Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality: My Picks

Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but: Itch.io has a truly monumental bundle going right now, called the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, consisting of “1,659 items” (as of this writing; the number keeps going up 1The final count is 1704. ), mostly games, many of them good, for a minimum price of $5, all proceeds going to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. It’s running for just two more days. A more ambitious games blogger than myself could spend the rest of their life blogging just about this bundle.

Since such a massive collection is in obvious need of curation, people have been posting lists of their picks on social media. I figure I might as well do the same here. I’m not saying these are the only games in the bundle worth playing, just that they’re the ones that I personally have played and would recommend to others.

  • Interactive Fiction and other largely text-based stuff
    • Voyageur: There are quite a few choice-based space-exploration games out there, but this is probably the most polished. Sort of a cross between 80 Days and FTL.
    • What Isn’t Saved (will be lost): A sci-fi meditation on memory and difficult choices. Almost unbearably tense.
    • Wheels of Aurelia: I’ve mentioned this one in passing before. It’s an interesting experiment in interactive dialogue: you’re talking while you’re driving, so your attention is split and the conversation is affected by what turns you make and how fast you go. Set in 1970s Italy, with a story very concerned with the politics of that time and place.
    • Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings”: Claymation adventure game detective musical with interactive sung dialogue that actually manages to fit the beat of the background music.
    • Extreme Meatpunks Forever: A lo-fi Visual Novel about gay fugitives in a messed-up world, peppered with mech-fighting action sequences where you try to shove fascists off cliffs. I don’t usually have a lot of patience for VNs, but Meatpunks has a unique energy.
    • The Quiet Sleep: Hard to describe. It’s an abstract system for telling stories by means of resource acquisition on a hex grid.
  • 2D Platformers
    • Celeste: Previously. Extremely polished, the pinnacle of Matt Thorson’s 2D platformer career. Tough as nails, but paradoxically kind-hearted.
    • And Yet It Moves: Previously. Puzzle-platformer in a rotatable environment with a torn-paper aesthetic.
    • Pikuniku: I’m only a little ways into this, but it’s a metroidvania with a very strong aesthetic. Characters are simplified in a way that complements their comically blunt demeanors.
    • BasketBelle: Previously. Intriguingly combines shooting hoops with platformer mechanics.
    • Four-Sided Fantasy: Another high-concept puzzle-platformer, based on giving the player control of whether the screen has wraparound or not at any given moment. It’s a device that turns out out to have more legs than it sounds.
  • Other Explorey Environments
    • Oxenfree: I’m not wild about horror movie tropes, but the interaction and dialogue system is definitely worth a look.
    • A Short Hike: A charming and relaxing mountain climb in a recreational area with anthropomorphic animals. Kind of like a one-sitting single-player Animal Crossing.
    • Minit: A high-concept action-adventure, exploring what uses a game can make of short time constraints. Very well-done formal experiment.
    • Anodyne: A light, fanciful action-adventure, similar to an early Zelda game in both mechanics and graphical style, but more wry and deliberately surreal.
    • The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human: Previously. Melancholy 2D underwater metroidvania. Just you and a submarine against immense monsters amidst the ruins of human civilization.
    • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist: Fourth-wall-demolishing first-person nonsense from one of the Stanley Parable people.
  • Other Puzzle Games
    • Mu Cartographer: Previously. Recommended for anyone who likes fiddling with unlabeled controls to figure out what they do.
    • GNOG: A collection of pure jiggery-pokery puzzles themed around grotesque headboxes.
    • Adjacency: One of those abstract puzzle games with soothing ambient music. Simple mechanics, but gets very tricky (in ways other than increasing the number of parts).
    • Puzzle Puppers: Basically, numberlink with elongated corgis. Has some complications beyond that, like teleporting tunnels, but that’s the essence of it.
  • Not cleanly categorizable as any of the above
    • Art Sqool: More satisfying as an aesthetic than a game, but worth a look just for that.
    • Nuclear Throne: One of the best action-roguelikes out there.
    • Glittermitten Grove: A delightful fairy management sim. I hear it has some secrets. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding them than me.
    • Windosill: Previously. Short, dark, surreal twitch-and-wiggle game from Vectorpark.
    • Metamorphabet: Another Vectorpark game. I don’t like it as much as Windosill — it’s pitched more at the kiddies, so it stops short of giving them nightmares. Still worthy, though.
    • Quadrilateral Cowboy: A satisfying hackery game, and one of the few cyberpunk games to take the “punk” part to heart.
    • Old Man’s Journey: A peaceful and aesthetically pleasing travel story where the main mechanic is raising and lowering the level of the ground.
    • The Hex: Six videogame characters from different genres meet at an inn to witness a murder. I didn’t think much of this at first — it seemed indulgent, and the mini-games built around each character not well-developed. But it won me over with its increasing complexity, deepening story, and pervasively sinister atmosphere.

1 The final count is 1704.

And Yet It Moves: Ending

And Yet It Moves consists of three chapters, an interactive credits sequence, and a bonus level. The first chapter is set in a cave, the second in a forest, and the third, after starting in the forest, goes all trippy and stops pretending to be representational. The scraps that form the world suddenly take on a brightly-colored pattern like wrapping paper, and the set-pieces become more elaborate and more gameish. None of the game tries to be particularly realistic, but here at the end, the designer seems to feel freer to just do whatever he finds interesting.

