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Offworld Monday Reflection: Living card games, white whales and digital bonsai trees


Last Week on the Colony is a new, regular Monday item here on Offworld, a special satellite transmission designed to highlight our favorite Offworld stories, wonderful trends, and the stories from elsewhere in the galaxy that got us talking. Sign up here to receive this digest each week via email—it's a great way to avoid missing anything.

Latest Features

Offworld was home to several wonderful features from visiting writers last week, including Kim Nguyen and her look at Netrunner, a living card game set in a dystopian future—and packed with diverse characters. Nguyen examines why the player base isn't quite as inclusive at the characters and lore of the game, and and how some members of its community are working to change it.

Meanwhile, game developer Liz Ryerson wrote a deeply personal reflection on her evolving relationship with Jon Blow's puzzle platform game Braid, and how it influenced her and the creation of her own game, Problem Attic.


Offworld Games

As usual, we found plenty of games to play, like Prune, an elegant "digital bonsai" experience where you carefully trim the branches of a tree as it grows towards the light. We were also fond of Pequod, a Moby Dick inspired game where you star as the ship-destroying white whale, and a suite of digital cartridges that evoke the strangeness and mystery of old arcade games.

Leigh also spotlighted the battling crane game simulator Claw Champion Earth, a game about dead virtual pets, the typing RPG Secret of Qwerty, and Never Go to Work, a delightful Twine game about desperately avoiding your job.

Transmissions from Elsewhere

Patricia Hernandez pointed us at a terrifying creepypasta tale about a haunted arcade, while Mark Serrels talked about the joy of multiplayer games like Splatoon and Rocket League where the stakes are lower, and maybe it's even ok to suck a little bit.


Not Games

While I might make my permanent residence at Offworld, I still make regular trips outside the colony to write at other sites; one of my recent articles at WIRED delves into the controversy currently roiling in the comic book industry around racial representation and appropriation. It's a complex but important conversation, and one that's equally applicable to a lot of other industries.

I was also particularly moved last week by a piece on Salon titled "Yes, it’s possible to be queer and Muslim" by a woman named Lamya. "My queerness and my Muslimness are too deeply woven for me to choose between them, to see them as mutually exclusive," she writes. "I don’t need an Imam to tell me this, to tell me that I can find comfort and joy in both."

Offworld Monday Reflection: Desert wars, desert horror, and Encarta on acid


Last Week on the Colony is a new, regular Monday item here on Offworld, a special satellite transmission designed to highlight our favorite Offworld stories, wonderful trends, and the stories from elsewhere in the galaxy that got us talking.

Read the rest

Offworld Monday roundup: Empathy, criticism and being filthy in the shower

Her-Story-Screenshot-Desktop-B This roundup is a new, regular Monday item here on Offworld, a special satellite transmission designed to highlight our favorite Offworld stories, wonderful trends, and the stories from elsewhere in the galaxy that got us talking.

We're such big fans of Sam Barlow's Her Story; we've been interested in it since I did this interview with Barlow back around the time Offworld launched. The game's seen some backlash from the worst sort of people for all the best sort of reasons: Its familiar computer-search interface means anyone can play it, you're just supposed to, like, read and listen instead of, like, shoot things, and, worst of all, it's a game about a woman.

I think one of the biggest problems there is in the conversation around games these days is that nobody is allowed not to like something, or to be critical of it. That's a problem in general on the internet, of course, but I think it's amplified through (shudder) "geek culture", where people often identify very strongly and very personally with media franchises. Any critique is "hating on", "slamming" or "disrespecting", and we can't have nuanced conversations about important things like, I dunno, sexism or racism in our media because everyone is so loath to hear what they perceive as "hate", so infuriated at the supposed "creative censorship" that they think is going to take place when people even gently critique something.

This is especially frustrating for people like us who believe discussion is the best way to love something, that critique is respect, and that just because you're saying something like "dang this game is really, really super white and I want to talk about that", it doesn't mean you think the game is garbage and should be edited to your specifications and that people who like it should feel guilty and that everything in the world needs to be tailored explicitly toward your comfort.


