Puzzles for when the world is too much

Listen. I can't afford to keep buying skincare products.

I thought I was maybe it was just me, but given the recent rash of thinkpieces dedicated to Why Millennials Love Skincare, I am (for once) decidedly on trend. And it makes sense. Living in the US in 2018 is a constant reminder of how little control we individually have in the world. Sure, there is power in the mob, but pushing back against the gears of capitalism on one's own can feel outside of our individual abilities, especially on a day-to-day basis.

In grappling with waves of anxiety about our own ability to affect change, it would make sense to lean into small acts of pointed control. Routine and ritual are a security blanket against the entropy of the universe. 

Thankfully for my bank account, I have recently replaced buying acid exfoliants with another tool: puzzle games.

Ever since my hours spent in early childhood playing Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, puzzle games have helped me scratch a certain itch for a small sliver of order and control. Puzzles are problems posed with the knowledge that they are solvable (unlike the problems that come with hormonal adolescence or, say, that of political existential dread). In the moments just before solving, they are like those "perfect fit" videos, where everything suddenly falls into place if you just turn it the right way.

Below are a few suggestions for puzzle games to peruse if you find yourself needing to scratch a similar itch, and ranked according to what level of the-world-is-on-fire feelings they help address.

For when there are a couple of small fires but you're on your way to work anyway because this is just how the world is now: 

MONUMENT VALLEY 1 & 2

  Monument Valley  by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley is a short mobile game series, wherein you help a small be-hatted person navigate an M.C. Escher-esque world. 

The puzzles aren’t especially confusing or difficult. Though there might be a couple of moments where you try to figure out exactly what needs to go where, the game is more about ambiance than challenge.

And what an ambiance it is. The music is gently tonal, and the colors all seem to be in a perpetual golden hour of lighting. Some of the level design gave me the same feeling as staring too long at that glorious fractal broccoli in the supermarket, with some levels opening up like puzzleboxes on one’s screen.

It’s also a moment of respite from words, instead adeptly building feelings within the player through gameplay. An early puzzle in Monument Valley 2 has a parent and child moving in tandem; every time the player moves the parent, the child also moves. Getting them both to the end of the puzzle together is the puzzle, while also being a lovely nonverbal analogy for the level of bonding between the two characters.

I found it lovely to put on noise-cancelling headphone and open up the game on public transit. While crammed in between commuters, and despite playing on a small screen, it felt both vast and personal, and much needed.

For when you’re taking a moment to ignore the fires to instead stare into the abyss, and you are also wondering “what if the abyss was cuter, tho?”: 

DONUT COUNTY

  Donut County  by Ben Esposito

Donut County by Ben Esposito

Donut County has been compared to Katamari Damacy, except that instead of using a ball to collect objects, Donut County gives the player control of a hole in the ground that grows as it eats up items.

Who knew that eating up the lives and existences of these characters could be so gosh-darn cute?

Developer Ben Esposito crafts a lovely little vignette in Donut County. The characters have witty one-off retorts (a la Night in the Woods), and the arc of the raccoon perpetrator of all this chaos is strangely effectively sweet. It’s a game full of “I don’t need this, but I like this” sorts of inclusions, like the glossary of all the items you’ve accumulated called the Trashopedia, which names each item and gives a raccoon-appropriate view of what it is (“Candle: really bad version of the sun. Tastes OK”).

Donut County’s downfall is two-fold: that half of the already easy puzzles have their clues given away from the game’s trailer, and that the game ends just as it feels like it’s getting started. Just as I felt like I was entering new, slightly more challenging territory, the game was over. None of the levels were so difficult that I wanted to revisit them by playing again, no matter how pop-y the level music or twee the graphics.

Nevertheless, it’s sweet dumb fun, and sometimes that’s all a person needs.

For when all the fires have come together into one giant fire monster and you’re wondering how time can ever move forward from this point:

GOROGOA

  Gorogoa  by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa sat in my game library for a long while before I played it. Sure, it looked beautiful, but I was having a hard time choosing it first over the other games I had yet to play. But you know when something seems to wait for just the moment when you need it?

In Gorogoa, a boy tries to solve puzzles so as to gain materials to defeat a giant dragon who has stomped into his city. This journey goes across time and space, and the boy as a character is almost always present, but never fully fleshed-out. For this game, it works. There’s an air of the mystical without trying to shoe-horn a “why” requirement onto any of the actions.

The entire game takes place in a four-square design. Each square might be blank or show an image. The player can interact with any image individually, zooming in or out to get different perspectives. By zooming into the right perspective, the player might reveal an item that can be pulled into another square to complete the puzzle, or can change the order of the squares to cause two to interact with each other.

It’s a little like an interactive version of Zoom, a book where each successive page reveals itself to be a zoomed-out image of the page that came before. Part of the joy for both Zoom and Gorogoa is a joy of new perspectives: the reveal of something seemingly familiar as both strange and new.

The game’s default setting clues the player in to where on each image can be clicked for interactivity. I kept this on, and still found some of the puzzles challenging. But if you’re a point-and-click veteran, or someone looking for a little added difficulty, you have the option to turn this off in the settings.

Regardless, Gorogoa’s eschewing of any traditional narrative gives the game a feel of questing. You might not know exactly why you’re doing the thing you’re doing, but you know that to do it is the goal. And, when things finally clicked (sometimes literally) into place to reveal something larger than you thought it was, it feels a little like magic.

For when there are too many fires for you, right now, thank you very much, and you would just like to dissociate for a little while:

THE WITNESS

  The Witness  by Jonathan Blow

The Witness by Jonathan Blow

The Witness was one of the first games I wrote about on Gentle Gamers, and, honestly, I don’t have too much more to add from my original thoughts. However, it most certainly needs to be added to this list. For a game that’s literally just a bunch of line puzzles, it occupies a place in my brain and heart.