Objects grow and shrink, or have textures that move completely independently of their real motion. Some areas rotate continuously on their own — compensating for this with only 90-degree turns is difficult enough that it seems like these bits in particular have to be easier on the Wii. There’s a repeated gimmick of colored platforms that appear and disappear in time with the background music. The background music doesn’t usually have a very strong beat, but for these segments, it changes. I really don’t care for the music in this game — it consists mainly of random Seinfeld-style mouth-pops and samples of someone saying “Doong” — but in the these segments, it becomes more coherent, and thus more tolerable. In fact, it reminds me of the music sections in some of the Rayman games.

And there’s a motif, used once per level towards the end, of doubling the player character. You hit a checkpoint in what looks like a dead end — it should be noted that the checkpoints look like sketch-people similar to the player avatar, who stand still and point in the direction you should go next, like a guide — and suddenly the world changes into an enclosed space with two such guides, one color-inverted, white-on-black instead of black-on-white. Another sketch-person stands there, and you’re in control of both, but they move in opposite directions. The only way to continue is to get them both to their opposite guides at once. It’s reminiscent of Scott Kim’s Double Maze, except taking place in a single space.

At the very end — and into the credits and bonus level — the color drains from the world, leaving it unmarked white, with occasional crumples and creases. It’s sort of a larger-scale version of what happens at the end of every level: your sketch-guy finds a white space with a black silhouette in the shape of himself and fits himself into it, restoring it to its pristine condition. Unusually for a platformer, the game doesn’t even address the question of why the player character wants to do this. You could interpret the whole thing as a metaphor for transcending the world of appearances (the photographs and other markings) and achieving awareness of the world as it is, which in this game means just paper. Except of course that the papery appearance is itself artifice. It’s all just bits. When the image on a “scrap” moves independently of its edges, it makes it clear that these aren’t even digitized versions of things that ever even existed as scraps in the physical world.

And Yet It Moves: Controls and Mistakes

I can’t really back this up, but I get the impression that And Yet It Moves is best-known as a Wiiware title, even though it was released for Mac and PC first. I suppose that’s just the nature of the market right now. Even ignoring the popularity of the Wii, Wiiware is an effective tool for making games visible to people who wouldn’t be exposed to them otherwise. But also, even though I haven’t tried the Wii version, it sounds like a better game. I mentioned that there are rotating-world games that give you continuous rotation, rather than the four-sided stuff I’m seeing here. The Wii version of AYIM has that, with multiple ways of accessing it from the controls. I have to wonder if the puzzle content had to be redesigned at all to accommodate continuous rotation or if it was just left alone, and if the latter, whether it makes alternate approaches possible.

One description I’ve read says that continuous rotation makes things more difficult, but it almost has to be easier to at least do what you intend most of the time. With a keyboard, you have the left hand on WASD and your right hand on the arrow keys, although only three keys of each set are used: A and D to move left and right, W to jump, Left Arrow to rotate the world counterclockwise 90 degrees, Right Arrow to rotate clockwise, and Up Arrow to do a 180-degree flip. The problem with this is that the directions of rotation aren’t very strongly associated with left and right. Half the time, I wind up pressing the wrong thing — which, given that the world takes a little time to rotate, and doesn’t freeze while it’s rotating, can be enough to kill me or otherwise make me start over whatever I was trying to do. (Checkpoints are plentiful, at least.) At first, I tried to remember that the left/right arrow keys indicate the direction the top of the screen moves in, but this is a difficult thing to apply in the heat of action. After a while, I instead tried thinking of it as pressing the key corresponding to the direction that I want to become down — a rule that happily applies to the up arrow as well. I think this is a little easier to apply, but I still wind up making a lot of mistakes.

The times when I’m least likely to make mistakes are the more intense stretches, when I’m rotating the playfield a lot. I don’t even think about it in terms of absolute directions then: I just know that I have to rotate the world opposite to my last rotation, or in the same direction again, and that’s an easy thing to communicate to my fingers. The game seems to be making this kind of quick flurry or rotation more and more necessary as the game goes on, replacing the more conventional platforming, which could have the ironic effect of making things easier for me.

And Yet It Moves

Another update and suddenly And Yet It Moves is working for me. This is a 2D puzzle-platformer that, like, Braid, is based around building puzzles around one unusual ability. In Braid, it was control of time. Here it’s control of gravity — or, equivalently, the ability to rotate the entire world. I’m told that there have been other games since that explore this idea more thoroughly — including things where you can rotate the world freely by any angle, instead of just in 90-degree increments as is the case here. There’s a whole mini-genre, apparently. There are also antecedents, like the Shift series, which lets you simultaneously flip the world upside-down and reverse figure and ground.

The one thing that really distinguishes AYIM from the likes of Shift is that your rotations affect more than just the player avatar. Boulders tumble from their now-horizontal holes, falling water drops do sharp mid-air turns, bats are dislodged form their perches and fly up to the new ceiling. There are bits where the focus is entirely on making some inanimate object fall the right way, although you still have to make sure that the avatar doesn’t fall too far and die in the process. Still, the most-repeated material is all about gravity-control-enhanced navigation: jumping off a cliff and then quickly turning the cliff wall into a floor, for example, or extending the length of your leap by falling part of the way.

I’m a bit disappointed about how little of the levels I can see at once. Surely the re-orienting of the world would be more impressive if I could see the world? But then, there may not be much of a coherent world to see, the levels being patched together out of bits that only make sense locally. Certainly they’ve picked a graphical style that suits such a design. This is a world of collage, made of ragged scraps torn from photographs. The really interesting thing is that the pictures in the scraps sometimes waver relative to their frames, or lag behind their movement a little, suggesting that the scraps are windows, or pieces torn out of windows.

Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.