With consoles costing at least $300 and most new games priced at $60 a pop, it's no secret that gaming doesn't come cheap. Lucky for you and your budget, we found 10 games that not only let you save your hard-earned cash, but also offer some of the best, most artistically inspired, and enjoyable virtual experiences available. Most of them don't require a particularly high-end PC, and while a few of them offer the chance to pay for a better version, you can play all these without spending a cent.
We've intentionally excluded MMOs and MOBAs from this list because they're free practically by definition, they dominate most lists like this one, excluding more interesting and obscure games, and they require so much time invested that it's nearly impossible to distinguish "the best one" from "the one I play."
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
If I want to pay: You can purchase card packs or the Solo Adventures with real money, but you can also buy them with in-game gold if you spend the time to earn it.
Where to download: Blizzard
Hearthstone is the epitome of "easy to learn, hard to master." This aggressively addicting card game based on the Warcraft universe should feel intuitive and straightforward even if you've never touched a trading card in your life. But amassing a complete collection, building the perfect deck, and taking down experienced players requires a deep understanding of strategy and a strong intuition. Plus the game has plenty of extra modes: battle with a partially randomized deck in Arena, play with a new set of rules every week in Tavern Brawl, or follow stories and fight challenging AI enemies in Solo Adventures. Add in one of the most active communities on Twitch and you'll be dueling for ages.
Slave of God
Developer: Increpare Games
If I want to pay: Slave of God is entirely free, but you can donate to the developer's Paypal on their website.
Where to download: Increpare Games
Some people do drugs. Some people just play Slave of God. The game, which can best be described as a "club simulator," has no clear goals and doesn't take long to complete, but it's one of the most overwhelming sensory experiences you can find in any artistic medium. The interactive element only amplifies the intensity, dragging you into its disorienting atmosphere in all its ecstasy-inducing (and vomit-inducing) absurdity. Seriously, we can't give this game a strong enough epilepsy warning, which basically equates to a recommendation in this case.
Team Fortress 2
If I want to pay: The game makes most of its money from virtual hats that have no practical effects on gameplay; all the maps, classes and weapons are free.
Where to download: Steam
Valve, the developers behind the Half-Life and Portal franchises, initially released the cartoony FPS Team Fortress 2 back in 2007; we purchased it in 2008. Since then, the game has expanded from three game modes to 14, including the transformative co-op mode Mann vs. Machine. The six official maps have multiplied to over 100, many created by the player community. And of course, Valve made the game free to play in 2011. Meanwhile, our Steam account claims we've spent almost 400 hours in Team Fortress 2, and for some friends that number reaches quadruple digits. Eight years after first playing it, we keep coming back to TF2 more often than any other game. If that isn't value for your money - or lack thereof - what is?
Super Crate Box
If I want to pay: The PC and Mac versions of the game are free, but you can purchase iOS or Vita versions for a few bucks.
Where to download: Super Crate Box Site; Steam
The idea of Super Crate Box is simple: Fight the endless stream of monsters and rack up as many points as you can. We've seen this exact premise in plenty of higher profile games, from Gears of War's Horde Mode to Call of Duty's Nazi Zombie mode. And like them, it's an absolute blast, blending fast, high-intensity encounters with strategic depth. Super Crate Box's simplification of this formula delivers the experience at its most pure, and therefore at its most engaging. Yet its handful of quirks (such as the fact that you switch weapons every time you score a point) keep things fresh and make sure it always plays a little differently. It's the sort of game designed from the ground up to have you glued to your computer screen at 3 a.m. yelling, "Just one more try!"
Developer: Adhesive Games
If I want to pay: Unfortunately, HAWKEN has the highest paywall on this list. You'll need to shell out some real cash if you want any mechs or upgrades beyond the default.
