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 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
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.
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 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
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
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
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.