Laura really loved playing Her Story, thinks it's a brilliant game, and would like to play it again. But a conversation she had with one of our mutual friends piqued her interest in writing about whether its storycraft leaned on a harmful trope. Read that feature here; there is a spoiler warning before the spoilers begin, so just stop there if you'd like. I'm really proud to have Laura building Offworld with me, and this piece is a great example of why: She models how to love something and still feel conflicted about some aspect of it, to talk about that conflict without diminishing affection for the larger work.

I was surprised at some of the response, though. Even folks I would have expected to be joyfully participating in this larger conversation we're having about nuance in criticism responded via social media and in comments to let us know that Laura's article was "wrong" because there are multiple theories of the story, and another one may be more correct. Without spoiling anything, there's definitely some ambiguity to the story, and those variant possibilities act as a plot device. Even if one theory is ultimately a red herring, it's still being used, and it still deserves to be examined. Anyway, super proud of Laura, and to be a place that publishes work where we can have interesting and complicated discussions about media, even ones without a "right answer".

On a related note, if Her Story is your first acquaintance with Sam Barlow's work, or if you just know him from the awesome Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, you must play his groundbreaking, classic work of interactive fiction, Aisle.


In other Offworld features, Laura digs through the noise and pomp of San Diego Comic-Con to find ten genuinely-neat bits of news for comics fans at a time when the comics themselves often get overshadowed by big budget entertainment franchise announcements.

We know you've been just aching inside because there's only so far one can read back from our home page at, but clicking "more" (or bookmarking this link will now allow you to read back our last 50 (!!) features.

Ever since the Final Fantasy VII remake was announced, there's been a lot of social media dialogue on how the remake, which looks vivid and serious, would handle the game's odder and more colorful notes—in particular, a classic sequence where Cloud has to crossdress, mostly for comedic effect. Sarah Nyberg explores the issue for us, offering a personal reflection on her own complex memories of the scene, and some tools for folks to better understand and discuss this type of sequence (it helps to understand who, and what issue, is actually the butt of the joke, she writes).

Offworld Games

We've got two works by Loren Schmidt (Star Guard) this week: A unique and fascinating "moth generator" they made with artist Katie Rose Pipkin, and the Lynchian "red-hued glitch dream" Strawberry Cubes.


Thanks to Steven Lavelle's Shower Game, you might never feel clean again. And just in time for Season 2 of Bojack Horseman, here is a game about being a horse (who functions as a bank robber). As a reminder, our Play It Now tag takes you straight to quick, free (or donation-based) games you can play instantly in your browser with no friction or special skillz, so it's a good perma-bookmark to save for your lunch breaks and idle moments.

Transmissions from Elsewhere

Designer and critic Mattie Brice looks at ways she might implement game design sensibilities to help with the often confusing and complicated power dynamics of kinky group play parties. It's always exciting to see game design principles enter the event and performance space, and this is an area where I think it must be particularly under-utilised.

Not games

In this genuinely-fascinating interview, Jon Ronson decides to try to get to know the widely-loathed inflammatory talking-head Katie Hopkins. His work lately often sees him attempting earnestly to empathize with people society has decided are beyond deserving it, like psychopaths, or people who say racist things on Twitter and are then pilloried.

I like Ronson's work a lot, and this isn't only because he actually wrote back to a "thanks for your book" email that I wrote him last year (this is impressive because I, an exponentially less-famous and less-relevant writer, can't be bothered to answer most of my emails). It reminds me of when Louis Theroux goes to someplace like the Westboro Baptist Church to search for some humanity in the people there— this type of journalism is as interesting to me because of my own thoughts and reactions as it is because of the journalist's. It's interesting to notice my own temptation to want to remove someone's humanity, because they've done something I find loathsome.

