Not all games are fun. Not all games are meant to be. Some are tedious, monotonous, and occasionally depressing. A bit like real life.
We’ve selected 12 titles below that successfully recreate the everyday grind.
They fall under two categories: those that are deliberately downbeat, and those whose subject matter and implementation make them inexorably dour.
Always Sometimes Monsters
Not many games task you with making burgers in a meat-packing plant. But that’s exactly what you’ll do in Vagabond Dog’s unique take on the role-playing genre. You’re shipped there on a bus, put on the clock, and the agency that sent you takes a huge cut of your pay. It sucks.
Meat-packing is just one small element of a game that takes a refreshingly honest look at life, forcing you to make dubious moral decisions, work terrible jobs, and eat badly.
Always Sometimes Monsters doesn’t give much away; there’s no tutorial to speak of. So, just like in real life, you have to blunder through as best you can, hoping the choices you make won’t be a complete disaster.
The writing in Always Sometimes Monsters is refreshingly real, and even the most impressive characters turn out to be deeply flawed — even the developers themselves, who can be found taking an endless coffee break within the game, procrastinating over their creation.
Every Day the Same Dream
Developer: Paolo Pedercini
Platform: Browsers (Flash)
Pricing: Free — play it here
In a nutshell: Peeking through the cracks of a menial office existence
Eat, sleep, work, repeat.
Trapped in a depressingly familiar routine, the protagonist of Every Day the Same Dream seems doomed to endlessly repeat his daily grind.
Small subversions are just a step away, however, and while playing this game, you’ll find that you need to do something to break from the norm.
A fine commentary on the monotony of office life from developer Paolo Pedercini, Every Day the Same Dream is a flash game that you will make you think. And it’ll only take you five minutes to play.
Take some time out from your own grind to experience someone else’s.
As a sometime elementary school teacher, I could have told publisher Ubisoft that turning the classroom into a game wasn’t a winning idea. Sure, the profession has it its moments, but the everyday demands of marking, attending meetings, and dealing with disruptive pupils don’t naturally make for a fun and diverting adventure.
Amazon customer Janine E. sums Imagine Teacher up beautifully in her 1-star review: “This game is a wast [sic] of money. It just asks you to do the same thing over again. It is not fun.”
Welcome to the world of teaching, Janine.
If you can look beyond Janine’s review, you’ll find a game that asks you to create lesson plans, mark children’s work, and even clean up the classroom (presumably the janitorial budget has been spent). Then, much like Groundhog Day, you’ll get to do it all over again.
I Get This Call Everyday
Don’t let the Microsoft Paint aesthetics fool you — David Gallant’s recreation of a terrible call center job is as real as gaming gets. And as depressing.
Gallant was working a day job in a customer service center when he made I Get This Call Every Day. He was responsible for updating customer account information. In Gallant’s own words, the job turned him into nothing but “a numb meat popsicle.”
Whatever you do in I Get This Call Every Day, you are going to lose. You need to to deal with a single customer’s call, picking your responses from a fixed set of options, but failure is inevitable as you teeter between being polite and abusive while your frustration level grows. “Lose politely, or lose spectacularly; the choice is yours,” says Gallant.
Go play it, then be grateful that you don’t work in a call center yourself. Unless you actually do.
Street Cleaning Simulator
Perhaps the most depressingly realistic vehicle simulation of recent years, Street Cleaning Simulator puts you behind the wheel of a street sweeper as you “navigate the city in search of detritus.”
The game lets you control the brushes of your vehicle individually, and has you manage your water, dirt trap, and fuel levels as you play. Publisher Excalibur Games promises a range of environments and a “dynamic particle system” to give that dust some much-needed realism.
Now, keeping the streets clean is a necessary and serious business — just ask Lou Rawls — but choosing to recreate the experience in your free time is beyond the call of duty.
Developer: Richard Hofmeier
Pricing: Free download
In a nutshell: The side of retail you don’t see on The Apprentice
The bottom end of the retail market isn’t a glamorous place to be. That’s where you’ll find yourself when you play Cart Life, the unflinchingly retail simulation created by Richard Hofmeier.
You’ll need to go through the motions of preparing for the day, working out change for your customers, feeding your own personal addictions, and ensuring you eat and sleep sufficiently.
As your character stands at the bus stop, killing time until the daily grind starts again, you’ll catch a glimpse of resignation on their pixelated face.
Released to much critical acclaim, Hofmeier’s own customers soon started complaining that Cart Life had game-breaking bugs. His response was to withdraw the game from sale on Steam and release it as an open-source product. At the time of writing, however, Cart Life’s website is mysteriously unavailable and Hofmeier seems to have dropped from public view (at least, his Twitter account is no longer live).
