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Play it now: Claw Champion Earth

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Oh, claw machines. Those playful, enticing toy bins we've fairly recently learned are definitely rigged to routinely thwart your desire for a new fluffy friend. Even if you study this wonderful WikiHow guide to winning crane games ("if you haven't won, repeat the process to try again"), the claw machine seems fundamentally destined to break your heart.

Until now. Plenty of video games cast you as the cool young arcade champion on the block, but never before has the cool arcade been a claw machine. In Claw Champion Earth, you battle other kids in a game of frantic, duelling prize-grabs that manage to capture everything you like about claw machines, and also everything you don't like about them, except it's still fun.

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It's simple to play: You and another Claw Kid, played by the computer, swing your spindly claw arms in frantic, urgent competiton, trying to grab the most prizes from the machine. What makes it really fun is that your prize, or your opponent's, can get stuck in the PRIZE AREA, meaning if you're fast enough you can swing over and pluck something right out of their winner's chute. You end up grasping hopefully for toys, whispering the same kind of no-no-no-come-on-rrgh-yes-yes-yes mantra you might mutter at the shrine of a real machine.

Claw Champion Earth, by From Smiling, was made in 72 hours for a jam called #indiesvsgamers and is free to download.

Swipe right to discover a new indie game

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With over 16,000 indie games now available on the website Itch.io, it's not always easy to figure out which ones to play. But with the help of their new Randomizer tool, finding a new game to play around with is just as easy as swiping right.

Although the game hosting and distribution site already has a featured games section and tailored recommendations for existing users, the Randomizer allows you to set a few criteria, like whether you want games that are free, what platform they're on and if they offer local multiplayer. As you browser, each suggestion pops up inside a frame—which didn't work for me in Chrome, so try another browser if it's a problem—and when you're done you can offer feedback about whether or not you liked it before moving on to the next.

In my whirlwind tour of the Randomizer, I ended up playing an oddly soothing game about searching for a beast in a bucolic landscape, a two-player version of hide and seek with little eyeballs on feet, and a split-screen, Inception inspired shooter that was pretty entertaining for the ten minutes it took to beat.

The results are inevitably a grab bag, but if you're bored and have some time to burn on a Tinder-esque tour through indie gaming, you've got nothing to lose. Take the Randomizer for a spin.

Terrorize the seas as the white whale of Moby Dick, but with lasers

Have you ever wanted to glide through the seas with the grace of a giant sea creature, killing everyone in your path? Did you enjoy Ecco the Dolphin, but wish it had allowed you to commit mass murder? Then Pequod might be for you.

Named after the whaling ship in Moby Dick, this procedurally generated game allows you to play as the white whale itself, though it differs quite a bit from the plot of the classic Herman Melville novel. For starters, you have a name: Mobias. And as we learn in the opening sequence, an archetypal sea captain has placed a bounty on your head in revenge for the death of his daughter, which is why a series of whaling ships have come hunting for you. You must destroy them all.

I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about ships, but I can tell you that they get progressively bigger as you sink them to the bottom of the sea, and your foes include an airship you leap up and pull down out of the sky, as well as a massive, bizarre seacraft with a gaping mouth of teeth. You can also power up your whale with weapons, including the one thing that was always glaringly absent from Moby Dick: lasers.

Created by Bearmancer, Pequod a pleasing little thing to play, thanks to the slick, effortless way it makes you feel like you're moving through the water, the pretty sunsets that occasionally smolder over the wreckage of defeated enemies, and again, lasers. It is currently pay-what-you-want for PC and Mac on Itch.io.

Mobile game of the week: Prune

Prune is a game so simple that its elegance becomes hard to describe. It's a game about trees stretching their limbs slowly toward the light, and how sometimes you must trim parts for the betterment of the whole.

Designer Joel McDonald describes it as "digital bonsai": With a swipe of your finger, you plant a procedurally-generated tree, which gracefully begins growing and branching; when it reaches light, then flowers blossom. Along the growth arc you can swipe to wick away lesser branches for the betterment of the whole, or to affect the shape of the tree.