I think Ronson has gotten some criticism for his book on public shaming; I've often seen floating around on social media the accusation that he felt too sorry for the public figures who said the stupid things and received consequences for them, and not sorry enough for the marginalized folks who are systemically harmed when powerful people casually say stupid things. Although that is a valid criticism, I don't really get that from his work—when he speaks to people like Justine Sacco or Katie Hopkins I never get the sense that he thinks what they said or did was unimportant or okay. I think he just wants to use examples like Sacco's to talk about humanity and forgiveness. Just to talk about it, and I'm drawn toward that approach as a media critic who often does want to just talk about things without being accused of taking a position or desiring some material outcome or redress from the creative works I'm talking about.

The main thing I disagree with when I read Ronson's book on public shaming is his categorization of "mob justice"—I think that conceptualization of internet-punishment implies an organization that isn't present. There's a major tenet of Twitter that only starts to dawn on you once you manage volume at scale, and it's that most people have no idea that to you they are just one of potentially-infinite identical voices. That's why when you tell a joke, you'll get 20 variations on the same "helpful addition" to your joke (mostly if you are a woman, because women can't tell jokes on Twitter without men helping them).

These people do not realize they are a "mob". They each think they are special, and that they are having a wonderful one to one conversation with the figures they follow. When I try to tell people on Twitter their presumed intimacy is inappropriate, or that they're just one of a hundred people trying to perform the same not especially unique behavior, they're almost offended, they feel rejected, why use social media if you don't want to be social, Ms. Alexander?

Or the reverse: They actually assume their comment won't be read, that the person is too remote, that this is a safe and generally harmless way for them to vent something at you. In my experience being targeted by the little keyboard-lords of GamerGate, the latter is true more often than not: These are not often people gloating over someone whose power they believe they have stolen; they are people who feel inherently powerless, throwing tiny stones at someone they assume cannot feel them anyway.

I do worry that Ronson's ambiguous characterization of "mobs" doesn't account for this principle, and as such risks grouping actual highly-organized harassment campaigns—which do happen on social media, and which mostly target marginalized people—into the same category of befuddling retaliatory "justice."

Anyway. I still think the Katie Hopkins interview is super interesting work; you could argue it's sort of irresponsible to try to empathize with a person whose opinions basically constitute hate speech, but the picture of the person that results is so sad, so deeply pitiful, that all it does, for me, is deflate her hatred, take its power away, reveal it for the flailing it is.

Mobile game of the week: Alphabear

I ended up having a fight—like, very nearly a real fight and not a play-fight—with my boyfriend over the iPad just a few days ago. The reason was Alphabear, a bright, bouncy playful word game where you collect bears.

He had used my bears. So uncool.

Alphabear, by Spry Fox (you know about Triple Town, right)? is a game where you spell the best words you can out of tiles on a screen, where each tile is worth points. If you clear tiles that are next to each other, big, adorable square bears (designed by Brent Kobayashi) appear, and clearing further tiles around the bears' perimiter makes them expand, sometimes into comic oblongs if that's all the space they have.

The bears add a bit of extra consideration to the mechanic of just Scrabble-ing for words—you want to work with their shapes. As you play, you collect more cute bears, each with its own little "power" that you can use during levels—score bonuses, extra points for certain letters, things like that. Furthermore, letters don't hang around forever. If you don't use them when they turn red, they next turn to stone, impossible to clear, and barring further bear expansion.


It's actually a complex and deep enough design that it's not easy to explain but you grok it immediately. You're always balancing several goals in interesting ways: Grow bears, clear red letters, make high-scoring words, make long words, use the right multipliers, keep control of the board space. Before you know it you're completely hooked, collecting panda bears, pirate bears, ghost bears, bears in dog costumes, bears of all kinds. Every day brings different kinds of challenges, some short and timed, others long and leisurely. There's a cute social media component, too, as bears you use will volunteer cute nonsense-tweets based on the words you've spelled (it's funny on its own, but it subtly lets you show off how good your words are). It's also resulted in some funny #Alphabear hashtag confusion on Instagram.


