Here's a free tip for you, if you keep fish - you're probably feeding them too much. Small fish, like guppies and tetras, might have big appetites, but they only have little tummies, so they prefer to eat little and often. Now: what if... video games?.
There is a new indie dev collective called 10mg - named, I assume, after a small amount of... some drugs? - and they have today released a collection of ten games, each taking around ten minutes to play, and available as a collection on Steam for ten quid. Our Nat wrote about them at the top of the month, and in the words of 10mg themselves, "at worst, they waste 10 minutes of your time on a buck-wild idea that didn’t pan out. At best, they provide you with 10 minutes that you’ll reflect on for 10 years". I am intrigued. So here's the plan: I'm going to review them all in one sitting, right now. I'll take ten minutes for each one, and then a further ten minutes to write as much review as I can, potentially with a very abrupt finish. I've got a stopwatch and everything. Ready? Let's begin.
It's a neat little compendium of classic lo-fi games - Snake, Pong, Tetris, and such - all linked together, with a looping soundtrack which you might expect to find playing quietly over breakfast in a decent Tokyo hotel. In each game, you play as some form of entity with a goofy little smiley face, hence ":)". The fun part here is working out how each game will morph into the next, and achieve the "win condition" that will trigger the shift.
I put that in quote marks, because often the way to win... is to lose. For example, after you fit your Snake into a pattern of blocks identified by a spectral outline, it freezes in place and becomes a falling Tetris block. Once that block is in place, further snakes descend, each of which you must contort into the shape of the block you need next before their period of plasticity ends and they plummet down. This is surprisingly hard, but that's okay, because when your screen fills up, everything turns into a silly game of golf.
I like it. Everything's very transient, and so eases your mind away from trying to work out how to win, into trying to work out how to get to the next game. The fact that no control instructions ever appear onscreen is appealing too, as although every game presented is very simple, there's always a brief period of finding your feet each time, like when a Crystal Maze contestant gets dumped into a polystyrene Aztec temple, and their team has to work out how they're going to use a jigsaw puzzle and a jug of water to make a crystal roll out of a taxidermied monkey's bum.
By Stuffed Wombat (and Beethoven)
Woah! This was something. From the title, I must admit I'd resigned myself to a thoughtful but ultimately low-octane depression metaphor. But Always Down is not that. It's joyous, in a small but powerful fashion I can't really do justice to here. "I am going away" announces a small green lump, which is you. You must then head into a nearby tunnel, and... well, obey the game's title. You descend into a dungeon that gets ever darker visually, but not thematically, accompanied by the bombastic blaring of Beethoven's Egmont Overture. There are some relatively unchallenging jumping puzzles, birds zipping about that you die if you touch. These deaths are frequent and easily recoverable from, and even the most frustrating moment in the game only held up my breakneck katabasis by about thirty seconds.
This doesn't sound very original, does it? But trust me, it is. I'm generally nonplussed by platformers, but something about the rhythm and the music (the music! what a choice!) really got me into this. And then there's the ending, which is a single absurd gag, but a triumphant one, that I shan't spoil. I am, however, bloody glad it only took a few minutes to play, as it was beginning to give me violent motion sickness. As you get deeper, the light cast by your little green lump becomes more pronounced, with rays of it swinging everywhere, and the entirety of the underground begins to sway from side to side like a cross-channel ferry in rough weather. Didn't like that at all. But it was all resolved amicably.
Cover Me In Leaves
So, this one's one of those games that is a short story that you click through paragraph by paragraph, accompanied by atmospheric music and images. I'll be blunt and say that's not usually a format which appeals to me at all. But credit where credit's due, this was extremely stirring. It's mightily well-written, for a start, and I can appreciate anything well-written, within reason. But context also helps; the author and developer, Elliot Herriman, came out as trans this week - at least as I interpret from her Twitter - and learning that made me reflect on the story in a very powerful new light.
Elliot's is not an experience I can directly relate to as a cis man, but the catharsis which declared itself in every sentence of her story was loud, clear, and universally comprehensible. Once I had more context, there was all the more to appreciate for its light. It's quite a power, to be so personally expressive, in such an indirect fashion. I'm nearly out of time, but I should take care not to dismiss the audio-visual bits of this game as set dressing; they're intrinsic. One painting in particular, at the climax of the story, was superb in its contrast to the grainy, pixelated-photo-ish visuals accompanying the rest, and summed the whole thing up wonderfully.
