The holidays are nigh, and with them, the annual pilgrimages made by millions back to their hometowns. For some, this is an opportunity to bask in the warm glow that radiates from the memories of their youth; for others, it's a reminder of the lives they were happy to leave behind. Homesickened is a game about going back home that transforms the former into the latter, and reveals the rotting wood that often lies beneath the veneer of nostalgia: the realization that things were never actually as good as we remembered.
The game (which displays a fictional copyright date of 1986) opens with the sound of an old computer booting up, and the only audio you hear throughout is the distinctive whirr intimately familiar to anyone who used a PC in the 1980s. Maybe it will even conjure a picture of it in your mind: the desk it used to sit on, the chair where you huddled. It's a detail that hints at the strange sensory wormholes that can be opened to different times in our lives by a scent, a sound, an old knickknack unearthed from a drawer.
You begin by walking down a path towards a small town—your town—all of it rendered in the blocky purple and cyan of CGA graphics. In case you'd forgotten, those graphics were pretty janky, and often so were the controls that navigated you around their four-color worlds. Moving around in the game is not what I would call "comfortable," and neither are the conversations you have with former friends around town. One actually claims not to recognize you because you've changed so little, which is a strange but effective burn in a game that looks at the past through such skeptical eyes.
While there's not a lot to do in the game, Homesickened is still refreshing, if only because it doesn't gloss over the awkwardness of the era it simulates. There's a pretty substantial market for nostalgia in the world of video games these days, as the children of the '80s march into their 30s and gaze back at the virtual pastimes of their youth with a rosy and sometimes distorted idealism. I don't know how many '80s babies have actually gone back as adults to play the computer games that they used to fire up on their old Apple IIs, but it can be jarring and dissonant as it is in Homesickened.
Much like returning to your hometown after years away—or breaking open the amber any cherished memory—it's easy to discover that things don't look the same through the lens of the present, and that looking forward is ultimately far more likely to satisfy than looking back.
Developed by Snapman, Homesickened is downloadable for free on Linux, Mac and PC. ...
Matthew Ritter's interest in epitaphs began in junior high, when a history book displayed the haunting message on the grave of an ancient Roman: "What I am you soon shall be." He started writing epitaphs of his own in the margins of his notebooks, summing up the imaginary lives of imaginary people in a few concise lines.
14 Hours Productions recently released Welcome to Boon Hill, a "graveyard simulator" where Ritter finally got a chance to put those skills to work. The game is exactly what it sounds like, and little else; your character arrives at a 16-bit graveyard called Boon Hill and wanders around at their leisure, reading the messages carved into over two thousand graves. There are no surprises, no jump scares, nothing to collect or achieve, except perhaps insight into your own mortality.
The game is also partly inspired by Spoon River Anthology, a poetry collection that tells the story of a fictional small town through the verses on the epitaphs of its inhabitants. While Welcome to Boon Hill isn't quite so cohesive, the graves you read feel a little bit like creative prompts that can start to form a larger picture in your mind. Sometimes their message is concise: how someone died and when, a life in two bullet points. Other times they suggest a much richer story, or offer some sort of takeaway: a moral or a cautionary tale to guide the living away from their mistakes.
And then, of course, there are the graves memorializing people who aren't much older than you—maybe they're even younger. After a while, it's hard not to think about what someone would write on your grave if you died today, or at least how you'd want to be remembered. Have you done enough? Have you loved enough?
"I feel there's something to be experienced by exploring a graveyard, just for the sake of exploring a graveyard." Ritter explains in a trailer for the game. "It's not really about death, it's about life. Epitaphs are written for the living."
Welcome to Boon Hill is available now on Steam for both PC and Mac. https://youtu.be/QONSv7mzGh4 ...
I often think about the fact we don't really have 'online lives' any more. When I was small, to have a 'handle', to get on the Information Superhighway, was like attending a masquerade ball on a brand-new planet. All of you were suddenly someplace else, strange and new.
The less said about The Room 3 before you play it the better: and yet I will say things now. The award-winning puzzle series from Fireproof Games has returned for its third outing, and it's the best one yet.
