There’s this type of play experience that’s unique to freeware. It’s been part of the internet ever since Dial Up.
That past time of finding weird things to download, from sites that you might more or less trust, and running them. Games, software, weird small things… It’s a pastime that I remember fondly when our modem “could do” 64 kbit/s.
I used to spend hours on Downloads dot Com searching for DOS games. I found Chickens 2 that way, and still have the original copy on my machine. I never had the heart to delete it.
PC Gamer used to give away demos in a CD that you got with the magazine. Every month you would be excited to get it and try to figure out how to “get more” out of this free object intended as a demo. Like hacking the GTA 1 demo to disable the counter so you could play longer. As long as you had the .exe the game was yours. It was an object to dissect and play to death and discover every tiny error detail or bug.
It’s about the weird things you discover and make your own.
The strangest memories of these games still exist somewhere, on the internet, when someone is trying to recall “that dinosaur game where you customized your own dinosaurs and could spit fire…or acid?” or “that game where you escaped giant ants in an isometric world?”
I remember a freeware game that I found where you shot Magpies. Similar to Chickens 2 that’s all you did in it. I’ve been looking for it for years, but can’t find it anymore. Maybe it was too small, too insignificant to keep, but significant enough to me to want it back.
Cheesy software blew my mind and is one big reason that I started making games.
A thing that I vividly remember was one of the edutainment games, I think it was either Creative Artist or Creative Writer, having a computer in one of the virtual rooms. Somehow I found a collection of demos that was packaged with it by interacting there. These demos included games like Echo Quest, and a broken version of The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble. You couldn’t save in it, so I and my brother spent two days not turning off the computer so we could try to play through it. The thing crashed so we never finished it.
I recall that vaguely, from memory. The sense of discovering these games in odd places felt like a portal to more worlds opening.
These tiny virtual relics that took up so much of our time. They might still exist out there somewhere, but many are now gone.
What I find really interesting about the culture of having distributed game demos as downloadable things over the internet, to promote a game, was how the demo could be more popular than the actual game. The downloadable demos are lost today. The actual full playable game is saved, archived, shared in the old dos games sites, but the actual demo is impossible to track down.
I’m fairly certain you can find them on someone’s old computer somewhere, forgotten in some corner, but these have never really been saved. Some demos were even different from the actual released game, so it’s interesting how these experiences are lost.
One in particular, that inspired this post, is an old game called Savage: The Ultimate Quest for Survival. People sharing the downloadable demo called it Savage. It’s how I knew it. At the time it was the strangest, funnest, most wonderful thing. It was a demo for a game that I guess eventually came out (I always thought it didn’t because people only talked about the demo). I don’t think it was ever as popular as the demo.
I’ll talk about my experience playing the demo…
In Savage you played a lion. The thing about it that everyone loved was that you could hunt, kill, and eat. You’d run after the number of animals the game offered and tackled them, successfully killing them, OR you could get murdered if the animal was too large.
A big plus was that there were people, camps of people out on safari or however the game rationalized these characters, and you could kill and eat those too. People were easy prey to your lion prowess.
The game required you to hunt, and find water, so you could keep playing.
I’m recalling a lot of this from memory now, but you could progress. It wasn’t just about simulating a lion. As you got into it, your lion character got older. The game would start you off on that little island in the middle of the lake each time. Each time the world would get more hazardous to navigate. Eventually your little island had mines and you had to watch out where you walked else you would get blown up.
The game eventually deteriorated to getting really weird. You would have to collect these coins? Orbs? I can’t remember…but these things were strewn about. I remember how weird that was because it suddenly broke the immersion, and turned into a gamely game.
The Savage demo had a following. Like Bad Mojo, it fascinated me because you could play as an actual animal in a simulated world. It seemed like a huge thing to just put out there and give away as a demo.
Despite how popular it seemed at the time, you couldn’t really find much about it on the modern internet. I spent years trying to find it. It eventually resurfaced enough for me to find this youtube video and be reunited with that thing that occasionally occupied my memory.
(Note: there’s a really interesting playlist of other similar old titles here. Worth looking at.)
And that’s it. The full game is out there. The relic of the full game is saved on download sites such as Archive, or old-games.com… The popular, and readily shared demo, is an object that I can’t find. Maybe lost.
I was introduced to Quarantine the same way, because of the demo. You can get the game now. The object that I spent the most time on is also gone.
I love the mortality of virtual objects. They’ll live on in our memory, and become an occasional craving to re-live it, but most we will never get back.
It’s a special experience to “find” something like a game, somewhere in the back corner of some virtual space, and collect it. It’s how we participate in making it our own.
Games that you lose, and then find, is part of the sentimental charm of them as objects.
These things involving you as part of the mystery of their existence adds to the joy of finding them.
STRANGETHINK’s games are amazing. They disappeared, and now live on in people’s download folders, or directories that they forgot they saved them in.
