• Help a beautiful Japanese-style RPG get made

    I loved Mariel Cartwright's art for radical fighting game Skullgirls, and now she's working on a big new roleplaying adventure called Indivisible, inspired by classic exploration and combat games like Valkyrie Profile and Super Metroid.

    Unusually for the genre, the cast of characters is visually diverse, with a young woman of color as the protagonist. Hiroki Kikuta, best known for the Secret of Mana soundtrack, will do the soundtrack for this one, which is pretty impressive too.

    If it sounds star-studded and ambitious, it is—which is why the game is attempting to raise $1.5 million through crowdfunding. If it achieves that goal, publisher 505 Games will provide the remainder of Indivisible's $3.5 million budget. That might sound steep for crowdfunding, but throwback-style games in well-loved niches often raise large budgets.

    It'll be interesting to see how Indivisible does—this sort of funding approach, whereby the audience provides the "seed round" that gives a larger company the confidence to produce and back the project, is one possible avenue for unusual or nostalgic games to get made. Vote with your wallet at IndieGoGo if you're interested in this one.

  • Marvel at the power of a psychic cat

    Psychic Cat is a fascinating, neon-luminescent landscape you traverse as a cat, galloping and leaping through the suggestion of a place that shimmers brightly all around you. At first it feels like a dream, but gradually it starts to make a strange kind of sense: What if this is what the world looks like to a cat?

    What if, to a cat, the human world looks like a huge failed civilization bisected by unnatural celestial shapes? What if we are vaguely threatening, uniform creatures, our physics jerking unnaturally in the animal eye?

    What are the glowing cubes the Psychic Cat can toss on its ongoing journey? What do they represent? Does it matter?

    Get Psychic Cat by George Royer here for free or a suggested $5 donation.

  • You are Michael Jackson, and you must defeat Michael Jackson

    You remember the Sega Genesis game Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, right? That was an unusual one. Against the backdrop of Michael's greatest tunes pumped out by the Genesis' good old chunky soundchip, you rescued topless children from car trunks and defeated gangsters, zombies and mean Doberman dogs by using "star magic" to force them to dance. I remember feeling like the 16-bit graphics were really plausible.

    Michael E Michael is a two-player fighting game between two identical Michael sprites that, if they aren't recycled Moonwalker assets, sure look like it. You have 30 seconds to collect star power and unleash your special moves by dancing at the rival Michael. It's super weird. Did you know he could transform into a spaceship?

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    It is, of course, from the Duplicade jam, which we've really been enjoying here at Offworld—brief two-player games that look like they've been peeled out of an illegal knock-off bargain bin.

  • Get a wistful, mysterious brain-teaser at a ridiculous discount this week

    You might best know Spry Fox for games like Triple Town or, more recently, Alphabear, designs so timeless and solid that they firmly wedge themselves into your regular mobile play rotation.

    The studio's Road Not Taken is lots riskier and stranger, though, and in a good way. A ruthless winter has descended upon a quaint, fantastical town (the cute and creative art of Meowza in fine form), and the surrounding forests are full of lost children who need to be reunited with their parents.

    The forests are also full of wolves, fire spirits, beehives and many kinds of trees, and you'll need to learn how to slide them around so you can solve puzzles, reach the lost kids, and discover other mysteries, like how to make fire (put two dry logs beside each other) or honey (line up three beehives).

    It's part adventure, part structural puzzle, with a number of interesting additional components to manage and enjoy: Between forest puzzles you can try to befriend the local villagers or play with your cat at home—even the house you quickly earn is full of mysteries. Road Not Taken is tough to describe (possibly why it's so much less-known relative to Spry Fox's more radio-friendly games), but definitely worth a try. You're very quickly pulled into its atmosphere, which manages to be lonesome and forbidding just as much as it is cozy and sweet, a perfect companion for dark winter nights in.

    This week (the week of October 5, which I think is the game's release anniversary?) Road Not Taken is a stunning 80% off on Steam, so if you'd like to try this unusual but deeply-rewarding work, now would be a good time.

  • Mess up the practice space while the band keeps playing

    I really, really, really like Brooklyn band Celestial Shore, so I'm not sure how I missed Julian Glander's sweet interactive music video for their song 'Animal Ratio'.