On a mechanical level you want the tree to make enough flowers to quantify "success" (tiny stars in the sky resonate with each petal), but often this objective develops only a secondary importance. You are doing thoughtful aesthetic work, too: Pruning away some branches means a healthier, taller tree, but you can also create graceful silhouettes. Sometimes you are merely playing with nature to see what develops; you can zoom in to flick away even the tiniest twig, to rustle a little petal.

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As you progress through Prune you'll gently consider environmental factors like wind, or great looming shadows against which your tree can't thrive. It's very soothing, thanks in part to the gentle ambient soundtrack by Kyle Preston.

Prune is $2.99 on iOS.

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

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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

How card games became cool again

Wildly-popular card game Android: Netrunner has an exceptionally diverse and inviting lore and universe, but its community of players still has to push back against the social stereotypes of the traditional card game scene. Here's how they're doing it. Read the rest

These cute virtual cartridges prove 'retro' is more than an aesthetic

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Quietly I believe there is a special place in hell for anyone who sees 'pixel art' or 'vintage' aesthetics and confidently declares it is 'retro'. Pixel art is just a style that can be applied to all kinds of things, sometimes to evoke an intentional nostalgic effect, sometimes not.

To me, there's a feeling about old arcade games: The weirdness, the mystery, the fact you might stumble into death several times before you even know what you're supposed to do. That feeling of intimate congress with a machine that doesn't want to hold your hand isn't something you can imitate through visuals alone—and what's more, nostalgic emblems for their own sake can be embarrassing, even grotesque.

Luckily there's this lovely little collection of virtual cartridges, made by Farfin for various game jam competitions. Each one is just a single executable, a tiny little Flash game that evokes the simplicity and opacity of the mysterious arcade games of my youth. They're just difficult enough to be engaging, and each one is full of fun surprises.

Aliens on a School Day is my favorite. It's all about controlled descent, as you play a little girl hiding underground from aliens, trying to hit checkpoints along the way. Legacy Bird is an Atari-style action game of consecutive screens, where you angle yourself against enemies in a conventional sense—but level up by meeting and falling in love with other birds on the way. "Do you love this girl?" it asks. When you say yes, the game then wants to know if you love the baby who has suddenly fallen from the sky. At ladders: "Do you love to climb?"

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Most of them, like Zolita Mansion, feel genuinely like lost Nintendo games, and playing them is like speaking a langage you haven't used in a while. Others feel just a little 'off', like Gunz & Sedanzz, where you're an office drone collecting fuel for your panicked, murderous vehicular rampage. And These Are Your Friends sees you cast as an enormous, lovely woman, flicking monsters away from the tiny pals on your dress.

The whole suite is good fun and free to download, so get each cartridge and keep them handy to try in bites.

A game about imagined conversations with your ex

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Most of us do it: We imagine the conversations we'd have with an important friend or partner from years ago, now that everything's changed. You're a totally different person now than you were then, and now there's probably some things you kind of want to explain to them, lingering memories you still feel bad about, things like that.

It's such a universal human thing—of course it isn't possible to follow all threads back into our past and tie them up neatly. Sometimes it's not ethical to dredge the other person's history just so you can get a sense of closure. So the conversations we long to have with the people of our past remain theoretical, even if we can imagine them vividly, can imagine what we would expect the other person to say, what we wish they would say.

Conversations We Have in My Head is a new, simple game by whiz-of-all-trades Squinky that deals with this theoretical space. In the game, Squinky imagines some aspect of themself (a character called "Quarky") talking to an ex about (among many things) the past, their relationship with their family, and coming out as genderqueer, apparently a new development since the last time Quarky and the ex spoke. Talking to an ex, who once knew you a bit differently, about such a shift in how you identify and express yourself is its own unique circumstance, and it's fascinating to see it illustrated in a game.

