Live Free, Play Hard: This Week’s Finest Free Indie Games

By Porpentine on September 30th, 2012 at 2:00 pm.

Magical epistolary intrigues. Edutragedy. The opposite of Dark Souls. Necrolust. Facemaker.

First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short, Liza Daley, and inkle

You should play First Draft of the Revolution because it’s about writing letters, I mean, revising them, which is such a great way to capture each character’s inner struggle and it’s super well written and invents a whole new mechanic and–okay.

This takes place in the Lavori d’Aracne universe, the conceit of which is that objects can be magically linked in all kinds of cunning ways. This power, to the benefit of the aristocracy and the disenfranchisement of the proles, runs sharply along class lines due to selective breeding. Against this background tension of class struggle we have the story of an exiled noblewoman trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.

Clicking some text displays your character’s thoughts, giving you the option to revise, sometimes excise. Maybe your letter begins with outrage and tapers down to meekness, perhaps it remains ice cold and elegant throughout.

See, First Draft understands that humans are walking talking contradictions. What better than revision to express the mind’s raging sea of paradox? Writing is praxis–revision is messy, mortal, pragmatic. Revision is where culture creeps in, where we agonize over repercussions and connections, where we swallow our pride or snap and break our chains. Take for example Juliette’s constant darting back and forth between cringing obedience and sensual anger, second and third-guessing, sometimes obliterating sentences entirely like annoying spiders smeared off the page.

At first I thought each line was tied to a variable that would affect the story’s end. No, you can’t change the future. The pleasure of First Draft lies in sifting the present, not branching outcomes, painting the hallways, not constructing them. I mean, we’re pushed like cattle through engineered passageways enough as it is in real life, but how often do people stop and ask us for our opinion and mean it? Like really care about our artistic judgment? First Draft of the Revolution is an entire game based around valuing the reader-player’s aesthetic sensibilities, another triumph of Emily Short’s genius for narrative mechanics.

The Illogical Journey of the Zambonis by Noyb

There was this edutainment series called The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis in which the peaceful blue Zoombinis get attacked by the evil Bloats, sparking a didactic diaspora. You see, every challenge along the way to their glorious new homeland happens to be a logic puzzle. Plausible enough, but The Illogical Journey of the Zambonis purports to show what really happened behind the airbrushed, Big Edutainment controlled screen. In doing so, Noyb coins a new genre, the edutragedy. Utterly merciless and deadpan, a searing indictment of anthropomorphic cliffs, if you play one The Illogical Journey of the Zambonis this year, make it this one.

Hello World by timgarbos

Hello World drops you into something like a 90s CGI wallpaper virtual heaven–water that mirrors the sky, soaring purple shapes that seem strangely alive, soothing music, ethereally drifting squares. What do people do in this place? They leave messages for other people to find. You never see anyone else but you’re brushing shoulders with spirits.

Messages are identical on the outside which means placement is everything. Anyone can throw a note down in the spawn zone, so a distant beacon way out in the water must be significant–or it could just be someone laughing at you. Hello World is all about wandering around seeing how people use the space. Some leave lazy messages in the noisy common area, others explore the far reaches, challenging you with their distance, while a few specialize in clever, impossible looking spots.

A stately row of messages discussing a difficult jump, the ghosts of a crowd looking out over a precipice. Secret keyboard control rumors that remind me of childhood apocrypha (“Hold B just before the pokeball hits!”). Scattered speculation about our prison/paradise, the cosmology of this place.

The spiral of skybound platforms near the center not only supplies the most concrete challenge but provokes the most interesting messages. Encouragement, lies, formalization, narrative, cheering you on and leading you astray. Adding your beacon to the top feels like joining a special club.

I like the pill-shaped avatar’s pert little hat, a powerful humanizing touch establishing that both humans and giant lozenges can have things put on top of them. My friend looked over my shoulder while I was splashing around in the sea and asked if I was playing as a buoy. Maybe I am. Maybe this is where buoys go when they die.

