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

    We're in the midst of the rainy season in Portland, Oregon when a thick, soporific sheet of gray wraps itself around the city like a wet wool blanket and doesn't let go till Spring. The moment I step outside my door, I realize I've made a mistake: the sky has opened up, and raindrops are spilling out so quickly that I instantly abandon my plan to go running, turn on my heel and head back inside.

    When I sit down at my computer and open the game Lovely Weather We're Having, it's raining there too. It's not a coincidence. The game is designed to mirror the weather outside your window, mapping the real-life sunshine, rain and snow of the world around you to a surreal neighborhood that looks sculpted from clay and littered with candy-colored trees and geometric shapes.

    You begin the game standing outside of a house—your house, presumably—but you can't go inside. That's because this is "a game about going outside," or at least that's what it says on the tin. But I nonetheless think of Lovely Weather We're Having as a game about home, not just because it creates a place for your digital avatar to live, but because it simulates in one of the most pleasurable things about having a home: the moment when you return to it. It encourages you to leave, so that you can have the satisfaction of coming back.

    Wandering around your surreal little neighborhood is a very sensory experience: grasses rustle, mushrooms sing at your touch, and stones make satisfying, rubbery thunks when I kick them. There's a puppy that always trails a few steps behind you, whose fur changes color with the temperature. If you wait till evening, shadows will fall over your strange little town, and many of your neighbors will go to sleep.

    Admittedly, there's not a lot to do in Lovely Weather We're Having. You can talk to the locals, wander around through the modulating meteorology and see what might have changed along with the weather. That's it. When you tire of it, you stop playing.

    But that's also part of its charm. It's not a game designed to be played for eight hours straight; it's one where you check in, see what's new, and check out again. It encourages you to step away, so that when time has passed you can experience the pleasure of the moment of return—the comfort of what is familiar and the novelty of what has changed.

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    The same could be said of Neko Atsume, the unexpectedly popular cat collecting game where you leave out food and toys on a digital porch to attract a menagerie of digital felines. But here's the catch: the cats won't appear until you leave. You can check back in later, though, and you should, because that's exactly when the kitties will show up to curl up in cardboard boxes and bat at balls of yarn. If you miss them—well, you miss them.

    Lovely Weather We're Having has even more in common with Animal Crossing, another neighborhood simulator whose charm comes from its parallels to real life. Your town and its anthropomorphic residents live in real-time, which means that if a llama in the game says her shop closes at 10 PM, then it really does.

    If a notice says that a festival is taking place in your town on a specific date, you'd better turn on the game that day, or it'll go on without you. Send a friend a present through the Animal Crossing post office, and it won't reach its destination for hours, or even till the next day. It's not because the game can't deliver it sooner, of course. It's because waiting for it not only makes its eventual arrival feel more gratifying, but also more organic.

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    Unlike the somewhat nefarious delays of pay-or-wait games that encourage you to drop real-life cash to fast forward through waiting periods—I'm looking at you, Farmville—the passage of time in what I think of as homecoming games isn't an artificial constraint designed to frustrate or manipulate you for profit. Instead, it's a far more natural rhythm coded into your play, and one that implies something important about how we interact with our intimate spaces: that the spaces we create from them each time we leave them are part of what gives them meaning.

    There's something comforting about the way these games mirror both everyday rituals of departure and return, the rhythms and cycles of change that thread through our real lives. The sun rises and sets, the weather changes, things and people grow and shift and disappear in the moments when we aren't looking. We measure those changes by holding them up against the yardstick of the familiar, against the backdrop of the physical structures that shelter us and anchor us in the world.

    Instead of trying to hold you in their thrall for as long as possible, homecoming games create spaces where time has to pass in order for, well… time to pass. You plant some seeds, send some mail, see what's new with your neighbors, put out food for the cats—and then go back to the real world and live your life. It's soothing and gratifying in a way that a more frenetic life simulator like The Sims will never be, specifically because The Sims encourages you to fast forward through the moments when your character leaves the house or goes to sleep, eliding over any interval of rest or absence. It's easy to feel like your avatar never really stops—and by extension, neither do you. Often, it means you won't want to.

