Going into the new decade, games have never been more demanding of our time. They seem to get longer and longer, and the number of enticing options is ever-increasing with each passing year. AAA titles have hulking campaigns rich with side content, JRPGs offer unending opportunities to grind and walls of dialogue, and battle royales pummel us with irresistible replay value. Even some indie titles are finding ways to gobble up dozens of our hours.
For these reasons, I treasure quality short games now more than ever. Brevity in games doesn’t have to mean lacking or unpolished. Short games can offer experiences that are complete and uncompromised. Lengthy games are more likely to make a lasting impression, sure, but when a short game can do the same, it’s all the more impressive.
So for those of us who can’t always start up a 100-hour campaign at the drop of a hat—the students, the working professionals, the family people, and the people with, like, hobbies other than just video games—I present to you my 10 favorite short games of the year.
The baseline of length I’m aiming for is no longer than eight(ish) hours. Some entries push that limit while others come nowhere close. I’ll admit that I, personally, am a terrible metric for how long it takes to play a game. I tend toward completionism, and that’s a big part of why short games are important to me. The lengths mentioned in this feature come from HowLongToBeat. (I do not regard this site as gospel by any means, but it’s likely more accurate than my own logged time.)
Hidden Layer Games’ Inmost is a gloomy convergence tale with some heavy, disturbing subject matter. It’s also a unique adventure platformer with three distinct playstyles. One is puzzle-heavy, one is action-heavy, and one is cinematic and story-heavy. I found myself engrossed in Inmost’s clever puzzles and perfectly dreary atmosphere throughout its four-hour playthrough. While the story is ambitious, I found it to be a bit on the overwrought side. Luckily, its tedium doesn’t take away from the game’s solid gameplay.
Stocking items in a warehouse and readying them for retail may not sound satisfying, but Wilmot’s Warehouse has one of the most cathartic gameplay loops I’ve encountered. You’ll have a small group of timed deliveries and retail shifts consecutively. You’ll need to organize your deliveries as best you can for store hours. Checking out customers as quickly as possible is your goal during said store hours. The euphoric “stocktake” allows unlimited time for organizing and occurs once you’ve handled a handful of deliveries and store hours consecutively.
Item management is key in Wilmot’s Warehouse. You receive a shipment, and let’s say one item is a strange, indistinct blob. Another is something much more discernable—say—a tennis racket. Some items will look alike or be themed similarly, and others will be odd outliers or just plain tough to classify. Your job is to organize them in whatever way works for you. You’ll also need to take demand into account. Some items go in vogue, and the closer you can stock those to your checkout counter, the better.
Wilmot’s Warehouse will provide many hours to dedicated players, but if your aim is to breeze through the main content, then you’re looking at around nine hours. (Yes, I’m already breaking my own rules.)
The bite-sized Pilgrims wasn’t the 2019 release we were expecting from Amanita Design, the Czech studio behind modern point-and-click greats like Machinarium and Samorost 3. In October of 2018, Amanita announced Creaks, a game that appears to match the scope and scale of those aforementioned titles, but Creaks was recently pushed back to 2020. As a huge Amanita stan, I was disappointed by the delay, but the surprise debut of Pilgrims on Steam and Apple Arcade quickly dried my eyes.
In Pilgrims, you’ll play as a small handful of characters, each with social uniqueness and abilities to manipulate a given scene and advance the story. Trying every item in every scenario with every character yields a ton of slapstick fun, and the game’s odd card deck-based inventory system makes trying items in rapid succession a breeze.
While there’s a fair number of post-game achievements, you can expect to spend all of about an hour on the main story elements of Pilgrims.
In terms of gameplay, Sagebrush couldn’t be more vanilla. But when it comes to eerie, gripping storytelling, it’s a home run. This is coming from someone with a huge aversion to story-heavy, dialogue-heavy games. I’d rather be shown through gameplay rather than told through handwritten notes strewn about my environment. Sagebrush does a whole lot of the latter, but it succeeds like very few—if any—Myst-like adventure games have.
In Sagebrush, you’ll find items, use said items to gain access to new areas, read notes, rinse, repeat. This formula is all too familiar, but that’s on purpose. Sagebrush’s simple, approachable gameplay is a platform to tell its fascinating memoir of horrors. As you explore the abandoned site of a 1990s cult commune, you’ll begin to string together a long and winding narrative about the cult’s events and social dynamics. Going much further than the trailer above will teeter on spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it there. Just know the story is incredible, but also be warned that if you have a repulsion to religious-themed horror, then Sagebrush might not be for you.