The Witness was a game that, at one point in my playing it, I felt the distinct need to lie down, even though I was already playing in bed. I was so thoroughly upset by a puzzle that I had yet to beat that I got on the phone with my partner and literally cried.

None of this sounds particularly fun, now that I write it out, but the opposite side of that particular low was the stunning high that came with solving the puzzle, finally, after looking at it for hours.

The Witness makes everything in the game shining and beautiful, because you’re going to be looking at each vista for a while as you solve the puzzle. It’s a game about making you emotionally uncomfortable, even when surrounded by digitally-rendered beauty. It invites you to question why exactly are you so upset about a bunch of computer-game puzzles.

After playing The Witness, I found myself questioning how I approached frustration. There was nothing in the game that told me I needed to feel upset or low or frustrated. And, when I felt the incredible high of solving a puzzle, there was always another (usually even more) difficult puzzle right after.

The Witness instead invites the player to approach their frustrations as a given and to sit with them, rather than let them overwhelm or overtake. Since finishing the game, I’ve also thought about statements from developer Jonathan Blow in reference to a final, non-mandatory puzzle in the game that is heart-clutchingly difficult. This particular puzzle, unlike any of the others in the game, is timed, in addition to being randomly generated (to prevent looking up the answer online). Blow discussed how players complained that the challenge felt unfair with the rest of the game, and how having it as a “challenge” at all felt outside of the meditative ethos Blow had otherwise cultivated.

Blow countered with a question as to why people felt that it was a requirement to complete the puzzle at all. In an interview with Kotaku, Blow says “I don’t expect myself to master 100% of Gravity’s Rainbow. In fact the idea of ‘mastering’ a novel is kind of silly. It must not be a very good book if you can do that! So the fact that we have this kind of expectation of games is a sign that the work hasn’t really been that deep, all this time.”

In other words — and pretentious book choice aside — there is a skill in knowing that we don’t have the answers to everything, that (further) we can be (further still: are) complete without the answers to everything. Especially in this day and age, it’s a difficult lesson to learn. So, perhaps now is a great time to return to The Witness and re-learn to celebrate the joy in finding the puzzles we can solve, and challenging ourselves to see them through til the end.

Celeste & the potential of emotional manipulation

CELESTE

 Credit: Matt Makes Games

Credit: Matt Makes Games

With seemingly all of my friends on the opposite coast getting married this year, the Nintendo Switch has been a blessing. Every time I am crammed into some middle seat on whatever budget airline will have me, I can power up the Switch and push down whatever anxiety comes from over six hours of pinching my sciatic nerve. 

So, imagine my surprise when, about 30,000 feet over Earth and all of its terrestrial concerns, I found myself so stressed out by Celeste, an adorable 2D pixel puzzle platformer, that I reflexively shut off the system without saving and stared at the black screen until I calmed down.

If there was a list of things I do not like in video games, I can guarantee it would start with the following three mechanics:

  • Time trails
  • Situations where I'm being "chased"
  • Any sort of requirement to be 100% exact with the controls

Having heightened visceral reactions to fictional material is the reason I even started writing Gentle Gamers. If the word didn't make me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit, I'd more regularly label myself an empath, in that I absorb emotions in a room without discrimination. I'm easily affected by any whiff of stress in those around me, so I try to avoid media that knowingly manufactures that stress within me (e.g., horror movies, "cringe" comedy, stealth-based missions in video games). 

At the point in Celeste when I turned it off without thinking, my player's character was having to run away from something, while navigating a complex puzzle that required utmost gamepad precision. My heart raced. My hands tensed to the point that I had to shake them out. I felt truly miserable. But after a few minutes staring at the black screen, I turned the game back on and resumed my attempt. Returning to it wasn't masochism, and it wasn't because I still had over three house left on my flight to the East Coast. It was because, from the start, Celeste was purposefully leaning into these stressful game mechanics to make a point about those feelings inside myself, and I was curious where it was leading me.

In that way, Celeste is not only an exquisitely constructed game, but one of the most empathetic I've ever played.

Short Games for Short Nights

June is around the corner and that summer feeling is coming with it: 'tis is the season to sleep with the windows open, put on your summertime clothes, and pine for those hot muggy summers of childhood with the Mr. Shane's ice cream on main street and sneaking in to Great Pond after dark or jumping off the cliffs into Lake Mamanasco in a misguided attempt at teenaged bravado.

Woof, that summer feeling, indeed.

Regardless of your personal summertime prep, it's objectively true that here in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter, and it probably behooves us to spend some time in the sun (albeit covered in sunscreen). So, here's a short list of short games that you can play during the increasingly-short nights.


IF YOU'RE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND ALSO READING: BUTTERFLY SOUP

  Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup was the darling of itch.io for more than a hot minute, and it's not hard to see why. it's an aggressively thoughtful and gentle game, exploring the inner lives of four young queer Asian-American women. Though the characters' identities are central to the story, in no way are they made "other." Their queerness isn't a source of agony, but is easily accepted by their friends. They attend an Asian-majority school, and reminisce about their confusion seeing so many white people on TV when there are so few in their hometown. (When one character says that the national Asian population is about 6% of the whole, one character replies, "That can't be right. Don't you mean 60%?")

The game is aggressively intimate. Butterfly Soup captures what I felt in high school, when my friends were my whole world and all of our idiosyncrasies became our personal inscrutable language. The fact that Butterfly Soup replicates the feeling of decades-long inside jokes and deep empathic understanding is a testament to developer Brianna Lei.