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What I like about this vignette is that you play as the ex, in a sense—occasionally you have the option to interrupt the other character with phrase prompts that appear on the screen, either to respond or to ask questions. Or, you can just let them speak to you and simply listen—clearly they need to speak to you, and the desire to offer that character a compassionate or curious response is in interesting conflict with the wish not to interrupt them.

Ultimately I played Conversations We Have in My Head a few times to experiment with all the possible directions the conversation can take—which is fitting, because these kinds of things and their different possibilities often repeat gently in the mind, following their different paths. You can try it yourself for free or pay-what-you-want.

Squinky's games often focus on "gender identity, social awkwardness, and miscellaneous silliness" as themes; you can see some more of their work on their online storefront, or back their various projects via Patreon.

Play it now: The Old Man Club

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Michael Koloch's The Old Man Club is a good example of what games can do well: create a complex space for feeling in just a few gestures. It's a game about arm-wrestling eloquent, impossibly-brawny anthromorphs, often with fish heads, and it's a truly-clever adapation of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

Imagine Hemingway's book about the complicated, stubborn heart of a certain type of masculinity as a game—a game about testing your might versus fish-men. You arm-wrestle by clicking your mouse furiously, a particular sort of frustrating and desperate act. You can easily beat your first opponent, a gentle, gawping trout-head, lurking in the doorway of the Old Man Club, a charmingly-scribbled wood shack pinned with quaint reminders of the sea (and, grimly, fishing gear), but the next one won't be so easy, and the one after that?

You start to hunger for advancement. You are loath to back down. How much stamina have you got? I mean, psychologically?

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I'd love to see more games capture literary conceits in such creative ways. The attention to quality in this very simple work really adds something extra—the smooth transitions when you click to look around the Old Man Club, the splendid, absurd character art.

Download The Old Man Club for free or pay-what-you-want.

Now you can date pigeons on almost any platform

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Hatoful Boyfriend, a deeply weird yet touching visual novel where you date birds, has just come out for PlayStation 4 and its attendant handheld, the Vita, so it's a good time for us to recommend it. As I write this, there is a virulent thrumming, like a sick animal growl, coming from our windowsill: It is the persistent, almost threatening coo of a local city pigeon who has decided our bird feeder is now its territory. I'm going to just go ahead and suggest you play the pigeon dating game.

If you want to know more about it, last year Laura wrote about Hatoful Boyfriend for Rock Paper Shotgun, and without spoiling anything she digs into the genuinely-subversive elements of the game, aspects that have fun at the expense of the visual novel format, its tropes and conventions. Just when you think you have mastered all the conceits of bird-dating, something unexpected happens.

If you don't have a PlayStation platform you can check out Hatoful Boyfriend on Steam, and you can get a free demo here.

That pigeon is still outside. It is starting to frighten me. This isn't a joke.

This subtle desert horror fiction will haunt you

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At first, CHYRZA is gently-transfixing because of everything it allows: Using the keyboard you traverse a slow meditation across an enormous desert, silhouetted by structures you naturally investigate. These towers of dark blood-colored marble have floating stairs, or pendant-like elevators moving slowly in space, and you worry about falling. You worry about your movements and your timing.

But you need not. The things that you think are impossible are possible; you plummet harmlessly toward the sand, and you can, sometimes, traverse air. The world of ruins, lit by the iridescent light of an uncanny, sulfur-colored moon, becomes a sort of idle playground, and you naturally find yourself collecting little green crystals along the way. Each one is a fragment of a strange memoir, murmured by a wood-smooth but sepulchral voice against the desert air. Once you've heard a little of the voice's story—it concerns the stark, angular pyramid that contrasts oddly against the soft sand hillocks of the skyline— you start to fear the ending.

