Did you buy the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io? Congratulations, you’ve contributed towards a good cause and gained access to 1700+ games. You’re never going to play all of them, so which ones are worth your time? Fret not! Your friends at MGRM are here to set you straight on which titles stand out from the pack.
CELESTE was easily one of my favorite games of 2018, so I’m obligated to let you know that it’s in this bundle, it can run on a fax machine, and it should take less than 12 hours to beat. “A hard game made for bad gamers” sounds like a counterintuitive pitch, but struggle is the central theme here. Treacherous Mt. Celeste serves as a towering metaphor for intrepid hiker Madeline’s personal demons, and it’ll take some considerable effort to overcome each. CELESTE doesn’t hold your hand, but unlike other entries in the “ultra difficult” genre, it also doesn’t punish your failures. Respawns are instant, checkpoints are frequent, and the general tone of the game is reassuring. The game reminds us that mountains, whether they exist among windswept stretches of the Rockies or in the metaphysical baggage we each carry, can be overcome with enough determination. If the rare blend of rock-solid platforming and emotional storytelling piques your interest, CELESTE should at the top of your to-do list. – [Ed Dutcher]
As video games advance and new questions are asked about their place as a medium, some nostalgic gamers will always want to revisit early point-and-click adventures. Enter CLAM MAN, a quick, hand-drawn, point-and-click mystery featuring the titular Clam Man down on his luck and in the middle of the greatest discovery of his life, probably. Clam Man is a nine-to-five office worker for the Snacky Bay Prime Mayo Company who stumbles upon a conspiracy in the underwater town of Snacky Bay. CLAM MAN is a specific love-letter to the in-game flavor text present in point-and-click adventuring, and much of the gameplay time is taken up discovering each joke and bit that developers Team Clam can fit into seemingly innocuous bits of background. The game mostly focuses on the explorative aspects of point-and-click games, and while there are a few puzzles, they’re not very difficult—if you don’t really want to think that hard you can even elect to choose a more “chill” version of a particular puzzle. This is a very welcoming game, with whimsical art, twee humor, and a light soundtrack. Clam Man is a quick two-to-three-hour jaunt through the developers’ memories of games like GRIM FANDANGO and DAY OF THE TENTACLE. It’s one of the silliest, saltiest, and most full-of-mayonnaise noir stories you’ll come across. [Steven Porfiri]
“32-bit, procedurally-generated, Zelda-like action adventure” is a salvo of genre buzzwords that instantly sets off all of the bells and whistles in my mind, but a game like LENNA’S INCEPTION feels like both a warm, familiar “welcome” and a gripping “you’re not leaving” with its different spin on the formula. Despite taking very clear inspiration from genre classics like A LINK TO THE PAST, LENNA’S INCEPTION doesn’t take long to prove itself something quite unique, with standard fare quickly going south in a violent upheaval of some classic tropes, propelling players into the wilds to parse out the mysteries of a once-idyllic pixelated kingdom. Accompanied by her trusty free-range pet chicken and the spirit of the recently-deceased village elder by way of magical cellphone, the titular schoolteacher Lenna journeys in search of a way to rescue her students and to find an answer to the freaky glitches plaguing the land. LENNA’S INCEPTION is subversive in the right ways, leaving the traditional gameplay of the genre mostly untouched and mixing punny enemies, creepy atmosphere, and the occasional black comedy into its proceedings. [Angelo Rivera]
NIGHT IN THE WOODS
We’ve long been fans of NIGHT IN THE WOODS here at Merry-Go-Round, but with COVID-19-connected mass unemployment sweeping the US and the only thing uniting us a shared sense that enough is enough, NIGHT IN THE WOODS’ story of a college dropout cat coming home to a dying mining town and learning some hard lessons about what actually matters in life is an important one to revisit. NIGHT IN THE WOODS’ beautiful art style, expressive animation, and rich world create a solid platform for characters to surprise and charm, underlining again and again the game’s focus on community and the collective as the most powerful force in our sorry world. The platforming may tire and the mini-games can overstay their welcome, but Mae’s journey of understanding her parents, her friends, her unjust world, and herself will be familiar to anyone who’s spent the last three months questioning the state of the world and their place in it. NIGHT IN THE WOODS is an all-timer and its placement in this historic itch bundle only expands the audience who will experience it and the power it’ll hold as a video game for years to come. [Ian Campbell]