    Take it from someone who works from her home, and often finds herself in deeply dysfunctional rhythms: home shouldn't be the place where you spend all your time, because when it is, it's a lot less fun to be there. The pleasures of home—both in games and in life—lie not in it being a place you never want to leave, but rather in being a place you want to leave, because it makes it so much more satisfying to come back to again and again and again.

  • 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.

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    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.

  • 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.

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    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. Sorry Mac users—it's Windows only.

  • 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 640×480 pixel resolution and sound effects ripped from an Adlib sound card.

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  • 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.

    The phrase "walking simulator" has become something of a pejorative in certain circles, but that's exactly what Beyond Eyes is. This is a game where almost all you do is wander, imagine, and watch the world unfold. But what ultimately makes it pleasurable is what makes so many "walking simulators" worthwhile: the chance to move through a different world in a different way, and perhaps to remember that not everyone walks through the world in the same way as us.

    Developed by the Tiger and Squid, Beyond Eyes is available for Mac, PC, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One.

  • 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.

    Be warned, this is the sort of game where you can easily lose hours in its sleek, minimalist clutches and feel like only minutes have passed. But you probably won't be sorry. It's so satisfying that the moment one game ends—why weren't you paying attention to that one stop!—you'll immediately want to start again, certain that this time you'll be the brilliant city planner you always believed you could be.

    Developed by Dinosaur Polo Club, Mini Metro is available on Steam for Mac, PC, and Linux, with a mobile version also in the works.

  • 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:

  • 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.

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    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.

    A Good Gardener was originally made for the Ludum Dare 32 competition by Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick, the creators of the charming sleepover game Little Party. It's is available for $5 on Mac, Windows and Linux, though the developers note that if this "too high a price for you at the moment, please email us and we'd be happy to send you a download code for free."

  • 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]

  • 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. One actually claims not to recognize you because you've changed so little, which is a strange but effective burn in a game that looks at the past through such skeptical eyes.

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    While there's not a lot to do in the game, Homesickened is still refreshing, if only because it doesn't gloss over the awkwardness of the era it simulates. There's a pretty substantial market for nostalgia in the world of video games these days, as the children of the '80s march into their 30s and gaze back at the virtual pastimes of their youth with a rosy and sometimes distorted idealism. I don't know how many '80s babies have actually gone back as adults to play the computer games that they used to fire up on their old Apple IIs, but it can be jarring and dissonant as it is in Homesickened.

    Much like returning to your hometown after years away—or breaking open the amber any cherished memory—it's easy to discover that things don't look the same through the lens of the present, and that looking forward is ultimately far more likely to satisfy than looking back.

    Developed by Snapman, Homesickened is downloadable for free on Linux, Mac and PC.

  • 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. After a while, it's hard not to think about what someone would write on your grave if you died today, or at least how you'd want to be remembered. Have you done enough? Have you loved enough?

    "I feel there's something to be experienced by exploring a graveyard, just for the sake of exploring a graveyard." Ritter explains in a trailer for the game. "It's not really about death, it's about life. Epitaphs are written for the living."

    Welcome to Boon Hill is available now on Steam for both PC and Mac.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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    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. Tremendous suffering is fueled by the stark divide between the rich and the poor, and the absence of health insurance is a constant concern, especially since being poor is a great way to get mugged, robbed, or otherwise assaulted.

    Although you eventually acquire the ability to fly, you're far more of a street-level hero (or anti-hero), in the spirit of grim, ledge-sitting vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil. While there's nothing truly new here, particularly for people well-versed in superhero noir like Sin City or Gotham Central, it's the sharp, confidently hardboiled prose that makes Cape sparkle even in its quiet moments:

    The rooftops are covered by a light dusting of dirty, crunching snow: halfway thawed, then mixed with smog, and then frozen again…. You perch on the edge of the roof, and leap. Streaks of LED garland the streets. In the far distance, though the bridge itself is hardly visible, neon stars glare atop it. Christmas, timid and fearful though it may be, has arrived along with the deluge of filthy snow.

    If you'd like to try it for yourself, you can play Cape online, or download it at the Interactive Fiction Competition site.