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 You can follow Deconstructeam on Twitter.

Caveman Harry

Caveman Harry, by Flatgub (2016)

Made for a Ludum Dare competition, Flatgub’s playful throwback Caveman Harry tackles the assigned theme “Ancient Technology” on two different levels: First, it sets itself in a prehistoric community (which–spoiler alert!–follows a videogame tradition at least as old as The Lost Vikings in orchestrating a meeting between primitive humans and advanced or alien technology). The other is an aesthetic and technical imitation of old ZX Spectrum games, albeit with a fantasy color palette.

The narrative setting finds Harry searching for how to feed his friends and family in the absence of a spear-wielding hunter, but while spears litter the ground, Harry can’t wield one. He’ll provide another way. It’s retro platforming distilled to its basic elements: Harry jumps and walks (and climbs ladders and drops through certain platforms). Enemies follow scripted horizontal and vertical movement paths without any particular intelligence. That’s it. And the game utilizes those simple elements to their fullest, putting them in combinations that may not be groundbreaking (the arrangements of such challenges are by no means unique), but nonetheless feel compelling and fun thanks to the game’s overall presentation.

Caveman Harry attempts to embody its ZX Spectrum platform inspiration beyond mere window dressing. This is where the game derives a great portion of its charms as well as its frustrations. Harry and enemies are one-color sprites and their movement is discretely tile-based. Harry’s jumps aren’t the hyper-responsive and user-friendly actions we’re accustomed to this century. If you launch him into the air while walking, you have some latitude for moving him mid-air up to a certain point in his descent, after which he’ll drop like a slow-falling stone. He hovers at the peak of his jump just long enough to let a fast-moving enemy dash underneath him. It feels like the kind of jump one might encounter in an older computer or console platform, before the norms of the genre were settled. The game derives a great deal of personality from this embrace of old tech. In certain rooms, this embrace can prove a little frustrating since small enemy sprites seem to have hitboxes larger than their onscreen appearance suggests, but the overall package seems to make that go down easier.

Part of what makes the game such a memorable experience is the gorgeous realization of its world, in muted but colorful tones and sprite work that is spare but never dull. In addition, the world is populated with little creatures and other NPCs who talk when Harry’s positioned over them. It’s a simple addition, but one that invigorates the thinly sketched world with a great deal of life.

There are echoes of other platforming adventures of the last decade in Caveman Harry‘s makeup, such as J. Kyle Pittman’s You Have to Win the Game or Terry Cavanaugh’s VVVVV, with screen-to-screen movement, with rooms bearing titles, flavoring the experience or providing hints, in an interlocking structure that grants you glimpses of things you won’t access till later. Caveman Harry presents a bite-sized and mechanically simple adventure that feels comfortably suited to the little white pixelated caveman on your screen.

Caveman Harry is available for Windows for free or pay what you want from Flatgub has made the Game Maker source code available, too. You can follow Flatgub on Twitter.

ᗢ, by sentvyr and takorii (2016)

It almost feels perverse to write words about , a game that refuses words even in its title.  is sublime.

You control a little black cat rendered in remarkably efficient pixels (the game is a blown up 64×64 pixel screen). As you might expect, the cat is sleeping when you start the game. Cats love to sleep. The cat will sleep if you leave it alone long enough. As you might not expect, your cat is going to spend a lot of the game swimming. Cats famously don’t love to swim. But this cat finds itself on a tiny little island in the middle of a chain of tiny little islands and the only way to get anywhere is to swim.

You can scurry up trees to see a bit further. You can only swim so far before you need to catch your breath on land.

One of the first things you’ll likely encounter are a few birds hanging out in some bushes. They’ll take flight when you get near. You might wonder what else will react to your presence and how.

There is a strong possibility there is something I don’t know about , something someone else might find and think critical to the entire experience. I feel like each time I play it I end up somewhere slightly different. Or I can’t find my way back to somewhere I just was. Often I find myself visiting the same islands and encountering the same things, but that’s where my own particular patterns of curiosity compel me. Curiosity. Like a cat.

There’s the relaxing, repetitive roar of the tide (curl up in a little ball and take a nap on the shore and listen to it). Sometimes there’s music (by mc hepher): playful, melancholy, curious.