ONE NIGHT STAND
Short, sweet (or not-so-sweet, depending on how you play), and featuring a natural mechanic whereby you’ll be wanting to hurriedly start the game over to try to unlock another one of the 12 endings, ONE NIGHT STAND feels like a stellar example of the unique IPs itch.io hosts that you wouldn’t naturally stumble upon elsewhere. Whereas the other games on this list are all excellent, a good many of them are still selections favored by the heads out there; if you’re truly new to the sphere of video games, wary of diving in, and only sprung on the bundle for the justice quotient, ONE NIGHT STAND is something anyone can play and enjoy. In a situation the vast majority of us out there have been in at one point or another, our nameless protagonist wakes up with a fuzzy head and faulty memory in the bed of an awkward, but friendly enough sexual partner from the night before. It’s up to you to head down the right dialogue branches and investigate the room during the scant opportunities you’re given in order to both piece together your night and try to avoid getting kicked out. A point-and-click adventure, there’s no difficulty curve as far as gameplay is concerned but plenty of tension to be found as the ticking clock winds down, the player having to find just enough clues to keep conversation going while not being accused of snooping. With each playthrough running from three minutes if you’re a true putz to around 12 if you demonstrate some smooth-talking, ONE NIGHT STAND is about as accessible and lightly entertaining as they come. A game for anyone who’s put their foot in their mouth, tried to flip a casual connection into something more serious, or attempted to leave a rendezvous at whatever cost possible, I was impressed by how quickly ONE NIGHT STAND drew me in and how eager I was to try to achieve another conclusion. I’d point to ONE NIGHT STAND as the place to start in the bundle for the more recreational gamers out there. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Part sports team manager, part epic fantasy quest, PYRE pits teams of outcasts against each other in ritualistic games of pseudo-basketball for the rare chance of one player getting freed from their exile. The overworld segments see you guiding your caravan of lost souls through purgatory, recruiting new members and learning who they were on the outside. On the court, you’ll pick your players according to the strength and composition of the rival team, then face off in a surprisingly tactical 3v3 competition. The “rites” will at once be familiar to both MOBA heads and veteran NBA 2K and FIFA players, and the game is good enough to include a standalone multiplayer for you to practice in, but what blows this writer away is how PYRE’s depth of gameplay affects its plot. Will you be moved by your MVP’s tragic backstory and grant them their freedom? Or will you keep them in exile and ensure future wins for the team? The staggering number of narrative permutations in PYRE’s story mode—which are affected both by dialogue and your skills in the rites—combined with the semi-random campaign structure and various career and gameplay modifiers, begs for multiple replays. [Ed Dutcher]
The tagline for SEWER RAVE reads “PARTY WITH RATS,” and truly, if that pitch doesn’t sell you on this, I’m not sure we have all that much more to say to each other. Somewhere between LSD: DREAM EMULATOR, a Twitch chatlog, and 100 gecs’ “Rat Fucker” video, rarely have I not known I’ve wanted something so much until it was placed right in front of me. Based on those comparisons I think I don’t have to waste too much more breath telling you that anyone looking for a traditional “game” is probably best suited to look elsewhere, but if you want to break your mind on the wall of truly, just absolutely bonkers shit, than boy do I have a rat rave simulator for you. The key to SEWER RAVE is the fact that the music is absolutely faithful to what a sweaty, multi-level den of electro-indebted debauchery delivers IRL. Influences of industrial techno, hardstyle, garage, a traditional dubstep room that rather hilariously only has a scant handful of rats when stacked up against the other comparatively packed rooms… it’s certainly a game with extra rewards for those with a vested interest in club music of all forms, especially if you’ve had a drink or substance too many as the faces begin to leer and the