Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story
Step into the role of a high-school teacher who has the ability to peer into the private lives of their students. How far would you look? Would you interfere? Would you use your powers for good or for your own advancement?
Digital: A Love Story
An adventure set in the early days of the internet, Digital is a game unlike any others. It presents you with an Amiga-style interface and has you dialing into the bulletin boards of old, a place where esoteric communities chatter and strange secrets are waiting to be found.
It says something about how special PC gaming is that one of the best platformers we’ve ever seen is still free. Spelunky is inspired by the 8-bit classics, but it procedurally generates its levels so that you have something new to explore every time you play. It also has snakes, boulders, ice caves, and more bats than you can shake your shotgun at. If you can find one in the darkness.
Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar
One of the oldest of the old-school RPGs, Ultima 4 offers a seamless world to explore, packed full of adventure, and it closely tracks the morality of your actions, keeping an eye on the kind of hero that you’re turning into. Nowadays, it looks quite a lot like a roguelike, but make no mistake, there’s a great deal of character interaction in this one.
A top-down, team-based action game where each of you takes the role of an engineer, medic, gunner, and so forth. Alien Swarm takes its inspiration from a certain very famous sci-fi film and throws hordes of horrific extraterrestrials at you across a series of ever more difficult levels. Race against the clock and coordinate with your team to get to the shuttle or to put up your sentry guns before time runs out.
A game of empire building and global dominance, FreeCiv is inspired by the Civilization series (particularly Civilization II) and gives you control of a single nation which you can set forth on the road to greatness. It’s constantly being updated and improved and even features support for 126 player games. Why? No idea.
Open Transport Tycoon
Transport management might be nerdy but it’s also incredibly engrossing. Build your own transport network, with trains, ferries, trucks, and jets, and use it to help develop the world around you, watching cities expand as you ship goods and connect commuters. This is another freeware version of a stone-cold classic and it runs far better than Transport Tycoon ever did, offering bigger levels and more to play with.
Tower of Goo
Mother to the incredible physics puzzler World of Goo, 2D Boy’s Tower of Goo is a more basic affair, challenging you to construct a tower of gooballs as positively vertitudinous as you are capable. The higher you climb, the more the wobbling structure quivers and the daintier your construction must become.
Dwarf Fortress is a seemingly impenetrable simulation that mixes Dungeon Keeper, roguelikes, and ridiculous levels of detail to create something truly unique in games. Manage an expanding fortress of dwarves by mining materials, setting up industries, defending from goblin attacks, and satisfying the whims of nobles.
“A multiplayer game of strategy, intrigue, and conquest,” Neptune’s Pride is a space-bastard simulator that will turn friends against friends. Games take days and moves take hours as you muster forces and conquer systems, forming alliances and betraying loved ones as you go. Strategy at its most brilliantly cutthroat.
Hidden & Dangerous Deluxe
In 1999, Hidden & Dangerous arrived at the bleeding edge of tactical shooters, a dual first-and-third person World War 2 FPS that demanded a strategy-minded approach and punished trigger-happy impatience. It looks hideous today, even compared to its sequel, but the free version’s still worth a boot.
A wonky-limbed Flash classic turned wonky-limbed internet meme, QWOP simulates some form of track-and-field event in which the runner’s arms and legs are individually controlled using the titular keys. If you can stay upright long enough to hear Chariots of Fire playing, you’re winning.
Super Crate Box
Super Crate Box is a super-fast, super-dangerous platformer where enemies constantly drop from the top of the screen. Score points not by killing them, but by collecting crates, each of which has a new weapon for you, though some are much better than others. Let any of the monsters past you and into the fire below and they respawn more powerful than before. Repeat this formula and enjoy ad infinitum.
From the guys behind the excellent Machinarium, the Samorost games mix photography and painterly art to create one of the most uniquely atmospheric hidden object puzzlers around. It also has a gently progressing story about one creature’s asteroid home colliding with another.
Surprisingly, there are still people jaunting around a free-to-play, microtransaction fuelled Norrath to this very day. Everquest 2 might lack some of the modern conveniences of more contemporary MMOs, but you can’t fault its determined approach to showering you in countless giant rats at the end of every quest.
That's your lot for games that cost zero money! Let us know what you think of our choices in the comments.