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

By Porpentine on November 18th, 2012 at 2:00 pm.

Bones of a birthday cake. My dream job. Unwin the game. Pure anime evil.

The Message by Jeremy Lonien and Dominik Johann

Here’s a deeply chilling Twine story about the perils of space exploration in a universe where we are not alone. If you don’t suffer from any major heart conditions, the tense build-up of The Message comes highly recommended.

Very Pink Game by Sheepherds

A very wonderful, Very Pink Game about meeting an old friend. The lovely color scheme rounds out the pink with black and white, a bleached kind of cuteness like the bones of a birthday cake.

Each character has a single trait adorably conveyed: slumped over from drinking too much ginger ale, tuckered out from hunting ghosts, or poised over a sink aghast at losing a ring that only little girl hands can reach. And of course, they’re all waiting for you to fix their problems.

A Very Pink Game is perfect. Not perfect as describing amplitude, not perfect by some ludicrous 10/10 numeric standard, just perfect in that everything comes together to be the perfect example of itself. It is a circle.

The wandering inside other people’s houses thing that games do actually works here because you’re a curious little girl, not a threatening guy with a sword. How charming.

Zero Summer by Gordon Levine

Zero Summer is a card-driven, StoryNexus-powered interactive fiction about an amnesiac adrift in the post-apocalyptic west. Unlike most westerns, human villains aren’t the focus, on the contrary, there’s an emphasis on getting to know the townsfolk. The real enemies are outside town, crawling in the wastes.

The prose is dripping with cowboy juice–okay, let me try that again. It’s twangy, dusty, third eye on a yellow-bellied sow straight out of a hard ride to Hell and back if you know what’s good for you with the smell of redemption on your whiskey whiskers. I MEAN THAT IN A GOOD WAY. Confident writing that sets out to paint a picture, while at the same time the card format keeps the paragraphs digestible.

The StoryNexus engine comes crunchier than most intfic, dealing you quests (storylets in the parlance of the game) from a deck and tweaking stats with every choice–narrative quantified and structuralized so clearly it could be a tabletop game. These stats serve to pace the story and ensure that you soak in the atmosphere before reaching the next milestone.

For example, the Banditos and Harvestmen storylet takes 4 Cityslicker, so you’re guaranteed to do a mix of quests related to that stat before you get there, letting the author gate their content while giving a measure of freedom to the player in how they want to get those stats.

I still don’t know how I feel about StoryNexus as an engine. I don’t like the tendency towards grind. I like the games that try to minimize that tendency. I like anything that helps popularize interactive fiction. If you enjoy the format of Echo Bazaar and want something grittier, this is for you.

Soulcaster by MagicalTimeBean

Soulcaster is a kind of roaming tower defense/dungeon crawl hybrid where you play a frail wizard with no combat skills beyond the power to summon allies. This is is more exciting than your average tower defense inspired game because instead of waiting you spend a lot of time running around and trying not to die.

All your magical friends have intricacies, like, if Fire-Lobber Dude dies, he damages everyone around him, or Tank Dude has no range but a great shield. On top of that you can summon copies of these allies, so establishing a line of Archer Woman or making enough images of Tank Dude to block a corridor is a perfectly viable tactic.

Beating each level takes keen choice of allies and positioning, an increasingly frantic scramble to establish bottlenecks and Avoiding Getting Boxed In By Your Own Dudes As Bats Eat Your Face.

Samsara by Meg Jayanth

Winner of the Winter StoryNexus competition, Samsara takes place in 1757′s India at a time when the surrounding nations seek to tear you apart with war and exploitation. To this struggle you bring your talents as a dream spy, an oneiromancer of espionage eavesdropping on the dreams of those who stand at the crossroads of power–one of those useful concepts flexible enough to support whatever the author comes up with.

Failure in StoryNexus games is interesting. Accumulate enough negative qualities and the deck might become, I dunno, Jail or Trapped in Limbo and you have to do all these creepy quests to get out. The point is that the game doesn’t stop, it keeps going, which is important because failure is vital to a compelling story.

The names chosen for these dire qualities set the mood. Samsara punishes you with Marked by Shadow and Trauma, evoking the horrible vastness at the edge of dreaming and the psychological pain that awaits those who dream poorly.

The last hope of Doctor Zeit by Alkemi

Your unmission in The last hope of Doctor Zeit is to unwin the game by running backwards through the levels avoiding deadly paradoxes, a clever premise that handles fluidly.

See that pile of fragments? A platform was floating somewhere above it. Take a leap of faith.

Every fall was once a jump, every point was once an enemy. Don’t fall down if you couldn’t have jumped that distance.

Wine & Roses by Craze

Wine & Roses dispenses with the exposition and serves up a series of JRPG battles with nothing else getting in the way of those sweet numbers going up and down.

The idea is that you’re a team of exorcists clearing out a palace of pure anime evil. Instead of permanently learning spells, you swap them around like items, doctoring your daring division of devout delegates until they can destroy the diverse denizens of this dire domicile.

I hate JRPG combat but I can see how this would be perfect for someone who enjoys the theorycraft and experimentation of building a perfect big number making machine.

Imscared by Ivan Zanotti

Halfway through playing Imscared I stopped to type “OH MY GOD”. I stand by that statement.

