• This cyberpunk murder mystery looks lovely, but feels incomplete

    I was ready to love Murder from the moment the game opened on a female police lieutenant waking from a rain-soaked cyberpunk nightmare about murderous robots, and walking out on her balcony to smoke a cigarette over the light-spattered skyscrapers of Future Tokyo. "Yes," I thought, "I'm in." Sadly, I spoke a little too soon.

    Developed by Peter Moorhead, the creator behind the abandoned astronaut game Stranded, Murder is another brief, point-and-click adventure illustrated with beautiful pixel art. This time around, Moorehead promises players a "short story" that delves into some pretty lofty ideas: "the intersection of morality and sentience, in a future where both are commodities."

    The moral crux of the story revolves around the sentient service robots of Murder's near-future world, and whether humans can ethically use them for unpaid labor. If that sounds familiar, it should. It's an idea that has been explored rather extensively by some very talented science fiction writers, and even trickled far enough into the mainstream to inspire a Will Smith movie. That doesn't meant there isn't anything left to say about it, only that the notion of robot sentience and the civil rights implications around it aren't exactly fresh ideas, and the mere mention of them is not enough to carry a story, even a short one.

    Ostensibly, the game is a murder mystery; as Lieutenant Motomeru Minori, you're tasked with investigating a brutal killing, the latest in a string of mysterious deaths. But "investigate" might be a strong word—you visit one crime scene, exchange a few one-liners with some other cops, and that's about it. I'm not even sure I'd call it a mystery, because there isn't enough time for it feel like one. Instead, the moment you start to get a foothold in the world and the crime you're supposed to solve, you're catapulted immediately to the culprit and the conclusion, leaving you no time to wonder or wander.

    Relatedly, Murder is only 20 to 30 minutes long, though that's not its real problem. Games don't have to be lengthy in order to be valuable, but whether they're a 20-second experience or an 80-hour one, they do need to be satisfying. What bothered me the most was that there was just enough in Murder to intrigue me, to lure me past the cliches, to get me hyped for a deeper dive into the ideas it teased. But just when it felt like the game was about to begin in earnest, the credits rolled. It's a game that feels like its own prologue, the first chapter in a book that never finishes.

    It's a lovely game despite it all, so lovely that it almost manages to carry its thin plot on the strength of its striking visuals. But not quite. Although the story draws heavily on the work of cyberpunk visionaries—both Neal Stephenson and Masamune Shirow are cited as inspirations—it remains content to skim a thin layer of familiar tropes off the top of their work and serve them up as an amuse-bouche mislabeled as a main course.

    If you're a fan of point-and-click adventures and/or cyberpunk, it's still an attractive Venn diagram of the two, albeit a brief and predictable one. It's also only $2.99 on Steam, with iPad and Android versions to follow.

  • Take control of a giant fungus by carefully destroying it

    As concepts for games go, this is a new one: propelling a regenerating fungus through a long series of puzzles by surgically destroying it and forcing it to regrow. And it works. Mushroom 11 is one of the more fascinating reinventions of the platform game in recent memory, the sort of game that feels new beneath your fingers—that asks you to move and think in ways you don't expect—but makes instinctive sense nonetheless.

    As the player, you operate a glittering circle that annihilates any part of the fungus that falls beneath it, like an insect incinerated under a microscope. But life always finds a way, and so the organic mass will grow away from your burning gaze, allowing you to propel it forward through crevices, over obstacles, and even into the air.

    While there are times when you'll need to move quickly to avoid falling into lava, which will indeed obliterate you, most of the time it's better to be deliberate than it is to be fast. Although you can't control the fungus precisely—it often feels like squeezing a tube of green toothpaste—you can trim it like an oozing bonsai until it eventually does what you want. You can even divide the goop into different parts, use them to independently trigger different elements of a puzzle, then simply erase the part you don't need and move on.

