Maybe what you need right now isn’t a puzzle game for when the world is too much. Maybe what you need is to hoard a little, to conserve whatever resources you can scrounge together to make yourself feel safe and secure.
Maybe it’s lean times, with GoFundMes for gender affirmation surgery, or necessary medications left uncovered by insurance companies, or a sudden need to rebuild a home after a rental apartment burned down. Or maybe you’re starting a retirement plan that isn’t “Maybe the Force will just take me away when I turn 60.” For instance.
So, I’d like to continue this small series of recommendation on what you might need right now: here are some games for lean times.
All the below are either free, $1, or pay-what-you-can.* Most are sourced from itch.io, repository of the wonderful and weird and experimental in gaming. Some are betas. Some are the result of developers futzing with mechanics before making a bigger game. Most are short. All are totally and completely lovely in their own way and no less so for being very affordable.
*If you are in the fortunate position of not being in lean times, please consider the true meaning of “pay what you can” and toss extra money towards these creators.
11:45 A VIVID LIFE
Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club was one of my surprise favorite games of 2018. A touching exploration of free will and morals, it challenged my belief in my own moral compass, akin to Papers, Please.
So, I was thrilled to see that they regularly release small vignettes on itch.io. I was taken by Behind Every Great One, which told the story of a woman supporting her “genius artist” husband while she slowly falls apart under the weight of making herself constantly available and ever-smaller. However, I preferred 11:45 A Vivid Life (trigger warning: self-harm & descriptions of abuse). The player’s character has stolen an X-Ray machine and is determined to find out why she feels like her skeleton has been stolen and replaced with another. Who stole it? Whose it is? Where is hers? As something with occasional bouts of body dysmorphia, I connected with the specifically gendered feeling that my body isn’t mine.
Arc Symphony is about a dedicated group of fans to a classic Japanese role-playing game of the same name. For weeks in 2017, game developers posted on social media about how much they loved Arc Symphony as kids. The thing was: no one outside of these folks remembered the game. Turns out, that’s because the game doesn’t exist.
Or, rather, the JRPG Arc Symphony doesn’t exist, but the game by Aether Interactive totally does. This latter Arc Symphony puts the player in the role of a fan of the JRPG who is trolling through the online comments board. Through private messages, quizzes, and chats, the player gets an idea of the world of the JRPG. It’s a deeply interesting take on how a story can get told. Because what is a game, anyway, besides a creation made between the player and the object? In viewing the (fictional) relationships between (fictional) people and a (fictional) game, the player gets a very real feel for Arc Symphony.
DAVID LYNCH TEACHES TYPING
I grew up on Mavis Beacon typing. Though I recently learned that Mavis Beach isn’t a real person (!!!), David Lynch certainly is (against all odds).
In David Lynch Teaches Typing, you’ll learn all about proper placement of your fingers on a keyboard, and also hear the existential wailing coming from within. In that way, it’s exactly like Mavis Beacon.
I also want to take this opportunity to share another piece made by Luke Palmer, who helped bring David Lynch Teaches Typing to life: his video essay on why the film Snowpiercer is the logical sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Luke shared it with me a few weeks ago and I HAVEN’T STOPPED THINKING ABOUT IT SINCE.
THE ANNA ANTHROPY INTERMISSION
In putting together this list, I tried to decide on my favorite Anna Anthrophy game, and I just couldn’t. In addition to being a thoughtful critic of video games, Anna is making some of the most interesting games around. I love her ability to hone in on specific mechanics and put them under a microscope. (For example: her use of a countdown clock in Queers in Love at the End of the World, which I wrote about at greater length here.)
I’m still working my way through her games, but here are a couple to get you started:
Someone on this Train: Anna has recently been publishing bite-sized alternate-reality games (“ARGs”) that ask the player to put themselves into a slightly different headspace while they go about their normal daily tasks. There are games for when you open packages, or when you’re dressing yourself, or when you’re cooking. But my romantic heart likes Someone on this Train, a love story for when you’re on public transit.
And the Robot Horse You Rode In On: A steampunk cowboy text adventure, built on Twine and full of beautifully lush descriptions of its world. It’s also hella queer.
Put On Your Makeup In The Dark: It’s exactly what it sounds like.
Herding Cats is the puzzle game I like when I’m tired of all other puzzle games. Did I expect to be so delightfully frustrated by my inability to understand spaces while also trying to get all the cats? No. Was I anyway? Yes.
When people talk about “walking simulators,” it’s sometimes meant as a pejorative, wherein it’s used to belittle games about exploring a space (often slowly) instead of dodging bullets.
Lieve Oma is a literal walking simulator, where you play a young child who has been brought to the forest by their grandmother in search of wild mushrooms. The grandmother moves slowly. The child doesn’t want to chat. Mushrooms and few and far in between. The pace moves from slow to slower and back to slow.
With a beautiful color palette and gentle woodsy music, I was completely charmed by Lieve Oma from the outset. Those factors alone would have been enough for me to recommend it to someone looking for a few moments of quiet. However, developer Florian Veltman has an exquisite ear for timing, and the pace at which the story unfolds both compliments the aesthetics and supports Florian’s goal to make an ode for people who know how to make space for children.
Monstruous, as described by its developer, “is a puzzle game in which you have to figure out in which order to use 8 actions to kill the monstruous creature.” That’s literally all it is. There’s only one correct order for the actions, and it’s up to you to figure it out.
Despite its simple premise, it comes in some very pretty wrapping. The animation is smooth, bright, and fun, with distinctly Adventure Time notes.
Moreover, like the logic puzzles of my youth, Monstrous required me to actually get out a pen and paper to figure out the order of operations in order to defeat this big ol’ worm. I respect any game where I have to physically plot out my plan of attack.
GAMES I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE BUT WILL AGAIN
There are a number of games for lean times that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on Gentle Gamers, but I love them dearly, and would feel remiss in not mentioning them again.
Lost Constellation: Finji’s Night in the Woods is a wonderful game, but Lost Constellation (which they made while working on NitW) is stronger in my books. With a shorter running time and a more distinctly folklore vibe, it’s a beautifully crafted story of loss, hauntings, and old gods. Originally discussed here.
Where the Goats Are: The player plays an old woman who, despite the requests of her relatives, has decided to stay in her small farmhouse and care for her goats, despite something terrible looming on the horizon. It’s a smart, sad story of dedication amid hardship and war. Originally discussed here.
Un Pueblo de Nada: Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero is a masterpiece, and I will never stop shouting about it. Un Pueblo de Nada is one of their “interstitial” pieces: exploratory games that are put out in between the acts of Kentucky Route Zero. Cardboard Computer takes the interstitials as a chance to experiment, and past episodes have been in the form of plays, or phone trees, or art exhibits. This one is in the form of a public access station. They also released an actual episode, showing the same events that happen within the game. It’s ace, all around. Originally discussed here.
Hoard to your heart’s content, my friends.