Free as in Freedom

In a previous post, I went off on PC gaming and how much it completely, totally sucks. And I stand by that position with one notable exeption: free games.

Consoles are still frightfully proprietary and will remain so for the near future. As a home Linux user and part-time Open Source evangelist, this annoys the hell out of me. Not just anybody can fire up a compiler and start producing games for the Wii, XBox 360, or the PS3. This gives the game machine manufacturers a really unprecedented level of control over the content available on their systems.

Imagine if everyone had to get the blessing of the manufacturer in order to make a CD that plays in your car stereo, or a DVD that plays in your home theater system. CDs and DVDs would be a lot more expensive, and you might occasionally have trouble finding an album that plays in your brand of CD player.

Because of this situation, there is no serious indie market for games on consoles. As long as the Big Three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) make it expensive to produce games for their machines, there never will be. These companies don’t actually want a thriving indie game market – they believe that it’s in their best interests to make it just a little bit expensive to publish a game for their console.

Since games sell consoles, the Big Three would rather focus marketing efforts on big blockbuster titles. Games with TV commercials that make you feel as if you really have to play that game. They are banking on these marquee titles (think Halo) to help them sell consoles and don’t want to muddy the marketplace with thousands of no-names that won’t necessarily inspire people to buy a console..

What they want is a cardboard cutout of Master Chief standing on a pile of Xbox 360’s in every GameSpot. Ideally, they are shooting for a handful of new major games like that every couple of months to really put their marketing money behind.

Not so in the PC world. There are so many indie games that it’s hard to keep track of them all. And many of them are free. So in the interest of extending the olive branch to the PC world… I give you the One Good Thing about PC gaming: Free, indie games.

Below is a rundown of some greats. They are all “Open Source.” That means that they are free for anybody to use, modify, sell, or give away, so long as they also provide the source code for any changes that they make. You may have heard about the Linux operating system or the Firefox web browser – those are both examples of Open Source software.

Egoboo is a 3d arcade-action dungeon exploration game with a cute visual style reminiscent of Mario. It’s been out for a while, and has garnered an active community. The official site is mostly dead and is rarely updated, but a new community has sprung up that is producing new releases of the game.

FlightGear is a slick, professionally produced and fully open flight simulator. As a young geek, I was addicted to Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. Obviously, this fully modern flight sim puts that experience to shame (although it lacks a poorly rendered likeness of Chuck Yeager mocking me whenever I crash). The pure joy of flying a virtual airplane is now sadly lost to me, but FlightGear itself really does it well if that’s your thing.

Armagetron Advanced. Remember how I tried to have Tron killed on the game grid? Remember how poorly that lightcycle game turned out for me? Well despite my resulting aversion to the very idea, I have to admit that Armagetron is a great game. It’s a 3D racing game where you pilot lightcycles just like the ones Tron rode to infamy on, and you can play it with friends over a network. How about that?

Frozen Bubble is a free remake of Bust’a’Move. I’ve tried to steer clear of blatant remakes in this list, but Frozen Bubble is just so damned well done. You can download and install it directly on your computer, but you can also just play the java version online right now!

Nethack is an ancient geek standby, and also extremely engaging dungeon exploration game. NetHack dates back to the days when computers didn’t have any means of displaying complex graphics – so the player, the terrain, the monsters… everything had to be represented with alphanumeric characters. Today it is quite possible to play NetHack with graphics (even in 3D!) but real geeks are only happy if their character is represented by an “@” symbol.

Neverball is a 3D arcade game that is reminiscent of that old wooden Labyrinth game… you know, the one where you guide a ball through a maze by tilting the board itself? Use the mouse to tilt the world around your Neverball as you guide it through various obstacle courses.AlephOne is an Open Source release of Marathon that is supported by its original designers: Bungie (of Halo fame). Mac users from back in the day might remember playing Marathon while their PC buddies were knee deep in Doom. Bungie has added all kinds of interesting updates (including optional updated 3d models, new scenarios, physics, network games, etc.).

Scorched 3D brings the so-called Mother of All Games into the world of 3D. Does anybody else remember the original Scorched Earth? That incredibly simple game where you had to enter velocity and angle numbers in order to get your cannon’s projectile to destroy the other player’s cannon? Anybody? Scorched 3D is exactly like that, only the action takes place on a three dimensional island with terrain. Also, your “tank” (which is really just an immovable base) can be upgraded with shields, different kinds of weapons (including nuclear bombs), etc. The game also incorporates local and network multiplayer, and is a great way to waste an afternoon.

Vega Strike is a space trading, exploration, and combat “simulator.” It’s similar in many respects to the old commercial game Privateer, but has a much larger universe to explore. You can choose from and customize many different kinds of space ships to pilot, and you can make money by trading or by accepting missions (randomly generated). I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time with Vega Stike, but it’s suprisingly deep, and very strikingly pretty.

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Oh Chuck, still you mock me in my dreams…

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