    The game doesn't announce any particular plot when it begins, and would probably be just as fun even if there were no story at all. Still, some hints reside in the reddish, dystopian landscapes and burned out buildings that frame each level, and how you spend most of your time negotiating structures that seem to be made by humans and yet encounter no humans at all. The game description promises that you will ultimately "understand the true nature of the devastation from which you emerged," but regardless, the real pleasure lies in the creeping, oozing journey, not the destination.

    Created by Untame, Mushroom 11 is available on Steam for Mac, Windows, and Linux.

  • Human Resource Machine will teach you to program and it will be adorable

    It's easy to feel like an automaton in the world of modern office labor. The game
    Human Resource Machine
    takes that one step further, by imagining an office building that functions like an actual computer. You're an office worker who has just started working in this tower of commerce, and in order to do your job, you'll have to learn how to program it.

    If that sounds intimidating, it's not. Every day, your tiny, adorable employee will be asked to move various objects from an inbox to an outbox using simple commands. Over time the tasks grow more complicated—maybe you'll be asked to only move some of the boxes, or to combine them in certain ways, and you'll have to figure out how to accomplish that with the limited tools at your disposal. To make things easier, you'll be given spaces on the floor where you can store boxes (aka memory) and more commands that will allow you to manipulate the boxes in different way. Yes, it gets a little brain-melting towards the end, but take it from someone who is totally clueless about programming: actually watching your little office drone walk back and forth through every step makes it much easier to understand, even when you haven't quite figured out the solution.

    Human Resource Machine is the latest game from the Tomorrow Corporation, and has the same visual look (and bug-eyed protagonists) as its last release, the anti-corporate pyromania simulator Little Inferno. The same looming dystopian air permeates both, as the programming levels are occasionally interrupted by interludes that hint at a darker world outside your building, like ominous news reports about robots massing outside the city for reasons unknown. I haven't finished the game yet so I don't know exactly what it all means, but as soon as I can wrap my brain around these last three levels, I'm sure I'll find out.

    Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 7.07.05 PM

    This certainly isn't the first game to try and teach programming principles, or the first one to point out that programming is a lot like puzzle-solvingHack 'n' Slash, Spacechem and Code Spells come to mind. But there's something about Human Resource Machine's charming art, carefully constrained challenges and clear visualizations of complex ideas that makes it feel accessible and comprehensible to someone who might otherwise be scared off.

    Again, I know almost nothing about programming, but by the time I reached the more advanced levels and started constructing scripts full of conditional commands and rollercoaster loops of logic, I remember looking up at what my hands had wrought and feeling like a goddamn genius. From the perspective of a programmer I'm sure it was very simplistic, but I don't really care, because it made me feel smart and cool. If you want people to want to learn programming, is there anything more motivating than that?

    Human Resource Machine is available on Steam for Windows and Mac, with tablet and Wii U versions coming soon.

  • Aurion imagines a new history for Africa, free of its imperial past

    When Kiro'o Games first set out to raise money for its debut video game, the Cameroon-based company ran into an unusual problem: investors thought was a scam. "It was really hard to get funding," explains founder Olivier Madiba, partly because of negative stereotypes about African scammers. But if the idea of a Central African game studio seemed implausible, it's also because Kiro'o Games is doing something that simply hasn't been done before. They're the first game developer in the entire country, according to Madiba, and while they might be breaking ground, he says it's still "weird for Cameroonians to make video games."

    Maybe not for much longer. While some investors may have balked, the internet at large has proved more open-minded about opening their wallets. Kiro'o Games just successfully funded a $45,000 Kickstarter for Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, a fantasy-themed action roleplaying game. Unlike most fantasy titles, where European lore and history serves as the backdrop, Madiba's game looks much closer to home for inspiration, drawing on African mythology and culture instead.