If you've never played the series before, the premise is pretty simple: you open elaborate puzzle boxes inside creepy rooms. (More accurately, you open cubes, pyramids, spheres: all the popular polyhedra.) The lore around the game involves a mythical fifth classical element known as Null, which is the source of all manner of strangeness and otherworldly thrills. There's a late 19th century supernatural flavor to the game, which often feels a little bit like Myst meets 7th Guest.
In previous Rooms, you had a mystical eyepiece that revealed hidden messages and panels, but here it takes on a magnifying quality as well, allowing you to explore many of the puzzles in miniature. And the puzzles are what has earned The Room a well-deserved following: their ability to intrigue and innovate again and again, to seem but attainable enough that you don't throw up your hands but challenging enough to keep you flipping switches and rotating gears for hours on end.
You're supposed to be a bird in Trills, a two-player jousting game by Crudepixel, but for some reason when you collide with another bird, it sounds like two swords clashing. Maybe birds can also be swords, in this beautiful, minimalist world of light gravity and elegant collisions? I'm not an expert in imaginary ornithology.
You and a friend take on the role of either a turquoise or black sword-bird, and have to soar and dive your way to victory, which can take a couple of forms: knocking each other out of the arena, gaining the most territory, or scoring goals with a ball. The controls are relatively simple; it's all about spinning around to angle your bird for the perfect, elegant divebomb when you close your wings like a fan.
It's a lovely little thing to play around with, especially for the afforable cost of pay-what-you-will. Download it now on Itch.io, for Windows only. https://youtu.be/-QB8eSClRA8
“They need to get some fucking empathy,” says Tanya dePass, a campaigner for better representation inside game worlds and among those who create them. She curates websites, hosts podcasts, maintains the #INeedDiverseGames tag on Twitter, works as a diversity consultant and speaks at conventions and panels.
Work is steady, but change is slow. For critics and activists, the pushback on inclusion is constant, from other gamers and the industry itself. DePass finds it baffling: “why don’t you all like money?” she asks.
One of many black women disrupting an insular culture, DePass critiques games and offers an alternatives to often-toxic online communities. Hashtag activism this is not. As DePass notes, “change needs to happen from the ground up.”
Lauren Warren is a contributor to Black Girl Nerds, an online community “devoted to promoting nerdiness and Black women and people of color.” In addition to panel appearances, cosplay showcases, TV spots and endorsement by Shonda Rhimes and others, BlackGirlNerds launched two new series profiling women and people of color.
“I hope that the Women in Gaming and Diversity in Gaming series reach people who are interested in pursuing careers in the games industry, but may be hesitant because they don’t “see” themselves fitting into the existing corporate culture," Warren writes. "It’s no secret that our presence is lacking behind the scenes on the game development side, on streaming sites and at major industry events and publications. The larger the community, the more visibility we have and the bigger our impact will be in the future.”
Warren says that substantive progress towards inclusion requires changing corporate culture, but also its perception by prospective employees. It’s cyclical: the more resistant toward change the industry becomes, the less that women and people of color will want to invest their time and energies into a potentially unwelcoming space. This breeds further insularity. The cycle continues—unless it’s disrupted.
Samantha Blackmon is one of the creators of Not Your Mama’s Gamer, a feminist gaming community made up of podcasts, livestreams, critical essays and their latest project, Invisibility Blues, a video series exploring race in gaming.
Blackmon told me that issues have gotten better over time, but many mistakes are still being made.
“When I look at playable women of color in games now I have more hope, but I still cringe at the characters that fall back on old racist stereotypes and add things like “tribal” costumes and “urban” language patterns," Blackmon wrote, "or some clueless writer’s take on what those language patterns are."
Color has meaning. And without people of color involved in the designing process, games are routinely unaware of these meanings. For Black women, this problem arises in a very specific way. DePass used the phrase ‘fantasy-black’ to describe the “not too black” design trope in games. As DePass notes, women in gaming designed to read as “Black” frequently have blue or green eyes, straightened or silver hair, or lightened or red-tinted skin. Preferencing black women who read as biracial or display some otherwise exoticized trait has troubling overlaps with colorism, discrimination based on skin color. Colorism is a serious societal issue, evinced both by the disparity in punishment for black girls with darker or lighter skin and the huge industry of harmful skin-bleaching creams.