walls close in. But fear not! SEWER RAVE is more than approachable by anyone with a penchant for the oddball and left-field. Throwing a map and Euclidean orientation out with the bath water, no sewer gate will ever lead to the same place twice, that is, at least until they do twice in a row, the music is loud, the dialogue from fellow attendees runs the gamut from Extremely Online to Extremely Disturbing, and you’ll have absolutely no idea what’s going on or what you’re supposed to be doing (watch out for the snake, though…). But that in and of itself is probably the best indicator of a game and developer that deeply know their subject material, and the singular atmosphere of unsettling, groovy, and laugh-out-loud hilarious is a potent brew to experience. Sure, it’s dumb, but if you don’t want to “PARTY WITH RATS” what the fuck do you want to do in this world. [Thomas Seraydarian]
A SHORT HIKE
What an absolute delight! One of the most relaxing media experiences I’ve had in the past handful of years, A SHORT HIKE is the definition of a palette-cleanser, a short, cute, and lovingly tended outing whose pixelated world holds more depth and character than many games 10 times its length. Picking up as Claire as she arrives at Hawk Peak Provincial Park alongside her Aunt May, who works as a park ranger there, all we know is that the lack of cell reception is preventing Claire from taking an important call. Gearing up to hike to the top of Hawk Peak in the hopes of getting a signal, you soon find yourself swept away in the characters you meet along the way, stopping to lend a hand to a vast variety of rock-climbers, marathon joggers, or loud fellas that simply demand you hand over 15 shells. Fundamentally an adventure game, the surprisingly layered world of story lends itself to a bevvy of light challenges as you attempt to navigate the increasingly high summits of the mountain you’re attempting to conquer. However, even if you don’t find yourself able to make a leap the first time you try, the true value of the game is in getting lost along the way back up to try again, Mark Sparling’s darling soundtrack more than satisfying enough to get lost in as lush digital forests and comfortingly dappled lighting soothe the soul. With slight touches of city pop tinkling through your headphones, the overall impression rendered is one of a highly aesthetic island getaway, albeit an island with a forest that would stand out as a stunner in the Pacific Northwest. Hardened gamers might not find all that much to return to considering the straightforward and stripped-back item and task system, but A SHORT HIKE is a stellar example of video games being able to offer a range of experiential enjoyment unavailable in other mediums, the lilting strolls throughout Hawk Peak a grinning and singular life reset button that I can’t imagine existing anywhere else. [Thomas Seraydarian]
SIGNS OF THE SOJOURNER
We take for granted that most people we interact with on a day-to-day basis are like-minded and largely understand everything we say to them. We come from the same place and we say the same kinds of things. But what happens when that’s no longer the case? What happens when you lack the words or even common understanding to get your point across? How does it feel when you can see someone’s understanding of you slipping away as they write you off, knowing you could never understand their plight even as you try your hardest to?
SIGNS OF THE SOJOURNER, created by the folks at Echodog Games, captures all that through the unusual gameplay of the now popular deck-building genre. SOJOURNER follows a traveling merchant character as they attempt to collect merchandise for their general store. They’re armed with a truck, a willingness to talk to people (and eventually a very cute dog), and they explore a post-collapse landmass, some mix of MAD MAX desert and ORYX AND CRAKE biome run amok, learning about their past and collecting merchandise. The game introduces its main conversation card game initially as a way to mediate a conflict between two friends, requiring the matching of symbols (at first just signifying empathy or logic) to pass through segments of a conversation with “agreements” (signified by grey squares) rather than “disagreements” (signified with black squares) that cause the conversation to fall apart. Quickly this set of mechanics is complicated with the introduction of other types of symbols and additional traits that can be applied to cards, allowing you to “Clarify” past cards played, “Chatter” to the unique cast of characters, laying an extra card per turn, or even “Accommodating” them by allowing them to explain themselves with additional cards.