    At first it seems like there's not much to it: Colorful figures play in a room, and when you click, you create a disruptive burst that knocks them over, knocks the lettering off the wall, leaving a pleasantly-animated chaos—even tipped over, the three-piece band keeps playing

    But the little sliders in the corner of the screen let you adjust your disruption, its range and degree of force. The most fun way to play is to turn everything down and just gently start nudging about for the duration of the song. Then you start to notice fun details, like the tiny pizza slice on the table, or the little collection of beers, and try to nudge the letters more gently (I keep trying to make it say ANIMAL RAT).

    Wake the animal inside you. It's a fun thing to do with a song.

  • Wheels of Aurelia, a girls' road trip, may be my favorite game of 2015 so far

    I don't think my mother ever expected to have such a wild daughter as me. She's an accountant, and we have nothing in common. Maybe because of that, I hang onto what little I know of her teen years in the 1970s like flowers pressed in a book: Her summers in a seaside town, hitchhiking along the road at night with her troublemaker friend. The time my grandfather came to pick her up from the rest stop where she'd gone to hang out with boys, and how he thundered with disapproval.

    Those are really the only stories I know about her childhood, except for the one where my grandmother forced her to wear a wool dress she despised. I don't know what it would have been like to become a woman right when Summer of Love was ending, with the roulette wheel of the road and strangers' cars your only real way out. Even now our instinct is to think that cars are usually for men. Video games about driving? Always for men.

    But there is so much more about cars than driving; maybe it's better to say there is so much more to driving than just the car. I do remember when I got a car of my very own for the first time, and printed out a Google map—how powerful I felt that I could drive down the eastern seaboard to go visit a boy. Because I was a girl, a car meant more than simply an ordinary stage on some common, anticipated ascent to social power, the same way the red eyes of a vehicle slowing on a seaside road at night were more than just lights for my mother. They were a beckoning flicker; they were a secret her daughter would come to know years later.

    Wheels of Aurelia is a driving game that is about that more. You are androgynous, mischief-lipped Lella, driving on the famous Via Aurelia from Rome to the French Riviera in 1978. Along with you is Olga, a femme you met recently at a disco. At the beginning of your trip she asks you why you invited her. You can ask her, if you want, why she accepted.

    As the Via Aurelia curls and sprawls, Lella and Olga get to know each other, pick up hitchhikers, and get into road races. You as the player have two tasks: First, abstractly, to drive, which you can mostly do one-handed. It feels like being an adult woman, to drive one-handed, smoothly with the mouse. Most of your attention, the other hand, will be on the dialogue. Everyone, from Olga herself to the patchwork characters you may pick up along the way, wants to talk to Lella—they are drawn to her in the way people tend to seek out the queerest woman in the club—easy to speak to because she is "other", easy to experiment on, the receptacle for the car crash of anxiety and identity politics that come from being "a woman in the Pope's country", as Lella herself sometimes puts it.

    Your choices for Lella's dialogue tend to be pleasingly subtle, mimicking the pall of delicate anxiety that can overhang people trapped in the same car for hours. You pick up a man who swears he's seen the Pope in a UFO. Your choices are not merely to "accept or reject" this person, but to make the elegant distinction between cheerfully affirming him and politely nodding along. As his behavior escalates, taking his side begins to feel genuinely radical, like a protest against a flawed mental healthare system, like shouting out the car window—who gets to decide whose strangeness is all right and whose isn't?

    After all, you have yet to learn why Lella herself is on the road, what secrets her past contains. You can let this hitchhiker call you "Mamma". You can promise him, gently, that you will not take him back there.

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    All of Wheels of Aurelia asks you to consider your political attitude. Olga, the girl you like, says she can't be a feminist because she wears skirts. She might only be joking, and you can only joke back—either warmly, or with an unkind aftertaste. Eventually a sexist tough guy (Lella calls him only "prick") challenges your right to the road, and makes you race him. You and your straggling passengers, all of you trying to negotiate a complex, bittersweet and fundamentally unfair condition of life, talk as you press the accelerator. As you literally hurtle at breakneck speed for purchase against patriarchy.

