Lillian Sword: Devil of Ice

Lillian Sword: Devil of Ice  (リリアンソード氷の魔王, Ririan soudo koori no maou), by Yamipaseri (2015)

Note: This game is in Japanese, but the game can be completed without reading in-game dialogue. Arrows keys move, Z is your sword and if you hold down the Z key you can use magic.

In the sphere of retro-style game design, the list of side-view platformers is endless. Yet top-down action-adventures in the vein of the Zelda series are still relatively rare compared to the number of games derivative of Mario, Sonic, Castlevania, Commander Keen, and so on.

This short game (it should take you under an hour to play through) scraps a lot of the narrative and mechanical scope that probably keeps many indie and free game developers from developing Zelda-likes. What it lacks in scope, though, it amply makes up for in the tightness of its mechanics, the inventiveness of its bosses, and the charm of its world. It dispatches with an explorable overworld, lengthy narrative, and an array of weapons in favor of a laser-tight action focus. The game has three relatively short, linear stages, each capped with clever, multi-stage boss fights. Each of the boss fights (and the final stage has more than one) would be comfortably at home in a post-Link to the Past Zelda adventure, and at the same time exhibit a consistent and discernable wit that draws influence from other sources to forge its own identity in the genre. The bosses are so much the focus that it even ends with a mini-boss rush (of new bosses). It’s an impeccably crafty little game.

The game was programmed in Flash and while its sub-pixel movement and imperfect scaling at first seems to conflict with the decided Famicom tribute in the game’s palette and sprite limitations, I got over it quickly.

A little male-gaze warning: I didn’t read the game’s Japanese description until after I’d downloaded it, so I didn’t even notice the pixelated heroine’s “bikini armor.” Also, a certain NPC portrait is embarrassingly cheesecake.

Download the Flash game as an HTML file from Freem!

Queers in Love at the End of the World

Queers in Love at the End of the World, by anna anthropy (2013)

This game may not need much introduction. It certainly among the most well-known Twine games, having been exhibited in the digital art gallery Rhizome and the focus of a 2017 journal article by Claudia Lo that studies the game’s “queer temporality.” Cara Ellison explored her thoughts on it through poetry in The Guardian, reading it as an experience evocative of “the itinerant life.” Personally, I have played the game many times since it first appeared five years ago. Playing the game through to the end always takes ten seconds, an exceedingly brief hypertext fiction regulated in its pacing by how fast you read (or skim), how fast you (want to) make choices, and how fast you (want to) click. Each of those, also, are going to be deeply impacted by how you interpret the game’s title, Queers in Love at the End of the World, and the scant detail of the scenario sketched in the game’s opening screen:

In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her.

The bolded words indicate clickable links; these links indicate choices; these choices lead to new passages of prose, which in turn lead to new choices. These choices may form a seemingly endless chain of new narrative branches–leaving you clicking to the end, perhaps reaching the countdown before your eyes can even finish reading your current sentence–or they might land you in a moment of stillness and quiet. But “there’s so much you want to do” and you know can’t possibly do all of it, beginning with those first four verbs, leading to different prose branches.

Who are you? Who is she? The thin glimpses the player is granted of this world (your world? our world? every world?) on the brink of annihilation and the briskness of the ten seconds that begin their fateful countdown the moment all but demand the player fill in the blanks, the details. Perhaps there’s a “she” you see every day, who, “just like you always said,” you’ve sworn you’ll be with at the end. Perhaps you miss some such “she.” Perhaps she is fantasy. Perhaps your “she” isn’t a “she” at all in your mind.

When the timer’s ten seconds expire, you are transported away from whatever you’re lookin at to a screen with a simple, final sentence: “Everything is wiped away.” The game has ended and time has with it. What you were reading, whether passionate love-making or a consuming and quiet embrace, has vanished. The frenzy or anticipation you experienced as the clock dwindled has led you here, and a silent game has somehow become more silent.

Below “Everything is wiped away” sits a line with the game’s title and authorial attribution, followed by two links: to view an “Afterword” or to “Restart.”

Restarting the game allows you to dive right back in, to experiment with alternate choices or to click quickly through your last path to get just a bit further. Lo and other writers have focused their readings of the game on exploratory repetition, learning the outlines of the branches you didn’t take before through repeated play, in ways not altogether unlike how a speedrunner might explore every possible action to determine an optimal run or a completionist might achieve 100% on an RPG using New Game-Plus functionality, though this analogy is troubled by the fact that the game has no win states and a single, unavoidable ending. Restarting is a game-endorsed invitation, of course, as witnessed in the game’s immediate prompt once the world has ended, no matter how many times you play.

