Behind Every Great One

Behind Every Great One, by Deconstructeam (2018)

The division of labor in Gabriel and Victorine’s household appears quite clear-cut: Gabriel works at home as a successful painter and he’s currently riding the financial and creative high from a particularly successful recent exhibition. Victorine works at home as a housewife. She carries the balance of everything. In the first scene of the game, Gabriel vocalizes his gratitude for and acknowledgment of everything his wife does for him.

Gabriel spends his days in his studio while Victorine goes about the house, keeping it in order. Gabriel calls Victorine his muse, but paradoxically refuses to let her see his studio so long as his projects is incomplete, a kind of superstition. The player controls Victorine directly and quickly becomes intimately familiar with the bounded space of their home, beautiful in its in-game visual design but also utterly mundane. As she approaches objects, they become outlined, indicating available tasks: she can do dishes, iron laundry, read, smoke, and more.

As Victorine performs each of these tasks, the color of the background gradually changes from a bright sunrise pink, through a deep afternoon blue, to a burning orange sunset, ticking down the hours. There’s only so much time in a day. Each thing Victorine does is something else left undone. Perhaps she can catch up on that tomorrow.

As time passes with tasks or leisure, the game’s camera closer to our protagonist. As the camera gets closer, the game screen starts rocking, and we as players intuit that the distance of the camera represents Victorine’s emotional state. When it gets too close, something has to happen to release it. Something she can’t let anyone else see.

Beyond the time management and housewife simulation mechanics, the game’s narrative unfolds through dialogue. The structure of the writing is smart, presenting numerous parallels and reversals that say much more than is explicitly spoken.

People from outside Gabriel and Victorine’s home make their way in, but we never see Victorine leave it. Visitors alter the landscape of the home, a home that threatens to swallow Victorine up.

The game’s authors at Deconstructeam offer an essential stage-setting prologue for the game on its website:

“Gabriel is a really driven succesful artist. Victorine doesn’t have any personal passions but supports Gabriel as a housewife. They love each other.”

Every word in this preamble matters, and is up for examination as you play Behind Every Great One. What makes a successful artist? What constitutes support? Does Victorine really not have any personal passions, and if not why? And does the couple really love one another?

There are no easy answers for these questions. I believe the game ultimately understands that, yes, they do love each other. And that’s one of the game’s great strengths. Gabriel sometimes comes off as insensitive to his wife’s experience, but these mistakes are all too familiar from the way men often take women and their labor for granted in heterosexual marriages. As society, family, and friends do constantly.

The walls close in on Victorine. It’s a game about depression. And relationships. And sexism. And so much more.

Behind Every Great One is available for Windows or in-browser for free at itch.io. You can follow Deconstructeam on Twitter.

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).