If the number of games still trying to be movies is anything to go by, we’re still in the middle of sorting out what this medium is and is not good at. The games on this list, however, seem to have it figured out better than most. If they’re not experimenting with format outright, they’re leaning into all the ways that interactivity and subjective experience intertwine, dialing up our investment and our susceptibility to stark shifts in art and mechanics.
Indie games are cool, folks. Take a look here for past features:
Flip the rat-dog-witch is trapped in the fuzz dungeon. She got there by entering the big vault at her office job and then floating up out of the dungeon well, only for the well to disappear into the sasquatch sex amulet that then also disappeared. Toddling among the strange citizenry and their testy signposts asking where the well has gone, Flip does what anyone would do to hopefully set things right: play the minigames. Occasionally there’s continuity of game controls, where you’ll drop seeds into expectant floor mouths by walking around the way you do in the overworld, but there’s also vibrant art and mechanical shifts. A soccer game is played from a side view of pasted-together crayon drawings against a rambling audio monologue where I’m pretty sure I caught the phrase “Ghost of Tsushima”; a workplace therapy session where you voice distress about things like the pandemic’s pause on new pornography plays out in 8-bit; a first-person puzzle area has most of its solutions revolve around vomiting statues. Fuzz Dungeon is a riotous feat of kaleidoscopic creativity whose fractured, bizarre nature expresses a deep malaise, where you have ideas that seem decent in your head but get contorted and flattened until they come out like, well, this.
Labyrinth City: Pierre the Maze Detective
You, the titular maze detective, are in search of Mr. X (no, not that one), whose theft of a precious museum artifact has morphed the city into the mazes that are the detective’s specialty (though how much they’re really Pierre’s specialty is maybe up for his debate since his partner always seems to reach the finish before he does). Gorgeously translated from its children’s book source material, the game plays like Where’s Waldo if you were a single character prowling through the enormous crowds. Dead ends come with the territory of a maze game, but each one in Labyrinth City holds some sight gag or silly interaction, to the point where finding the optimal route is the last thing you want to do. So many games ask us to tediously prod at every crevice and pop behind every staircase in a compulsive quest for collectibles, but Labyrinth City makes it satisfying to explore the entire map and spend more time marveling at the art.
Lil Flutie 3D
Free in browser (Itch) | Rondaar
Who, a world asks with bated breath, is Lil Flutie? Or maybe Lil Flutie is more of a what. He has a mustache and yet he is a baby, nude as the day he was born (assuming he was, in fact, born). There are other baby-folk; he summons one out of thin air to ride across bodies of water. He collects fruit to progress between levels and has a dedicated piss function, which makes mushrooms grow in size for ease of 3-D platforming when the slight edge of his gliding double-jump doesn’t quite cut it. The camera can be fiddly and the platforming, despite a tantalizing sense of propulsion, isn’t quite as tight as some of its contemporaries, but something about Lil Flutie captures the imagination, the combination of its grotesque title character, shit-hot drum and bass soundtrack, and big levels heavy on the ugly checkerboards that figure prominently to so much early CGI.
(Also collected in Indiepocalypse 17.)
Inkslinger bursts with its love for words, practically swooning at the way individual letters look when freshly spat out of a typewriter following each tactile little click. Single words are enormous on the screen, disappearing with each keystroke as whole paragraphs take their place. You’re essentially taking a very interpretive form of dictation, typing the words that match what clients want to convey in situations ranging from gang threats to political speeches and then presenting them with the final, formal results. It’s like working in the opposite direction from all those writing classes that emphasize brevity and omitting needless words, picking the short version and then blowing it up to get at everything it’s supposed to summarize. Inherent to the game’s fondness for words, however, is its recognition of their power, what they can accomplish and how they might be twisted to horrific ends.
We might call SOLAS 128 a well-oiled machine if it didn’t seem to exist on some plane beyond the need for oil and clanking mechanisms. It is instead a chilled-out neon contraption of adjoining rooms where mirrors bounce around balls of light that are spat out in time to the music. There are some of the expected wrinkles like light colliding to change color and/or ricochet at new angles, and the game expertly introduces each concept until you are surprised to find yourself handling something so complex. But what really sends it over the top is how everything connects, with the light moving on a continuous path between the puzzle rooms, leading you to make adjustments to the surroundings and dragging parts around where possible in pursuit of one beautifully interwoven system.
(The Itch version has an in-browser demo.)
Name your own price (Itch) | Sand Gardeners
Another brief Ludum Dare joint, public speaking in Unpaid Serenade looks like you’re about to keel over from fever. Colors swim before your eyes while the bad thoughts loudly declare themselves, imposter syndrome contorted into a balloon animal horror. The characters models don’t have faces, and their bodies are nondescript — the old advice to picture them all in their underwear has no power here, because their very presence in these very numbers is enough to generate stress. When it’s time to go onstage and speak, the words do come. Some of them. But you have to keep up by typing along, physically placing each letter before you can eventually communicate the whole thing. And worse, the number of letters and the speed of the timer for each line varies wildly, forcing uncomfortable pauses and screw-ups and freezes. At least you haven’t forgotten what you have to say — or have you?
UnearthU is a wellness app for a new you, a blueprint to honing your bodymind. The innovative AI called KARE provides everything you might need on the journey to your best self, dispensing mixed-media inspirational videos and rigorously-tested discussions about the optimal way to live. Designed to be easy on the eyes as well as the ears and mind, KARE is both a teacher and an aspirational figure. Take it from the CEOs and other top disruptors who made this sublime experience possible: UnearthU is the tool with which you can sculpt a more present, more mindful self. When, after all, has Silicon Valley ever steered us wrong?
(A brief note: I played this just fine on Steam but phones seem like an ideal platform here. Oh, and it’s also cheaper on everything else, including Itch.)
Paid (Steam) | The Outer Zone
Some games leverage every aspect of their interface to fully immerse you in a role, and in Mind Scanners that role is a cyberpunk quack who makes house calls to remove a brain’s insanities (naturally, there are multiple types; each one has its own little symbol). Although the qualifications are so low that they’re practically subterranean, it’s a delicate process; not only do you have to keep the symbols straight but you have to know how to operate each device. One might have you holding the fast-forward button to count all the symbols and then punch the correct number into the chunky retro keypad, while another might have you sliding levers to tune out all the useless stuff in a word find. You also need to keep an eye on the stress a patient accumulates from being hooked up to a series of invasive (as well as painful if operated incorrectly) machines, while taking care not to obliterate their whole personality. Oh, and there’s a timer.
The novelty wears off, but it’s meant to — you become a meat technician operating under dubious diagnoses, mashing buttons specified by the in-game manual with little incentive to be gentle or even particularly safe. You’ve got bills, after all, and maybe even new machines to buy and replace the faulty all-purpose zapper that you start out with. The job hardly pays as it is, so as long as you make rent, what’s a tiny penalty here and there for treating the wrong patient or taking things too far?