Whether it’s an RPG that tells a story over dozens of hours, or a strategy game that takes months to master, games are often a considerable time investment. For many people this is central to gaming’s appeal: nowhere else in art can you find such complete worlds to lose yourself in or such stern challenges to overcome.
Sometimes, though, after a long day at work or when you’re otherwise pressed for time, the idea of chipping off a few more experience points in a game like Destiny or sweeping up a couple of quests in the latest Dragon Age can feel like a Sisyphean effort. Sometimes its nice when a game gets to the point, and provides an experience that can be digested in a few hours rather than over several weeks.
So I’ve put together ten of the best games which can be completed in a single evening’s play. It’s important to note that these are whole games that can reasonably be run through in one sitting. Any game that would require you to rush, or a longer game split into short episodes – like Telltale’s The Walking Dead – wasn’t considered.
10.) The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The Astronauts’ Lynchian detective game is arguably the most accomplished of the so-called “Walking Simulators”. It casts the player as psychic detective Paul Prospero, who arrives in the beautiful Red Creek Valley to search for a missing boy.
Much has been made of the game’s incredible visual design. But its approach to storytelling is what makes Ethan Carter interesting: Red Creek Valley is a place where the real and the surreal coexist quite happily, where the stories and fables inspired by the valley come eerily to life through Prospero’s heightened sense of things. Its influences extend from the pulp sci-fi of the Fifties to Lovecraftian horror.
It is a somewhat divisive game, but I’ve always been a fan of Limbo’s shadowy aesthetic, minimalist puzzling and abstract storytelling. Long before the great survival parade marched its way through video game town, Limbo emphasised vulnerability over power, putting you in the shoes of a small boy in a nightmarish world of deadly traps and terrifying giant spiders.
Limbo does a lot with astonishingly little. Its interactions are simple yet highly tactile, all about grabbing and pushing and dragging objects around. This lends a strong sense of connection to Limbo’s monochromatic world, which is partly why its grislier moments are so unsettling.
When it sticks to basics, Limbo shines. The final section, though, which involves messing around with gravity, gets a little silly. But for most of its brief running time, Limbo is an engrossingly twisted little tale.
8.) Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
While a Call of Duty’s multiplayer offering can keep you occupied for months, the majority of their singleplayer campaigns can easily be run through in a few hours. Despite seven years of sequels, in my opinion the series never bettered its first foray into a contemporary setting.
Modern Warfare mixes spectacular set-pieces with multi-pathed levels that allow just a little tactical manoeuvrability, and its campaign includes some of the most memorable moments in FPS history, such as the AC-130 mission, the A-bomb, and the exquisitely crafted ‘All Ghillied Up’.
Ever since Modern Warfare, all three CoD development studios have tried to bottle that lightning a second time. That they’ve never quite achieved this isn’t so much a comment upon their failure as it is a testament to Call of Duty 4’s bombastic brilliance. If you fancy an action-packed afternoon, Modern Warfare’s singleplayer is undoubtedly your best-bet.
7.) The Stanley Parable
Ostensibly, The Stanley Parable is about the illusion of player-choice in a game scenario. But really what it is about is jokes; hundreds of them. Hidden behind doors, scrawled on the walls, displayed on gargantuan computer terminals, The Stanley Parable delights in letting the player set up a gag and letting its velvet-voiced narrator deliver the punchline.
Set up around the eponymous Stanley’s search for his missing co-workers, The Stanley Parable kicks off by giving you a choice of two doors, at which point the game’s narrator states “Stanley walked through the door on the left.” The game’s many paths branch out from there. It constantly dares you to try to break it, and revels in showing you how it’s always one step ahead. Yet for all that it is never smug.
Originally released as a mod, the commercial version of the game expands its story-threads and mazy corridors considerably, but it can still be explored thoroughly in a few amusing hours.
6.) Gone Home
Gone Home begins with a traditional horror set-up. When Kaitlyn Greenbriar returns home from her globetrotting gap-year, she discovers that her family have mysteriously disappeared from the large, old house they recently inherited from a deceased uncle.