    The hero of Aurion is Enzo Kori-Odan, the prince of a fictional country called Zama. After his wedding day and coronation is interrupted by a coup, he must fight with his bride Erine to save their country and regain their throne. There are no dragons or elves here, and the hero's power originates not inside himself or a magical object, but rather in the collective energy of his ancestors, a force known as the Aurion.

    Like Africa itself, the world of Aurion is diverse and populated by numerous distinct cultures and ethnic groups. But the game isn't just inspired by African history—it actually imagines an entirely new history for the continent, one free of the imperialist aggressions that affected so many of its countries. Aurion's story takes place in a universe where Africa has "had 2,000 to 10,000 years to evolve without colonization," said Madiba. "We don't just put African clothes on old and classic games. We really tried to put our own signature on it."

    Madiba grew up playing video games, and like a lot of kids in the late 1990s, he fell in love with the Japanese roleplaying game Final Fantasy VII. "I finished it six times," he tells me via email. After high school, he decided to study computer science at the University of Yaounde and soon, he wanted to make games of his own. Unfortunately, his classes didn't have much to offer about game development specifically and he didn't know anyone who could help him.

    So in 2003, he decided to declare his intentions to the world, and see what the world said back. He wrote an announcement that read, "I am searching for guys who want to make games," and plastered it throughout the streets of Yaounde. Like the skeptical investors he would encounter later, many people found it hard to believe. "Everyone thought it was a joke," says Madiba. The one exception was a young man named Wouafo Hughes, who saw the announcement and called him on the phone; an instant friendship was born. A year later Madiba met another aspiring game creator named Dominique Yakan, and the trio have now been working on Aurion—first as an amateur project and now as a professional one—for over a decade.

    It hasn't always been easy. Since Madiba founded Kiro'o Games in 2013 and assembled a team to develop the current version of Aurion, the company has had to deal with persistent power outages, which cut the electricity numerous times during their successful Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaigns. ("We lost almost two months of work, maybe more," says Madiba.) But one of the biggest challenges facing the company is that there is simply no history or community of game development in Cameroon, and so they have to build one—socially and technologically—as they go.

    "Making video games in Cameroon at this level is still completely new," says Madiba. "Here, there is no school to learn how to make them. You can learn designing or coding, but not oriented towards video games. So our team is completely made up of self-educated designers and coders, guided by their passion for video games. They were hard to find, but they all came because of interest of the project and the challenge it represents."


    Despite the lack of formal training available for making video games, Madiba says most young people in Cameroon are very interested in playing them. "For those who don't have consoles, they play at arcades, or in public game rooms with consoles," says Olivier. He also notes that they're starting to see more and more casual game players, including people who transcend the stereotype of the young male gamer. "It is really weird to have your mother ask you to put [The Treasures of] Montezuma on her phone," he says.

    Madiba hopes that Kiro'o Games will help pave the way for a broader community of video game developers both in Cameroon and throughout the continent. "Many studios have been emerging these last few years," said Madiba. "We hope that this community grows and evolves together… That's one of our greater and [more] exciting challenges: building a real entertainment empire [for] videogames and more in Africa."

    The Kickstarter campaign for Aurion ends on October 20, and the game is slated for release in April 2016.

  • I can't believe how much I like this visual novel about playing Starcraft 2

    The appeal of visual novels usually lie in their wish fulfillment, their ability to transport you into fantasies about dating beautiful boys (and girls), becoming a celebrity or a pop star, or acquiring amazing powers. The the visual novel SC2VN, however, offers you a chance to live out a very different sort of fantasy: becoming a professional Starcraft 2 player in South Korea.

    Unexpectedly, I loved it. I know virtually nothing about eSports, and have certainly never fantasized about playing them. But if Friday Night Lights proved anything to me, it's that you don't actually have to give a shit about sports in order to give a shit about the people who play them. Tell the right story, and the specific details of the competition matter a lot less than the fact that it matters to characters you care about—even when the competition happens to be a digital one.

