Sometimes, we just don’t have time to play games. Life can become a whirlwind of working, cooking, seeing friends, and dozens of other overwhelming activities that make spending 20 hours inside a digital world seem frivolous. Thankfully, some developers not only understand this dilemma, but create games around it.
That’s right, I’m talking about short games. Those ones that mimic the infamous tweet: “i want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and i’m not kidding.” Being bite-sized doesn’t mean the developers put in any less time or effort in these experiences; oftentimes their smaller nature allows for a final product that’s more consistent and polished than games that try to do more.
Luckily for everyone, the deep line-up within Xbox Game Pass doesn’t just include the latest Halo and Forza Horizon games, but a few hidden gems that you can spend an afternoon conquering. So put down Horizon Forbidden West and lock up the Pokémon, and let us here at Paste show you what’s good in the under eight hour hood. It’s time to enjoy the little things.
The largest game on the list, Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign speeds by in a mere six hours. The developers at Respawn Entertainment don’t waste a second though, crafting a tightly knit story built around some of the best controls this side of Call of Duty. Each level utilizes their specific gimmicks to the fullest, forcing players to platform in a sideways city to literally hop between time. The game is an imaginative, addicting thrill-ride that will leave your clamoring for a long-awaited sequel.
From the brilliantly wacky mind of Ben Esposito, Donut County answers one of the world’s most important questions: What if you controlled a hole that swallowed up everything? Players control BK, an anthropomorphic racoon, who goes about sucking up everything around town in an attempt to win a quadcopter drone. Following Katamari rules, the more you suck up the bigger the hole becomes. The levels are full of charm and engaging but simple puzzles while the story weaves a surprisingly poignant tale about gentrification. Annapurna doesn’t miss.
Sticking to the puzzle game genre, The Pedestrian is a 2.5D puzzle platformer that requires players to manipulate the physical space around them to progress. Controlling a man/woman pictogram from bathroom signs, you move among many flat surfaces to find keys, boxes, and parts as you venture throughout the city. The puzzles never feel too complex, keeping the goal neatly in sight but just out of reach. Each new area adds more and more mechanics, culminating in a brain-tickling massive puzzle that puts everything you know to the test.
After being eaten by a whale, broke Lord Faraday awakes in a dilapidated and corroding underworld. With none of his crew in sight, Faraday ventures forth into the world, finding himself embroiled in a prophecy to stop the darkness and find his way back home. With its 8-bit art style and macabre vibe, Olija draws inspiration from Castlevania. Players control Faraday and utilize a magical harpoon to traverse the world and attack enemies. The mostly one man team at Skeleton Crew Studios crafts a slim and touching story that feels great to spend a few hours killing baddies in.
After a handful of astronauts vanish during a mission around Saturn, the lone survivor agrees to fly a highly experimental spherical spacecraft gifted to Earth by aliens to track them down. The journey is lonely and dangerous, the deep quiet punctuated by sharp electric guitars as your sphere rolls through desolate landscapes, gaining speed until you flatten out and catch air. The strong dependence on physics creates an addicting gameplay loop and the ethereal and spoon-fed story entices you to keep venturing to further and further frontiers.
Sam Barlow has created his own micro-genre of games built around mundane video sources. First it was the police interrogation videos of Her Story, and then the video calls of Telling Lies. With Immortality, Barlow and his team go fully cinematic, presenting a mystery about a forgotten actress from the late ‘60s who disappeared after her three starring roles went unreleased. The footage from those lost films resemble different styles of film from two different eras, and the interface is set up like an old Moviola editing desk. You’ll sort through her short film career looking for insight into why she vanished, clicking from one clip to another, including outtakes and talk show appearances. Over time the mystery takes an unsettling turn into horror, but Immortality doesn’t lose site of its themes—voyeurism, the power of sex, the inherent exploitation of movies, the specific exploitation and power dynamics of the director/actor relationship, etc.—in chase of scares.—Garrett Martin
The critically acclaimed Undertale is too many things to succinctly summarize: it’s an RPG, a dating simulator, puzzle game, and bullet hell shooter among other things. What can be said is that it is unlike anything else out there. Packed with charm, humor, and heartbreak, you must explore the world of monsters and find your way back home. What more can be said? You need to play this game.
Moving sucks, but Unpacking transforms the titular activity into a calming puzzler that meditates on life and the many homes we will inhabit throughout it. It’s a feat of sound design mixes with pixel perfect art to form a simple but highly memorable experience. Developer Witch Beam Games has made me almost excited to pack simply so I can later unpack, a tall order to be sure.
Firewatch is a game, but it’s not useful to write about it as a game. Who cares what your fingers do while you’re playing this? Yes: it has graphics. The stuff that matters is what Henry and Delilah talk about on their radios. It’s what Henry reads throughout the few campsites and outposts he comes across. It’s what you feel as the story unfolds like a short story on your television screen, visiting the private grief of others who can struggle to communicate just as torturously as all of us in the real world can. And although this dual character study can feel a little slight, and has a few improbable notes that are struck seemingly just to enhance a sense of mystery, that central friendship between Henry and Delilah is powerful. It feels real, and important for both of them.—Garrett Martin
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.—Garrett Martin
You can think of Citizen Sleeper as a sort of digital board game set in a sci-fi dystopia beset by end-stage capitalism and all the rampant dehumanization that entails. It’s a game about work and death where the only levity comes from the relationships we make with others—yes, the friends we made along the way, but not nearly as banal or obvious as that sounds. It questions what it means to be a person in a system that inherently subjugates personhood to corporations and wealth, and it probably won’t surprise you that the answers it lands on aren’t always the most optimistic or uplifting. Here at Paste Cameron Kunzelman described its “melancholy realism” as part of a trend alongside other story-driven games that are largely hostile to the dominance of capitalism, and it echoes the impossibility of thinking seriously about this medium, this industry, and, well, every aspect of society today without discussing the impersonal economic system that drives it all. It’s a heady RPG that respects your time and intelligence, and one of this year’s must-play games.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.