Hi, I’m nobody, filling in for Porpentine for the week. Talk to me on Twitter at @nobodybutyours.
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How To Be A Blackbird by Holly Gramazio
This is a hypertext about being a bird.
As any blackbird knows, the blackbird is the best sort of bird, and we are tasked here with being the perfect specimen of a blackbird. I like how this flirts with various potential allegories — some of them uncomfortable, at times maybe supremacist — without quite landing on any of them. Instead, the game seems to commit further and further to the blackbird itself, to its life in the city, to its imperturbable sense that whatever befalls it is surely yet more evidence of its perfection. The amazing part is how this somehow comes off as endearing. “What a good bird!” I want to reassure it. “What a good bird!”
Sleepy Time by Kayabros
This is a rhythm game about masturbation, but I was almost through the first level before I recognized that as the primary verb. This game lets you pretend you’re a cis man with a cis man’s body who cannot make that body sleep. You’re probably depressed. But through the power of music and rhythm-action maybe you can lull yourself to sleep. Try stroking to the beat. How does that feel? I bet others are doing the same thing right now, as we speak. Listen hard and maybe you can even hear them.
There’s something touching and melancholy here. Maybe even uplifting. (Those are not puns.)
Each round asks us to help a different insomniac. Recreations of our earlier performances are lined up along the bottom of the screen. After a few rounds I noticed I could hear the sound effects I’d produced during those earlier levels filling in the lulls of the current song, forming a quiet symphony of tiny game noises. This — along with the dialog between levels — transforms a potentially silly masturbation game into something more transcendent. The last level makes this explicit in a way that’s probably unnecessary, but I was already charmed.
The Doctor of N by fizzhogg
This is a hostile boardgame wrapped in a hostile interface. It’s difficult to know whether that’s out of carelessness or by design, but it’s interesting. There’s an ugliness to its systems, an inelegance to the way so many outcomes are determined by chance, by behind-the-scene dice rolls opaque to the player. And yet if you stick with it and play a few times you might start to intuit those invisible probabilities and you might start to see the outlines of an interesting risk/reward structure.
There are also brief hints at a narrative between each level, via a short synthesizer jingle, an evocative phrase, and an abstract image from Andi McClure and Michael Brough’s BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS.
The ending is a real treat, but I suspect few will reach it.
(Note that the first screen you can interact with is a long hallway of identical doors. This is a level select screen. Move your character with the WASD keys. Only the first door on the left will work. The rest of the game is controlled by the mouse.)
The main game screen resembles Chutes and Ladders: you start as the medicine bag in the lower left and your goal is to wind your way to the exit in the upper left. Each turn you’re given a choice between a handful of squares to move into next. If you haven’t read the readme file, you won’t know that the icons along the left side of the screen are listing the four kinds of “bad memory” obstacles in ascending order of dangerousness. As far as I can tell, moving to a “bad memory” square invokes an invisible dice roll to determine whether you’ve succeeded in defeating it. If you fail, you’ll be sent back a randomly chosen number of squares and you’ll lose a certain amount of health (red potions in the upper right). The blue potions get consumed each time you take a turn, and both types are renewable by landing on potion icons on the game board. Running out of either potion type will bring you to a gameover screen and the executable will quit. There is no save function.
The readme file will inform you that the circle icons along the right edge allow you — three times each per level — to perform certain actions like shuffling the currently selectable squares or swapping red potions for blue ones. Ultimately, the interesting aspect of the system comes down to deciding when to use these limited special actions and when to waste turns (and thus blue potions) to avoid the likelihood of losing health and being sent back to an unpredictable square. There are a few more strategies to uncover as well.
(Note that if you use your last blue potion to reach the exit door you’ll be sent to the game over screen, so plan accordingly.)
2 by Hubol
Hubol’s 2 is a metroidlike exploration game and it is adorable and charming and inventive and fun. It’s also big, full of secrets, something to play through in multiple sittings. (The title screen even changes every time you launch the game.) It all feels explicitly hand drawn, almost everything on screen jittering about in place. It also feels deeply personal, hinting at darker, gooier things despite its overall upbeat, silly tone.
There’s a lot just barely crackling through its surface, as though we’re catching glimpses of a larger world just out of reach. There’s writing on some of the walls — sometimes just partial words, or mangled words — but it doesn’t feel like graffiti. Rather, it feels like the person who made these drawings has left some language lying about, like scribblings in the notebook this game’s images were drawn on.
After retrieving each upgrade a cellphone pops up and we’re shown a Twitter-like screen, the top entry typing out our character’s excitement at receiving this latest toy. (This also serves to explain each upgrade’s purpose.) But underneath seem to be past entries for all of our recent actions, even the more banal ones. Which is to say we’ve been typing on this phone the whole time, only off screen.
The effect of all this is a sense of overflowing. The game overflows its screens. The game’s world overflows the sliver we have access to. The artist-creator overflows into the game, again and again and again.