The last game we played by CHYRZA's developer, Kitty Horrorshow, was Hornets, an elegantly-written text game about the aftermath of some dread ritual, where you see the blood-slick bodies of oddly docile giant hornets as you trawl a beautiful ruined city. That same juxtaposition of beautiful, near-religious mystery against the slow dread of unknown darkness is also present in CHYRZA, and brings you to a genuinely-jarring conclusion. chyrza1

CHYRZA is not a new work; Kitty Horrorshow recommended I try it after I declared on Twitter that Offworld likes to fly in the face of traditional video game websites by refusing to discover and rediscover things just because they are not brand-new. Fittingly, CHYRZA flies in the face of traditional video games—like a hot underworld chant, it creeps up on you slowly. It even comes with a WARNING readme file, lest it make its way into your world without your knowledge. I played it on a low-spec laptop and felt the keys begin to burn hot as I approached the (short) game's climax. It was awesome.

CHYRZA, Hornets and numerous other Kitty Horrorshow games are available on her storefront for free or pay-what-you-want.

Stephen Colbert made a text adventure about getting locked in a closet

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Stephen Colbert's new Late Show gig doesn't start till September, so what's he doing in the meantime? According to the free game released by his official website, the answer is "stumbling into a closet." Escape from the Man-Sized Cabinet, a Twine-based text game that you can play in your browser, follows Colbert on a journey into a Narnia-esque world where he meets a centaur named Randall and (kind of) fights evil.

Technically, Colbert didn't write it—he's a busy man, after all. Instead, the game was summoned into being by writer Rob Dubbin, along with fellow Colbert writers Daniel Kibblesmith and Cullen Crawford and artist Tim Luecke.

If you've played Twine games before—and we've certainly spent a lot of time at Offworld trying to make you—you'll notice many of the familiar hallmarks of the popular interactive fiction tool. At one point, you (Colbert) can click to cycle endlessly through a pre-show to-do list with bullet points like "reconcile quantum theory with relativity," "save cheerleader, world" and "steal Christmas." While I've often seen this technique used to dramatic effect by Twine creators like Porpentine, it's fascinating to see it deployed by seasoned comedy writers in a way that feels a bit like a writer's room brainstorm.

The game hints a little bit at the anticipation for The Late Show; one of the first questions from Randall the Centaur is exactly how the new show is going to work without the Colbert Report persona we've all come to know and expect. While the game doesn't necessarily offer any answers, it's free to play in your browser right now, and takes but a few minutes.

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These surreal, unforgettable little works will expand your concept of 'games'

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I'm often nostalgic for the graphics of the mid 1990s -- those bold, dark shapes juxtaposed against soft, staticky textures, limned in herky-jerky flourescent flickers like migraine auras. In music video interstitials, alternately morbid and comic late-night animated shorts, and in darkly cryptic portals to primitive net art websites, arresting collisions of photographic clippings would pile fluidly on top of goggle-eyed cartoons, or smudges of claymation and smoke.

At first, the last few years' short, surreal works of game maker Jack King-Spooner, who combines textured film footage with digital art and photography, put me in mind of that loved bygone era. His game Vessel, a short poem about automation, adoption and suicide (take care of your own limits), has an almost gothic AEon Flux quality as it references the burdensome condition of being a tool in a system.

King-Spooner's Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in Space is richer still, mysterious in the way after-midnight grunge era cartoons longed to be but were never delicate enough to manage. It is part of a trilogy, but I cannot tell which part. You are Widok, a woman plagued by flickering photorealistic premonitions that maybe have to do with the great mathematics of existence; you ride the Sluggish Morss, an interdimensional craft that plays host to an unexpected expression of id.

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Your universe is watched over by a disturbing quilt of multilingual infant heads; some of the characters are portrayed by photographs so plausible they could be the Facebook profile pictures of the creator's real-world friends, and others are inconsequential smudges of shadow or light. These background actors offer profound existential provocations or theories ("nostalgia creates laws").