    Each session of Wheels of Aurelia is only about 15 or 20 minutes long, and will come to a natural end based on your decisions. There seem to be eight endings, but each session is different from the last, and you can have conversations in some games that feel suddenly new, no way to know how you unlocked them alongside the lawlessness of the road. Sometimes an encounter will interrupt what feels like a crucial dialogue point; you need to learn not to worry about the "flow" of the story, to embrace its risk of accident, of getting lost. Its jazz spontaneity liberates Wheels of Aurelia somewhat from the systematic feel that other choice-driven dialogue games have—last time I chose this, so this time I'll choose that instead—each trip is a brief flicker of curling road, of seawall and revving engine, a cigarette sometimes coming to Lella's lips, a rarely-seen flirtatious look. The wonderful original music—the insistent hiss of clanging drums, rock guitar, horns surging their punctuation—sounds out a life that almost feels like it could have been yours, in another time. If you had only been standing by the road in the right place.

    In a nod to driving games of a different sort, you can even choose Lella's car every time you hit the Via Aurelia, and also add your three initials to a classic scoreboard with your completion times. But the driving hardly matters at all. I love Lella. If I'd known her I would have gone to France with her in a heartbeat.

    Wheels of Aurelia is developed by Santa Ragione. You have just a few days left to buy it for pay-what-you-want as part of a remarkable Humble Weekly Bundle of indie games. If you do nothing else, vote for it on Steam Greenlight so it can be available there.

  • This Metal Gear Solid spoof is heavy on the 'snake'

    Imagine you are playing the classic arcade game Snake against your friend, except the "snakes" are Solid Snake and Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. Well, your imagination is real.

    Snake? Snake! has you competing with a friend or coworker or whoever else is in the room with you right now to crawl over as many snoozing soldiers (if you don't know anything about MGS just go with it) as you can while avoiding the other Snake.

    You don't need a player two to check it out, although it will probably be pretty easy for you to win. Maybe you can play against yourself using both hands. You're pretty good!

    Snake? Snake! was made for DUPLICADE, a game jam themed around arcade-style player versus player games that can be won in less than a minute, and that feel like barely-legal bootlegs of existing properties. See all the entries here; I'm partial to "KoolBert" and "Poutine Time", and we love the totally unofficial Twin Peaks dance-off Fire Dance With Me.

  • For disabled players, Twitch offers community and a second income

    Simon Parkin has done an interesting profile at the Guardian of players with disabilities who have found a community—and a supplemental income—via online streaming service Twitch. He interviews Mackenzie, a young woman with severe epilepsy who plays games online for a select audience she is careful about getting to know.

    Like Mackenzie, who sees her work as partially a way to promote understanding of her condition, streamer Stacey Rebecca plays the competitive digital card game Hearthstone, and shares some of her challenges with her fans:

    Only a relative handful of disabled streamers earn their living from the service, but as well as providing a supplemental income, Twitch offers a support community. "Twitch gives me that feeling of being less isolated," says Stacey Rebecca. "I have a lot of regulars, and it's nice to have that kind of friendly group that I can essentially hang out with each day without having to leave the house. And because I've been open about my mental health problems, I attract a lot of viewers who are experiencing anxiety. It helps us both feel less isolated. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement."

    The massive and growing online streaming community also has demonstrated the power to be a force for charitable causes, claiming to have raised more than $10 million for charities in 2014. On her own, Stacey Rebecca raised £6,500 for mental health charity Mind.

  • Have a Twin Peaks dance-off with a sobbing Leland Palmer

    Whether it was Leland Palmer's grotesque waltzing or the silent shimmy of The Man From Another Place, dancing played a key role in the cult favorite mystery show Twin Peaks. Now you and a friend can play as different Twin Peaks characters (even a log), and join a sobbing Leland on the dance floor with Dance Dance Revolution-style controls.

    It's called Fire Dance With Me (of course), and it's awesome, free and quick to play. One of you plays with the arrow keys, the other with the WASD controls, as a surprisingly-compelling dance take on the Angelo Badalamenti sound plays. It was made for DUPLICADE, a jam for short player versus player games where one person can win within 30 seconds.

    This year's DUPLICADE is themed around games that feel like "outlaw flea" works, bizarre knockoffs and bootlegs mashed up from media properties real and imagined. See all the entries here.

