If you’ve ever worked in retail, you grow accustomed to the fluidity of the holidays. People start early, and on the opposite end of the spectrum are people who start late, who want the holiday thing at exactly the same time as everyone else wants the holiday thing which means they’re probably not going to get it in any timely fashion. Christmas is the worst of it, people retreating to its repetitive, maudlin imagery in the middle of the year and then again, in earnest, before the leaves have even thought to change color. I do not condone this distressing behavior but exposure to it has, I think, let the idea burrow into my head. This list ended up featuring predominantly horror games, because somewhere in my head, I guess Halloween has come early.
Paid (Steam) | Chaos Forge
This game is what you get when you do Doom as a roguelike, and I do mean “roguelike” in a stricter sense than we’re accustomed to these days. Jupiter Hell is isometric, and it is turn-based, and it even retains some of the ASCII characters to stay consistent with its lo-fi look of boxy, scanlined monitors. The idea sounds more than a little blasphemous — can Doom still be Doom without the ability to reflexively sidestep a demon’s fireball? But the rest of it is here, largely relabeled: the guns, the gore, the hordes of hell, the industrial architecture on outer space locations. The turn-based combat is no obstacle to the smoothness of finding your target and making them go squish, even adding an additional layer of tension by taking the moment-to-moment decisions out of your hands: when you desperately scramble for faraway cover, is your dodge bonus from moving enough to keep you alive? No coincidence, I think, that Doom Eternal similarly zeroed in on the premise’s strategic core and shaped its encounters into something more like combat puzzles; Jupiter Hell reaches the logical conclusion.
There Swings a Skull
Pay what you want (Itch) | Conor Walsh, Quinn K.
An unsettling slice of interactive fiction, There Swings a Skull centers a town beneath a truly sweltering sun, radiating heat of such blistering intensity that citizens have begun to spontaneously combust. You play through the daily routine of a ticket-seller, who greets his struggling artist husband in the morning and then walks down the stairs through the empty town to the desert train station. On the way there and on the way back, he passes beneath a strange contraption, spindly metal legs that culminate in a set of speakers perched above a swaying noose. As a jam entry, the game is quite short but it is memorably strange, molding together its eccentric ideas with pixel art in sallow colors.
Paid (Steam) | Beeswax Games
Expanded from its initial appearance on the third Dread X Collection of short-form horror (all of which are worth digging into, by the way), Spookware goes beyond its self-explanatory title. The horror-themed spin on WarioWare-style, seconds-long microgames is now part of a larger adventure, where three skeleton brothers walk around wiggly cut-out environments like a VHS-filtered Paper Mario. It’s a fun little world, fixated on drinking milk and full of amusingly groan-worthy bone jokes. The microgames themselves don’t always hit, but they do offer some nuts-and-bolts insight about the concept: there’s a deceptive complexity to all this, demanding an immediate legibility for players to recognize and execute what’s expected of them across a wide variety of setups, and it is in those brief moments where Spookware falters that highlight how impressive it is when it works.
Pay what you want (Itch) | z_bill
The list of recurring video game monsters is long indeed, from goblins to skeletons (see above) to sewer rats. This brief, queasy title focuses on the disembodied eyeball, saturating itself in ocular objects and entities: eyeball masks, eyeball discs, eyeball statues, eyeball people. As you trudge through the sickly green and yellow sludge filter that spits text out onto both sides of the screen, what will happen when all the eyes are on you?
It’s time for the night watch at the Antarctic research outpost. The job isn’t tough, mostly solitary and uneventful since it just means going around to confirm that no buildings are on fire. Especially in the context of this list, that might seem like the setup for something creepy to eventually happen, but Imaginaria is exactly as it appears to be: a tranquil, pixelated tour whose graphical simplicity doesn’t at all shortchange the evocative detail of its setting. Based on the developer’s own experiences, the game orbits around amusingly (and maybe unintentionally) personal touches, like the vaguely irritable perspective of the narrator who really does not like the doctor and who has that specific exasperation when you know all the tools to do your job could be better but you’ve gotten used to the inconvenience because you’ve been there too long.
Through the Fragmentation
The city seems miserable, a stretch of flat, green office buildings and parking garages inhabited by similar-looking crow people. They’re all colored in red hues similar to their own blood, all looking tired and defeated for a feeling the environment only enhances for giving so much detail to the litter everywhere in the form of empty bottles, crumpled papers, and cigarette stubs. The music is diegetic and can be turned off if you find the radio playing it, leaving only the dripping of brown liquids and the thrumming of some distant machine. In this setting you play a sort of bite-sized immersive sim with multiple paths that tend to involve roomy vents, objects to find, sandwiches to steal, computers to access. The drab atmosphere only enhances where the game eventually goes, into a mind-bending landscape violently disrespectful of time and space. You don’t have to have played the previous game, The Hidden Fragmentation, to understand this one, but it’s free and even shorter so why not?