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

Man-eating cat

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“…crawling on four legs seems much more efficient and enticing than walking…” Empathy sims. The worst train driver in the world. Sludge dynamite paladin. Ghost towns of Myst.

Anamnesis, of Renascents and Monsters by Jose Ignacio Moreno Ferrer

Anamnesis is that rarest of all creatures, the narrative strategy RPG, a hybrid of resource management and CYOA inspired by King of Dragon Pass (the best game in the world). The goal is to seek out pieces of a randomly chosen artifact while managing and capturing territories and minions. I like narrative strategy because the math is obscured in a kind of aesthetic chaos where the action can be guided without falling into joyless efficiency.

The dreamlike setting has something to do with an ontological amnesia, lands erased from memory newly rediscovered and ripe for colonization, a nebulous conceit perfectly suited to a medium where our imagination fills in the blanks. As one of the “imperfect immortals”, a Renascent, you are reborn if you die (with the exception of your home base being captured). Summoning new forces is a delicate task–intimidating them makes their cost cheaper, but press too hard and they drift away.

When you visit a territory, the descriptive paragraph concludes with “You have no one longing for you here.” I had no idea what that line meant the first time I read it, but the implication that something could be longing for me was all it took to draw me in. Anamnesis is just crawling with fascinating wording like that.

The choices (and mistakes) you make give each playthrough a unique flavor. This run I’ve got a “demented grin” and my title is “The Hedonist Explorer Porpentine, The Monster on Four Legs.” I control a floating knife and a moss sniper. I’ve got weapons I found in the trash. I still live in a bunch of rubble but I have aspirations.

Other things I like: the variety of forces to control (from a man-eating cat to an entire family of aristocrats), the interesting sub-systems (each entity has an affinity for night or day, for instance), and the detailed gender/sexuality choices (choose to be attracted to male, female, both, or none).

This was made in Ren’Py, which is interesting because that’s a visual novel authoring system most often used for dating sims, hacked here into an elegant chassis for something entirely different. Anamnesis isn’t finished but this is the first winnable release in an ongoing development process and I’m eager to see where it goes.

Mainichi by Mattie Brice

An autobiographical slice of life with the goal of relating everyday events in the life of a transgender woman. The choice to write Mainichi in RPG Maker was a deliberate one, the idea being to “make games that feasibly anyone can do on their own.”

Getting ready to meet a friend, walking down the street, ordering coffee at a cafe–by depicting mundane activity that everyone experiences, the differences stand out keenly. Not everyone has to get yelled at on the street for existing (a cringe-inducing scene). This point must be repeated until people understand the psychic toll that comes from being scrutinized so intensely just for leaving the house.

This is a game that says, here’s what happens when I walk down the street, no one should have to deal with this. Part of becoming a better human being is learning what hurts other people and how to avoid that. That’s why games like this matter. Empathy sims, micro-doses of another person’s reality.

Shinjuku Line HD by Real Railway

Shinjuku Line HD is about driving a Japanese train through a Google Street View-esque rendition of the Nogata to Toritsu-Kasei route. You have one job and that’s to control your speed and avoid shooting past your stop, or as the game says, O V E R R U N.

I laughed so hard when I neared the end of the line because I completely failed to dock, or whatever they call it, at the station with any grace whatsoever, the absurdity of a train controlled by this witless conductrix who must jerk and jolt at least twenty times to slide over the last two feet of rail at the proper speed, imagining how the fake bystanders and fake passengers must have fake felt.

I like being inside this simulation of a foreign train. The tone sequence that plays over the loudspeaker to signal when the train is leaving, the voice announcing departure in a tongue I can’t speak or understand, the power lines and trees and structures of a city I may never visit, brings a certain kind of peace.

Slime Bomb Knight by DangerDeckman

The Slime Bomb Knight is a rabbit holding a bomb above its head at all times. The quest of the Slime Bomb Knight is to rescue a princess before she gets eaten but things get a little more complicated than that. This is a video game horror story. Not a horror story told through the medium of games, but a horror story that manages to be about games in the purest way it can, funny and scary and melting my brain.

A Game About Game Literacy by Damian Sommer

A Game About Game Literacy gives you a time limit, a goal, and a set of carefully placed power-ups (speed, jumps, extra time, etc) that must be combined intelligently to crack the tight, well-designed levels. Early on it’s just pleasurable fingerwork, but by the end of the game you have zero margin for error and you’re leaping across thin air chaining jump power-ups to get to the other side as the background pulsates an ominous crimson.

LACUNA by abstrAKT

LACUNA is a serene meditation on the many definitions of space. With each new meaning the controls shift and you pry at this virtual puzzle box until something clicks and another part of the world falls into place.

Hindsight by Jason Meisel

In Hindsight you steer a square through an arena full of deadly red circles (the ancient enemy of the square) and in your wake you leave faint outlines that blossom into new circles when you bounce off the other end of the arena. As time goes on the drop rate increases until finally you’re trailing what will become an unbroken wall of circles. This mechanic means taking a risky route that squeezes circles together can pay off with a less dangerous return later. That’s like, game design or something.

Will You Ever Return? by jackspinoza

Will You Ever Return? takes place in a delightful Hell slapped together from screenshots and claymation and photos of junk lying around the author’s house, glued together with manic humor. Gameplay? Plot? You run around trying to get a bunch of skulls so you can escape Hell and get back to your lady love. What are you prepared to do…TO GET A SKULL…IN HELL?

A True Western Romance by magicdweedoo

A True Western Romance is a mystical cowboy experience with POWERFUL VOICE ACTING and HILARIOUS WORD WRITING. I’m imagining this world as the eery wasteland at the edge of a corrupted disc of Myst or maybe long-lost Bryce landscapes slowly becoming haunted on someone’s discarded hard drive. The cactus conversation benefits from probably the most advanced NPC AI ever made, a robust simulation that genuinely made me believe I was talking to a cactus with a face on it.

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