  • No gay nudity on Twitch, but blue alien boobs are fine

    Designer Robert Yang has done a suite of unique and challenging games recently, small but considered works on consent, embodiment and masculinity, among other themes. In Stick Shift you jerk off a car; Hurt Me Plenty is about consensual pain; Cobra Club is about dick pics in the era of state surveillance, and the new and complex Rinse and Repeat is about waiting til after your gym class to help wash a hunk who calls you "bro" and "pal", and who wears sunglasses in the shower.

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    These games are playful, funny, and sexy, and they provoke reflection and dialogue. Yang often reveals a thought process behind the technical decisions in his work that can be fascinatingly-congruent with the spiritual ones. But just four days after its release, Rinse and Repeat was banned from all broadcast on the online streaming community Twitch, just as Cobra Club previously was. Yang is among the most-banned developers on Twitch—perhaps an exciting status for an artist, but evidence of troubled standards for content.

    Twitch rules say that while occurrences of nudity or sex acts in games are "okay, so long as you do not make them a primary focus of your stream," games with nudity as a "core focus or feature" are disallowed. Under this rule, video games that feature sexualized bodies (usually women) for titillation are okay to stream, but that Yang's work centers on the vulnerability of nudity in a consensual space and other meaningful issues apparently makes it obscene.

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    Writes the developer on his blog:

    That means Twitch treats my games exactly the same as the disgusting RapeLay, a game that I won't even bother describing here. This equivocation is offensive to me, when I focus heavily on ideas of consent, boundaries, bodies, and respect in my games.

    But what really pisses me off is that my games actually earn their nudity, and cannot function as artistic works without it. Then here comes Twitch, which argues that some blue alien chick boobs in Mass Effect are OK to broadcast because they're obviously there for some bullshit titillation? The totally unnecessary exploitative bullshit of Dead or Alive babes, or Metal Gear Solid's Quiet, is somehow more appropriate than a game about consensually scrubbing a guy's back? (While we're at it, let's add a dash of systemic homophobia into the mix.)

    By contrast, Yang points out that services like YouTube and Vimeo have policies that allow for depictions of nudity and sexuality that have artistic, aesthetic or narrative intent. Twitch's policy as it stands unfortunately only emphasizes the pall of immaturity at best, homophobia at worst, that still hangs over "gaming culture" like cheeto dust.

    It's especially disappointing as Twitch streaming can play a decisive role in the visibility and success of strange and unusual video games. A significant number of players, particularly younger ones, find out about new games by watching popular livestreamers and YouTubers (lots of whom have, oddly enough, become successful by essentially shouting obscenities at video games), and to restrict this crucial channel to conventional works seems harmful, as does the message that Yang's projects should be grouped in the same category as a "rape simulator" from Japan.

    Yang suggests Twitch revise its policy to account for the context of the sexual imagery, and Offworld also hopes the company considers this. Nuance in the policy and case-by-case considerations of sexuality in games would show respect to the full breadth of our medium and its players.

    If you're a Twitch user and you want to see Yang's games allowed to stream and this policy re-evaluated for all developers in the future, you can send a (respectful!) message via the company's customer service portal here.

  • Help this girl band survive its breakup, a trippy forest, and a wall of Harry Potters

    Dorothy, Wendy and Alice are frenemies who disagree on everything, and it's breaking up their band, D.S.A (Dynamic Squid Antithesis). In a cool, handmade adventure game, you have to help the friends manage an increasingly surreal and trippy landscape full of rough style and offbeat humor.

    D.S.A., by TheWaether, has been five years in the making. I love its intense strangeness (an ancient gramophone threatens to play "Rollin'" by Limp Bizkit at you; a wall of Harry Potters prevents you from entering the enchanted wood, a missile silo alludes to an R.E.M. concert) and its intentionally-rough, unique MSPaint graphics.

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    But it's just plain good fun as an adventure game; the main mechanic involves you switching among the three friends, with the actions each take affecting the situation of another friend. D.S.A. feels substantial to play, too—I've only just scratched the surface of it, really, and I'm being sucked in to its increasingly weird world.