HANDMADEDEATHLABYRINTH Issue 0
Aaah, but you can't win 'em all. I'm sorry to say, with no rancour to the developer, that this was the first game in the collection I quit out of before ten minutes were up. The concept was cracking - it's a dungeon crawl on a set path (which also takes place in a dream, or partially in one... I think?), and every time you die, you go back to a sort of protector figure, who increases your HP so you'll do better the next time. That's a neat and surprisingly untapped method for handling levelling up/stat gain, and I appreciated it.
Unfortunately, the game just wasn't for me. There's a bastard wizard about four rooms into the dungeon who just merked me every time I crossed his path, no matter how buffed up I was. I was certain there was a Eureka moment just waiting for me to discover it, that would see me past the wizard, but the crunchy, megaretro sound and visuals had gotten a bit abrasive for my tastes by then, and I no longer felt the balance between "want to see what happens next" and "can be bothered to keep repeating the same thing until then" was tipping in the game's favour. Not a hard pass by any means, and I think the concept could be tweaked into something ace. But I am quickly wearied by forced repetition.
Locked In, which describes itself as a "Marriage Simulator", is set in the UK during the first wave of the old coronaroonies 19. It's a game designed to be played by two people at one PC, with one using the keyboard, and one using the mouse. You're a couple, with a daughter, having a conversation that inevitably becomes an argument, and selecting dialogue options based on motivations revealed to you at the start (one at a time, while the other player had their eyes closed). Cleverly, because of said coronaroonies, the two players at this point in time are as likely to be a couple as not. And indeed, I played it with Ashleigh, my wife. Who offered the following verdict: "what the fuck was that supposed to be?".
Her tone was more baffled than contemptuous, I feel I should point out, with the emphasis on "supposed" rather than "that". Because this idea is intrinsically interesting. But the execution is awkward, and we weren't sure what it was going for. Whatever you do, protagonists Grace and Jerome end up in a bitter, hurtful fight, and they just... both come across as complete gits? I don't know if the intention was for couples playing to reflect soberly on their own lockdown stresses, but at the risk of sounding smug, there was a moment halfway through where Ashleigh and I turned to each other, and reflected on how weird it was to have a game buffalo us into an argument we'd never get into IRL. "Are we actually just quite good people?" I asked, feeling strangely uplifted. "We might be, you know," said Ashleigh. So that was nice. Of course we've fought, because we're a couple, and I'd be a stinking liar if I said quarantine hadn't made things spikier than they should be, at times. But we're not Grace and bloody Jerome.
Even though the themes addressed - protecting a daughter, interpreting lockdown rules and the like - were relatable, the general experience was fundamentally alien, because we only ever had the option to be horrible to each other, really. Which is quite a stumbling block, I suppose, in a simulation. You might even say this is not a simulation. Still, when we compared the game's resolution with the motivations we'd each been given to pursue at the start, we did concede it had done something really interesting, and somewhat redemptive, both for the characters and for the game itself. But it was rather soured by the experience of being forced to call one another twats for the preceding eight minutes. The game ends with the word "fin", and so this review will too. Fin.
I actively did not enjoy this one. But I think that's more on me, than it is on Sealed Estate. It's a horror game with some puzzle elements, and those are two elements which tend to turn me off more often than on. More than that though, Sealed Estate was just a bit upsetting. When I got to the end of ten minutes with no end in sight, I was relieved to quit.
And it might well really freak you out. There are sudden loud screams and bangs, constant unsettling audio-visual effects, and lots of environmental storytelling of the "blood-splattered floors and notes written by either children, or monsters who speak like children" kind. If that's your thing, you might well be all over this, but it's not my thing (see also: Salad Fingers. Fucking Salad Fingers). I can appreciate the craft at work here, and there's no way I'd be ignorant enough to call it "bad". Indeed, the developer has shown a fine instinct for how to unnerve and create anxiety which, as I say, is where some people get their thrills. It's just that I do not particularly want to feel anxious or unnerved, even at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I feel like a bit of a dick for noping out of this one, but every box of chocolates has the coffee one that's still there in February, and for me that's Sealed Estate.