So while all women in games are subject to staid metrics of desirability, black women have their blackness negotiated in a way that assumes blackness itself is undesirable. (Conversely, black men in games are almost uniformly depicted as having very dark skin—their color is ostensibly measured according to metrics of threat and physicality.)
“I know the lack of options is often the result of a lack of diversity amongst the development teams and there is no one present to advocate for creating and pushing these choices," writes Warren. "Real change would need to start there and then consumers will ultimately reap the benefits of having more realistic images to choose from in their gaming experience.”
But instead of a robust and dynamic experience, players are instead faced with repetitive, one-dimensional and largely overlapping portrayals of Black women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the overreliance on the “strong Black woman” trope. This derisive meme limits portrayal of black women in pop culture to, as author Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes, “indefatigable mamas who don’t need help [and] castrating harpies.”
Black women in games are the no-nonsense arbiters of sass, toughness and attitude, but their emotional complexities are elided in order to present them as “strong.” This portrayal, as contrasted with portrayals of white femininity in gaming, is expounded upon in Winfrey-Harris’ exploration of the strong black woman:
"Society remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe and still prefers and champions delicate damsels—an outdated sentiment that limits all women. But because the damsel’s face is still viewed as unequivocally white and female, it is a particular problem for black women. As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman’s life to have value), women who are perpetually framed because of their race as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard."
And although it’s great that characters like Rochelle, Vivienne, or Jacqui Briggs are never damseled, this privileged status belies an assumption that black women never need help or need saving. This double bind is best summarized by Sofia Quintero, creator of the Feminist Love Project, who said the meme of being a “strong black woman” is “a way to practice resiliency and protect myself [but also] allows little space for me to be vulnerable, seek support, and otherwise be fully human.” In video games, where we demand our heroes be independent, both physically and emotionally strong and easily able to compartmentalize their private vs. professional lives, it’s very easy for developers to re-create the superwoman parameters of black femininity rather than challenge them.
So what is gaming’s next step in diversifying its portrayal of black women? Latoya Peterson, Editor at Large of Fusion, recently launched The Girl Gamers Project, a web series interviewing women about gender, womanhood and games.
Peterson says games need to focus not just on strength but on full personhood for black women.
“I don't think it's accurate to paint all black women with [the same] brush of hero - we're complex, and the most fun characters to play are complex," Peterson wrote via email. "Being Mary Jane is a hit because Mary Jane Paul isn't perfect. Games haven't allowed me to explore a black woman in depth - the latest Assassin's Creed is on my list but I haven't played it yet. I think the best way to show the real lives of black women is to dive deeply into backstories. I loved playing as Karin from Shadow Hearts - something like that. Or 355 from Y: The Last Man, just playable. I want to see black women characters focus on their full personhood, the way that Drake, and Max Payne, and Niko get to be funny or quirky or dark.”
Heroes aren’t human. And as Black women continue impacting this industry through criticism and community building, they open more and more spaces and opportunities not just to fulfill a role that counts as “diverse,” but to illustrate the diversity of blackwoman hood. In fact, many have turned to space itself as an inspiration.
Catt Small’s Prism Shell was influenced by Alien, and Sophia Chester’s Cosmic Callisto Caprica Space Detective was influenced by 50’s b-movies and Mad Men. As gaming continues to evolve, hopefully we’ll see more black women as alien hunters, space detectives, wasteland explorers and—at long last—human beings.
Illo: Rob Beschizza ...
The Entertainment Software Association has been documenting how women now comprise almost half of the gaming population in U.S., but the Pew survey highlights persistent differences in how they are gaming. Not only do boys play more, they tend to be networked gamers; 55% of boys play with friends online at least once a week, compared to 25% of girls. And to top it off, boys seem to have a lot more fun playing games online. They say they feel connected to other online gamers at higher rates than do girls who game online (84% versus 62%).
Plenty of folks are concerned about videogames promoting violence and antisocial behavior, but we need to pay more attention to what kids miss out on by not engaging in the positive social aspects of gaming. For example, while investigating links between videogames and violence, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson discovered that boys who don't game at all showed the highest risk of getting into fights. These days, video games are what boys do together, so if they aren't gaming, it means they might not be part of the boys' club. While it's not exactly basketball or football, being a great League of Legends player or Minecrafter can be a source of peer status. In Silicon Valley, coders bond on weekends through the After Hours Gaming League and the angst over who gets invited to high status Settlers of Catan games is reminiscent of elite old boys' networks' bonding over golf and tennis.