Butterfly Soup is a visual novel, meaning that the majority of playing the game is reading. There are a couple of opportunities to respond to other characters, but the choices you make are all pretty surface-level in that they don't affect the endgame. But who cares? You don't read a novel thinking that how you read it is going to affect what happens to the characters; you do it to sink into something new.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour and a half, depending on your preferred reading speed


IF YOU WANNA GET WEIRD WITH YOUR FRIENDS: MONSTER PROM

  Monster Prom    

Monster Prom

 

Ah yes. Finally. An answer to that age-old question: what if high school, but monsters? Monster Prom is a single- and/or multi-player dating sim, wherein your character tries to woo one of six highly-sought-after monster classmates at (you guessed it) Monster High. 

Monster Prom takes a page from one of my go-to wintertime short games, The Yawhg (which features art and writing by one of my favorite visual novelists, Emily Carroll). Each turn, the player decides where in the high school their character should go, with their choice affecting one of 6 character statistics: they can get brainer in class, get bolder by playing hooky in the bathroom, up their charm on the dodgeball court, etc. Each turn also features a brief scene with one or more of your monster classmates, culminating in a skill-check question that will either improve your chances of getting a prom date, or move you further away.

The writing is light and funny, diving into both dating simulator and high-school-coming-of-age tropes. Playing in multi-player mode with friends is dumb fun: there's nothing like when you both decide to try and woo the super-haughty rich-girl gorgon only to find out that, despite turning on each other at every turn, she rejects BOTH of you on prom night and OHOHOs off into the night. Ouch, Vera.

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To really drive the point home, the ending credits are accompanied by Mike Krol's Fifteen Minutes, a song that feels like it was made of pure, unfiltered teenage angst. 

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: 30 - 90 minutes per round, depending on if you're playing a short or long game


IF YOU'RE SPENDING YOUR SUMMER ON PUBLIC TRANSIT: FLORENCE

  Florence

Florence

Florence isn't breaking any new ground when it comes to storytelling. It's a pretty basic girl-meets-boy story, going from the very first moments of a relationship to the very last. But, despite this familiar territory, every moment playing Florence felt special and new.

As a mobile game, playing it on a phone with headphones lends a certain special intimacy to the story that would be difficult to replicate on a traditional desktop. This knack for knowing the ups and downs of its medium applies to the many mini-games that are interspersed through the story. For instance, I was particularly fond of how conversation on a first date was framed as a puzzle mechanic, which became simpler as the night progressed, replicating the joy when everything just clicks.  

Curled up on a late-night subway ride home, it was difficult not to feel deeply involved with the characters. Florence recognizes how much we use our phones for emotional attachment, and plays off that technological relationship in crafting a story about connection.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour


IF YOU WROTE "HAGS" IN THE YEARBOOK OF ALL YOUR HIGH SCHOOL CRUSHES: EMILY IS AWAY

  Emily is Away

Emily is Away

There are certain sounds that are forever burned into a deep part of my brain, and AOL instant messager chat sounds make up about 90% of my hippocampus' golden record. They are the sounds of high school longing, carefully crafted away messages, and indentities constantly in flux.

Playing Emily is Away is a flashback to all of these tender feelings. The game exists in AIM-style chats between the player's character and the titular Emily, their high school best friend. Each chat session takes place one year later, advancing from the last year of high school through the end of college. The player chooses how to respond to Emily's questions through a multiple-choice prompt. To make the words appear on the screen, the player has to type on their own computer keyboard (any random assortment of keys will do), which creates an interesting somatic effect: you know you're not choosing what words are appearing in-game, but the motion of typing makes you feel as if you are.  

It was quickly apparent that my tender memories of high school friendship weren't as deeply buried (or healed) as I thought they were. Now, like then, I found myself searching friends' away messages, looking to solve the puzzle of who we were to each other, and for how long we would be who we needed each other to be.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour


IF SCIENCE FICTION MAKES UP A LARGE PORTION OF YOUR SUMMER READING: THE RED STRINGS CLUB

  The Red Strings Club

The Red Strings Club

There really hasn't been a shortage of stellar games about artificial intelligence and it's relationship with humanity. (I'd bet that  video games being a medium that takes place mostly on computers has something to do with this.) 

You have Subsurface Circular's robotic detective, examining what it means to have a role in a system. You have the player character in LOCALHOST, trying to convince old AI systems to allow themselves to be shut down peacefully. Both are wonderful games, but only one game left me questioning all of my choices I'd made in the game prior, and also feeling deeply human (whatever that means) by its end: The Red Strings Club.

Combining noir storytelling, a cyberpunk setting, point-and-click puzzle solving, bartender games, and ceramics (???), The Red Strings Club puts the player in the middle of a conspiracy thriller about the ethics of forcing humans to obey their better selves. I don't want to spoil it, but halfway through the game, I was sitting pretty tall on my high horse of theoretical morality, when a series of questions made me turn my back on everything I had established up to that point. The game pointed out my hypocrisy, before moving on and asking me to make a drink for the next customer at the bar.

I found it beautiful, affecting, and the slowest of slow burns. It was a genuine surprise when I wiped away some tears at the end of the game, looked at the time, and realize that I had only played a few hours in total. It's a perfect game for a contimplative and quiet rainy summer night.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about three hours


IF YOU THINK YOU'RE ALL ABOUT DATING THOSE HOT AVAILABLE DADS, BUT ACTUALLY ARE LOOKING FOR A HEARTWARMING STORY ABOUT FAMILY: DREAM DADDY

  Dream Daddy

Dream Daddy

Did I expect to like a Game Grumps game? No. Am I still surprised that a game that marketed itself as the goofiest of goofs "hey don't you want to just date a dad?" tongue-firmly-in-cheek dating sims ended up being a rumination on friendship, family, and taking care of those around you? Yes, I am still very much surprised.