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    DSA is available for pay-what-you-want. The soundtrack, which is wonderful, is also available as a separate download.

  • Try a stylish, Saul Bass-inspired two-player duel

    Designer Adam Curtis has made a two-player flash game called NotDOBA, inspired by the aesthetics struck by 60s graphic designer Saul Bass.

    Visually it looks as neat as you'd expect. Curtis says he hopes the turn-based two-player game will appeal to fans of fast-paced local multiplayer works like Samurai Gunn or Nidhogg. I hope Curtis changes the name—I don't know what NotDOBA is nor is it catchy!—but the developer says he's committed to the ongoing update works necessary for a game like this to find a persistent community.

    I like it on style alone; I also really like Steve Margetson's lively, tonally-apt music. You can get NotDOBA for Windows or OSX for $3.49.

  • I can't stop touching this minimalist, mysterious puzzle game

    SPL-T is a brand-new black-and-white puzzle game for iOS about the simplicity of splitting up space. You're compelled to touch and divide squares much in the way you create harmony out of the table rings left by a soda glass, or straight lines from a pile of spilled salt. It's impossible to stop playing with.

    The core concept is very simple to grasp: Touch a square to split it. Your first touch creates a vertical line, your second a horizontal line, and then a vertical line again. This alternating arrangement lets you plan your dissection, and you aim to split the board as many times as possible before you run out of moves. Ultimately you're scored based on your number of splits while you make even grids—difficult to describe, but instantly sensible and evident to the hand and eye when you try it for yourself.

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    It's designed by Simogo, who is is my favorite mobile game developer. The two-person team is just as at home making visually-distinctive, narratively-driven works like Device 6 and The Sailor's Dream as they are with cute action games like Beat Sneak Bandit or Bumpy Road. Says the developer:

    In many ways SPL-T is one of the most "purposeful" games we've made. Every tiny decision has had long discussions. We've weighed arguments against each other. We've put in and out features. Tested what feels like one million rules. A simple thing like removing the restart feature might seem like a miss – but it's deliberately not there, because we want every round of SPL-T to count. We want you to get better at it and get a deeper understanding for it every time you play it. We don't want you to look at online leaderboards at pointless numbers. We want you to talk to friends playing SPL-T, and we hope it will invite you to talk about strategies together.

    The developer's crafty reputation has led many to suggest that there has to be more to SPL-T than meets the eye—after all, why should a game of black and white lines and minimal sound have a 69 MB file size? Pure puzzle endeavor or not, I recommend getting on board.

    SPL-T is $2.99 on the App Store.

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  • Hoofed mammal-themed fighting games are big business

    Them's Fighting Herds is an in-development 2D fighting game starring deer and sheep and alpacas and things kicking each other and using magic. I thought this sounded really niche for about 20 seconds until I looked at its fundraising page, and all of a sudden I was a twelve year-old girl again with my eyes turned to massive cartoon hearts.

    I am clearly not alone; as I write this the game has raised over $100,000 in one day. Some of that is down to the fact the characters and universe are designed by Lauren Faust, creator of "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic". Clearly there is something about Faust's lovely hoofed mammals. I'm not saying I'm. on the verge of falling in love with a deer or going to a conference about it but, like, I can see that happening for others.

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    The character designs and fighting game lore for Them's Fighting Herds are adorable and imaginitive and while the $436,000 target is quite steep for game crowdfunding these days, big numbers can be done when you have superfans behind you, and when you promise hoofed mammal fans an interactive graphical lobby probably anything can happen.

    (Thanks Simon!)

  • Enjoy Glasgow through a broken radio

    Niall Moody has released an interesting mixed media project called Mount Pleasant Drive. Defined by the creator as a "broken audiovisual radio", you tune among sometimes dissonant, sometimes wonderfully harmonious sounds derived from the software itself, and a collage of acid-washed images shot around Glasgow gently hazes and shimmers before your eyes.

    I've never been to Glasgow, but a location-specific audiovisual space genuinely appeals to me as a concept. If you could generate soundscapes solely out of images of your town, what would it be like? Mount Pleasant Radio makes it easy to engage in the fantasy of some staticky, magic old dial that you turn to get from place to place, from memory to memory, from the soul of one city to the next.