I'm not sure whether my favorite part of the game is a long, bubble-like radiant elevator where a formless sort of tapir sings me solemn questions, lets me choose the solemnly-sung replies, or the part where an unfinished Barbie-like figure chants the words to Beyonce's "Halo" as Widok and her friend wonder at the origin of music, of their very lives. Maybe it's the eyestrain maze of shimmering black and white lines, where a needed four-digit code becomes audible in the music the closer you navigate to a serene, open-mouthed head at the maze's center.

It sounds like the kind of thing that wants to be weird for weirdness' sake. The works of the 1990s that King-Spooner's aesthetics recall certainly did often traffic in that kind of cynicism, that deliberate grotesquerie. But this is not like that at all: there is somehow absolutely nothing pretentious about King-Spooner's games. They are surprisingly straightforward and accessible to play, their fragments fusing and shimmering together to make an easy, dream-logic kind of sense.

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From bluesy guitar hums to interstellar electronica he seems to do most, if not all of the music himself. The language is plain and truthful, and something about the use of real photography, or the humble sound of computer voice effects (that often provide canny cover for King-Spooner's own Scottish accent) feels wonderfully vulnerable and intimate.

King-Spooner's Blues for Mittavinda feels handmade. The knobbled, shiny clay textures of its people are startling and lonesome on top of cowboy scribbles on wood-colored paper; they sit like toys on the photorealistic concrete and sand textures, the gentle pulsing of smoke and tumbleweed.

Blues for Mittavinda is the gentlest and most straightforward work among the King-Spooner games I've tried over the years, and even then it's given to dreaming—like when you're forced, for a few soothing moments, to inhabit the body of an incongruous bright tropical fish right after a fisherman alludes to the value of being present in the moment.

The common fact of your curiosity as a player, your compulsion to answer certain questions, gently marks you as a person who can't accept death or chaos. Blues for Mittavinda ends stunningly, with a fourth wall-breaking guided meditation on the raw, immediate sensation of existence, probably the best such meditation on being present I've ever tried. You should try it, too.

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Jack King-Spooner's vulnerable, generous, small games help remind me of why I like to work in games, to be frank, and I think they illustrate just how easy it is to take an instant and fall in love with the expressive potential of this medium. I was prompted to revisit and to gather some thoughts on these works now because his computer has up and died, which means he can't make games any more, and he's selling a donation-based bundle to help raise money for a new machine to create with. According to this interview he has created some twenty-two vignette games already.

I highly recommend you download the Jack in the Box collection for five bucks (or suggested donation); the few games I've mentioned here are already free for you to try, but as the collection includes King-Spooner's other works and his soundtracks, and as your purchase supports his further designs, it's worth considering anyway.

Stay Woke Bot helps activists explain racism to Twitter randos

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As Cord Jefferson once wrote, the "racism beat" can get pretty exhausting. For a lot of progressives and activists, it's easy for Twitter to turn into an on-demand classroom where they're constantly bombarded with both sincere and disingenuous questions about racism—many of which have answers that are only a Google search away. It's particularly tiring for people of color, who not only deal with racism in their own lives, but are constantly asked to explain it again and again to seemingly endless streams of people on social media.

Enter Stay Woke Bot, a social media tool designed to help activists save time by providing automated answers to questions about racism and social justice. Created in collaboration with civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, it's the first creation of Feel Train, a recently launched creative technology cooperative co-created by Darius Kazemi and Courtney Stanton (two friends of Offworld).

"While some activists focus on basic education, many activists concentrate elsewhere and don't have the time to perform this free labor," wrote Feel Train in their announcement. "Just as you wouldn't expect Neil DeGrasse Tyson to answer your high school physics questions on social media, you shouldn't expect an activist you saw on TV to answer your Sociology 101 questions."

Kazemi has gotten a lot of press over the last several years for his bots and generators, including a Harry Potter-inspired Sorting Bot, a headline remixer, Amazon Random Shopper, and an absurd chart creator. He and Stanton previously built 101-a-tron, a bot that uses keywords to send explanatory links to Twitter users.

