Plenty of folks play games to unwind and unplug from whatever ails them in the world beyond their screen. But like any form of creative expression, games have just as much power to reflect the hardships we experience rather than simply enabling us to put them aside. So be warned: we get a little current with this crop of overlooked indies, evoking such modern struggles as vaccination, the end of the world as we know it, and climbing a tall tower with some garden shears.
Paid (Itch) | PUNKCAKE Délicieux
When you begin Metavaxx, you select a company to brand your prospective vaccine for different starting bonuses (more health, making progress even after failure, etc.) and then you send it into infected cellular samples for further growth. Too soon? Maybe, but Metavaxx is entrancing for how it takes a twin-stick shooter setup and adds a layer of Minesweeper-style numbers that alert you to how many surrounding cells are actually an infected nest of multi-colored virus molecules. But the game isn’t over if you unleash an enemy horde; you complete a sample by either purging all infected areas or getting rid of all the safe cells to totally isolate the bad, with the remaining number of cells counting toward your vaccine’s progress.
It is, then, in your best interest to be as efficient as possible, trying not to destroy any cells unnecessarily by making the wrong deduction or just missing too many of your frantic shots against the virus (maybe even unleashing more molecules if you catch the wrong cell in the crossfire). But sometimes destroying what you’d prefer to preserve is unavoidable, as caution does little good if you’ve failed to carve out enough room to maneuver away from enemy projectiles or the toxic cloud released upon a molecule’s death. In between samples, you can get upgrades in exchange for increasing the vaccine’s price or creating some unwanted side effects, which affect the eventual acceptance of a stubbornly skeptical populace.
Cuccchi renders the paintings of Italian neoexpressionist Enzo Cucchi as explorable spaces. They are pixelated, faux-3D environments that are gorgeously sparse and strange, with faces that float in the shadow of a tent’s interior and giant heads that roam the desert, exhaling skulls. Ghostly bulls populate a foggy forest as densely as the trees, and the totemic disc in the sky — sun, moon, and perhaps something else altogether — guides you through undulating landscapes, leaving footprints in the snow and on the air. Challenge is fairly light; you’ll collect floating eyeballs that unlock art, but you’ll need to carry them all the way to the end because they function as health that’s lost whenever you run into one of the burbling skulls that stalks the mazes made from trees, dunes, and wheat. It’s not really meant to be frantic, and if anything it discourages a rushed playthrough of an already rather short game — it’s further motivation to luxuriate in what the game does best, to take your time and drink in the astonishing art.
Name your own price (Itch) | Vimi
At risk of short-changing some of the unsettling writing at work in Romancing Flesh, the presentation is what really puts it over the top. The jerky, cutout animations of realistic images create a peculiar atmosphere for this brief visual novel, where you examine documents at the behest of a sinister prison warden. It’s 1946 and you’re in his charge, though why he entrusts you with any of the details is a mystery. Letters, tape recordings, and grotesque photos portray snippets of a taboo romance in the midst of fleshy plant experiments that eventually go all Cronenberg. Without ever leaving the room, we fill in the blanks ourselves as we page through the aftermath of some horrible event and listen to the droning nationalism of our captor, witnessing first-hand how methods transfer smoothly and agnostically from one ideology to the next.
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The Gardener and the Wild Vines
As a lovelorn gardener, you somehow climb a tower by clipping flower buds, which shoot you upward as vines grow outward to sprout leaf platforms and more flowers to propel you along the ascent. As he explains to a testy knight meant to stand guard, the gardener means to declare his love to the captive prince, who is inevitably in another tower each time the would-be rescuer makes it to the top. The smooth controls, chunky sound effects, and rather generous margin of error ensure that it feels great to chase par times and search for the most efficient routes. But crucially, it feels just as good to forgo any of the timed precision, catapulting around each tower just to build up big combos and cover it in vines — the extra work even comes in handy, giving you more places to catch yourself if you miss a mark and start to plummet to the ground.
Name your own price (Itch) | fotocopiadora
I’m actually glad that First Land isn’t a horror game, because the idea of something dangerous roaming its yawning caverns and wide gray expanses sounds truly overwhelming. There’s already such a heavy, evocative atmosphere to its lo-fi 3-D environments, which range from a curiously empty city to underground huts to ruins cut through by a noise I can only describe as a speaker-shaking thrum. The world has ended, and these are the ruins and the memories that impart hints about the cryptic mechanics if you’re paying attention (and have a notepad on hand). You’re fumbling around in low light, stepping through false walls and puzzling out how to work the symbol-based speech system between shadow-figures and worm-things that inhabit the desolate remains.
I haven’t finished it, and the chances of me getting stuck at some point seem rather high as the game’s entire construction (as well as its equally cryptic manual) harken back to a style of design that was less eager to explain itself and that did not have walkthroughs readily accessible on a cell phone. First Land is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, definitely not for everyone due to the potential frustration, but it is also a stunning auditory and visual accomplishment that’s captivating in its mystery.