Where to download: Steam
It's usually unfair to assume you'll find the production quality in a free-to-play title that we see in major triple-A releases, but apparently Adhesive Games never got that memo when they developed HAWKEN. The incredible graphics stand among the most detailed and beautiful available on PC should you have an advanced enough machine to run them. But the game also challenges and transforms the standards of its niche genre - while most mech fighters before it featured slow, lumbering robots, HAWKEN moves fast, keeping the energy high and the fights intense. Basically it's Titanfall, but it came out two years earlier and you can play it for zero percent of the price.
If I want to pay: An expanded HD remake available for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, SP Vita, and PS4 significantly improves on the experience with updated graphics and new features.
Where to download: Spelunky World
You could debate what game on this list is best, but Spelunky certainly comes number-one in freeness. In addition to releasing the game for free, Derek Yu designed it entirely in the free program Game Maker. Accordingly, you may not expect much of this 16-bit roguelike, but it manages to encapsulate the experience of cave exploration and treasure hunting in a remarkably accurate and visceral way. The randomly generated levels guarantee that every playthrough goes differently and you'll always have to think on your toes, evaluating a situation carefully, then traversing and battling with quick reflexes. Expect to die almost constantly, and to immediately start new game after new game.
Digital: A Love Story
Developer: Christine Love
If I want to pay: Well, you can't - All of Christine Love's games are free! Check them out (as well as her blog) on the site.
Where to download: Scout's Honor
Digital: A Love Story is the kind of game that changes the way people think about games. The "visual novel," presented in the form of a 1980s computer interface, takes the concept of online romance and imagines it in an entirely new way. Though the standards for video game storytelling usually remain disgustingly low, Digital prioritizes story above all else, crafting a moving, fascinating narrative unlike any other you'll find in any form, video game or otherwise. While most games demand that you play them for at least an hour or so at a time, Digital: A Love Story actually operates best if you play for a couple minutes a day, checking it like you would your regular email, building a relationship with it, one that will surely last.
Path of Exile
Developer: Grinding Gear Games
If I want to pay: The items you can buy with real money in Path of Exile are purely aesthetic status symbols, maintaining the integrity of the game's weapon balance. You can also pay to form a private in-game league.
Where to download: Steam
You'd be hard pressed to find any other game that gives you such an enormous amount of content for so little money as Path of Exile. The top-down action RPG bears a striking resemblance to Blizzard's more famous Diablo series, and the two stand equal in just about every category: their intuitive exploration and battle systems, their fascinating Gothic horror atmosphere, their exciting and seemingly endless piles of collectible loot. Path of Exile does all that and more, with its endlessly replayable randomized worlds, its unbelievably complex skill tree, its unique and dynamic item economy, its consistently updated alternate play modes, and its vibrant online community. All without you needing to spend a cent.
If I want to pay: 2:22AM operates on a pay-what-you-want format; kick a few bucks to the developers when you download if you please.
Where to download: Itch.io
We're glad that free games exist so that games like 2:22AM can exist. It's too short, too weird, and too abstract to compete on even the indie game market; it's arguable whether or not it's a game in the first place, given how little your actions actually influence the outcome. But for video gaming to evolve as an art form, we need games like this one that challenge even our most basic assumptions about the medium, and 2:22AM does that in an absorbing, fascinating way that changes every time you play it. And do play it, even if - especially if - the mere phrase "experimental art game" makes you want to gag. Just don't forget to follow the developer's brief instructions: Play at night. Play alone.
Developer: Studio Pixel
If I want to pay: You can purchase the upgraded Cave Story+ on PC or the full remake Cave Story 3D on the Nintendo 3DS.
Where to download: CaveStory.org
Originally released in 2004, Cave Story was one of the first freeware video games ever, and 12 years later it remains one of the best. Sure, this Metroidvania platformer features clever stages, charming graphics, and dynamic weapons that make it incredibly polished by the standards of free games at the time. But it's the game's heartfelt, understated story, engrossing atmosphere, and numerous possible endings that embedded it in the minds of everyone who played it. In fact, Cave Story paved the way for a golden age of artful indie games that thrived on a mix of unique mechanics and overpowering atmosphere. We may have never seen Braid, Limbo, FEZ, The Binding of Isaac, Undertale, and more without Cave Story's example.