Dream Daddy (like Monster Prom) is plays a lot within the tropes of dating simulators: as the player, you know that your goal is to say exactly the right combination of things to get into your chosen paramour's pants. And Dream Daddy allows for a lot of that! You make a dad character for yourself, who then attempts to go on dates with one of the many eligible dad bachelors (dadchelors?) to try to convince them to date you.

But about half the game also involves your character building a relationship with your teenaged daughter who, along with you, is still mourning the passing of their other parent. The game quickly makes it clear that there's a hierarchy of relationships, and that for the player character, a new romantic partnership is below that of building new friendships. More than either of those, though, the player's character is determined to be a good parent.

Dream Daddy also tries its darndest to be inclusive. Though it's not perfect (Kotaku's Gita Jackson and Riley MacLeod talk through some of those points here), it does feature a diverse cast of cis and trans dads of varying body types and sexualities. No part of their identity is played for laughs besides, of course, the requisite dad jokes that pepper their dialogue.

I didn't expect to like this. Turns out: it's sometimes just nice to play a charming game with a kind heart.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about two to four hours, depending on how many dads you try to date


Want to grab one of these games? It's rumored that the Steam 2018 Summer Sale (when many games are up to 50% off) will start around June 21. So, I'd recommend that you put them on your wishlist and wait to see what Gabe Newell and the Steam team has in store later this month.

Non-holiday games to play during the holidays

Ah, the holidays: that time of year when end-of-year lists are compiled, bank accounts are checked for available funds, TSA lines are waited in, and New Years Eve plans are hastily thrown together.

If you're like me during this month (i.e. conked out in a sugar-cookie daze on your parents' sofa while trying to readjust your made-soft-by-California-seasons body to the East Coast winter), you could use an opportunity to do something completely non-holiday-related and low stress.

No surprise here: there are plenty of small games out there that will serve this exact purpose. These are games that are perfect for the holiday season while having absolutely 0 to do with the holidays themselves. Boot them up, take some time, and maybe even use them as a replacement for your family's annual tradition of getting into Very Heated disagreements during Scrabble. (Sorry, Mom. Love you.)

PET THE PUP AT THE PARTY

pet-a-pup-party.jpg

Pet the Pup at the Party is a game made for holiday decompression (or, really, any situation where social anxiety might come into play). The aim is simple: you're a person at a party, and you've heard there is a pup there that is waiting to be pet. The goal: navigate the party while avoiding the hipster patrons while following the sounds of a friendly dog barking from another room. If you find the dog within the allotted time limit and give it a pet, its image is added to your log of dogs, and you get another chance to find a new pup.

It's not a hard game by any means. When I played, I mostly just yelled, "GET OUT OF MY WAAAAY" with a huge grin on my face. It's a game that rejoices in the heights of internal drama and the joys of comically elevated stakes. Also: gotta pet those pups.

LOST CONSTELLATION

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Lost Constellation was one of the first games I wrote about on Gentle Gamers for a very simple reason: it's one of my favorite games. 

It was put out by the team that made Night in the Woods as a preamble/apology for the increasingly delayed NitW, and (dollars to donuts), I think Lost Constellation is the stronger game, and one that is a joy to replay in the middle of winter.

It's a game that quiet and thoughtful, about love and loss. It's short, but that makes it a well-contained story. It's tongue-in-cheek, and that keeps it from being too dour. To use what I said in my original review when I played through on the first day of winter, "It's a beautiful little present: a modern ancient story that asks you, 'What's waiting for you in the woods, and what are you willing to do to get it?' "

SONIC MANIA

PREVIEW_SCREENSHOT1_150832.jpg

If you're spending the holidays in your childhood home (metaphorically or literally), you might as well spend some time reliving a part of your childhood. Regression is a thing, and you might as well embrace it.

For me, that part of my childhood is classic Sonic. For once, Team Sonic did something kind of right and put a new release into the hands of fans. With Sonic Mania, the love for the game shows. Each stage features a classic level, plus an additional stage that plays upon and updates the classic. It's a game that recognizes the joy in the original, and trades upon the very real pleasure of feeling In On the Joke.

Also, it's fun to go fast.

PANORAMICAL

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Sometimes, you just need something pretty. And Panoramical is just that. There's no plot to speak of (that I know of, at least). The game simply gives you some scenes and some sliders. Manipulating the sliders changes the scene (perhaps tall trees grow out of the ground, perhaps orbs appear in the sky, perhaps everything tilts, just a little bit to the right). Each change in the visuals is accompanied by a change in the soundtrack, creating an auditory landscape that rivals the one you see.

And that's it. Turn off the lights. Turn on the game. Give yourself a few minutes to be the God of a small beautiful world of your whims.

Another game along these lines (that I have yet to play but have heard wonderful things about) is Proteus, which bills itself as an "an ambient musical exploration game where your exploration of a changing island creates an abstract-immersive soundtrack to your wandering." I'm not 100% sure that that means, but it sounds right up my alley.

HERDING CATS

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Listen: if I'm going to start with Pet the Pup at the Party, this seems like the logical bookend. Leave it to anna anthropy to make a perfect little puzzle game about trying to pet all the cats. 

Herding Cats is a short puzzle game, wherein your character has to be able to collect all the cats on the screen at once in order to progress to the next level. The design and mechanics are simple, and petting all the cats is a cause I can get behind. It honestly doesn't have to be more complex than that.