You should hold onto your virtual artifacts.
I have a copy of SPOOKY SELFIES on my Windows machine because it reminds me of a special time in games. I need to remember that. Holding onto it is like a souvenir.
In many ways you become part of this object’s narrative. This is why I feel like the pastime of blindly browsing itch.io and gamejolt and just running whatever odd thing you download to peek inside of is such a unique experience to games.
You can’t really get this from mainstream storefronts. I think this will always be unique to independent outlets, stores, or sites.
It’s those strange, bizarre, home made things that we lose so easily. The types of games that you used to get on Downloads.com, or some page on a personal website, exist in the same spirit here.
We won’t really remember the odd little things that people made and shared.
I feel lucky that Cheesy Software still hosts its games after so long. This is the type of stuff that is huge in quantity, and participation, has an influence on the mainstream, but is easily lost.
The conversations, and droves of very creative experimental games from small developers on itch, do have an impact on mainstream games. They do shape new approaches, ideas, or what consumers want. Unfortunately mainstream games will be the ones that are saved, archived, and preserved. The independent artists, or hobbyists, of this medium will likely not enjoy that treatment.
That clumsy gamejam game that we don’t really give much thought, is part of a greater creative conversation that pushes a trend forward. Walking simulators exist not because of one person’s “breakthrough title” but because of the many tiny pushes from many other smaller games that didn’t enjoy as much critical acclaim.
Much of this is why I value downloadable games. You can save that. You can preserve those tiny fragments of a time period. The relics that aren’t important enough to keep (like a demo, or that homebrew thing), but matter so much to you.
The forgotten freeware era of distributing DOS games over the internet, not mature enough to be considered an art-form, too niche to be remembered or archived as a movement… today itch and the validity of “games as art” means that maybe this time around work from small creators will stick. I would hope. If we lose less of that, then large commercial entities will control less of the medium’s historic narrative.
This is also why I think these downloadable objects have an aura of mystery surrounding them until you run them.
It’s a fun thing to play into. Like games that role play with how they exist and pretend to be cursed objects, or lost objects, or have some kind of lore surrounding them.
You know, when you download one you’re already full of curiosity about it. What is it? Will it be good? How do I even play this thing?
It’s really fun when developers work that mystery into their own work.
One game that I feel like does this amazingly is Buddy Simulator 1984.
If you go to the itch page you are given a friendly greeting as a New User. The page explains that, thanks to next-generation AI technology, here’s this simulator that simulates hanging out with a friend!
The game doesn’t look like much. It strongly undersells itself. It looks very unassuming, and low brow.
When you start it, Buddy Simulator gives you a very friendly greeting. The friend in it comes off as immensely needy, and eager to please. It’s already slightly foreboding. At the beginning there are three simple games you can play with it. Hangman, rock paper scissors, and guess the number. It seems very simple.
I would have given up because it didn’t look like much, and I got stuck at the guess the number part. Tip: When the game asks for your birthday, tell the truth because you’ll need to give your birthday number later on.
I’m REALLY glad that I stuck through with it because this thing is just amazing.
The game switches up and totally changes character after you played all the games. Buddy System wants to please you so it tells you it will come up with more games. It just needs to reset. You can play that, and it becomes more eager to keep you so it puts you into a text adventure.
I feel really bad for spoiling all this because the surprise element is so important to this.
Just to say that after the game asked you to “hack it” by giving you some code to put in, and then tasking you to actually reset it, and also that well written text adventure… I feel like this should probably be on someone’s GOTY list.
What I loved most about it was how it switches things up so often. First it’s an old OS, then it’s a text adventure, then you have an environment where you can actually walk around in. It’s a really fascinating experience. The tone is definitely horror mystery.
Buddy Simulator deserves way more attention than it has gotten. It kinda distresses me that not more places have written about it.
It’s an involving experience that fully stays true to the theme, from the itch page, to how the game itself ended.
I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.
Another game that also plays into the “found object” theme in an interesting way is Fever Golf, by Oleander Garden. You’ve probably seen me talk about this on Twitter.
I love this because of how it sells itself as “a game about early 2000s bargain bin CD culture, that is, games that few people played & fewer remember”.
Fever Golf stays frustratingly true to its theme. You play golf. It’s not even good golf. It’s interpretive golf? It’s also another game where I’m happy that I didn’t give up out of a sense that there must be more to it.
The opening golf part is a slow painful grind. You push forward, putting balls into holes, and as you do you’re allowed to walk further. It’s really funny to try to get people to play this one. Like they see the golf part and look at me sideways like “really?” but ok they’ll play it because it seems really important to me so…
Once you get past the golf part, you get a golf gun. Fever Golf begins to deteriorate. It starts as a bad dream because it’s already golf, but it becomes a pronounced nightmare about midway through. You shoot golf balls with your golf gun. You also must play golf, but it’s a golf gun so playing is probably easier. It’s still a tremendous grind. I love this game for how committed it is to just be golf. As you progress the world falls apart. A nightmare city, a TV that you walk into, a crimson structure… It falls apart, and (in a really weird way) playing golf made sense.