This potential for endless repetition and the clear availability of every branch are central to Lo’s reading of the game as” grounded in feeling and emotional relations as opposed to linearly temporal, corporeal, or physical relations” (191), a queer exploration of temporality. I like this reading. I’m interested, too, in what it means to take these ten seconds that constitute a single playthrough as the end of the world indeed, to play through the game once and walk away, at least for a time. If you come back to the game after you’ve forgotten the contours of prior playthroughs, I find, the world’s end potently retains its urgency and its crushing finality.

This leads me to the other option once everything is wiped away and something Lo makes no mention of: the afterword.

While the game’s text has thus far all been dynamically rendered by your browser application in a tasteful, regular sans serif font, now your screen is occupied by the messy, almost tactile scrawl of graffiti, it’s letters partially dripping down the screen: “when we have each other we have everything.” The materiality of this image of words is a stark contrast to everything before the afterword, a screen ungoverned by the game’s possible looping, doomed time. Critically, the afterword doesn’t use “you” or “she,” but it does use “we.” Further, the game’s present tense narrative voice gives way to a conditional statement that seems unbound by time. Together, these serve to interrupt and recast the play experience and draw the player into a different dimension.

Below this, again in our webpage font, we see an option to restart but also the note that this was “Inspired by an image I found on tumblr,” with a link to an image that apparently was very directly adapted for the afterword, a photograph of a casual photo of bathroom door with the same text painted on it in black, even with the same drips. With the click of that link, you’re transported away from any “restart button,” closing the potentially unlimited recursive loop from the game.

Both of these links provide exits away from the world we’ve seen end. One returns us to it endlessly, to inhabit the open possibilities of the scenario. One brings us back to dingy reality, juxtaposed with a sweeping statement of expansive love.

Is Queers in Love at the End of the World a rehearsal for the coming end of the world? Is it a prism? A laboratory for imagining lovers real and imaginary? A fantasy of escaping death through its embrace, so long as you have one to embrace? I suppose the answer to all the above is, well, yes. Queers in Love at the End of the World is wonderful.

Queers in Love at the End of the World is playable in-browser at itch.io.

Virtual Stepfather

Virtual Stepfather, by Tyler Lolong and David Schultz (2010)

Hey there, champ. How is it going?

This is a special kind of role-playing game. It imagines you in the role of a child, and you imagine exactly when this conversation takes place. Is your stepfather just home from work and you’re trying to do your homework? Is he interrupting your cartoons? Did he just pick you up from school? Those specifics don’t matter so much as the palpable tension, frustration, and impatience that builds from the stiltedness of the conversation’s progression.

The virtual stepfather in question is represented in minimalist, blocky, two-color pixel art, a 13×10 representation of a head with just enough definition to suggest middle-aged man with male-pattern baldness.

The game’s sole mechanic is choosing between two dialogue options. As the short game continues, the mechanic changes to progressively subvert player agency. This subversion brilliantly paints an emotional portrait.

The game’s tone is decidedly comic and it makes me laugh every time. It’s cringe comedy. A scene loaded with pathos that is achingly real and familiar, if no from our own lives, then from stories, relatives, or friends (mind that for a lot of player it’s just as easy to imagine being the step-parent trying to make with a child you’re forced to bond with). The witty score is all chamber clavichord, a baroque, melodramatic excess that produces a lovely ironic contrast with the extremely low-fidelity monochrome pixel presentation. The digital (or digitally modulated?) voice of the stepfather has impeccable comic timing. I laugh every time I play it.

And it stings just a little, too.

Virtual Stepfather is free to download at Glorious Trainwrecks (Windows).

Vegetables

Vegetables (ベジタブルズ, Bejitaburuzu) (Demo), by Vegetables Cultivation Committee (Bejitaburuzu Saibai Iinkai) (2014)

A demo for a self-declared homage to “legendary free game” Cave Story that still isn’t out four years later, this one-stage trial version of Vegetables has enough going on in it to commend it on its own merits. An action platformer with a relentlessly cute, lo-fi pixel art aesthetic, you take on the role of Lop Holland, a furry rabbit and fighter for the 08th Special Forces Squadron, a specialist with a carrot gun that can shoot up, down, left and right.

What I liked most about the game is, first, the vividness and liveliness of the animation for the main character and his tomato enemies and, second, the cleverness of its level design. The game lets you see paths early on that you’ll have to navigate later, making you wonder if you’ll encounter ability upgrades that will allow for better map traversal. The game holds back on its cat archer enemies (your fight is with the invading carnivores, apparently) until you make it to roughly the halfway point of the stage, but you can see them from the very first screen of the stage. Stage design and enemy placement are very sharp, and after I finished the game, I found myself admiring the subtly ingenious idea of a twisting spiral of the level as well as the seeming variation generated by a meager two enemy types deriving entirely form clever implementation.

