I don’t typically set out to do themes for this feature, but I did hit upon one this time: these games are about feeling trapped.
Sometimes you’re trapped, sometimes you’re the one doing the trapping, and sometimes you don’t quite realize you’re trapped until it’s too late.
Kharon’s Crypt – Even Death May Die
In this occult take on the top-down Legend of Zelda games, a monarch cheats death by entombing the soul-taker Kharon in the bowels of a booby-trapped crypt. The game picks up some years after that imprisonment, casting you as the newly-freed Kharon in search of a way out and also revenge. As a ghost, you can be harmed by objects in the physical realm but are otherwise unable to interact with them. Even the coins just sort of sit there, mocking your incorporeal form unless you’ve possessed the body of something like a slime or a rat. And if you want to use keys, wield weapons, or pry open chests, you need to possess a body that has hands.
It’s a bit like Mario Odyssey in that way, where you package and repackage yourself in different meat wrappers to use certain abilities, some discovered through play and others explained by rhyming ghosts or blood-soaked pages. The layouts can get fairly complicated, too, allowing you access to dangerous new areas and generally leaving room for the player to get a little bit lost in the search of materials for the dark rituals that open other ways forward. If later Zelda games got a little too cute about slotting things into their proper places, Kharon’s Crypt recaptures that elusive sense of traipsing through a dungeon you aren’t meant to escape.
Go Fly a Kite
Free (Itch) | Digital Tchotchkes
In Go Fly a Kite, the end is nigh, but you won’t live to see it. The moment you peel yourself away from the internet message boards, you notice a tumorous glob pulsing on your head and head to the doctor, who gives you the bad news. Insurance isn’t going to cover it, so you’re going to miss out on even the communal suffering and understanding of a society that knows it’s ending.
Realized through claymation and static fuzz that gives the animation a glitchy quality, the short Go Fly a Kite is an absurdist howl of powerlessness. The first-person perspective leaves you feeling trapped, staring helplessly at closed elevator doors, at the innards of medical machinery, at the landscape crawling by a bus window. The only power left to exert is with your words, even though every conversation is a pedantic dead end, and with your feet, because at least you can control where a discarded can rests on the sidewalk.
Featured in Indiepocalypse 27.
Free in browser (Itch) | Puchi
If you’ve had it up to here with video game murder-dads, here’s one where you play the murder-mom. The short RPGmaker story Symbiosis casts you as witch who has to tuck her kid into bed and read him a story so that he’s out of the way when she stalks around the place to murder the intruders that are after her dirty, gory secrets. With detailed pixel art, the game is an intriguing inversion of the usual horror dynamic that, for me, achieved maximum effect because I played it after the first-person pixel-hunt Uninvited, which places you in the more traditional role of the intruder trying to not get killed.
Paid early access (Steam) | Cogwheel Software
In the tunnels of a suboceanic research facility, humans have encountered horrible monsters that want to eat them. This discovery, of course, does little to change the fact that there’s work to be done. Hidden Deep is all about the things you do in addition to firing guns, like using grappling hooks to lower yourself down ledges because the fall damage is just as hazardous as the monsters and the radiation. From a side-scrolling perspective, you build bridges, secure ropes, set up ziplines, drill tunnels, and blow holes in the vulnerable spots in the rock that you pinpoint with a scanner. And you need to do it by switching between different characters, because only the engineers with wobblier aim can operate the heavy machinery.
Though still in early access, the vision of Hidden Deep is fairly cohesive and complete. It’s a game about methodical process that’s still adding more options, including a toggle for sickos like me who want the additional stress of realistic ammo clips that force you to discard the leftover bullets if you reload before firing them all.
The Other Side
Free (Itch) | Mike Klubnika
And speaking of methodical process, what is it about following each painstaking little step in a process that’s so compelling? Maybe it’s an oppositional thing, where it becomes bold to perform the sort of menial actions so commonly glossed over in our storytelling and even our daily lives, where the work behind just about anything is supposed to be invisible. The Other Side isn’t long, but it’s about those steps. You have to break through a wall, desperately tinkering with a cobbled-together drill. To put in a new drill bit, you first need to open the toolbox and grab the tool that you insert to eject the old one. To refill the coolant and the oil, you need to unscrew the top with the screwdriver, remove the caps, and then pour the liquids. It’s short and maybe a little imprecise, but I’d have played more.