SLASHER, Interrupted was cute, low-stakes, well-executed. It's another click-through-text-to-progress story, only this time there's a good deal of branching narrative. The premise: you and three other teens (I think they're teens? People younger than I am, anyway) are on a camping trip, around a fire. You're telling the others a scary story. Only they won't stop interrupting you. One of them wants everything to be cute and happy, one of them wants the tale to be a bloodbath, and one of them just bloody loves weed. Fair.
Anyway, each of them is an appalling backseat storyteller, trying to wrestle the narrative towards their tastes, and there are three moments in the story where you have to judge your audience and work out who to throw a thematic bone to. I only had time to play through one particular combination of choices, but I suspect there are quite a few endings - theoretically 27, if it's got the full dendritic structure it seems to have - and I'd be intrigued to see how differently it can all play out. It's intrinsically light-hearted, at least the way I played it, and there were a good few chuckles along the way. A fun way to tell a story, and definitely worth a shout.
Alas! This one hasn't been unlocked at the time of writing, so I've not been able to play it. But that's okay, as it's taking a lot of mental energy to play and review ten games without a pause, and I won't mind finishing a little early. Still, it's a bit of a shame, as the art looked intriguing, and the concept doesn't sound bad either. In fairness to SNAAAK, I shall leave you with the words from its Steam page, so you may judge it for yourself:
"Traverse a forgotten laboratory while incarnating a formless critter. Experience a study on snake’s mechanics that explores different takes and turns on the core of its design as you roam through an extensive metroidvania setting". So there you go. It loses points for describing itself as a metroidvania, because I am a capricious sod. But then it gains points for featuring a formless critter, as I like formless critters. And I'm not really awarding points anyway.
Honestly, I was ready to tell this one to fuck off about two minutes in, but I stuck with it. I'm glad that I did. It's about being in a hospital waiting room, trying to find ways to talk to your kid after your wife's had a stroke. This did not appeal. I've spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, in various situations, over the last few years. A lot of time. Often, people I loved died. And heavy stuff like this is feeling particularly heavy right now. My wife has a round of surgery approaching imminently, and while it's not life-or-death stuff, it's certainly serious business, and I'm going to have to find ways to explain it to our two year old while it all happens. There's a lot of baggage on me connected with hospitals and death and all that, is what I'm saying.
I really didn't fancy rifling through it all for the sake of applauding someone's proof that Games Can Be Art. But despite my prickles and presumptions, Stroke was not some pompous bit of gravitas for the sake of it. It could have been. It really could have been. But I decided to trust the developer not to be a dick with the subject matter, and what they gave me in return was something much more thoughtful and responsible than I expected. I actually finished it feeling a sense of brief, hopeful euphoria, but I'm going to stop writing about it now because I might have to have a brief cry that isn't entirely to do with the game. Or maybe it is. Anyway, good game.
But. Please for the love of god can everything stop having retro 8-bit graphics and music? You could make a case for that reflecting the unreality of hospital waiting room anxiety in this case, I suppose. But still, I'd just rather not.
Game 10: You Are Such A Soft And Round Kitten
There has been no reasoning to the order I've tackled these games in besides alphabetical order, but what can I say? The alphabet has been extremely kind to me, because what a smasher of a game. I was expecting either something saccharine and overly "wholesome" here, or something hideously dark that "subverted" the obvious expectations. What I got was the first thing to make me laugh out loud today. YASASARK is an absolute joyous disaster. It's jarring, it's disjointed, and it's an assault on the senses, but somehow it avoids all sense of trying too hard to be weird. It's just effortlessly, naturally batshit, and I appreciated it in my core.
I could describe it as a platform game where you have to find keys to unlock locks on different screens and so on and so on, but that would be missing the point. That's just a matrix for the delivery of absurdist fun, in the same way a crumpet is just a way to eat a load of butter with a veneer of respectability. This game is not doing anything big or meaningful. You would never choose to play it twice. But it's funny as hell, and in a way that really appeals to my particular taste for chaotic delight. Game of the collection, IMHO.
Phew. I did it. That was a pretty intense 182 minutes. Congratulations if you're still reading: I think we went through a lot together. If you're intrigued, and you think the above sounds like it might be worth a tenner (a hint: it is), then you can get the whole lot of 10mg's efforts as a bundle or individually via Steam or Itch.io.