There are other systems to manage beyond that, a caravan that you can travel with or ignore to pursue your interests, a calendar with events that you can attend or miss entirely, and a narrative that weaves together labor movements, community building, and multiple character’s relationships to their own pasts. What stands out the strongest are those moments of disagreement. Knowing you don’t have the “language” or “experience” to understand a character but trying to anyways on the off chance they might just have something they can reference to bring the conversation back on even ground. Many games feature branching narratives influenced by NPC’s opinions of the player character, but few capture the nuance of conversation and the intense emotions that can come with being understood like SIGNS OF THE SOJOURNER. It’s a game quite unlike any other and in a bundle full of wonderful games, it’s well worth setting aside some time to check out. [Ian Campbell]
THE STILLNESS OF THE WIND
When you play a game like STARDEW VALLEY or ANIMAL CROSSING, there’s a promise that as you put work into your farm, you will get a greater reward the more work you put in. The routine becomes part of the allure, but there’s always the promise that you’ll get more money to build another greenhouse, or you’ll get enough bells to afford a new carpet. THE STILLNESS OF THE WIND is a meditative farming simulator that focuses on work as a means to keep going. The main character is the last of her family to work on their farm that has been passed down through generations. Everyone else has gone to various cities and pursued lives there, which you read about in letters and books that are beautifully written but ultimately meaningless, as they don’t really affect your life or what happens in the game. Eventually the letters grow more and more concerning, but your days are spent doing various chores such as planting vegetables, milking your goats, making cheese from their milk, or even just drawing patterns in the dirt. It’s a study in carrying on when you’re the only one who can or even will, and dealing with the concept of eternity by getting up in the morning and taking everything one day at a time. [Steven Porfiri]
TONIGHT WE RIOT
The first game from Means Interactive, TONIGHT WE RIOT exemplifies the studio’s stated goal of creating post-capitalist games, so you almost know immediately what you’re getting into when you load it up. It’s a fun little team-based brawler that puts the player in the red bandana of a member of a group of workers fed up with toiling for capitalist overlords, and seizing the means of production through revolutionary tactics. There’s strength in numbers, as players will recruit more workers from the various workplaces stationed across four different levels, giving players more firepower as they lob bricks, molotov cocktails, and a variety of other weapons at riot police, drones, and various other bootlickers as they strive to create a post-capitalist workers paradise. Truly this is a game that will make your uncle’s head absolutely explode, and if you can cross that threshold yourself you’ll be treated to the neat retro sprites, a good dose of leftist memey humor, and techno bass beats that thump harder than the boots of the proletariat on their way to seize the local armory. It’s a real short play, but completing it unlocks “Endless Revolution” Mode, pitting you and your comrades against waves and waves of encroaching capitalists. It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s a good release after a day of being an “essential” worker. [Steven Porfiri]
WIDE OCEAN BIG JACKET
WIDE OCEAN BIG JACKET is in the short story tradition, as done by the world of indie games. Turnfollow, the game’s developers, in focusing on a short experience about young friends Mord and Ben camping with Mord’s “aunt and uncle,” find a way to connect it to a much larger transitional period of life, and all the complicated emotions and meaning that get appended to those moments after the fact. WIDE OCEAN BIG JACKET is firmly played in the present, but the seemingly inconsequential moments, when made interactive and performed by a charming cast of characters, make even the simplest moments of collecting firewood or watching birds that much more affecting. Your mind can’t help but do what you’d imagine the characters’ would do thinking back on this experience, “That was when I really started to grow up,” “That’s when I started to learn what love is.” This thinking, equal parts nostalgia, after school special brainwashing, and genuine retrospection is flawed but meaningful. A “finding the end of one act of your life” in the mundane experiences of the day-to-day common to both the short story form and many indie games. WIDE OCEAN BIG JACKET just so happens to execute that project with heart, humor, and a style that’s distinct and refined, featuring some of the funniest dialogue this side of NIGHT IN THE WOODS, making it an obvious stand out in the recent history of indie games [Ian Campbell]