Alphabear is basically free to play, but if you don't buy "honey", one of the game's currencies, you end up having to wait before you can play new levels. You can watch ads to gain honey, or pay $3.99 to never have to worry about that wait again (my verdict is that it's definitely worth a few bucks for how much and how often I've ended up playing). Your special bears need cool-down time too, so you can't just pile on your fanciest bonuses constantly (unless you spend real money on pretend coins, which I haven't felt the need to do).

This payment system is, I think, maybe a little more fricative than is common these days, but isn't prohibitive; it has the pleasant side effect of making each round of Alphabear feel more like a treat, something worth waiting for and looking forward to. The game's main downside is that it's cloud-dependent—in other words, you can't play offline, a real bummer for people who do most of their mobile playing on airplanes and subways. Dan Cook, chief creative officer of Spry Fox, said the team tried to make it work but was unable.

I also wish it allowed for separate player accounts, so, say, two people in a household could do their own progress separately and not use each other's bears. Because that is so uncool. If you're reading this, I hope you wouldn't do that to me anyone.

The 5 best uses of a cell phone in video games

One of the coolest little tricks video games can pull is when they drop familiar real-world communication devices into the virtual space—there's something a little special about seeing an interface effectively brought to life inside an interface.

Lots of video games have mobile phones in them, but we think the best use of mobile phones in games (I really want to type 'cell phones', as some of these are definitely 'cell phones') comes from when they make us think about our relationship to those devices and the ways they are used. Here are our personal favorites:

Magical Maiden Madison

By Christine Love (Play here free) madison

Lots of girls from our generation grew up on magical girl transformation anime like Sailor Moon. Christine Love's Magical Maiden Madison is a brief, humorous game that scrubs off the patina of slow-drifting sparkles and rose backgrounds to examine what it might actually be like for a modern girl to be in those kinds of situations. The main interface, Madison's mobile phone, plays a key role in that modern imagining, a vehicle for teen emotes and shorthand as she talks with her friend Amy about her latest battle of the week—and everything that would entail. There was no texting on Sailor Moon; everyone had to talk to each other through "cosmetic pens" or something. I mean, I don't remember.

Cobra Club

By Robert Yang (Play here free)

(Read what we had to say about it) cobraclub

Cell phone cameras have doubtless massively democratized the dick pic, and Robert Yang's Cobra Club explores the issues of privacy, government surveillance and consent through this strangely vulnerable work that takes place in the uncomfortable light of your mom's bathroom mirror. It's inspired in part by that memorable conversation between John Oliver and Edward Snowden: Who can see our dick pics? Will that be the question by which we'll finally fully engage Americans in the surveillance conversation? How can we reclaim our dick pics from the government eye?

The selfie is often-discussed as a way for people, particularly young women, to regain control of their image; Yang's Cobra Club reminds us that when we wield a phone camera, we stand both to gain and lose all kinds of power.

SMS Racing

By Turbo Button (Coming to VR platforms later this year, play browser version here free)

(Read what we had to say about it)

It's hard to tell people they shouldn't do things without being a total mega buzzkill loser, but luckily games are a fun way to show how systems work and, often, to highlight the inherent absurdity of our behavior within systems. SMS Racing is about trying to text while driving, behavior which of course all write-ups earnestly warn you must not do. The creepy, defiant little thing started out as a browser game in 2015, and now is coming to full-blown VR, because of course it is.

Freshman Year

By Nina Freeman (Play here free)

(Read what we had to say about it) fyear1

Nina Freeman's distinctive vignette games are brief constellations of moments and memories, often about complicated subjects like sex and girlhood in her own life. Her game Freshman Year is an upsetting work about heading out to a college party and experiencing a brief but poignant assault. Although you can make choices in the game—what to wear, how much to drink, how to feel about the night ahead—fittingly, none of them make a difference to the outcome.