The game doesn’t quite feel finished even as far as this goes (compare the stiffness of the mice enemies in contrast to the lovely animation for else that moves), but it’s decidedly playable and Lop has jump that’s fun just to execute. The project has a website (Japanese only, includes art, previews, and 4-panel comics) but, alas, it hasn’t been updated in over four years. It seems this may be all we ever see of Vegetables.

Controls for the game are: Z to shoot your carrot gun and X to jump. Press down to read or interact with characters. Space calls up a pause menu.

The game has some Japanese-language comic text when you reach the end of the stage, but this version of the game is otherwise without dialogue.

You can download the trial version of Vegetables for Windows from Freem.

All Alone in a Small Island

All Alone in a Small Island, by Frances (2018).

Created for a weekly game jam at itch.io under the theme “Small World,” Frances’s game looks at first blush like a Harvest Moon-type of time management and gardening game. That’s not entirely inaccurate, either, and the game is working with that genre in the backdrop. When you first load it, the game gives you an impressive diversity of avatars to choose from and tells you that you’re about to participate in a rite of passage for your culture. This is a challenge to spend 30 days on a tiny island all by yourself, staying in the island’s only building, with the objective of raising one hundred orange flowers by month’s end.

What the game does with this setup is special and unique and opens up a space for an examination of ritual, routines, goals, and the individual’s place vis-à-vis society. It’s striking that while the game’s days count from thirty down to zero, the days themselves do not have time or action limitations. Suggestive text appears when you retire to your hut every night, reinforcing the themes it raises with the word “Alone” in the title, while allowing enough space with its evocative second-person language to give space to insert yourself into the narrative. How will you fill your days? How do you have a game like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley–each of which emphasizes community as much as farming–when you’re, in fact, “All Alone in a Small Island?” I’d say more, but I think this is a game that is best not to spoil–its particular rhythms need to be experienced for themselves. Suffice it to say that the framing device, for me, ultimately surpasses the core “challenge” of the game. I believe this game will stay with me for a long time.

Download the game for Windows from itch.io.

Snake Strike

Snake Strike (スネークストライク, Suneiku sutoraiku), by Udonpa (2018)

Snake Strike is a rare 2D platformer that rarely asks you to do all that much walking. Instead, aided by a fairy companion controlled with the mouse cursor, your adorable Blue Coral Snake protagonist zips through the air, utilizing the “Serpent Path” (蛇道 jadou) power to strike enemy animals, items, and targets, even passing through walls.

While the core target-striking mechanic immediately reminded me of the last decade of Sonic the Hedgehog games, the game’s overall design philosophy reminds me most of Super Mario Bros. 3 in that every single stage has a design hook that makes it utterly distinct. Each themed world presents you with three stages you must clear to face off against the stage’s boss, but each stage features unique enemies, environmental object, or layout patterns that mark it off from the rest. Even different screens in the same stage stand out from each other with the game apparently never wanting to repeat itself. Bosses, too, mine the game’s core mechanics for surprising implementations and depth. 

This level of care in the differentiation of stages and screens is lavished on the direction of other parts of the game. Like your player character, every enemy and boss is a wild animal and each animal and boss has a collectible card you can pick up in the game world, loaded with scientific facts and the species’s scientific name. A particular moment that helped me realize the careful attention to detail occurred when the final stage in an arid desert world launched my snake into the air to fight the area’s boss, a bald eagle. When you land back on the ground triumphantly, the desert landscape is transformed. It’s snowing. You’re headed to a snow world next.

Part of the joy of the game is the discovery suggested here. When you arrive in the snow world, what kind of animals are you going to meet/face off against? How will they behave?

After each boss is beaten you become friends with a new fairy that grants you a new fairy, each of which has a special power that alters the core mechanics of the game: one enables you to double jump, another gives you more health, etc. You can only use one of these at a time, though, so you can customize according to your play preferences or to meet specific challenges. 

Despite all this depth, Snake Strike gives an almost willfully amateurish impression with its visuals. The game’s first stages, in particular, with over-saturated, overly-intense yellow-green grass tiles and clouds with thick blue outlines, are slightly garish. Later stages tend to look more visually pleasing. The diversity of environments and animals works as an interesting counterweight to this and the juxtaposition as well as the thoughtfully polished mechanics and level design. (The music, on the other hand, is excellent throughout. Especially enjoy the laid back, J-pop beats of the Fairy Park).