 

The Mary Sue & Gentle Gamers

Things have been a little quiet around here recently. Like: tumbleweed blowing across the landscape quiet.

One of the main reasons for that was because I was working to adapt my piece about Portal on Gentle Gamers for The Mary Sue! It's now live on their website, and it concentrates a little more on the false image of AI as inherently unbiased, using GLaDOS from Portal as an example of "AI'd" internalized misogyny.

Glados.jpg

A quick blurb:

As we surround ourselves with increasingly automated systems, we’d do well to examine how our decades of human biases are programmed into the devices that populate our homes, offices, and pockets. Without this examination, we’ll find that the worst of the voices in our heads—voices that, granted, were “programmed” into us by society at large—will find their way into what we create.

Read "Portal, GLaDOS, and the myth of the objective robot" in its entirety here.


A quick post-script: it seems that there's something in the air/some sort of fantastic hive-mind going on, since the podcast 99% Invisible just yesterday released an episode about the biases in analytics. It's a fantastic addition to the argument I'm making above. You can listen to it here.

Ah, yes. I remember you.

My pediatric dentist was a man named Dr. Wolfman. (That was his actual god-given name. Some people have all the luck.)

When my mom and I first walked into his office, I was shaking with fear. As far as I was concerned, there was a high likelihood that Dr. Wolfman he was the Wolfman, having gone straight and gone for his DDS. 

However, I was immediately won over when I saw, in the corner of the office, an arcade-style SEGA system that featured Ecco the Dolphin, the X-Men game, and (most importantly) Sonic.

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I like the little bits of sound design that wheedle their way into your ear: the coin collection sound from Mario, the battle theme from Pokemon, the theme for Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.

But picking up Sonic Mania this week, I didn't realize how much one sound in particular stuck in my head: the sound of Sonic doing a skid stop from the original SEGA Genesis game.

It's amazing how a one-second-long sound can instantly make me smell the antibacterial cleaner used in Dr. Wolfman's office, can make me remember the glow of the screen against the fluorescent lights, can make me feel like I'm three-and-a-half feet tall and willing to overlook the fact that my dentist might just be an actual man-turned-into-a-wolf, so long as I could have a few more moments going so fast.

Early Access Snapshot: Dead Cells

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Motion Twin's upcoming game, Dead Cells, currently available on Steam in early access.

One of the things I continue to find alienating about the gaming industry is the prolific use of insider terminology. Games are often categorized by their similarities to games of the past. If you don't have knowledge of those prior games (due to access, only more recent interest in games, or any other variety of reasons), these terms can be opaque to the extreme.

Such is the case for most articles that discuss Dead Cells, an early access game from developer Motion Twin. Heck the promotional website for Dead Cells is subtitled "a metroidvania rogue-lite with some souls-lite combat" (it continues, but the rest of the title is cut off due to the merciful Google gods).

I could write a whole article about the use of language like this, and how it distances potential players while, I suppose, drawing in the type of folks who believe that "real games" are a thing. I had to put three hyperlinks in that above sentence! That's absurd. Gatekeeping is boring at best.

But Dead Cells kept getting stellar reviews for how flat-out fun it is. So, when the Steam sale rolled around, I decided to give it a try. I figured I'd play for a few minutes, get anxious, and reaffirm that this just isn't my sort of game.

Turns out, it's a gosh darn blast. 

I've been playing it for hours, and have felt nothing but adrenaline-fueled excitement. My partner, who is usually petty video-game averse, even picked it up. We passed the controller back and forth, cheering each other on, only taking breaks for Honey Nut Cheerios and high-fives.

At its heart, Dark Cells is simple: the player battles through randomly generated levels (meaning: the enemies and general feel of each progressive level is consistent on each play-through, but the layout of the level/general composition changes each time), trying to get as far as possible. When the character dies, the player starts back at the beginning.

The excitement comes from a number of individually small factors: 

First, the game is fast and exceptionally smooth. Battling requires thoughtfulness, but is always swift. The limited number of inventory slots help with this: you can only have two weapons and two special items (like bombs or bear traps) at any given time. To get a new item, you have to eject an old one. 

Further, as you play, you collect "cells" from fallen enemies. These cells can be invested in upgrades at certain checkpoints. (If you die before reaching a checkpoint, you lost the cells you accumulated up until that point, natch.) These investments can be in weapons upgrades, unlocking new weapons, increasing the number of health potions you get in between checkpoints, etc. These investments remain in place even after you die. So, though frustrating to die (especially with the checkpoint in sight and 40 cells in your pocket, ready to invest), the game feel like you're still progressing. 

I also loved the necessary adaption that came with randomly generated levels. There were certain weapons I preferred to others. However, the game always starts you with the same basic weapons, and what weapons you get from there depends on whatever the game's algorithm throws your way. So, on a certain play-through, I might not get the dual swords I usually prefer to use. This means I have to work with what I have. If I get a weapon early on that does twice the damage to targets on fire, you can bet that I'm going to try and get my hands on fire grenades down the line. This "work with what you have" mentality makes the game feel different every single time.

To put it simply: the gameplay is incredibly smart.

Motion Twin recognized that they were making something difficult and, so, made sure that the design was as smooth as possible. 

In playing difficult games, I usually get pretty anxious. I never feel quick or good enough at these sorts of games to ever feel confident. I can usually feel the anxiety building as I get further along in the game: I know that the farther I get, the more frustrated I'll feel when I inevitably fail. That's why I haven't played Dark Souls, and why I've avoided anything like it.

But Dead Cells hasn't once even given me a whiff of that anxiety. 