One of the most interesting techniques Freeman uses to pace her storytelling in Freshman Year is a mobile phone, which Nina consults throughout the night, searching for the friend she's supposed to meet at the event. The way the phone is used in the game does a brilliant job of dictating the way we turn to text messages for comfort, for space, for pauses in crowds, and when we're lonely or frightened. The insistent text communication with Jenna provides the rhythm that makes the game feel like a real memory.


By Atlus (Buy it on last-gen consoles for about $15)

Catherine was a distinctly weird PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 game that launched in 2011. It's one part visual novel, one part wildly-frustrating block puzzle, but it took some interesting risks in its attempt to portray the inner conflict of Vincent, an aging loser-guy who's torn between his commitment-pushy longtime girlfriend and the exciting young thing who's suddenly showed up to exploit his weak temperament.

The most memorable part of that game remains the cell phone interface you'd get to interact with during those stretches of game you'd spend shuffling Vincent around a bar at night, long after his friends had found better things to do. You could read and reply to your text messages from each woman, and you'd be offered multiple options tonally as to how to respond—but the way the interface worked, replies typing themselves and then disappearing in favor of the next option, meant you experienced the awfully-human act of sitting alone in a booth, half-drunk, writing what you might want to say and then erasing it again until it seemed "right".

And then, of course, the agonizing after. It was a precise, excellent note on the part of a game which was otherwise all over the place (but which I nonetheless loved).


7 games you can play with Google Maps


For April Fools Day this year, Google created a version of Pac-Man that you could play inside Google Maps, to the delight of everyone who wanted eat power-pellets on the roundabouts of their hometown. Although this Pac-Man experience is now sadly defunct, people have been building games around Google Maps for years: trivia games, hidden object games, shooting games, building games, driving games, and even survival games. We've picked out seven interactive cartography experiences that you can try out for free in your browser, on the streets of nearly any city in the world.

Google Sheep View


Think of it as a version of "I Spy" that spans the entire world, and focuses exclusively on sheep. Created by Ding Ren and Mike Karabinos, the Google Sheep View tumblr encourages viewers (or players) to digitally wander the streets of Google Maps and try to spot the wooly little faces of sheep.


Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.09.05 PM

This popular geography guessing game displays Google Street View pictures from locations around the world—roads, houses, trees, stores—and challenges you to identify the towns and cities by dropping a pin on a map. After you've made your guess, it reveals the real location, and awards points based on how close you get.


Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.11.14 PM

If you enjoy tower defense games like Bloons, chances are you'll enjoy MapsTD, where you build battle towers by dropping and upgrading colored pins, which defend against the enemies marching down the streets of your chosen city. If you're not into the satellite view, you can always shift into watercolor for a more abstract experience.

Geo Guns

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.21.58 PM

Like many shooting games, Geo Guns views the world as a rich and varied series of backdrops for blowing things up. It promises to let you "turn any place on Earth into a virtual battlefield thanks to Google Maps’ awesome new 45 degree angle view." Select a location, and it immediately becomes the wallpaper for a tank battle between you and a computer opponent.

Build with Chrome


A teamup between Google and LEGO, Build with Chrome lets you turn the world into your very own LEGO version of Minecraft, picking out a plot of land on Google Maps, building your very own city of plastic bricks, and then sharing your creation with your friends. As the name suggests, only works in the Chrome browser.

Streetview Zombie Apocalypse


A survival game of sorts, Streetview Zombie Apocalypse promises to let you "run from the living dead in your own neighborhood" by dropping you into the street view location of choice, with a small mini map the displays the undead lurking around you with red pins. It's your job to run away from them through Street View, and stay alive for as long as you can.

2D Driving Simulator

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.19.39 PM

This browser experience doesn't allow you to drive down the streets of your favorite city so much as it allows you to glide over them in a tiny vehicle that never encounters any obstacles. Think of it as 2D Hovercar Simulator, maybe?

Any more Google Maps games to suggest? Drop them in the comments.

Our favorite posts of 2012

Here are our top posts of 2012. Now you can enjoy them all over again! Read the rest