Yet as its narrative unravels through the memories and mementos of Kaitlyn’s family, it reveals itself to be something far more intriguing and rewarding. It’s a story of about love and sisterhood, about failed ambitions and strained relationships. At the same time, it never fully relinquishes that spooky atmosphere, always keeping you on-edge as you piece together its story. In a medium that deals with conspiracy theories and the supernatural on an almost daily basis, Gone Home’s comparatively humble, human tale is a refreshing and edifying couple of hours.
5.) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
A rare example of a game about brotherhood that doesn’t involve Assassins or chest-beating machismo, Brothers sees you guiding two boys across a picturesque fantasy landscape as they seek a cure for their dying father’s illness.
Brothers experiments with traditional puzzle-platforming by having you control both boys at the same time. Almost every action you perform involves using both brothers in some way, whether it’s crossing a torrential river or navigating a strange land of fallen giants.
Through their trials and their teamwork it encourages the player to establish a bond with the characters, which it uses to stunning effect. Brothers is a charming, engaging, and at times brutally sad little game.
4.) Grow Home
Grow Home was only released this year, but it immediately shot up my list of favourite games – it’s a concentrated dose of pure joy. It revolves around a relentlessly cheerful robot named B.U.D and his mission to retrieve the seeds of the Star Plant, a huge flower that grows into the stratosphere. Starting at the flower’s base, you must climb the stem and grow the plant in order to make the flower at the top bloom.
There’s so much to recommend about Grow Home. First off, it focuses so well on climbing, combining clever procedural animations with a dizzying sense of verticality. Ascending the Star Plant engenders a real sense of achievement. Every floating island you reach has a little something to make it worth exploring, be it a little upgrade crystal or some strange wildlife concealed in a cave.
In addition, its dual themes of growing taller and reaching higher make it a wonderfully positive experience, underpinned by lashings of cheeky humour and a stunning, vibrant aesthetic. For all that Grow Home is easily worth its measly £5 price-tag.
3.) To The Moon
To The Moon remains the only game to make me cry, and this coming from a man who played the mobile reboot of Dungeon Keeper. The cute and cuddly JRPG stylings bely a game of astonishing emotional resonance. Its story is framed around a company that implants memories into the minds of people who are dying, essentially granting them a last wish.
The subject of To The Moon is an old man who wanted to be an astronaut. As Doctors Rosalene and Watts flick back through his memories to locate a suitable implantation point, they become increasingly entangled in the man’s life, specifically his relationship with his curiously cold and distant wife.
To The Moon’s puzzles are simplistic to the point of being asinine, and there are a few points where the game-side gets in the way of the narrative (the horse-riding section is particularly irksome) but in terms of storytelling and characterisation, you’d be hard pushed to find many better examples.
2.) Metal Gear Solid
Most of the games on this list are from the last few years, mainly because shorter, sharper games have proliferated lately. But I figured we should include at least one classic from times of yore, also known as the Nineties. And classics don’t get any more stone-cold than Solid Snake’s encounter with the FOXHOUND terrorist organisation.
There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said, but it’s interesting to note that Metal Gear Solid was actually criticised for its brevity around the time of release. It pushes right up against the limit for being completable in an evening; somewhere between five and six hours when played at a comfortable pace. But if any game was worth staying up a little later to finish, it’s MGS.
If I had only one night left on Earth, and I had to spend it playing one game, it would be Valve’s miniature masterpiece. The quintessential short game, Portal has everything: a unique concept beautifully explored; a subversive, witty script with a great twist; sharp, clinical visual design; a perfectly judged difficulty curve. It even has a musical number.
More important than all that, though, is how it’s all moulded so seamlessly together. Every aspect of Portal’s design flows and merges like a river. Portal without the humour is as inconceivable as Portal without the test-chambers or Portal without the rips in space. The game doesn’t feel designed so much as if it popped biblically into existence, perfect and whole. And it achieves all of this in the same running time as a film.