The best games about home are the ones that make you leave it

There's something comforting about games that mirror the everyday rituals of departure and return, the rhythms of our real lives.

Find an antidote for your poisoned sister in an alien sea

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. Read the rest

Ecco the Dolphin swims in a sea of animated glitches

Ecco the Dolphin was undoubtedly one of the trippiest games to emerge from the early '90s, a psychedelic ocean adventure about Atlantis, time machines and giant crystals whose gameplay was once turned into a six-hour meditation video. Read the rest

Fix a clock tower on a mysterious island, you dashing horologist

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. Read the rest

Relive the thrill of using Windows 95 in this office simulator

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.

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A chess set that could teach aliens how to play

What if you could learn how to play chess simply by looking at the pieces? Read the rest

Help a blind girl find her cat in a world where you see without eyes

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.

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. Read the rest

Design a new subway system for your favorite city

Subway systems are circulatory systems, moving the lifeblood of a city from place to place beneath its skin. In the game Mini Metro, you get to be the engineer who maps out the veins, connecting all the stops in colorful tangles that keep the city moving as it grows around you.

Some of the biggest cities in the world are your transportation playgrounds: London, Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Berlin. Familiarity may offer a slight advantage as well; although I was complete garbage at building a tube for London, when I tried designing a subway system in my former home of New York City, it felt far more intuitive.

Although the map above looks complicated, and kind of is, the game begins very simply. You start with three stops, each one labeled with a shape—circle, triangle, square—and you connect them. The passengers at each stop are represented by shapes of their own, and your goal is to build lines that will efficiently route them to their similarly-shaped destinations. Unlike real life, these passengers aren't interested in reaching specific places; as long as a stop matches their shape, they'll happily disembark.

Things get more complicated as new stops pop up throughout the city, often in very inconvenient places, and you have to figure out how to link them in without turning your metro map into an inefficient mess. Fortunately, you can demolish and build new lines instantaneously, but if you make too many passengers wait for too long, and it's game over. Read the rest

These procedurally generated space bowls are killer

Mirror Lake will make a procedurally generated bowl for you. Sometimes the bowl is empty, which sounds like a parable, but mostly it is just a bowl. Sometimes it is in space.

Click again, and you'll be greeted with another bowl. Other features of its landscape may include: mountains, trees, stones, ponds, birds, comets, planets, stars.

Mirror Lake was created by Katie Rose Pipkin for the recent Procedural Generation Jam, which encouraged people to make generative games, tools and art—to "make something that makes something." In this case, hauntingly pretty monochromatic space bowls.

Pipkin previously made a bot that creates tweets peppered with tiny star fields, and co-created another bot that draws and names procedurally generated moths.

If you want to see Mirror Lake in all its odd glory, trying expanding it to full screen; make sure the sound is up so you can hear the ambient hum. Even the bugs are nice to look at:

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Grow plants to support your country in this wartime gardening game

Gardening games tend to be soothing cycles of repetition: You plant, you water, you harvest, and then you do it again. You play them to relax, which is probably why so few of those games are set during wars.

But that's exactly where A Good Gardener begins, by asking you to tend a small garden in the midst of a terrible conflict. You're a captured deserter in this unspecified war, assigned to grow crops for the troops in a small, open air compound that looks like it once had a roof. Perhaps it was blown up? All you can see beyond it is sky, and the top of a deserted building in the distance, its windows broken.

The experience of the game is simple: every day you collect a box of seeds, plant them, and water them. (Don't forget to refill your watering can at the spout on the days when it rains.) As the days pass, you'll see different crops take different shapes until they reach their final form, and then your mustachioed supervisor will come to collect them. On the days when he arrives to gather the fruits of your labor, he'll often make offhand, ominous statements about what's happening in the world outside, or even your own mysterious past.

Who are you really, and what exactly are you enabling with your green thumb? That's the question that lingers over your peaceful daily routine of weeding and watering, and if you're a good enough gardener, perhaps you'll learn the truth. Read the rest

A gorgeous flight game made for a loved one in a lost plane

"My grandfather's plane was reported lost in 1960 during the Algeria Independence War, days before the birth of his first child," writes Armel Gibson, in the introduction for his game, Oases. "This is what I like to think happened to him."

Oases opens with a plane flying over a desert, its engines trailing dark plumes of smoke. But before it can crash, a hole opens up in the sky, and swallows the plane with in rings of color. On the other side, you find yourself soaring across gorgeous, surreal landscapes of tall trees, enormous trumpet-shaped fungi and waterfalls dripping from giant sculptures. It is a world where you can soar forever, and never crash.

It's not the first game created to grieve the loss of a loved one, or make sense of their death—That Dragon Cancer comes to mind—but Oases addresses a very specific form of loss: How do you deal with losing someone when you don't know what happened to them, and probably never will?

Gibson writes his own ending for his grandfather's story, and invites us to wander around in it. It's a lovely one too, where the only goal is simply to fly and find pleasure in the world around you.

Created by Gibson and Dziff with music by Calum Bowen, Oases is pay-what-you-will on Itch.io for Mac and PC. [via Kotaku] Read the rest

Going back to your hometown is hard when it's a 1986 computer game

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. Read the rest

Try this graveyard simulator and imagine your own epitaph

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. Read the rest

Return to the creepy thrills and intriguing puzzles of The Room

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.

The Room 3 succeeds at this just as brilliantly as its predecessors. It is available on iOS now, with an Android version to come at a later date. Read the rest

Divebomb your friends in this elegant bird-jousting game

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. Read the rest

Become a vigilante superhero in this interactive tale about wealth inequality

Vigilante superhero tales tend to revolve around seeking justice outside of a failed system, and the idea that one man or woman can cause real change within that system by punching people. In short, they are fantasies, and popular in part because they suggest impossibly simple solutions to complex problems. In Cape, an interactive fiction story created by Bruno Dias for the ongoing Interactive Fiction Competition, you become one of those shadowy figures trying right wrongs in a crime-ridden city. But since wealth inequality lies at the heart of all the problems you encounter, well... let's just say that it's an uphill battle.

You can choose your gender and your nationality, though your options for the latter are limited: Whether you're Kenyan, Vietnamese, Slovenian or Mexican, you're going to be an immigrant, you're going to be poor, and life is going to be hard. You begin your story in a moment of desperation, about to break into a townhouse in a recently gentrified neighborhood to find whatever valuables you can and survive another day.

The story opens with a newspaper clipping that signals the precise flavor of dystopia that awaits. The article details a "passing tax" that will be levied on buildings based on their number of entrances and exits; apparently, suspects trying to evade police drones have been ducking into "passing houses" to escape surveillance, and they'd like to discourage that.

Yes, the watchful digital eyes of a corrupt police state are all around you, co-mingling with the more traditional violence of thieves and gangsters. Read the rest

This game about a lazy crow running a seedy hotel is really delightful

In the charming platform game Crowtel, you're a crow running a seedy hotel, and you're not very good at it. Well, really you're just lazy—not living up to your potential, as your crow teachers doubtless used to say—and as a result your not-so-fine establishment is looking pretty crusty indeed when the feline health inspectors show up.

Unless you want to get shut down, it's time to get your crow butt in gear and run through six levels of rapid cleanup, contending with giant balls of garbage, deadly bugs and broken toilets you can fix with your melodious birdsong. Also maybe there are ghosts?

Developed by Sink with a soundtrack by Captain Beard, Crowtel is pay-what-you-what over on Itch.io, so technically you can get it for free if you want. But after you see how delightful it is, chances are you'll wish you'd dropped a few dollars in the jar. Read the rest

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