Playing around with Hello World left me feeling relaxed and happy. If all this rumor and mythology can spring up in a geometric world with visible edges, imagine a vast, esoteric version of this with more secrets, an endless, self-sustaining alternate reality.

Stygia by Kitty Horrorshow

Looking for cheerfully ghoulish interactive fiction set in a dark world of spectral castes, loathespiders, and necrolust? Look no further than Stygia, where you play an ectoplasmic individual working for a greasy corpsedude with a penchant for cosmetic surgery, the kind that comes with arachnid legs. Your job is to scare the living for fun and profit, employing all the horrible tools at your disposal. Hungry bed? Hellscape? Spiderstorm?

Stygia offers certain victories and satisfactions while dangling ominous, intriguing details that pave the way for further stories. I hope to see more of this macabre, well-realized universe.

MEMEME by ThomasRyder

MEMEME is a face building thingy with a striking art style and some really great combinations. Each facial feature is tied to a sound effect so experimenting gets you some delectably strange tunes on top of the spacey background music.

Hahaha Not A Game. Posting dangerous notagames on the internet. Watch game culture crumble overnight. Why, before you know it, they’ll be defining this here rock right here as a game. A stick could be a game. A cloud could be a game. It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad.

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20 Comments »

  1. coolwithpie says:

    I want to add that MEMEME was made in a primative gamemaking program called “Game Maker”

  2. InternetBatman says:

    Have they ever put Exit Fate or Last Scenario on this list? They’re two high quality RPG maker games, and exit fate has a neat strategic twist.

  3. Bhazor says:

    Kind of disappointed by First Draft. A great idea by my favourite IF writer but the whole thing is very prescripted. I was hoping different phrasing would change the story and there may be a little of that. But too often it feels like I’m forced to just keep on changing or deleting bold text until it lets me on to the next page. By the sixth letter I was barely reading, just clicking the bold text until the “Send Letter” button flashes.

    What it does try to has been done far better before in Emily’s other work. Galatea in particular.

    But again, it is a great idea. Here’s hoping she comes up with a game to go with it.

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      FhnuZoag says:

      I liked First Draft a lot.

      It’s not really interactive in the sense of dictating the storyline, but rather interactive in the sense of *conveying character*.

      A great touch was how the re-write mechanic differed for each author. For Juliette, it was a matter of carefully crafted sentences, of going back over things written to see if maybe the old way was better. For Henri it was more a matter of a battle plan, to start off with a bullet point list, and turn those into full sentences, with only the minor changes in tact. For Alisa, most entertaining of all, it was in the form of a telescoping diatribe, which the game doesn’t let you go back on, because why would Alisa use any such restraint? ‘Too cruel?’ becomes ‘don’t worry, I don’t think your aunt will be alive for longer than a year or two!’ I laughed when I read that.

  4. PleasingFungus says:

    I think that every game would be better off for a “spiderstorm” button.

  5. SominiTheCommenter says:

    Wow, Stygia was really great. I can only imagine Deus Ex in that world, and now I’m sad because it will never happen.

    • frightlever says:

      Just another nod for Stygia. It’s little more than an interactive story but it’s a well written one.

  6. gschmidl says:

    Liza Daly, not Daley.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Dilapinated says:

    The Zambonis game is short and bittersweet. Especially worthwhile if you played the original/s.

    Stygia is also well worth your time.

  8. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I like Hello World. It’s the type of game I can wander around in for quite a while when the mood strikes me.

  9. crinkles esq. says:

    Based on the first screenshot, I thought Hello World might be a gameworld inspired by U2 songs.

  10. oyog says:

    I’ve never been much interested in interactive fiction but Stygia was particularly satisfying. I’m also impressed again by Twine’s elegance.

    • Porpentine says:

      twine is as elegant as it gets, both for the player and the writer. much love for it