The game is certainly difficult, but it feels extraordinarily light and breezy. Dying in the game isn't a gut-punch. Sometimes, it's a chance to start fresh. Every time I fail, I'm greeted with a familiar but still entirely new scene, and I get to start over from scratch and experiment with what comes my way this time. (Until I die again.) 

Motion Twin should learn something from their own design when it comes to promoting Dead Cells: it could be a wonderful introduction to a whole different style of gaming for folks like me. I would have picked it up a lot quicker had it not come burdened with its own weighty subtitling. (I still can't believe I had to use three different hyperlinks.)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some dungeons to crawl.


Grab Dead Cells on Steam. (15% off if you get it before July 5. Get on that Summer Sale bandwagon!)

Watch a short playthrough via IGN here, or below.

'Tis the Season

The longest day of the year has come and gone for those of us in the northern hemisphere. I've gone swimming not once, not twice, but THRICE this week. (Put my body in water; it's where I belong.) I've been buying fudgsicles from the corner store on my walk home from work. 

To some, this might mean summer is finally here. To me, it means that the annual Steam summer sale is now underway.

It's that beautiful time of year when all the games on one's wishlist finally feel like they're in financial reach. Sure, I might not get to some until winter rolls around, but at least I'll have them when the nights start getting longer.

Looking for recommendations on what to get? This is what I've picked up so far:

Age of Empires II (75% off; $5)Age of Empires hold a certain place in my heart. It was one of the first games I played almost daily. A childhood friend of mine had the first Age of Empires on her dad's computer. The only catch was that it was in Italian. But that didn't deter pre-teen me: I was quickly sucked in to the resource management, the army building, and the intricate strategy of the game.

Age of Empires is a classic real-time strategy game. You start with a small village on a mostly-dark map. You collect resources, build fortifications, develop an army, and hopefully overtake your enemies. You can choose your preferred civilization with the knowledge that each has its own particular benefits. (The Chinese, for example, get gunpowder earlier than others.)

Honestly, I'm not that great at Age of Empires; I've never been very good at planning ahead. But even as my village is crushed by an opponent's army again and again, I find it deeply satisfying. I build. I hope. I repeat.

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Dead Cells (15% off; $14.44)Dead Cells is still in its early access stages, but it's received quite a lot of positive press. It came on my radar after Polygon posted a short playthrough video. Roguelikes are not usually up my alley, what with their fast pacing and permadeath. Both of those usually spell out instant anxiety for this gentle gamer.

However, this looks like a load of fun. The sheer variety of options, along with some delightful ways to combine elements/attacks, somehow alleviates my nervousness. If the game is about just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, I can deal with that.

The likelihood that I'll get nervous and throw my controller across the room is, admittedly, still pretty high. I'll likely grab a friend and cheer them on as they dungeon crawl to their heart's content. 

Shelter 2 (85% off; $2.24)Shelter 2 was one of those games Steam recommended to me. (I never know what to do with Steam recommendations. Sometimes it recommends Proteus and all seems right with the algorithm. Other times it recommends Prey, and I wonder if it's been toying with me the whole time.)

Shelter 2 drew me in with its idiosyncratic design. Everything looks like a paper cutout. The sun is a big swirling ball of yellows. It feels like nature, but nature through the eyes of something else.

This makes sense, since the player controls a lynx trying to survive in the world and raise a litter of kittens. Pursuing user reviews, it seems like this game might tug on the heartstrings a little. As someone who regularly cried over pictures of cats available for adoption from the SPCA, I can't wait to become a blurbing mess over 3D rendered felines.

Kentucky Route Zero (50% off; $12.49): OK, so I already own Kentucky Route Zero. I've played it over at least four times, but I'm including it here anyway because you now have no excuse not to play it. It's the best game I've ever played (and was the first I wrote about on Gentle Gamers). It's a perfect package and does things I've never seen other games do. With its themes on debt, ghosts, and Americana, I can't imagine a better time to spend an evening on the Zero.


Other Gentle games available for sale on Steam:

  • Stardew Valley (40% off; $8.99): Gentle farming sim that lovingly held me in its clutches for 100+ hours. Review here.
  • Everything (34% off; $9.89): Game that breaks the idea of what a game can and should be. Proper review forthcoming, but for now, you can read my ode to David OReilly here.
  • Papers Please (60% off; $3.99): A game that, using the simplest of mechanics, will make you challenge your humanity and morality. Review here.
  • The Witness (50% off; $19.99): The most furious you will ever be at a series of lines and dots (contained within the most beautifully rendered world). Review here.

There's something in the woods

Spoilers to follow for Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods

It's been a few months since I played Night in the Woods. In my original write-up, I lauded the game's ability to create complex, identifiable characters. However, I wasn't as taken with what felt like the tacked-on supernatural element of the game and a clunky reveal of the Big Bad. 

The third act of the game reveals that the "thing" haunting the woods is actually a secret cult of men from the town, who take part in a dark ritual wherein they kidnap and sacrifice townpeople to some eldritch horror that lives in an old mine. 

When asked by Mae why they're killing people for this thing, a spokesman for the cult says: "You got to understand. In those days it was the end of the world. Jobs gone. Our kids were leaving. Government didn't care, only wanted our votes. Just puttin' in more regulations, sendin' our jobs overseas, spendin' our taxes on lazy people and immigrants, while we worked ourselves to death." [Mae's friend Bea interjects: "I hate this crap. You old dipshits."] 

He explains that praying at the church didn't help, but once they started sacrificing people to this old god, money came back to the town, people got healthier, things were stable.