In 2012, Courtney Stanton had the idea to build a bot that automates these 101-level interactions that were a constant presence in her feminist activism. I worked with her to build it, and the result was 101-a-tron, a bot that can be CC'ed on Twitter conversations with natural commands like "@101atron please tell @tinysubversions about cultural appropriation". The bot detects what you're asking for and then replies with a link within a couple of minutes.

Stay Woke Bot, which was inspired partly by a conversation between Kazemi and activist Mckesson at a technology conference, builds on the idea of the 101-a-tron but takes it a step further—and simplifies it. Because it draws on a customizable Google spreadsheet document, it requires little to no training to use, and makes it incredibly easy to customize the keywords and links that the bot uses to respond.

Although they will continue to provide technical support, Feel Train has handed off the bot to Mckesson and the activist group This Is the Movement, which will be responsible for the content moving forward. According to Stanton, the response from the larger world of social activism has been consistently positive, and Feel Train is currently talking with other organizations who want to use Stay Woke Bot as a template for social media tools of their own. "We're going to be open sourcing the code within the week, which hopefully will help get it into the hands of a lot more interested folks as well," says Stanton.

War without tears

The relationship between video games and violence is healthier than we like to thinkRead the rest

Try gay orc dating with Tusks: The Orc Dating Simulator

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If you have ever thought of being a male orc adventuring, traveling and bonding with all kinds of other male orcs, then Mitch Alexander's Tusks: The Orc Dating Simulator is for you. It's a really clever and enchanting premise that makes "orc society" feel like a real thing.

Alexander (no relation to me) has just released a free preview of Tusks, which lets you experience your first day among the Orcs as you travel through a sort of mythical Scotland, introduces the characters you can meet and romance, and even features a randomized Scottish name generator. I thought it was tenderly-conceived as a visual novel, lovingly-written and I really like the characters so far (there is also a boar and a selkie). There's also an "autonomous NPC" feature—the characters can make some decisions on their own regardless of your wishes—that I'm excited to see implemented.

I'm not a gay man, but my colleague Todd Harper is, and in his response piece he found Tusks and its diversity of bodies and ideals alleviating and welcoming, in an aesthetic climate that often prioritizes "a parade of... 'wax dolphins'":

Does this mean the final game can’t possibly upset me? Of course not. It might. But if it does, it will be a surprise, not the fulfillment of a prophecy. And that’s an infinitely more welcome situation than the last however knows how many fucking years of seeing “a gay [x]” and then having it utterly confirm everything about gay culture that I hate and which has hurt me.

Thus, to this I say: bring on the fucking orcs. In every possible reading of that sentence.

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Heck yeah! Fucking orcs!

Lose yourself in this trippy, existential interactive picturebook

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Something about ENOUGH, a web-based story experience by Cabbibo, brings me right back to the mystery and magic of the early web. Your mouse leaves a glittering contrail in the shifting dark; subterranean life forms follow your pointer, and pearled marinelife pulses and sings in response to your touch.

The creator says ENOUGH is an effort to capture the vitality and wonderment they experienced reading picture books as a child, and that comes through: The "pages" are alive, their laws of dimension and gravity slowly shifting before your eyes, objects rising from the surface as if in a dream. As you follow the story of a creature trying to find her purpose in an abstract marine universe, sound, light and visuals unite in harmony.

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People will use the word "trippy" about just about anything that suggests pretty colors and metaphysics, but fans of psychedelia in particular will relate to the slow transitions, the spiritual rhythm of the storytelling, and the sense of awe that gently haloes every page. "Pages" are little more than a concept, anyway. For me, the whorled iridescent shapes, the delightful sense of experimentation as luminescent anemones follow my mouse, remind me of falling into the heart of the software of my childhood, some acid-dipped Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM.

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Experience ENOUGH for free in a browser tab, though you really ought to let it full-screen and wear headphones for the optimal immersive effect. The creator, who calls ENOUGH "the best project of my small life", is on Twitter.