In addition to conferring social benefits, gaming can be a gateway into science and technology related interests, skills, and careers. Progressive researchers and game developers have long sought to make games more attractive to girls for this reason. The recent firestorm over Gamergate recapitulates these concerns over gender representation in the gaming industry. The National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2011 that argued that educators should do more work to tap computer games as an avenue to science learning and interests.
We're in the midst of the rainy season in Portland, Oregon when a thick, soporific sheet of gray wraps itself around the city like a wet wool blanket and doesn't let go till Spring. The moment I step outside my door, I realize I've made a mistake: the sky has opened up, and raindrops are spilling out so quickly that I instantly abandon my plan to go running, turn on my heel and head back inside.
When I sit down at my computer and open the game Lovely Weather We're Having, it's raining there too. It's not a coincidence. The game is designed to mirror the weather outside your window, mapping the real-life sunshine, rain and snow of the world around you to a surreal neighborhood that looks sculpted from clay and littered with candy-colored trees and geometric shapes.
You begin the game standing outside of a house—your house, presumably—but you can't go inside. That's because this is "a game about going outside," or at least that's what it says on the tin. But I nonetheless think of Lovely Weather We're Having as a game about home, not just because it creates a place for your digital avatar to live, but because it simulates in one of the most pleasurable things about having a home: the moment when you return to it. It encourages you to leave, so that you can have the satisfaction of coming back.https://vimeo.com/136570202
Wandering around your surreal little neighborhood is a very sensory experience: grasses rustle, mushrooms sing at your touch, and stones make satisfying, rubbery thunks when I kick them. There's a puppy that always trails a few steps behind you, whose fur changes color with the temperature. If you wait till evening, shadows will fall over your strange little town, and many of your neighbors will go to sleep.
Admittedly, there's not a lot to do in Lovely Weather We're Having. You can talk to the locals, wander around through the modulating meteorology and see what might have changed along with the weather. That's it. When you tire of it, you stop playing.
But that's also part of its charm. It's not a game designed to be played for eight hours straight; it's one where you check in, see what's new, and check out again. It encourages you to step away, so that when time has passed you can experience the pleasure of the moment of return—the comfort of what is familiar and the novelty of what has changed.
The same could be said of Neko Atsume, the unexpectedly popular cat collecting game where you leave out food and toys on a digital porch to attract a menagerie of digital felines. But here's the catch: the cats won't appear until you leave. You can check back in later, though, and you should, because that's exactly when the kitties will show up to curl up in cardboard boxes and bat at balls of yarn. If you miss them—well, you miss them.
Lovely Weather We're Having has even more in common with Animal Crossing, another neighborhood simulator whose charm comes from its parallels to real life. Your town and its anthropomorphic residents live in real-time, which means that if a llama in the game says her shop closes at 10 PM, then it really does.
If a notice says that a festival is taking place in your town on a specific date, you'd better turn on the game that day, or it'll go on without you. Send a friend a present through the Animal Crossing post office, and it won't reach its destination for hours, or even till the next day. It's not because the game can't deliver it sooner, of course. It's because waiting for it not only makes its eventual arrival feel more gratifying, but also more organic.
Unlike the somewhat nefarious delays of pay-or-wait games that encourage you to drop real-life cash to fast forward through waiting periods—I'm looking at you, Farmville—the passage of time in what I think of as homecoming games isn't an artificial constraint designed to frustrate or manipulate you for profit. Instead, it's a far more natural rhythm coded into your play, and one that implies something important about how we interact with our intimate spaces: that the spaces we create from them each time we leave them are part of what gives them meaning.
There's something comforting about the way these games mirror both everyday rituals of departure and return, the rhythms and cycles of change that thread through our real lives. The sun rises and sets, the weather changes, things and people grow and shift and disappear in the moments when we aren't looking. We measure those changes by holding them up against the yardstick of the familiar, against the backdrop of the physical structures that shelter us and anchor us in the world.