This game came out right at the start of 2017. Trump's election was still new and raw, and it felt like people were grasping at any straws they could to explain what was happening. Part of my frustration with this turn of events from Night in the Woods was that it felt like this was their attempt to do just that. I remember telling a friend, "Oh, this is why the game got delayed," meaning that I assumed they probably meant to release it sooner, but once the election happened, things needed to be rewritten to address our new shared reality. I mean, the language used by the cult leader was familiar to the point of being tired. I sighed and added this to my growing pile of, "All Art is Now About Trump."

In the months since playing, I'd forgotten about this moment, until I came across an article about the rise of Odinism in America, specifically among white male populations. 

The headline was pretty matter-of-fact: An ancient Nordic religion is inspiring white supremacist terror (tw: anti-Semitism, Nazi imagery). The article explores the recent popularity of Odinism, a religion based around worship of Nordic gods. Odinism is preferred by some white supremacists who feel it is a "pure" white religion, "untainted" by influence from people of color. (Christianity is eschewed because, after all, Jesus was Jewish.) Further, it is a religion that can be based around militarism, where violence against the "other" is a positive, is righteous.

I suddenly felt like Night in the Woods' final scenes were more knowing than I originally gave them credit for, and perhaps more nuanced. In the above article, the author describes rituals held in the woods at night, mysticism embraced by populations who might not be normally seen as practitioners of the occult. (W.I.T.C.H.es, these men are not.) I

was clouded by the familiar language of Night in the Wood's cult leader. The cult was a metaphor to a larger thing. In my original overview, I wrote:

I found a real satisfaction in not knowing (before, during, and [honestly] after) if that "thing" haunting the town was an actual thing, or if it was just the shadow of desperation in a town that feels like its been forgotten by the rest of the world and is slowly falling apart.

Or both, tied together.

And I stand by that. Obviously, Odinism is not the keystone. It is one part of a many-headed hydra of white male fear and anxiety. However, there was still some gut-punch feeling I got reading the above article and realizing that though the game's cult is still a metaphorical representation of adherence to a certain sort of desperation, it has a literal analogue in the real world.

There is something in the woods, and we'd do well to understand that and root it out.

Non-gaming, but still,

I like Polygon. It's a gaming website that doesn't really fall into the gross pit of presumed mainstream gaming culture. Their website is fine, but it's their video series that I like the most. 

Because of the amount that I've watched Monster Factory (and I could write a whole 'nother piece about just that series & its breaking/bending of games [or really about their Boy Mayor of Second Life]), Youtube is quick to recommend other Polygon videos.

So, when it recommended an episode of Issue at Hand, a series hosted by Susana Polo, I shrugged and gave it a click. It could also have had something to do with the clickbait-y title of this particular episode--"Wonder Woman: Her Kinky Origin Story"--buuuuuut

what I ended up watching was a video that featured a woman who reminded me of the women who work at Fantastic Comics, a comic book store I frequent in downtown Berkeley. Like Susana, the women at Fantastic Comics are not only incredibly knowledgeable, but they are unabashedly so, even in a field that has been presumed to be dominated by men. For me, Fantastic Comics was an oasis: I stopped reading comics when it felt like I was being stared at every time I walked into a comic book store; I'd buy trade editions from my local bookstore instead.

But when I moved to Berkeley, I happened to wander into Fantastic Comics. I was greeted by not one, but TWO women working behind the counter. Behind them hung a sign, styled like a "_ many days since we had an accident." Only it read: "It's been _ days since Heather & Juliette have mentioned WicDiv" with a big zero scrawled into the blank space. 

Now I go there every Wednesday, before I go for a swim at the Y. They've recommended I get into the new Hulk run. They hold my Sex Criminals NSFW-cover editions for me. They're smart, they're relaxed, and they're the best.

And Susana's series on Polygon is very much like stepping into Fantastic Comics: showing that the medium is much wider than its presumed audience or, rather, that something that seems exclusionary is actually much more diverse and wide than others might have you believe. It's the same thing I hope to do with Gentle Gamers.

And she made me want to get into Wonder Woman, so: kudos, Susana.

Video here or below.

Early Access Snapshot: Overland

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Finji's upcoming game, Overlandcurrently available on itch.io as a late-stage alpha.

When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to play chess. I think it was an attempt to calm me down and teach me reasoning, but mostly my tiny horse-obsessed self was excited to play a game that featured pieces that looked like horse heads.

For long rainy afternoons, my dad would teach me how to approach the game, how to plan steps and steps ahead, but also how to stay responsive to the ever-changing field. 

I wasn't very good at it.

In an attempt to bolster my confidence, my dad would go easy on me. I think he didn't want be to be discouraged, but I hated knowing that he was being more lenient than he would for, say, a peer. I disliked this more than even losing. What was the point of a difficult strategy game if it wasn't hard?

Overland bears a resemblance to a chess game: it too is turn-based, with different sprites on the field having different powers. It too takes place on a limited field, divided up into squares.

More accurately, though, I guess I should say that Overland  bears a resemblance to the chess I played as a kid against my dad... but only when he finally said, "OK," and took off the training wheels. 

Overland is unrelenting and difficult. But, as a strategy game, it should be. Its leanness and its meanness makes it captivating.

Overland is a turn-based strategy game with roguelike elements (specifically: the levels are generated algorithmically [thereby changing with every play-through], its gameplay takes place on a grid, and characters experience permadeath).

It takes place after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster. The player starts with one (possibly two) characters, and can build their team as the game progresses. Each character has a random skill: some get an extra move on their turn, others can revive fallen comrades within a certain time.

The player navigates these characters as they attempt to cross the United States. Along the way, the player can decide when to make pit-stops. Each pit-stop might bring the player some needed resources (a med kit, a toolbox, gasoline, a new car, a new companion), but each stop is also full of scuttling little alien mutants. These little mutants glow like they're straight out of Attack the Block and intend to kill every human that they hear. 

