Updated: Jan 7
It seems as if video games (or really, all forms of media) nowadays are vying to take up the most of your time as possible, to hold your attention longer than any of the other competitors, by offering “7000+ hours of gameplay” or “loads of content that will keep you busy for years” and things like that. Multiplayer games are constantly having to come up with updates and innovations to maintain player retention so they can continue to profit off of in-app purchases for as long as possible. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with things like this (I really don’t mean to frame the latter as something necessarily negative, but I couldn’t find another way to say it), lots of big titles are among the best ever made. But also, short games that offer brief but meaningful moments can create emotions and inspirations that last far beyond the time spent playing.
So here’s a list of some really small little video games that anyone reading this should be able to play and complete without taking too much time out of their day (or too much money out of their pockets), yet still provide worthwhile experiences. None of them are too technically challenging, so if you’re someone who doesn’t usually play a lot of video games, you should still be able to enjoy these to their fullest.
The first entry, Swallow the Sea is the farthest on both axes of the price and length spectrum, being completely free and taking literally less than fifteen minutes to complete. It's a surreal, grotesque, and unsettling adventure where you play as a “lowly egg cell journeying through a swollen sea of strange and humanoid fish”, as the game’s official description succinctly puts it. If you like the tense and uneasy vibes of horror-adjacent games like Inscryption or have a general affinity for creepy and disturbing art, you’ll find this game right up your alley. It’s free on Steam or Itch.io (a great website for playing, finding, and sharing indie games), and only requires a computer mouse to play (I suppose you could use a trackpad, but it might be a bit difficult).
Windosill is an endlessly creative and wonderfully unique point-and-click “puzzle-toy”, as dubbed by the creator. You’ll find yourself guiding a little cart through various single-screen rooms, clicking and playing with everything in those rooms before finally moving onto the next one. Each room is an extremely intriguing and imaginative little world, and interacting with them creates such a feeling of enchantment and wonder. The game is one of the first I remember playing, it’s my quirky lesser-known pick for one of my favorite video games of all time, and I think that a lot of my artistic creativity and taste stems from this game, if that makes any sense. In fact, it was revisiting this game recently which gave me the idea to make this whole article. I admit that I may be slightly blinded by nostalgia in this immensely high appraisal, but even without the childhood connection to it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if you’re someone who likes artsy things.
It’s available for $3 on Steam, Itch.io, and iOS. Being a point-and-click game, you’d also benefit from having a mouse to play it, unless you don’t mind dragging across your trackpad a lot (or if you play it on iOS, all you need is your finger).
Another mobile game, Mekorama is a completely free collection of physics-based “puzzling mechanical dioramas” where you guide a little robot through assorted obstacles to the goal of each level. Some do require a bit of tough thinking, so if slower-paced games that lack action or exploration aren’t your thing, it might not be for you. Like all great puzzle games, it does something that I find so innately satisfying and elegant: Introducing a small amount of easy-to-understand initial mechanics, and then rather than introducing a new mechanic you have to learn each level, using and combining the existing ones in tons of creative and surprising ways to create intuitive puzzles. They’re solved not by being able to comprehend an arbitrary new idea, but by fully understanding all the ways those initial mechanics can interact and be used to their fullest extent.
Originally released on mobile on iOS and Android, it’s since been released on a myriad of other platforms as well.
The epitome of short, yet meaningful games and (I think?) the most well-known one on this list is A Short Hike. If you’re going to play any of these, make it this one. Only $8 on a variety of platforms, it has you play as a bird exploring what’s essentially a fictional national park. There is a final goal of ascending to the top of “Hawk Peak”, a mountain hiking trail, but an equal amount of enjoyment can be derived from freely exploring the park and interacting with the different things you’ll find. This might be the only game I've played where there are absolutely no restrictions on where you can go and what parts of the park you can explore in what order. You can literally go anywhere you want, no area is off-limits until beating a different part of the game. You can head straight for the peak, to “beat” the game as fast as possible, you can just meander around and discover the beauty of the world around you, or anything in between. Couple that sense of freedom with charming and often genuinely funny interactions with various NPCs and you get an experience everyone deserves to have in their life.
I wanted to keep this list full of relatively lesser-known short games, because, well, you’ve probably played (or are at least aware of) the bigger ones. If you haven’t played Undertale or Portal by now, please do, both are just $10. Deltarune too, its first two chapters are completely free and better than a lot of sixty-plus-dollar brand name games out there. Or, take some time to explore Itch.io or Steam (or somewhere else) and discover some games for yourself. Even though they probably won’t be life-changing, it’s nice to look around and play little things that people just made because they wanted to, because they had the passion to create a piece of art for someone else to experience.