    The game (which originally started of as a joke by its creators at Team Eleven Eleven) opens on a competitive match of Starcraft 2, where your character is about to suffer an ignominious defeat. The loss feels doubly painful because you're a foreigner (read: not a South Korean) who just spent your entire savings to fly across the world and take one last shot at achieving your eSports dream. It hasn't been going well.

    when do you give up on a dream

    You have no wins to boast about, no friends to support you, and now you're running out of money. As someone helpfully reminds you after you arrive, "it's been more than five years since a foreign pro-gamer accomplished anything noteworthy in Korea," and the odds are stacked against you as an outsider. And while playing video games for a living might sound like a dream job, it to mention that playing Starcraft 2 isn't even "fun" for you in the traditional sense, and seems to provoke more far more anxiety and self-doubt than it does happiness.

    But here you are, risking everything for it anyway. Your character (who can be either male or female) regards Starcraft with something between awe and addiction, a game that "requires the dexterity of a pianist alongside the strategic thinking of a chess player," and one that you just can't seem to quit no matter how punishing it sometimes feels.

    But what makes SC2VN so compelling isn't just the fascinating window it offers into a potentially unfamiliar subculture, but the more universal story it tells about passion generally and sports specifically, the dizzying highs and crushing lows of loving a beautiful game.

    it tears you down

    Your protagonist, who goes by the pseudonym "Mach," has traveled to South Korea not only because it's the country where eSports was born, but because it offers the most opportunities for pro gaming—not to mention the sort of rabid fandom that can fill stadiums and elevate players to mainstream fame. But if you have any hope of rising beyond the amateur matches on your local PC bang, you'll need to find yourself some teammates, get the attention of a sponsor, and start making some waves.

    If you're unfamiliar with eSports generally, and the professional Starcraft 2 community in South Korea specifically, SC2VN does its best to catch you up. In the "extras" section, there's a particularly helpful introduction by Day[9]—a popular eSports commentator and former pro—that'll give you a crash course in the history of professional gaming.

    You'll have to pick up the finer details on the fly, though it's not that difficult; even if you don't know exactly what it means to "ladder" and "cheese," or exactly what a "one base all-in" strategy involves, you can pick up most of it from context.

    honorable macro

    At several points, you actually play faux-Starcraft matches in the midst of the visual novel, experiences that feel very tense and intense, especially when your reputation (and your dreams) are riding on the outcome. Most of it unfolds through the narration of your as your character, who explains the backstory and the implications of various choices a bit like a first-person sports announcer. Other times, though, you'll be asked to make strategic choices that could very well determine the outcome of the game. Should you rush in quickly for an early attack, hoping that you'll take your opponent by surprise, or hold back to build up your forces before staging your assault?

    The closer you grow to your goal, the more you'll have to deal with the double-edged sword of fandom and online visibility, which can help make you a star—or tear you down. Just like many more traditional sports, a lot of eSports fans become invested in the games because of the personalities and rivalries, and your character even suggests that "most of the people who follow Starcraft know less about the game itself than they do about the people playing it."

    Although eSports is still a very male-dominated field, there are a surprising number of women in the primary cast of SC2VN. If you decide to play as a female character, the majority of players on the pro Starcraft team you eventually assemble will end up being women. Unsurprisingly, these players express many of the same frustrations that you've likely heard from women in games before, including how frustrating it is to be objectified and condescended to by the people in your field, rather than celebrated for your ability.

    When a teenage boy suggests that women have it easier in eSports because they get more attention, two female players quickly correct his attitude.

    Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 6.20.41 PM

    If you've ever laughed as eSports or dismissed the concept as absurd, you might reassess your own attitude as well by the end of SC2VN. After watching your character sweat and struggle—and seeing exactly how much work and talent it requires to succeed at such a competitive and complex game—chances are the condescension won't come quite as easy.

