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

A hard ride to Hell and back

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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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