Every summer, Gabe Newell puts on his mask of Benevolence and graces us again with the Steam Summer Sale. It’s a time to conveniently forget Steam’s probably-super-problematic and near-absolute grip on PC game distribution and that we’re (probably) never going to get Half Life 3 or Portal 3 or Team Fortress 3 or anything involving both Valve and the number 3… probably.
Instead, it’s time to gently bite one’s tongue and dive into Steam’s immense library, because there’s a lot out there for (for a while) very little money.
It would be perfectly reasonable to use the Steam summer sale to get a couple of bigger ticket items you’ve been eyeing. (ahem. AHEM.) However, it seems equally reasonable to spend that same amount of money on a retinue of smaller, cheaper games to keep you company as you plant yourself in front of fan with an ice pop and wait for the cool evening air to roll in.
With that, before the sale ends on July 9, here are:
Great games that are $5 or less on the Steam Summer Sale (in no particular order)
Hexcells Infinite - $1.49
Hexcells Infinite looks like it was invented by bees who love Sodoku. In each puzzle, you are charged with figuring the blue cells on the map. The game gives you come clues to finding them, like black cells tell you now many blue cells are touching it, or numbers outside the grid tell you how many blue cells are in that row or column. You left click cells you think are blue cells, and right click cells you think are black cells, revealing an underlying pattern. In order to progress, you need to make very few mistakes, and the number of times I involuntarily yelled out “NO” when I mis-clicked a cell were, uh, many. I love a frustrating a difficult puzzle, and this was certainly that.
You can also first get the slightly easier Hexcells or Hexcells Plus (both at $0.89). Or, you can do like me and start with Hexcells Infinite and feel like a genius when you backtrack to the other two.
You Must Build A Boat ($1.69)
For whatever reason, I never play Match-3 games, despite the alluring glittery appeal of Candy Crush. So it was interesting to stumble into You Must Build A Boat, which has gameplay entirely around matching at least three cells of the same type together. What drew me in was the addition of an adventure element: a little sprite doing a temple run at the top, which requires the player to match tiles that would help the lil’ runner complete their tasks. You can, for example, match 3 keys to unlock a chest, or match 3 shields to boost defense against enemies. If you don’t match fast enough, you are briefly defeated and returned to the titular boat. The more tasks you complete, the bigger your boat gets and the more power-ups become available. It’s an addictive little loop.
Because I’m not very good at it, each run takes me less than 30 seconds before I need to start over, but the game (charmingly) tells me I’ve won every time, even if I haven’t completed an assigned task. In this day and age, it’s nice to feel like a winner, no strings attached.
Her Story ($2.69)
Her Story takes one look at linear storytelling and says, “no, thank you.” Instead, the game puts the player in the position of a detective, trying to figure out the truth of a women’s story. You discover her story through video clips, but the videos exist in an in-game database and are only searchable through tags. So, at the start of the game, though all the videos are, theoretically, available to you from the jump, without the proper tags to search for them, they’re completely hidden from you. Starting with broad searches (“woman,” “crime,” etc.), you might watch a number of videos that are completely out of order chronologically, but which might hold words that will give you access to more specific tags. And on and on it goes. It’s an incredibly smart way to have a story unfold, and a fascinating way to look at narrative structure.
Papers, Please ($4.99)
I maintain that Papers, Please is the piece of media that made me think hardest about how hard it is to see humanity in people when you have your own pile of rubble to dig out from under. It’s an exploration on how stress keeps people compliant, and how that stress is conveniently manufactured by the powers that be. In it, you play a border patrol agent in a fictional Soviet bloc country, tasked with making sure only the allowed people are permitted to cross in. As regulations become more stringent, and as penalties for getting things wrong become higher, it becomes more and more difficult to keep your moral core. Do you let in the refugees who don’t have their proper paperwork and risk getting docked some day’s pay? It’s alarming how quickly one’s view becomes selfish by necessity. It’s a total slog. It’s nearly perfect.
If you have some extra money to spend, I also highly recommend developer Lucas Pope’s newest game, Return of the Obra Dinn ($17.99).