You can still grab the free version of Cart Life at the time of writing via the magic of Internet time travel.
Pricing: Never released
In a nutshell: A bus journey along a straight road. For 8 hours.
Desert Bus is a mini-game created by the magicians Penn and Teller for their unreleased Sega CD title Smoke and Mirrors. It involves driving from Tucson to Las Vegas in real time on a straight desert road with no other traffic, staying at less than 45 mph. The wheel alignment of the bus is slightly off so you have to constantly attend to it drifting off to the right or face being towed back to the start.
No-one ever gets on or off the bus and completing the eight hour journey rewards the player with one point and the chance to pull a double shift and head back to Tucson.
Penn Jillette discussed Desert Bus on his podcast, revealing that it was a response to criticism of violent video games led by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
“Desert Bus was a game we thought would really appeal to people who didn’t like unrealistic games and didn’t like violence in their games,” said Jillette. “It was just like real, loving life.”
Smoke and Mirrors never saw the light of day as the publisher, Absolute Entertainment, went out of business. Desert Bus lives on, though, in Android and iOS form, and it forms the backbone of the annual charity event Desert Bus for Hope that raises money for Child’s Play.
And Everything Started to Fall
We’re all getting older, and sooner or later our bodies will start to fail. Simple things we take for granted will get harder to do, like opening a jar of pickles.
And Everything Started to Fall is a flash game that revels in reminding us of the human body’s frailties during its single, brief level of platforming action (and inaction).
Starting off as a helpless infant, you develop abilities like jumping and swimming, then lose them just as quickly as you head toward old age. Key life events are reduced to pixelated images depicting scenes of college debauchery, marriage, and work. And eventually, inevitably, you die.
Just like life.
When the world ends, will we still be going through the motions of everyday life? That’s the question that flash game One Chance poses.
The drama and external mayhem of impending doom is communicated subtly through newspaper headlines, relationships with family and colleagues, and your slowly changing environment. But each day still starts the same as you shuffle, not scream, toward global annihilation.
Despite the big premise behind Once Chance, its grounding in the everyday earns it a place in this list and pokes a finger at any and all apocalyptic stories that forget we all still need to sleep, eat, and brush our teeth.
If you haven’t already, play Once Chance. Just be aware that whatever decisions you make will stick with you as the game — despite having multiple endings — is intended to be playable just once.
I came across Homeless when it released in Winter 2011. Its downbeat styling and simple, repetitive gameplay made quite an impression.
The game casts you as a homeless guy bumming small change off passers-by, trying to stay alive. Watching people ignore a homeless couple on the bridge outside his Toronto apartment inspired developer Jonathan Flook to make the game.
“How many times have I passed a homeless person and said “sorry” when they ask me for money?” said Flook. “Sorry? What does that even mean to them? Does it mean, I’m sorry I’m too cheap to spare a dollar? Does it mean, I’m sorry that you’re too lazy to get a job? Of course not, but when everyone ignores the problem it comes off that way.”
He made the game on a tiny budget and had to “cut out the seasons, weather effects, multiple locations, just about anything that would bring the costs up.” The original idea of using a real homeless person and their surroundings in the story were also abandoned as “it’s just not practical when you can barely make rent yourself.”
There’s no traditional Game Over screen, as you’ll see if you play the game. “The lack of closure to me is a little heart breaking,” Flook said, “and in many ways so is the story of Homeless.”
Developer: Christopher Orr
Platform: IBM PC (DOS)
Pricing: Way out of print, but you can download it for free here.
In a nutshell: Your least favorite household chore: The Video Game
Lawn Mower is the game that brought the tiresome, monotonous process of cutting the grass to the IBM PC way back in 1987. Even with hazards like a dog (that’s the ‘O’), gophers (the smiley faces), and holes thrown in, the game remains as much of a chore as actually going out and mowing the lawn.
It even sounds worse than an actual lawnmower, thanks to the irritating approximation of a motor noise that kicks in at 0:39 in the above video.
Still, at least you don’t have to empty the clippings when you’re done.
Papers, Please sees you working as an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint in the fictional country of Arstotzka. You sit at a desk, processing people’s applications to enter the country, deciding if you should stamp their papers as accepted or denied. As you’d expect, it’s not an action title.
In addition to dealing with the border crossing paperwork and the twists and moral dilemmas this throws up, you must also cope with an ever-changing political situation and the domestic matter of keeping your family warm, fed, and in good health.
Papers, Please throws more red tape at you than you can handle, forcing you to making difficult decisions and making it near-impossible to balance your obligations to work and family.
Winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the 2014 Independent Games Festival, Papers, Please has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide, making this slice of dystopian life into an unlikely indie blockbuster.