The game gets very tricky in its later stages. But through its novelty it earns every challenge (one might complain that the point at the bottom of the screen that counts as falling off the screen is a little too restrictive, but that’s forgivable). Snake Strike is a joy to play. 

Snake Strike is available for free from Freem (for Windows)!

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The game is Japanese-language only. So I’ve prepared a translation of some of the game’s early text and most important features. You can download my Unofficial English Player’s Guide as a PDF here (last updated June 1, 2018).

粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish

粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish, by wengwengweng (2018)

You are presented with a pile of fish. The fish you see are not pink. You have been told that somewhere in this pile of not-pink fish is a pink fish. You have been told that you must find the pink fish.

The fish in the pile squirm horribly. When you pick one up to clear it out of your way, it shakes ferociously as if to escape your grasp. Do you see evidence of the pink fish beneath it?

Dozens or maybe hundreds of fish stare up at you from this awful pile. Those bubbles you hear. Are you underwater? Where are you? Where’s the pink fish?

Will you find the pink fish?

Download 粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish for free from itch.io (Mac, Windows, Love).

Cat Sokoban

Cat Sokoban, by sylvie (2014)

Sokoban is arguably the great puzzle game genre of the 21st century (or at least the one that isn’t match-three a la Candy Crush). The genre’s been with us since the 1980s, but particularly in the space of free indie games it’s blossomed in the last . This has been helped, in no small part, by the incomparable Increpare’s open source 2013* PuzzleScript engine, which makes the design of low-resolution, browser-playable sokoban-type puzzle games accessible. (One can make other types of puzzle games in PuzzleScript, but the engine seem particularly optimized for this genre.)

Cat Sokoban (not made in PuzzleScript) does not feature the most complicated or sophisticated puzzle design you’ll ever encounter in a sokoban game. However, instead of pushing around boxes or balls, you find yourself, quite literally, herding cats. Living, curious, wandering cats. There’s a good chance that that information alone is enough to make you want to go play it, so feel free to skip the rest of this review and herd some cats right meow.

Author sylvie’s characteristically adorable pixel art really makes the game come to life. You also get a randomized assortment of cat colors with each stage try. And cats–as cats are wont to do–will fall asleep. If they fall asleep at their destination, this is good news for the harried cat-herder. However, if they fall asleep anywhere else, it becomes impossible to move them while they doze and their nap time makes it that much less likely that cats you’ve secured in place will remain there. The fact that these cats have minds of their own means that sylvie can set up situations that would be impossible in normal sokoban games.

These cats can be frustrating, to be sure, but if their cute little mews fail to melt your heart, their precious little faces while they sleep just might.

Who can stay mad at that?

Cat Sokoban is available to play for free on the author’s website.

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*Of note is that 2013 is also the year that Increpare released one of the highlights of the entire genre, English Country Tune.

Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me

Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me, by Fi Silva (2015)

I should let readers of this blog know from early on that I have an incredible fondness for and fascination with Lemmings (DMA Design, 1991), which I’m sure will continue to come through in my posts. In my own game design, this fascination with has resulted in two decades of games that try to build on or reinvent the Lemmings formula. One of the difficulties of making a good game in a Lemmings vein is that even DMA struggled to improve on the mechanics of their own formula, only really blossoming in levels that explored those mechanics well. The eight abilities from the original Lemmings are ingeniously simple and actually quite comprehensive for navigating two-dimensional, side-view space. As you can see from numerous games that followed in Lemmings’s wake, reworking–rather than just remaking–Lemmings is a challenge that partly owes to difficulty in imagining around the original set of abilities.

Made for 2015’s Ludum Dare 33 competition, Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me reimagines its little walkers as eager-to-please minions of a faceless villain and further reinterprets two of these abilities–the blocker and the exploder–into three abilities with an added elemental theming. The blocker turns into a block of ice, while fire can melt ice blocks. In addition to turning your little demons into ice blocks, there are ice blocks in the stages themselves. This twist allows for a different approach to the game’s physical spaces, producing a distinctive iteration of an old formula. (And the adoring little demonic minions are kind of adorable.)

The bombs, mercifully, are less demanding of precise, anticipatory timing than their Lemmings counterparts since they detonate right where you click your demon. However, the timing of where to light them on fire proves more fussy, fidgety, and hard to hit precisely, leading to some frustration. Compounding the frustration, the game soon gives you very little or no wiggle room to meet the minimum number of demons that need to reach the goal of each stage (little houses they set on fire). On the whole, though, this is an incredibly charming, clever take in a genre that needs charming, clever takes.

Download for free from itch.io (Windows).