The Yawhg ($4.99)
I’ve long loved comic artist Emily Carroll, whose work about the horrors of the body and the home feel like something Shirley Jackson would approve of. The Yawhg was put out by Carroll and developer Damian Sommer, and both highlights Carroll’s adept tone at the mystical and spooky, and also introduces a really interesting game mechanic. The player is told that a great catastrophe is approaching, The Yawhg, in a few weeks time. Each turn is one of those weeks, and the player can choose what their character does. Those choices affect the characters’ stats, which come into effect once disaster strikes. (This was later used, with credit, by another fun game: Monster Prom [$5.99].) The game rewards exploration, and has a number of possible effects that might come into play, depending on choices made. Also, you can play with multiple people, and there’s nothing better than yelling at a friend for releasing a werewolf in the town, you know?
King of Dragon Pass ($3.59)
If The Yawhg has a few possible stories that might unfurl from player choices, King of Dragon Pass has about a hundred times that. It’s a mix of a city management sim, an RPG, a Twine game, and something else entirely weird. It makes sense that it totally flopped when it first came out in 1999 (!!) and that it now has become something of a cult classic. It’s very smart, and pretty inscrutable. (Its in-game manual is immense. I’ve read a number of guides and STILL feel like I’m usually just throwing my choices into a deep, dark well.) Mostly, due to an incredible number of randomized events, each play-through feels both unique and personal. It’s amazing to see a decision for some easy money made early in the game come back to haunt you 10 in-game years later.
I also have a deep appreciation for its level of Weird. I mean, it has a monster called the “Walktopus,” which — you guessed it — is an octopus… that WALKS.
I feel confident in saying that Portal is the best modern game ever made. (Only Tetris keeps me from removing “modern” from that title.) The first Portal is absolute perfection, in both puzzles and plot. If you’ve somehow managed to not play or hear about it since it came out over a decade ago, then you are truly blessed. What a gift, to get to experience it for the very first time with clear eyes!
Even if you know the story, you should get both games. At $2 for both, what are you waiting for?
Firewatch brilliantly captures some deep and dark feelings: the paranoia of being alone; the tug and pull of grief; the sense of adventure that comes with looking out over a vast landscape; the attachment you can feel to a voice in a time of need. The story follows Henry, who has volunteered as a fire watch — sitting alone in a tower, looking for wildfires in a national park — following the discovery that his wife has early-onset Alzheimer’s. His only companion is Delilah, a volunteer in a neighboring tower, who talks to Henry via walkie-talkie, but is otherwise unseen. The player explores the wilderness and stumbles across what may or may not be a mystery. Is it Henry losing his grip? Is there something in the woods? Firewatch weaved a story that stuck with me just as much as its beautifully rendered landscapes.
Oxenfree came out in 2016, the same year as Netflix’s first season of Stranger Things. It couldn’t escape the comparison: teens in a paranormal adventure, dealing with both otherworldly threats and also their hormones. In this comparison, Oxenfree got a fair amount of flack or, maybe, it just got lost in the noise.
Going back to it now, it’s a strongly woven-together story. The player’s main mechanic is choosing how the main character, Alex, responds to those around her. Is she biting and cruel when stressed? Does she keep her feelings close to her chest? Is she self-sacrificing? Oxenfree is one of the few games I played with dialogue options that, in the end, felt like those dialogue options truly mattered. Sure, the story was ultimately going to the same-ish place, but having the characters be teens somehow made the impact of dialogue choices that much weightier. Also, it’s a good ghost story, and had a couple of moments that genuinely gave me the shivers.
And finally: games I haven’t played yet but am certainly excited to
SOMA ($4.49): Why am I including a game that is put out by the folks who made Amnesia: the Dark Descent, that game forever loved by streamers who like to play spooky games so they can scream at the camera? Turns out, SOMA has a “safe mode”, added to the game by the developers. In safe mode, the monsters in the game don’t attack or chase you. They’re still there, and the atmosphere is still dark, but players like me can avoid unwanted stress and still get to the (purportedly very good) storytelling heart of the game
Invisible, Inc. ($4.99): A turn-based strategy game in which you command a spy organization trying to steal things. Heck yeah!
Faster Than Light ($2.49): An earlier game by the same folks who made the incredible Into the Breach. In FTL, you command a ship travelling through the galaxy. Games are randomly generated, so it’s a new challenge each time.
Bayonetta ($4.99): You’re a witch whose hair is magic and also you have gun shoes. It’s bonkers. It’s over the top. It’s really excited about Bayonetta’s butt. Sometimes a person just needs some hyper-saturated explosive chaos. It is 2019, after all.