Instead of trying to hold you in their thrall for as long as possible, homecoming games create spaces where time has to pass in order for, well… time to pass. You plant some seeds, send some mail, see what's new with your neighbors, put out food for the cats—and then go back to the real world and live your life. It's soothing and gratifying in a way that a more frenetic life simulator like The Sims will never be, specifically because The Sims encourages you to fast forward through the moments when your character leaves the house or goes to sleep, eliding over any interval of rest or absence. It's easy to feel like your avatar never really stops—and by extension, neither do you. Often, it means you won't want to.
Take it from someone who works from her home, and often finds herself in deeply dysfunctional rhythms: home shouldn't be the place where you spend all your time, because when it is, it's a lot less fun to be there. The pleasures of home—both in games and in life—lie not in it being a place you never want to leave, but rather in being a place you want to leave, because it makes it so much more satisfying to come back to again and again and again. ...
Playing a Porpentine game often feels like stepping into a poem, or sitting downstream in a river as strange images float by like beautiful, twisted debris. She's primarily known for her Twine games and interactive fiction, where her distinctive alien worlds are fleshed out in long strings of lyrical text.
In her first 3D game, Bellular Hexatosis, Porpentine exports her prose into a surreal, visual world of sunset seas, where you can explore a city populated by sentient eyes or meet a column of water spiraling into the sky that may or may not be your sister. Whatever she is, your sister has been infected with the titular Bellular Hexatosis, and only you can find the cure.
Like so many of Porpentine's works, the most striking moments in Bellular Hexatosis come from the offhand comments that annotate your journey, and the vague sense of alienation and body horror that permeates its sunset palette. While searching for the antidote, you find yourself floating over "necrosympathetic coral," which you're told evolved symbiotically with the dead bodies that have become tangled in its roots. The coral has become depleted, and the local conclave has vowed to "fight endangerment by increasing deaths on the reef." They ask for volunteers.
The game is a collaboration with Neotenomie, who previously worked with Porpentine on With Those We Love Alive and This World Is Not My Home, "a guided relaxation program for the corporate achiever." Bellular Hexatosis is pay-what-you-want to download, for PC and Mac, or you can play it your browser. https://youtu.be/5lVT61OjMmA ...
Disasterpeace's wonderful soundtrack for Polytron's seminal game Fez has just been released on mouth-watering, lucent pollen-colored vinyl sheathed in a gold-embossed gatefold jacket. It looks as beautiful as it is certain to sound.
It comes along with a digital version (FLAC or MP3 format); you can order it now from the Polyshop for $39.99.
At the same time, Polytron also announced an exclusive limited edition physical version of Fez a year in the making, hidden inside a beautiful red and gold adventure notebook.
Once upon a time, clock towers were a sort of public utility, a shared temporal reference point that synchronized communities where personal timepieces were often a rarity. Although we hardly need the reminder in the modern age of smartphones, there's something about these buildings still capture the imagination, not just as striking aesthetic objects, but as physical metaphors for either moving through time, or running out it.
In the game Tick Tock Isle, you play as a "confident young horologist" (read: clock man) who has been summoned to a mysterious island to fix a broken clock tower, which should be your first clue that things are about to get weird. Naturally, you end up traveling back in time to the days when the now empty island was a bustling community, and have to figure out how and why it got abandoned by talking to townspeople and solving puzzles.
If you're a fan of adventure games, it's definitely worth the hour or so it takes to play what developer Squiddershins calls "a very short, very silly adventure."
Tick Tock Isle is also described as a "spiritual successor" to Cat Poke, the developer's earlier puzzle game about a little girl annoying her pets on a rainy day. Although it doesn't have nearly as many cats, Tick Tock Isle manages to pack a lot more story (and mystery and humor) into a game that is just as short, sweet, and charming.
You can download the demo for free, or buy the full game for $2.99. Sorry Mac users—it's Windows only. https://youtu.be/_r-nHWKI06g ...
Well, this is wonderful—Jason Scott, creator of the GET LAMP documentary and tireless historian in the service of games, is releasing a huge trove of scans from the archives of Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky.
