed creature, you’ll make your way through various levels, solving puzzles and moving ever forward. Along the way, you’ll encounter other characters, controlled in real time by other players playing Journey around the world. There’s no voiced or text communication at all. You’ll have to use body language as you work together to see it through to the end. The experience of journeying side by side with a stranger, helping each other and struggling together, is a wonderful thing. You can complete the entire journey in about two hours, so there’s even time to jump in and do it again.

Donut County

I’ve written about Donut County before, but it bears repeating: games don’t have to be complicated to be fun. With a simple set of mechanics and very few buttons required, Donut County presents a hilarious story about power-hungry racoons and the poor townsfolk who get caught up in their wake. With gameplay that starts simple and never tries to confuse or trick you, this is a fantastic way to spend two hours.

The World Next Door

In my review of The World Next Door, I praised its top-notch writing, sharp-looking visuals, and addictive puzzle-combat gameplay. As a visitor to another world, you suddenly find yourself trapped with only a few days to live. You’ve got to find the way back to earth, and the only way to do that is to battle horrible monsters. Combat takes place on room-sized grids of different runes, and by moving and matching runes of like color, you can cast magic spells to beat back your foes. The main game will take you about three hours, but a recent update added a multiplayer mode, so you can always come back for a little head-to-head action whenever you get the itch.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

As a retro throwback to the Castlevania games of old, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is a triumph. It takes everything great about those titles — tight platforming, tough enemies, a bevy of special weapons and characters — and refines them with the expertise of a developer that’s been in the business for a long time. Curse of the Moon is actually a prequel to the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, which purports to be a sort of spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, widely considered to be one of the best 2D platformers of all time. This two-hour prelude sets the stage for that larger story, but it’s a fantastic journey on its own.

Oxenfree

Adventure games can be head-scratching difficult, which often means they last a bit longer than this listicle would want. However, Oxenfree is refreshingly brisk. It’s a moody piece, to be sure, following a group of teenagers who encounter something terrifying and supernatural on an island, but its puzzles are not the sort of obtuse mind-benders of the adventure games of old. The storytelling on display here is superb, and at around four hours, it’s an easily digestible journey that you’re unlikely to forget.

So, what do you think? Any great short games I’m missing here? Let me know on Twitter.