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Priceless Play -- 14 March 2020

Games to keep the wolf from the door.

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If we have survived this month’s Friday the 13th, we get this brief day of reprieve before the Ides of March. The general tenor of the hour is unease, and I’m afraid that the games I offer here don’t have much by way of respite. I can’t help but shake the sensation that everything is going slowly wrong, somehow. This is not to say that any feeling of unease cannot be mitigated, though! On the contrary — acknowledging a sense of dread is the first step to containing it.

Here are games that either contain or combat an air of disquiet, paranoia, and discomfort. Perhaps there is one (or more) among them that you will find comforting.

The Old City of High Walls from JohnLee Cooper

You have taken the train to The Old City of High Walls and must find an inn, or something just as suitable, where you can stay the night. No one here speaks English with much fluency, and the walls of the city curl inwards in a confusing labyrinth of downtown sprawls and piers and barracks full to bursting. Or, as the game’s itch page describes, “An overnight stop in your journey demands that you find refuge somewhere in the Old City of High Walls. Explore the city and learn about its buildings, its people, and the world it resides in.”

The Old City of High Walls is a curious Bitsy game with an ominous dynamic soundtrack and multiple endings. Maybe you will, as I did, spend the night by the fishermen and the alchemist, writing and drawing in a feverish dream. I never did find the inn. I wonder if it was ever there, hidden somewhere in the shade of the towering walls and steam and smoke.

Library of Babble from Demi

Library of Babble is, I think, a map. There is a compass with directional markers and a representation of some pastel and fluorescent topography, but little to suggest any of it is going to lead you somewhere. I wandered around for a while, confused about where I was going or where I was headed. “I love you,” the map said to me at one point. At another, it described a vase of lavender sprigs. This was all well and good, I thought, but what was the point? The game intimated that these small passages were left by other people who had played the game and that should I wish to leave my mark, I needed to find a suitable patch to enter a passage. But everywhere was full. I felt a bit like I was in the Old City of High Walls, looking fruitlessly to find a place to stay.

The developer, Demi, wrote to another player who experienced a similar phenomenon: “My suggestion may be to simply keep wandering in a single direction, and I’m sure you’ll discover someplace nice soon.” So I walked on. I just headed south (although I was unsure what south really meant in a place like this) and, eventually, as Demi promised, my number came up. And I left a little message.

Demi recently made Library of Babble free as a move to help those who need a quiet game to play. As more and more people move to self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantining to respond to the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, perhaps a wander in the library would help them. Perhaps it would help you, too.

A Hand with Many Fingers from Colestia

At this point, I don’t think Colestia can make a game I don’t love. I spend a lot of my time in archives, I love media about espionage and intrigue, and I deeply question the motives of institutional bodies. And so, I present for your consideration, A Hand with Many Fingers: “a first-person investigation game about a real Cold War conspiracy. Explore the CIA’s murky history of drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, regime change, and assassination.” Oh. And the game is set in an archive! Finally, archivists can be the action heroes. Finally, I can play a video game where I connect black-and-white headshots to newspaper clippings via strands of red twine. Finally, my little heart can go pitter-patter in the basement of the archives, drowning out the hum of the air-conditioner as I start putting my nose where it doesn’t belong. Wait — what was that sound?

A Hand with Many Fingers is just a demo for now — and while I typically shy away from demos, I knew I had to get my hands (with their many fingers) on this as soon as possible. I can’t wait for the full release, and I hope you check it out.

Recreational Grave Simulator from Em Reed

Recreational Grave Simulator is the least morbid game you’ll ever play about lying in a grave and looking up at the sky. More site-specific art piece than commentary on the finitude of death, Recreational Grave Simulator gives you a chance to take a minute for yourself and listen to the birds off in the distance. It calls to mind the site-specific work of Sophie Calle, or James Turrell, or a piece I can’t quite remember on a university campus, which invited students who needed some time to think the chance to lie in the deep, dark, earth for a little while. Go ahead. Take a break. I’ll still be here when you get back.

If you’re looking for more profoundly financially undemanding games to play, hit our list of the best free games.

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Who am I?

Kat Brewster

Contributor

Kat Brewster is a sometimes writer, sometimes game designer, and most-of-the-time academic based out of the University of California, Irvine. Kat's research focuses on play, the future of digital work, and queer archives. You can reach out on Twitter @katbamkapow.

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