This is a lot like if you took the theme of “Early 2000s CD-ROM Dumpware” and gave it a horror element.
It’s a very interesting experience.
The other games from Oleander Garden are also interesting: https://oleandergarden.itch.io/
So if you like experimental atmospheric experiences, this is a good account to check out.
No Players Online is also an interesting example for how strongly it plays into the “found object” nostalgia.
I’ll hold off on saying more about it since it’s already been generously covered elsewhere, and this post is getting long. It’s worth checking out tho.
My own attempt at this “found object” theme was with GOGOFISH! (REDUX). It’s self-aggrandizing, and intentionally strange. It’s supposed to be really puzzling once you start playing it and offer no explanation or excuse for its existence. It’s made to bemuse and bewilder.
Like how “GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition] Montage Parody The Game” is intentionally obnoxious, or how Viral Dusty Dead Identity Quiz presented itself as a mysterious identity quiz that alluded to more… I think things like this, especially when done intentionally, work because of how off guard they can catch a player.
Doing this by giving someone a really puzzling object to interact with works. You can’t really get this type of experience when you’re searching a mainstream storefront. Tiny things meant to confuse by how loud, strange, inexplicable they are mater for that uniqueness.
Itch.io is notorious for little things that get put out there, without any background, that end up surprising or delighting you if you just give them a chance. On a whim I decided to try THE ACCURSED TOWER. It doesn’t really say much about itself, but it’s a silly little type of thing that’s unique to itch. It will make you laugh.
3D Dogs is something I have no idea how to quantify or even talk about. It’s a really strange object just to interact with. It’s almost like a toy. There’s not much to it but its interesting to figure out.
Died’s Factory is another object that I found really interesting for what it does. It’s music, video, and some environments that you pass through. Things warp, crumble, distort, and you can control that with some keyboard keys. It’s another toy-like object to try to understand before maybe deleting it and moving on. I think maybe years from now I’ll remember it, and be slightly distressed at finding out that I can’t get it anymore.
Frolicing is also one that I downloaded on a whim, was slightly intrigued by, laughed at, and then closed.
Music Friend is a tiny cute music toy. A small creature sits in the middle, rotating, and a sweet tune plays. That’s all it does. It’s a cute tiny object to download and own. Occasionally booting up to smile at.
There are so many more small, odd, not really meant to be understood, things on itch. A tiny window into some type of bizarre or lovely interaction to examine and then close. Like some of the old freeware DOS games I mentioned, that were so popular at the time, sometimes a tiny interaction is enough. It doesn’t have to be a straight line of interactions, story, or vision to matter.
Chickens 2 was enough at the time. That Magpie game that I mentioned was too. During early freeware internet, a dev modded Defender and gave it dumb sounds for when aliens shot. People loved that. It was silly and that was enough. These small relics are all the more intriguing for how small they are. Some might even stick with you the same way that Spooky Selfies download does to me.
The point to all this being that YOU found them. Nobody told you about them. Nobody curated a list for you to look through. You were the virtual explorer traveling through a virtual sea, out of which you could discover that ONE thing worth bragging about (or laughing about). You explored some odd corner of the internet and returned victorious with a digital relic.
That odd demo illegally posted on someone’s personal site, the countless titles to dig through on that freeware site, that small game hidden on some page buried in a chain of hyperlinks, someone’s work posted and forgotten about… It’s yours. Your discovery.
This is why I think being able to just download and run whatever you want is so special (something slowly being deteriorated by monopolies interested in pushing their own arbitrary storefronts).
Itch and GameJolt kind of bring that spirit of early freeware, or shareware, back. Creative movements need homes for work that is not necessarily intended to make money. You know, the things hard to justify in terms of monetary value, download numbers, or all the things capitalism deems important.
To maintain the upward momentum that experimentation brings to a medium we need platforms that are inclusive enough to allow space for the odd things that aren’t big enough to really mater, but also not completely small enough to dismiss either.
Maybe this time around we’ll be more successful at preserving the small digital relics from hobbyists.
One thing is for certain tho: hold onto that .exe you downloaded because ten years from now you’ll really miss what it represented.
Thanks to Benedict for emailing me the name of the Magpie game!
It was called “Magpie Hunt” by Alligator Software (for Windows ~1997)
I wrote a thread about trying to find an actual download for it, finding a very obscure broken demo of it on archive, and how to run it.
Later I was also emailed the full game…Yay. Joy! I have it again!
It’s so rare and nearly vanished. xD
I might write a follow up post about Magpie, and my digital archeology adventure trying to find it with all the other old games I re-found because of that… They’re all very interesting odd things that would be fun to talk about… but, until then, you might get a kick out of my thread. It gives info on how to run it, in case you want to try.