Any little noise will attract more: move a dumpster, and a few will pop out of the ground, drawn to the sound. Pit-stops that seem relatively relaxed could suddenly become out of hand with one ill-timed explosion. I lost a whole group of survivors over the course of one awful turn when my car exploded, drawing in a whole bunch of nearby mutants to pick off the one un-scorched human.

Most of my games ended quickly and frustratingly, with a group of survivors I had carefully tended and curated suddenly done in by one wrong move on my part.

I say it was frustrating, because it absolutely was. But it always felt fair, albeit difficultly so. So, I was never frustrated at the game, only at myself for not adequately thinking far enough ahead. Whenever I invariably lost one group of survivors, I would just start a new game and try again.

The more I think about it, this website is my attempt to reason out why I don't connect with a vast swath of mainstream video games. Specifically: I run in circles around the question of why mainstream video games lean into very specific horror/tension-generated mechanics (first person, survival, jump scare, etc.).

Playing Overland , I ended up thinking a lot about how it effectively shows a different and, ultimately, successful way of generating tension and horror in a gaming mechanic. There aren't any jump scares, and I'm never lulled into a state of empathic connection with a first-person perspective. However, throughout the game, there's a looming sense of dread. My partner started to watch me play, but had to quit due to the tension he could feel building in his chest.

Overland doesn't pressure you into any timed requirements. In fact, it gives you all the time in the world to plan your strategy, since the monsters only move once you say it's the end of your turn. Sure, you're limited by how many moves your characters can take each turn, but with a "go back," button to undo any thoughtless clicks, there's room and time to make sure your character goes where you want them to.

But, within this, the game finds ways to make you feel tense. The board is small, creating a feeling of claustrophobia that seems incongruous with the vastness of America, but totally in line with the myopia of terror. The sound design is a constant low and ominous hum, something that would be perfectly at home in a David Lynch movie. The mutant monsters move erratically, in ways that follow rules but are unpredictable to the player.

And, to go back to it: the game is hard. Like I said, one ill-timed move can spell the permanent end for a group of survivors you've grown attached to. (I felt especially tied to one all-women group that had made their way out of improbable escape after improbable escape. They were ended when I misjudged how many tiles away I was from a fast-moving mutant. It took out my group's strongest member and medic, and the rest crumbled from there.)

This difficulty means that the game requires the player's undivided attention. It draws you in. I played with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw. I was determined to beat it, even as it continually caused the pit to drop out of my stomach whenever I realized (yet again) that I was about to lose.

I haven't beaten Overland (/I don't even know if Finji has built out an ending yet), but I don't know if I ever beat my dad at chess either. That really wasn't the point. The point was to keep trying and to push myself past the point of tension or nervousness or self-doubt (or even just to sit in it). It's the only thing I've ever wanted, anyway.

Overland can be purchased and played on early access at itch.io. The game definitely has some mechanics to work out (how to store items in my car??), but these are few and minor for such an early-stage game. Overland explores horror in an exciting way, it is tight and lean and satisfyingly difficult, and it's beautiful to boot. There's little not to love.

"If Itch.io were personified, it would be a literal mosh pit full of art punks."

If the gaming distribution software Steam were personified, it'd be a yuppie: a young person with lofty dreams, in some well-tailored suit, ready to embrace both the good and bad parts of capitalism. They'd be all about efficiency and streamlined design. They'd use phrases like, "We have our finger on the pulse," or, "Gamifying the game market." You know what you're getting with Steam, which certainly isn't a bad thing.

On the other hand, if Itch.io were personified, it would be a literal mosh pit full of art punks: scrappy, excited, and rough-around-the-edges. It'd reply to questions about content and curation with a shrug and a "Why not?"

Steam might be great for bigger released, but for trolling around to see what folks are working on at the periphery of gaming, there's no better place to go than itch.io

itch.io was founded as a direct response to the difficulty of getting small games onto Steam. An April 2017 article on PCWorld explains:

[Developer Leaf] Corcoran started working on Itch.io in late 2012 as a response to Valve’s Steam Greenlight program, which used a community voting system to let indie games into the store. He wanted to create something more open, inspired by the online music marketplace Bandcamp. Developers would get to list their games for free and customize their game pages. Shoppers would be able to pay any price above a minimum as a show of appreciation, and the whole marketplace would be decentralized, with no way to browse the entire catalog or comment on any of the games.

In this way, itch's ethos centered around "do what thou wilt" and gave both developers and buyers a vast amount of freedom.

With no barriers to entry, itch has grown into a breeding ground for exploration. Developers can test out new mechanics and ideas without worrying about price points. They can experiment with ideas and game mechanics that deviate wildly from the established norms of gaming. Developers can test and patch their games, honing in on what they're excited to make, with no outside pressure besides their own drive to do better.

Meanwhile, gamers gain access to hundreds of games, many of which are available for free or almost-free. Gamers can also get early access to games that are still in progress (like Overland, which I'm currently devouring). It all feels very relaxed and personal, like you've stumbled into a friendly discussion with a group of highly-educated strangers... and weirdos, natch.

Sure, the download process isn't nearly as elegant as Steam, and the UI of the site can get a bit wonky at times, but who cares when you still get what's most important: access to a wider variety of games than can be found most anywhere else.

Looking for some games to while away the hours? I've created a few small collections of games in my itch account: gentlegamer, including games I will always recommend and games I'm eager to get to.

But, with a whole world of games being added by the day, the thing I recommend most is diving in and seeing what excited you.