IMPORTANT: If you play it, do👏not👏skip👏dialogue.👏
A Short Hike is perhaps the quintessential single-sitting game on this list. You’ll likely zip through this whimsical jaunt within an hour and a half. Brief as it may be, A Short Hike is as memorable as some of my favorite “big” games of 2019.
While it plays nothing like Animal Crossing, it sure does look like it. From the setting to the sprites down to tiny details like the star-shaped holes in the ground indicating where to dig, AC is a huge point of inspiration. The graphics are a clear throwback to the Nintendo DS, with its low-res screen and dirty polygons. However, those comparisons end with aesthetics. A Short Hike is a collectathonic adventure rather than a quaint life sim. Your character will hike to the top of a mountain, obtaining extra feathers to help lengthen her short bursts of flight to aid her ascent. There is plenty of delight to be found along the way through character interactions, mini games, and tons of items to collect.
A Short Hike is currently exclusive to desktop, but with its rave reviews, I would expect some console ports eventually. It could be a real standout on the Switch or Xbox Game Pass.
Let’s get clear on this much: Super Mario Maker 2 is perhaps the longest game of the year in terms of available content. The user-made levels are unending. That’s sort of the point. But the game’s Story Mode is a fantastic finite collection of levels made lovingly by the game’s developers. While these levels do a good job of demonstrating all the game’s objects and design possibilities, they’re not overstated with experimentation like much of those within the user-made level circuit. Story Mode’s levels are just good levels. No gonzo troll mechanics needed.
Story Mode offers over 100 levels. You won’t need to beat all of them to make it to the finish line, but there’s plenty here if you’re looking to 100% the mode. Expect a casual playthrough to clock in at the seven-hour mark.
It would be great if Story Mode added more levels to include the game’s recent DLC content, most notably the Link power-up. But at this time, it only includes the game’s launch content.
Hypnospace Outlaw hearkens back to the early capital-“I” Internet glory days of the 1990s, only with a sci-fi twist. You’re an enforcer tasked with patrolling an AOL-inspired internet service provider’s user pages and communities. You’ll flag cyber bullies and copyright infringers, infect your HypnOS desktop with viruses and adware (on purpose), and break into hidden online communities. Eventually, things get weird. Really weird.
The closest point of comparison I can come up with is 2017's Kingsway, a dungeon-crawling RPG/roguelite fashioned within a ‘90s-inspired operating system GUI. Similarly, Hypnospace Outlaw’s ISP is also an operating system complete with a desktop, file browser, settings menu, oddly implemented email client, web browser, system update patches, and shoddy programs galore, many of which the player will install.
Hypnospace Outlaw’s lore and universe building are staggering. There are countless user personalities with unique interests and behaviors. There are entire musical artist catalogs available for listening and complete with promo art, much of which is available separately on Bandcamp. There’s a fake Kid Rock, a fake Linkin Park, a fake Yanni... I could go on. There are also fake Pokémon called Squishers with their own theme song, tons of fan pages, and a side quest to find all the individual Squishers within the Hypnospace universe.
The joy of getting lost in this imaginary community and its content is where Hypnospace Outlaw really succeeds. It’s also easily the funniest game I’ve ever played.
I was quite ambivalent about the announcement of Cadence of Hyrule during the March “Nindies” Direct. I loved the idea of an indie-made Zelda. On the other hand, NecroDancer seemed like such an odd and unideal pairing. I had played it briefly, and it hadn’t made the best first impression on me. Of all games, why would NecroDancer, a rhythm game, win the Nintendo indie lottery? Why not Blossom Tales or any of the other great Zelda-likes out there?
But after spending a few hours in NecroDancer, it didn’t take long to figure out that it’s a quality and highly addictive roguelite. My fears largely melted away, and my skepticism turned into excitement. But this enthusiasm wouldn’t prepare me for just how good Cadence would be.
Cadence is not a roguelite. It’s more of a proper top-down Zelda adventure, only with rhythm-based action. In its four short hours, you’ll experience a ton of the joy found in the best top-down Zelda games across the timeline: puzzles, dungeons, bosses, and weapons and items galore. The pacing is fast but feels very good.
I should also mention that Cadence’s difficulty doesn’t come close to that of NecroDancer, which can be downright punishing. Cadence starts out a bit tough as you learn the game’s mechanics while being underpowered. But after a few heart containers—they’ll come quickly—Cadence becomes quite easy.
