It’s been a while.
February has been somewhat of a rollercoaster month for me, and I’ve been almost entirely unable to find the time to play games, let alone write about them. And in those moments where my plate was empty, it was difficult to focus on any kind of relaxation. I often come back to this one Lana Polansky article (I think it’s the most mentioned article on this entire website at this point, which should tell you a lot about Matt and I) about Wasting Time, to attempt to overcome my own insecurities about productivity. It’s difficult for my brain to reach a place where I can centre whatever is in front of me, rather than retreating in panic into my to do list.
It’s good to be back into the swing of things, but I know my head’s barely above water. So it is for all of us who are poor and struggling, every iota of energy that doesn’t keep us moving forward could be the one we needed to stop us from drowning, as we look at those sailing past us and wonder why we have to swim at all. When I am seemingly unable to work, to earn, then what is the purpose of play?
The answer is obvious, and has been explained many times by those far smarter than me. But it is something I have to constantly keep in mind, that there is value in taking a moment to breathe, taking a moment to process, and doing that within the context of play. It’s why I love altgames as a concept: a space within games which doesn’t feel the need to engage with skinnerboxes, with harmful industry structures, with a broken status quo. They are alternative, not as in radical, but as in viable.
And that gives me hope. Maybe I won’t always be struggling, maybe everybody I follow on twitter won’t always be struggling either. By building up a scene within games which cultivates a different set of values, maybe we’ll be able to slowly switch off that part of our brains that gives us that twinge of guilt. When I see the brilliant things that people are making, that people are writing, that everybody is creating, I get hopeful, and I feel like it could truly be possible.
I guess what I’m saying, is it’s good to be back.
Off-Peak (by Cosmo D)
Sad, surreal and slightly terrifying, Off-Peak is the tale of The Station. Nobody knows what The Station is or why The Station is there, but there it is, and its you must reckon with its existence if you are ever to leave.
As you learn the open halls and corridors, as you scour every corner for the shreds of a ticket you cannot afford, you come to realise that The Station is a paradise for those passing through, filled with the finest art, entertainment and food that you could wish for. But although the art thrives, the artists are desperate, and you cannot afford to pay.
Less an angry takedown of the conflict between art and commerce, Off-Peak is more an attempt to understand the conflict itself. After all, how can any solutions be found when the problem seems to make so little sense?
Planet of a Poisoned Past (by Sophie Houlden)
Part of the fantastic Antholojam, Planet of a Poisoned Past is the classic sci-fi story of a mining expedition on a dangerous planet, gone ever so slightly awry. The game’s story is charming in its predictability, more a loving embrace of genre than an attempt to use its twists for shock value. The lack deliberate lack of subversion combines with the beautifully vivid colour palette and the anachronistic costume design to put the focus firmly on celebrating a texture and tone now long gone.
Set in the distant future of 2003, playing out over the course of a week, the only real interaction is moving from place to place. As the story plays out, your familiarity with your space increases, until the base turns from something alien into something you can call home.
Forever (by Flex Roman, Loïc Perillier & Pol Clarissou)
The items keep coming, and you can can them if you want, but there’s no real reason to. Nothing has any value, your actions are rendered meaningless by their monotony, and you engage in them purely because there is nothing else you can do.
Forever is perhaps the saddest game you will find on Pol Clarissou’s itch.io page. It continues working with a surreal melancholy, but unlike offɭine or night tune, here there is no beauty or escape to be found. There is only the grind of the conveyor belt, even the products themselves warping into meaningless items, both them and you simply cogs in a machine that refuses not to turn.
Scissor Bros (by Robotic Machine)
The amount of mileage Scissor Bros wrangles out of “shave that guy” is mightily impressive. It exists as a kind of long lost warioware minigame turned cartoony touch screen iOS runaway success. It shines intense focus on the minute of a single action, the repetition of said action the key to the satisfaction of a job well done.
A counter-point to Forever, the endless conveyor belt of bearded men blend together until their identifying features are rendered irrelevant, they are canvases upon which to do your work. Forever conveys the tragic impotence of disaffection, whereas Scissor Bros conveys the inevitable heartbreak of internalising its values. It allows you to buy in to the grind, the machines goals becoming your own, until you can no longer complete the tasks at their difficulty, and are tossed away like the cog you always were.
Sputnik Dog Simulator (by Reed Erlanson)
Space slips through my fingers with the scroll of a wheel. Such a tiny motion, so disconnected from the movement it is meant to create, its meaninglessness reminding me of the actions I will never be able to take.
Sputnik Dog Simulator is terrifying. It hits upon an existential terror that can only be brought about by the suggestion of enormity, the game’s relative sparseness evoking every possibility that remains untapped. It shows you what it is like to float through life, to witness but never engage, and only rarely understand.
When all you can do is disappear, did you ever exist at all?