Infocom, of course, was a leading developer of mysterious and beautifully-written computer text adventure games in the 1980s. Meretzky's carefully-kept notes—over 9000 scans, says Scott—document numerous aspects, from design to business, of what was widely considered the company's golden age, in which it produced famous games like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, and the remarkable, pioneering A Mind Forever Voyaging, written and made by Meretzky himself, among others.
For someone involved in game design, this is priceless work. Unfettered by the crushing schedules and indie limits of the current industry, the designers at Infocom (including Steve, but not limited to him by any means) were able to really explore what made games so much fun, where the medium could go, and what choices could be made. It’s all here.
One of the challenges in the video game space is that design knowledge is often prized tightly behind the doors of competitive game companies, and then lost when the tides of business change or studios close their doors. Software and hardware age, and works younger than a decade can be fundamentally impossible to access. The work of archivists like Scott is often unsung but essential to the memory of the medium, and his TEXTFILES.COM has become a virtual museum of all manner of computer history. Learn more here.
Thanks to Alice for spotting this first! ...
Remember back in the heady days of the mid-1990s, when playing computer games felt like running around in a endless maze of cardboard walls? Relive it today in Payroll, a game that simulates both the excitement of working in an office building, and the thrill of running Windows 95, complete with 640x480 pixel resolution and sound effects ripped from an Adlib sound card.
If you like the idea of stamping approved and rejected stamps on animals' helpless faces, Animal Inspector is the game for you. In a world where pets are taking up too much space, or have turned bad, or maybe both, the Animal Inspector's job is to flip through dossiers and decide which pets are useful enough to stick around.
Of course, pets' utility is often things like "is a good listener" or "hides a lot". That's just how pets are.
Animal Inspector, made by Tom Astle, is sort of like a lighthearted take on the famous Papers, Please, where your document-processing decisions can create moral conflicts or story branches. If you don't follow your supervisor's instructions, which are often wacky and place you at odds with your coworkers, you collect a "strike", and you can only have three. Your main objective as an Animal Inspector, though, is to stay on the job long enough to protect your own beloved dog from getting inspected away from you. How far will you go to keep him safe?
It's well-conceived, fun and funny—you must type your own comments, or reasons for approving or rejecting a pet, on their dossier, and you can save these and share them on social media (I rejected one puppy with only the comment "has a stupid face"). Though the game isn't massive or anything—I finished in 25 minutes—it has multiple endings, and there is lots to see.
It also has a soundtrack by Ben "Torahhorse" Esposito (whom we've previously interviewed on Offworld)—Animal Inspector is free to download here, but those who purchase it at the suggested $3 or more get the soundtrack. ...
I watched the Bob Ross marathon on Twitch recently, where a whole new generation got to discover the magic that emerges from his brushes: how you can turn away for a moment and turn back to find a whole new world materializing across a blank canvas. The game Beyond Eyes can feel a little bit like that too.
You play as Rae, a young girl who lost her sight in an accident. After her cat Nani goes missing, she opens the gate to that leads beyond her garden and adventures forth to find her friend. Since she's blind, she—and you—have to rely on touch, sound and memory to paint a picture of the world in the blank spaces of the unknown.
If a bird sings in the distance, it'll light up a small area in the vast whiteness that cloaks the path ahead—at least until you draw closer. Gates, bushes and other obstacles often spring up in front of you suddenly, since you don't know where they are until you run into them. The world paints itself into being around you, in ways that are beautiful and surprising. Grass grows beneath your feet as you move, flowers bloom, bridges leap across rivers. https://youtu.be/gmmo_2llJp4
But things aren't always what they seem: what sounds (and therefore looks) like a sparkling fountain might turn out to be water pouring through a rusty sewer grate. What you thought was your cat rustling around in the bushes might turn out to be some local wildlife. Your other senses can help you paint an imaginative picture of the world around you, but until you actually touch it, you never quite know for sure.
The phrase "walking simulator" has become something of a pejorative in certain circles, but that's exactly what Beyond Eyes is. This is a game where almost all you do is wander, imagine, and watch the world unfold. But what ultimately makes it pleasurable is what makes so many "walking simulators" worthwhile: the chance to move through a different world in a different way, and perhaps to remember that not everyone walks through the world in the same way as us.
Developed by the Tiger and Squid, Beyond Eyes is available for Mac, PC, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One. ...