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Don’t try to hide—our cheap-game roundup is keeping an eye on you

Sawbuck Gamer is our occasional roundup of free and cheap games ($10 or less).

Nothing To Hide
Creator: Nicky Case
Platforms: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Browser
Price: Free

You could level plenty of accusations at the privacy-crushing regime in George Orwell’s 1984, but at least Big Brother was never lazy. The same can’t be said for the all-seeing oppressor at the heart of Nothing To Hide. In this game’s vision of the future, not only does the government insist that you remain in view of their surveillance equipment at all times—on penalty of death—but it also makes you arrange the cameras yourself. Whatever happened to full-service dystopia?

You play as Poppy Gardner, a prominent victim of this user-generated oppression. Poppy is the daughter of the strange nation’s leader, and she’s embarking on a quest to escape the spotlight. To do that, you have to navigate a series of suspiciously maze-like rooms, arranging portable cameras in each space so that you never slip out of their gaze. (If you do stray from surveillance, you’re killed immediately.) Nothing To Hide wastes no time in escalating its puzzles, and while this is a short demo—made in the interest of funding a full-length version—it explores its “kid stays in the picture” premise with admirable depth and difficulty. The game is easy on the eyes, too, with lively animation and cleanly rendered visual effects that illustrate the camera’s gaze. Better yet, the whole thing is open-source—the developers truly have nothing to hide—so these aesthetic flourishes might propagate to other games, too. [JT]

Creator: Todd Luke and Calum Bowen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free

A few years ago, a Massachusetts family got lost in a corn maze and had to call 911. I assume their first mistake was rushing forward too quickly, and their second was not playing Winnose as a family. Todd Luke’s game teaches you that the fastest way out of a maze is to take your sweet time.

As you start your trek through a breezy tropical maze, you take the form of a thing that’s half moai statue and half Nigel Thornberry’s gigantic nose. There’s talk of a great winnowing that blew everything apart, and the story unfolds as you hop your way through a series of mini-mazes. The stages are guarded by patrolling body parts that smush you on impact. To combat this, you can freeze the guardians in place, but if you use this ability too early, the enemies block your way and, you’ll have to start over.

These configurations aren’t hard to plan around, but Winnose has a dastardly sense of timing. It’s designed to trick you into thinking can make it out alive if you rush, but you rarely can. Unexpectedly, this truth is best articulated by a guitar-strumming chicken in a serene interlude. The game becomes more complex as you travel, but that wisdom holds true throughout. All families considering getting stuck in a corn maze would be wise to check out Winnose first. [MK]

Block Legend
Creator: Dot Warrior Games
Platforms: Android, iPad/iPhone (Universal)
Reviewed On: iPhone
Price: $2

It’s easy to understand the allure of an everlasting concept like fate. It makes tidy sense of our world and all the great or tragic things that may happen to us. It’s also a terrifying notion, though. I, for one, have no interest in consigning my future to all-powerful unseen forces. I’ll make my own destiny, damn it. Video games offer a sandbox for these “fate vs. free will” dynamics to play out, and while our ultimate video game destinies are almost always predetermined, it’s nice to feel that we have some say in the matter along the way.

That’s the biggest problem with Block Legend: The game has control over nearly everything all the time. You pick a hero from a long list of characters—all the cool ones, like the basketball player and sushi knight, have to be unlocked—and march from town to town, slaying monsters. You eke out treasure, experience points, and gold by eliminating chains of matching symbols in a Bejeweled-style puzzle grid. However, the puzzle element in Block Legend doesn’t ask the player to create chains of their own by sliding around tiles. Instead, you just tap on the swords or gold coins that the fates have deposited into strings of two or more.

The game flashes a charming whimsy—enemies are given random descriptors in their names, so you might fight a romantic zombie or fabulous golem—and it has the requisite exploding blocks and flying numbers to tickle the more primitive parts of the human brain. But that’s not enough to make up for the infuriating lack of player input. The strategy, what little exists of it, applies to small matters: figuring out the best time to use a stat boosting item, or managing your shields in the face of an enemy attack. Someone ought to tell the gods of Block Legend to ease up a bit. [MG]

Word Puttz
Creator: Jackbox Games

Platforms: iPad/iPhone (Universal), Android
Reviewed On: iPhone

Price: Free

There are a few good reasons that Scrabble and mini-golf remain two classic family activities. Their rules are easy to understand. They provide a straightforward challenge that keeps players focused. And they offer little wins along the way that can make everyone happy regardless of the final outcome. Jackbox Games, the You Don’t Know Jack studio, is appealing to nostalgia for those two games by cutting out your family and adding in a purple octopus to create Word Puttz.

Each level involves a golf course where players must form words to get from the tee to the hole. Like any good mini-golf course, it’s littered with traps and obstacles, and each hole has its own challenge. You might need to penetrate a barrier by forming words with specific letters, get to the end with just a limited pool of letters, or race that cephalopod mascot to the hole by spelling words as fast as you can. The alternating challenges keep things interesting since the focus on geometry rather than letter count means you rarely have to rack your brain for the perfect word.

When it does seem like only one word will do to get you through a challenge, the game offers wild tiles and the chance to reshuffle your letter selection. You can use real money to pay for more of those tools, but with some determination and a good vocabulary, you can get through most levels without buying a win. And you won’t have to retrieve your ball from a puddle or argue with your parents about whether that word you just played really is a word. [SN]

Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free

It’s one of the hoariest tropes in film: In the climactic moment, the hero bears down on the bad guy only to discover—gasp—they and the murderous psychopath were one and the same all along. Mind blown. Roll credits. An even worse variation on this twist is that not only the villain but the whole world exists only in the protagonist’s mind. Audiences tend to hate these endings not only because they’re overdone but because they cheat us of any emotional investment. If nothing was real, we wasted our time caring about the characters. Though they often leave audiences miffed, this sort of story endures. At their heart, they still hold a certain existential terror. If we can’t trust our senses, the very idea of reality is called into question. Is there such a thing as objective truth if what we see isn’t what we get?

ChangeType() is a novel puzzler that raises the same question. You must guide your avatar through a vibrant Technicolor obstacle course to the goal on the opposite side. In order to do this, you need to change the nature of each level. By putting an item in your line of sight, you can copy it and switch its properties with another item. So, for example, a coin can become a spike, or an enemy can become an innocous block. What makes this setup especially challenging is the fact that the identity-swapped objects continue to look exactly the same even as they take on new properties. It lends the proceedings a surreal quality. Good luck, and keep it real. [MC]