    Although the game drags a bit by the end and there are moments when it spends a bit too much time explaining things that are perfectly evident on screen, I found myself surprisingly absorbed by Mach's quest to achieve a goal that holds absolutely no personal interest for me. (It's also free to download on Steam and Itch.io, so it has that going for it too.)

    If SC2VN taught me anything about competitive Starcraft, it's both how little I know about it and how much there is to know. Even as a semi-professional player, your character has several moments where you realize that the truly elite players are functioning on a level of strategy you can barely comprehend, and for all your efforts, you're just starting to scratch the surface.

    Will you ever be able to go head to head with the most competitive players in the world? More relevantly, will you be able to do it before you run out of money and have to admit defeat—to your friends, to your family, to yourself? Ultimately, it boils down to the same rdilemma that so many artists and athletes face when they're trying to turn their passions into a career: If you can't quite make a living at the thing you love, how long should you hold out—and when do you need to admit that you're deluding yourself? How much are you willing to give up for a shot at your dream, even if it's one that the people around you don't understand or appreciate?

    While your character gets some unrealistically lucky breaks, there are no rose-colored glasses here, and no fairy tale ending on offer, especially in a field where few people remain competitive beyond their 20s. It's a story that might feel very familiar to anyone who's had to sacrifice their comfort and security for a shot at their dream—no matter how long the odds might be, or how briefly the spotlight shines on them.

    pursuing passions

  • This 'guide to ambiguous grammar' is unexpectedly disturbing

    Grammar: It's boring to talk about, unless you're that type of person. Which personally I am, though I recognize that the eyes of most normal humans glaze over like donuts at the very first mention of "tenses." Yet I implore you to push through that resistance and read this "interactive guide to ambiguous grammar" by Vijith Assar anyway. It goes somewhere genuinely important, so stick with it.

  • The Beginner's Guide is a game that doesn't want to be written about

    The first time I finished The Beginner's Guide, the newest game by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden, I felt furious and sick and sad. I shut my laptop and walked around the block at three in the morning, half in tears, trying to figure out what I could possibly say about this game. When I came home, I wrote over 2000 words about it, and went to bed.

    When I woke up I played the game again, came to a completely different conclusion, threw out the entire review and started over from scratch, which feels fitting. The Beginner's Guide is a game that likes to make you question not just what it means, but whether you've been looking for meaning in games in the wrong way altogether.

  • 1902 trading cards imagine the 'Women of the Future'

    Way back in 1902, a French manufacturer released a set of trading cards designed by artist Albert Bergeret that imagined the "women of the future." The cards envisioned women stepping into roles that would have seemed fantastical to most ladies at the time: doctor, lawyer, politician, firefighter, even members of the military.

    Although there's a pin-up quality to many of the images—they're showing an awful lot of arm, after all—there's something charming about this retrofuturistic attempt to expand the role of women in society, even if it was nothing but fantasy at the time. Indeed, fantasy and science fiction can often help us open our minds behind the limitations of the world we live in and imagine a better one instead. In the small and fashionable world of these cards, at least, women were given a more equal role in society, not to mention some spectacular hats.

    Here are some of my favorites:






    (Master of Arms)







    Check out the full series of cards here.

  • The new face of Pokémon is butts

    Historically, the Pokémon franchise has focused its merchandising efforts on the parts of Pokémon characters that were not their butts. But that's about to change, thanks to a new wave of toys, charms and other assorted swag from Japan that will finally allow you to catch them all. All of the butts.

    There are so many, many ways that you can purchase these Pokémon butts: as cushions, magnets, folders, bags, coasters, coffee cups, and even tape.


    Nor are you restricted from merely admiring the butts of Pokemon; you can also turn your own butt into a Pokémon with the help of boxer briefs for men and women.


    The line will go on sale at the Pokémon Amazon.jp store on October 10. But be ready: Rocketnews24 (which also has an item-by-item breakdown in English) suggests that the line is "probably going to sell out pretty fast."