I feel violated. I’ve been transgressed. How dare this game be so alert, so attentive to my fear. I believe everyone should play it.

But talking about Imscared is useless. The game speaks for itself.

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21 Comments »

  1. Carter says:

    Really enjoyed The Message, reminded me of a Perry Bible Fellowship strip. Played imscared but got booted back to the desktop after picking up the heart, is there more to it or is that it?

  2. MondSemmel says:

    I recommend Soulcaster. It’s a really interesting take on something like real-time, minimalist tower defense…or something. Check it out.
    Also, it was originally for sale and has now been made available for free.

    • trjp says:

      Soulcaster is, indeed, excellent. It started on XBLIG and there’s a PC port available from here

      http://www.magicaltimebean.com/soulcaster/

      and Desura – if you prefer installing your games – (there’s also a SoulCaster 2 in those places)

      The free version has been made using a tool which converts MS buildcode to HTML5. They already did Escape Goat (MTB’s other game) but that’s quite demanding as a browser game (being a twitchy platformer) wheras this is altogether better suited to the browser I think.

      Well worth a playthrough IMO

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    blind_boy_grunt says:

    imscared has some nice moments, and the meta-stuff adds an uncertainty to it that kept me being scared although i repeated to myself the whole time: “it’s just a game, if you die you just play it again”. Still, the stupid parking lot level almost killed it for me. I heard the sounds but couldnt really connect them with anything. I’m not that bright.

    • Wedge says:

      Can’t say I care for the game forcing me to kill it from the task manager, often while holding my mouse control…

      I thought the face was kinda cute though, was sad there wasn’t more you could do with it.

    • senae says:

      I don’t know if that runtime error was real, or if at some unspecified time it’s going to scare the shit out of me.

      • The Random One says:

        What I was thinking. Can someone clarify? I went through two computers this year and I don’t want to be scared by fake blue screens of death after having to deal with real ones for months.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          SPOILER, I think: did you get the jump scare where it pretends to be over but it makes you hit the ESC button? After you hit ESC, it looks like it quit, but if you wait a few seconds it’ll do a jump-scare and give you a new message and a clue how to proceed. (But then “one of them is lying” so is it a red herring?)

  4. The Random One says:

    “I still don’t know how I feel about StoryNexus as an engine. I don’t like the tendency towards grind. I like the games that try to minimize that tendency. I like anything that helps popularize interactive fiction.”

    That fits my thoughts about it to a T. On the one hand, it lets anyone be late 80′s Infocom. On the other hand, it lets anyone be Zynga.

    • Memphis-Ahn says:

      Agreed. The grinding doesn’t feel out of place in Below, seeing as it is a roguelike RPG-type deal and the action points regenerate quite quickly; but in Fallen London and Samsara it borders on slightly annoying, just how many differently coloured cats are there to catch and how many times can someone witness the exact same dream without thinking something is strange?

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    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I beheld The Message, and it surprised me. Yet once I saw it, I knew it could never have been anything else.

  6. malkav11 says:

    Zero Summer and Samsara are both phenomenal in terms of writing and worldbuilding, with the caveat that they are currently unfinished and there may be some structural issues as well.

    Zero Summer has an admirable tendency towards strong strings of narrative over grinding, with most of the 400-ish “storylets” it’s composed of going towards the actual forward movement of its stories with plenty of interesting choices and some really cool evocative bits (I like how they handle things like climactic fights and a dinner party that you arranged to attend for reasons of your own, also). Unfortunately, this means that the ways you -do- grind your stats come in only a handful of cards and some of them keep appearing long after they’re remotely efficient. Also, they really could benefit from a travel map like Fallen London has, at least if they want to keep location as part of the game structure (right now it barely does anything – one or two of the locations have special pinned cards and the storylines will occasionally require you to continue them at a specific locations, but that’s about it), and travel probably should not cost actions.

    Samsara has a more regular balance between “grind” cards (which are still nicely evocative and have some interesting setting detail) and storylines, but it turns out that in its current state it ends pretty quickly. Alas.

    I would also recommend Winterstrike – gorgeous writing and setting, but a little too reliant on grinding specific resources. Should have a few replays in it as there are four different factions you can associate with (not entirely exclusively, but you have to specifically align with one of them for ongoing story progress). Personally, I ended up fond of my little ironbird pet…only to discover that keeping one’s company with it ends up going some rather disturbing places.

    And of course, if you enjoy Fallen London, you’ll want to play Tales of Fallen London: The Silver Tree, for its intriguing hints at the history of the setting and its mix of espionage and Mongolian culture.

  7. klingon13524 says:

    The Message explores the human psyche so deeply, and you can beat it in less than 10 minutes. 9/10.

    • Marucla says:

      I decided to play it mainly because of this comment. Well worth your time people. I think that I’m gonna look at the world just a little differently because of The Message.

  8. Pantsman says:

    The Message reminded me of Roadside Picnic. Anyone else make that connection?

  9. JuJuCam says:

    I think The Message must be similar to the contents of the Curiosity box.

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    Bahumat says:

    Warning about the StoryNexus: It is “free” but it is also strongly “freemium” as in “after you use your 30 actions you will be cursing and swearing at this game for being so good to read but so infuriatingly insulting in its pricing scheme”.

    Honestly, if they’d just made the game free and slapped a “donation” button on it? Boom, 5 bucks, right there. But no.