Some might call it an exploration game. Some might call it a meditative game. I’d prefer to call it ᗢ.

is available for Windows for free or pay what you want from

Nezumi Teku Teku

Nezumi teku teku (ねずみてくてく), by nezutako (2016)

The aggressively cute puzzle game Nezumi teku teku (roughly translated, Plodding Mouse) by cartoonist and game designer nezutako descends from a host of games that charge the player with protecting, guiding, or assisting mindlessly marching characters. The lineage that goes back to at least 1991’s Lemmings, but in this instance most resembles the games from the Gussun Oyoyo (1993, Banpresto/Irem) series. That game features the mechanic of Tetromino-like falling blocks and bombs that the player uses to build stairs, platforms, and walkways to allow a little walker to reach the end of the stage.

Nezumi teku teku instead builds the movable platforms in as permanent parts of the stage. With mouse or touch screen controls (the game was designed to be played in browser on either your desktop or your smartphone), the player drags these movable objects across empty space and around corners. Rather than simply being blocks, these can be whole chunks of platform stages, complete with ladders that the pudgy little mouse will climb and other environmental objects. This isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it situation, though. The solutions to most stages require each piece to be moved more than once in response to the real-time movement of the plodding mouse, necessitating forethought, a careful hand, and quick reflexes.

The game is appealingly and cleverly designed from the outset, but it becomes something more special as it opens up to reveals more elements. For one, later stages introduce Pac-man-style screen loops that reinvent the game’s approach of space. Later stages that require the mouse be led somewhere to open up a barrier sealing away a movable platform essential to the solution are especially nifty, giving the sense that the player and the slowly plodding mouse are solving these puzzles in actual collaboration with one another.

Play Nezumi teku teku in your browser on nezutako’s site here. Also, see its Freegame Mugen page (Japanese only).


Notes for people who don’t read Japanese:

Generally speaking, the game uses yellow buttons for positive things (like “yes” or “resume game”) and blue buttons for negative (“no” or “restart stage”).

This is a translation of the pause screen:

And here’s a translation of a results screen:


Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things

Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things, by Adam Le Doux (2017)

Temples, shrines, and other sacred spots are the stuff of all our surroundings as human beings. The functions our shrines serve vary from spot to spot, belief tradition to belief tradition, and person to person, from time to time. One might visit a shrine to pray to a god or to meditate, to connect to a departed loved one or to take a rest, to attend a community festival or to make a phone call.

The tiny, 8×8 sprite for the shrine in Adam Le Doux’s short Bitsy game Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things most immediately recalls the type of small wooden or stone shrine nested into a corner of a larger Japanese religious complex, on the edge of a rice field, or on a path wandering off from a mountain forest trail. Maintained, perhaps, by an affiliated institution, a family, or no one. An essential part of many Shinto shrines large and small is the 参道 sandou, the walkway that leads to the devotional site, often lined by trees. 

Temples and shrines are also the stuff of video games, dating back to at least Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987)–in the English localization they were called “palaces” but in Japanese they were always 神殿 shinden, a word that is most commonly translated as “temple.” By their names and often their architecture, video game temples and shrines suggest a spiritual reason for being, but that is often easy to overlook when they’re crawling with enemies, house an big bad ancient evil that must be vanquished, and/or are arranged with death traps and brain-teasing, lock-and-key puzzle mechanisms. This makes sense. What rites and observances can you expect to perform when the verbs mapped to your controller all work toward combat? Clearing out hordes of enemies from an apparently sacred space is perhaps the ultimate ritual when your character walks around with a visible sword and shield at all times.

Adam Le Doux is also the creator of Bitsy, a game creation system that is designed around conscious limitations. In an era where Construct, Godot, and Game Maker Studio ask their users to push their toolkit to technical limits to achieve nearly any kind of vision, Bitsy wants you to sit. Bitsy is like a ZZT with three colors, no ammunition, no score, no variables, and almost no scripting. Many have modified the HTML5 code that makes Bitsy games run to include features left out, but with its basic parameters, the game mechanics available to developers are essentially just moving in and between boards or rooms and touching objects to interact with them, at which point the game will display some text in a box.

Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things uses these limitations. Rather than starting you at the shrine, though, you make your way through a forest path with the option to stop and briefly interact with other forest travelers, who seem to be making use of the space for another reason than you might be. You even have the option to avoid the shrine at all. When you make it to the shrine and move toward the shrine to interact with it, the game displays in a black text box various sentences from a describing the shrine by objects suggested by “lost things,” such as “It’s a shrine dedicated to a lucky penny” and “It’s a shrine for a corrupted save file.” The distance between what’s written here suggests a breadth unwritten and your own private list of lost things might fill those gaps.

That projection is key. After all, what is the interaction your avatar is having when you observe that the shrine encompasses all these things? The text is description of the shrine, not a description any action or even a suggestion that you’re reading text written on the surface of the shrine. Like the suggestive but ambiguous low-resolution sprites and tiles that populate the game’s monochromatic Bitsy world, there is a great deal of latitude in interpreting what is happening here, all relating to your own answer to the question of what you might be doing at the Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things.

Rather than a ritual of fighting and defeating, Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things presents a ritual of movement and a productively vague concept of interaction underscored by the environment of Bitsy itself.

You can play Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things in your browser (even on your phone) for free at You can follow Adam Le Doux on Twitter.

Is That Bird Holding a Cat?

Is That Bird Holding a Cat?, by Ismail Hassan (2016)

Ismail Hassan made Is That Bird Holding a Cat? in ten days (or less) for the fifth annual GBJAM, an event that asks players to obey the Game Boy’s four-color palette restriction, the system’s 160×144 resolution, and to create something “Game Boy-themed.” This game certainly obeys these three tenets. Keyboard-controlled, the game first flashes the keyboard keys it uses not with descriptions of what those keys do, but with what keys on the Game Boy hardware they substitute for in a familiar murky green palette. It’s a small gesture, but it’s clever.

Yet Hassan has not chosen to make something that feels like it could be on the Game Boy (unlike some others from the same jam, such as Witchwood Academy), instead taking advantage of the processing power of a computer from this decade to create more complex, contemporary-feeling camera panning/object following and parallax scrolling than might have been possible on the Game Boy, let alone advisable. The game adheres to a tidy 160×144 resolution, but blows itself up to 3 times that (at least, unless you hit Alt+Enter to go fullscreen) in order to render what might have dissolved into a messy swamp of pixels on even a Game Boy Advance SP legible. The effect is something like a fantasy scenario in which the Game Boy’s guts got upgraded, but the buttons and screen stayed rooted in 1989.

Like The Lost Vikings (Silicon & Synapse, 1993), Is That Bird Holding a Cat? asks you to switch player characters on the fly (forgive the pun). In this case, we indeed have a bird and a cat that must find their way to their individually marked goal posts. The characters have two different movesets. The cat agilely zips around stages, hopping over deathtraps and scurrying through little crevices. The bird can’t walk and therefore can’t really platform, but has an unlimited flying ability. This ability isn’t quite so precise and agile as the cat, though, putting a much-needed limitation on what could make the bird too powerful.

The bird and the cat well thought out in their contrasts (they’re also adorable!). You’ll encounter situations where you could conceivably use either and situations where you simply must use one character to reach a key.  But the game really sings when it forces the characters to really cooperate. As the title suggests, the bird can hold a cat for only so long. The bird can fly forever on its own, but the second it picks up the cat, a stamina bar appears that severely limits the distance and height the cat can be carried and requires real forethought as players tackle levels.

The game’s weakest point is a level design that favors a too-quick ramping up of difficulty. The game’s somewhat overeager hit detection, too, makes some passages frustratingly finicky and certain large projectiles move with a pace that doesn’t quite mesh with the small area of the screen. I’m actually quite grateful Hassan has made available a version that comes with stages pre-unlocked (the initial release requires a linear progression through stages). I haven’t cleared every stage, but I’ve been delighted to move on from stages that get overly frustrating, so I can see each stage and situation the game has in store for me. The interaction between the bird and the cat is a delight and, coupled with their immense cuteness, contrasts excellently with the weirdness and hostility of their environs. Helping them struggle through the air together makes this game well worth playing.

Is That Bird Holding a Cat? is available on Windows for free from You can follow the developer Ismail Hassan at @LifeAfterLunch.

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

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 (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.