The Touryst is the latest edition to my list. I had no plans to play it until I saw Digital Foundry’s glowing feature last month. The hype paid off this time. The Touryst is a true gem on the Switch.
I found the game’s voxel-based art style a bit pedestrian, but it’s done incredibly well, and the charm is undeniable. There’s no traditional combat in The Touryst, but there’s plenty of action via tricky 3D platforming and puzzle-based boss fights. You’ll play arcade games, surf, do pull ups, mine, fly a drone, and get into plenty of other side quest shenanigans while exploring a cluster of cheesy tourist trap islands and their dungeons.
Not to underplay the fun of the gameplay, but the real star of the show is the performance. The Touryst looks gorgeous and runs at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second. The toylike sheen of the environment and its objects would make the Link’s Awakening remake blush. And the lighting looks weirdly good for the Switch. Correction: EVERYTHING looks weirdly good for the Switch. This is a living example of how capable the Switch is as a platform, especially when you engineer your games specifically for it.
Let’s get this out of the way: Manifold Garden is available on Apple Arcade, but if you own a gaming PC and want to experience this title at its full potential, then slowly put down your water-damaged iPhone SE, and go pick it up on the Epic Games Store. It’s $20 and worth every penny. Don’t get me wrong—Manifold Garden is still 100% worth playing on Apple Arcade, but this is a game that deserves your best available option for immersion and performance.
That said, Manifold Garden is a first-person puzzle game in the same universe as Portal, Q.U.B.E., and The Witness. All of these games have a singular theme for manipulating the player’s environment. In Manifold Garden, that mechanic is shifting gravity. I found this to be very disorienting, especially when taking the game’s scale into account. Manifold Garden... is... HUGE. Some of these areas are absolutely sprawling and seem miles across. Add gravity bending into the mix, and navigating such goliath areas suddenly becomes exponentially trickier. But that’s a good thing. These spatial brain teasers are where Manifold Garden really shines. As obtuse as the game can feel, its atmosphere and odd mechanics have an entrancing allure.
Visually, it’s one of the most astonishing games of the year and is certainly overlooked. Its towering, monolithic architecture feels like climbing into your favorite album cover and exploring.
Manifold Garden is the perfect balance of ethereal, hallucinogenic visuals and challenging mind-bending puzzles. If you’re a fan of first-person puzzlers, this is not one to overlook. You can make your way through Manifold Garden in just over five hours (assuming you don’t get badly stuck, of course).
Resident Evil 2 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) — While I haven’t played it, it cannot be ignored that one of 2019's most critically acclaimed games clocks in at around eight hours for its main story. This could be the most highly rated short game of the year. And it shows that short games can come in nice high-budget AAA packages.
VR!!! — For better or worse, VR still seems to have the reputation of offering short, demo-like experiences rather than fully fleshed games. Well, if you’re reading this list, then that might be exactly what you’re looking for. I don’t own any VR rigs (no, Labo doesn’t count), so I can’t speak much on specific titles. But I can say that—as an outsider looking in—VR in 2019 appears to offer thoughtful, well-made, immersive experiences, many of which also happen to be brief. If you’re hunting for short but meaningful gaming experiences, there are far worse places to look than VR.
A bunch of other Apple Arcade games — Apple Arcade is tough to ignore on a list like this. The inexpensive service launched this year and has given subscribers literally a hundred brand new titles from quality developers over the span of just a few months. All games are designed to be cross-platform with Apple devices, and many work with a gamepad. I personally have tried Apple Arcade across three devices: iPhone XS Max, 2015 iPad Pro (1st gen), and a lower-tier 2015 MacBook Pro. The best experiences by far have been playing with a PS4 Dual Shock 4 controller with my iPhone with a little help from one of these thingies. Apple making their devices compatible with PS4 and Xbox One controllers has opened many doors, and gaming on an iPhone can finally feel like the real deal. And it shouldn’t be a big surprise that many of these games are on the short side.
I hear Google Play Pass is good, too — but I do not own an Android.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (PC/Mac) — Anodyne 2 is a dialogue-heavy, surrealist Zelda-like, but that’s probably being a bit reductive. It wasn’t quite my thing, but it will appeal to many who are open to experimental games. I found the dialogue a bit too tedious, but your mileage may vary with this ambitious, eight-to-nine-hour indie.
Untitled Goose Game (consoles, PC/Mac) — It’s grossly overrated, but I’m just gonna leave this here so I don’t get swung on.