Justice Playthrough #180: Long Gone Days

So let’s talk about “ludonarrative dissonance.”

Page 2, Game 3: Long Gone Days by Camila Gormaz

It’s not just a pompous way to say “That video game you like actually sucks and I’m so much smarter than you ha ha.” It’s what happens when a game’s words and your actions wind up being two wholly separate things. It’s the term for when there’s a disconnect between the narrative and tone the game is trying to establish and your experience actually playing the game.

As a general rule, if your story has a strong narrative element, you want the gameplay to back-up whatever’s going on in the story. If the story tells you that you’re hungry, the game needs to actually enforce that somehow — say, with a “Hunger” meter, and a setting where food is scarce and you’re always grateful when you find some. If the story makes a big deal over how you’re desperate for food but in-game it’s the last thing on your mind, that’s ludonarrative dissonance in action.

It’s actually a pretty common problem; it’s hard to either tell a good story or make a good game, and as a general rule you’ll have plenty of opportunities to screw it up. Just because a game has a little dissonance going doesn’t make it bad. Nevertheless, you can’t help but notice that no matter how much the flavor text screams at you that there’s some emergency that you MUST deal with NOW, you can just ignore it and fuck around hunting darkspawn in the Deep Roads to your heart’s content, because the game has firmly established that the plot won’t start until you walk in the door. Telling you that you’re a desperate scavenger in a desolate wasteland rings a bit hollow when you’re finding food, guns, and ammo all over the place — and honestly, the food is just an affectation anyway. And why is that NPC you like dying during the cutscene? You can just Phoenix Down the motherfucker!

So, Long Gone Days is a story about a young sniper working for a … mercenary company? secret underground society? … called The Core. He’s being sent on his first mission in more or less modern-day Europe. But oh, fuck! He just learned he’s committing war crimes! He’s been lied to his entire life! He wants out! So he and another soldier desert, and are tasked with both keeping themselves alive and doing something to stop the cruel machinations of their homeland.

What kind of video game comes to mind when you think about that premise? Perhaps something old-school Fallout-y, right? The characters are deserters, so resource management is going to be a huge deal; every bullet needs to count. Modern gunfights are frightening and brutal; combat should probably be lethal, with injuries representing a very serious problem. There should probably be a stealth element, too; the player is probably best served by avoiding fights entirely. And they ARE being hunted, after all, so narrowly evading the soldiers trying to capture them should absolutely be part of the gameplay.

Or, you could do it up as a homebrew JRPG, basically Final Fantasy but with guns instead of swords and such.

Whatever game you imagined based on my initial description of the premise, I promise you that Long Gone Days looks absolutely nothing like it. Here’s a Russian village that our baddies just got done murdering the shit out of:

The horror … the horror….

While the story is busy telling us that we’re hip-deep in a false flag atrocity, the game is showing us a clear, bright color palate complete with anime-boy insets.

Actual gameplay further hammers home that you’re experiencing perfectly ordinary adventure-game hijinks, with a world full of stuff to rub yourself against to see if you can interact with any of it. Explore the world! Talk to this medic! What’s this? He needs someone to give bandages to three other soldiers! Would you mind taking care of that? You’re going back to the field hospital — but oh, no! The bridge is out! You’ll need to find some way of getting across that bridge!

It doesn’t stop. It never stops. I played the game for four hours — easily two more than I should have — and even in the midst of what was supposed to be a dark, tense sequence, the game still demanded fetch quest bullshit before letting me proceed.

Combat comes in the form of scripted encounters, and is purely turn-based. I have no beef with old-school Final Fantasy style combat mechanics, but again, the kind of experience that kind of combat actually provides violently clashes with the tone required by the game’s storyline. No amount of grim-faced pretty-boys-in-camo graphics are going to compete with the fact that I’m basically a Pokémon trainer.

Emotionally Tormented Sniperboy, I choose YOU!

There’s also a sniper minigame that was more interesting, but played so little part in the game that I felt like it either needed to be expanded or cut. It wasn’t anything super-inventive, but it definitely felt more like it was putting me in the protagonist’s shoes, and I can’t say that for much of the gameplay.

Hope you weren’t into that whole “living” thing, dude

The game engine is fine; nothing special, but it works. It’s a perfectly competent JRPG framework. (Though when you’re walking around outside, the game seemed weirdly reluctant to acknowledge the “Up” command from my controller; this isn’t a problem if you just use the keyboard.)

The story is fine-ish. The worldbuilding was sloppier than I wanted; it never firmly establishes either what The Core is or how the rest of the world perceives them. It’s dropping hints for a Big Reveal, but come on, you gotta let me get grounded before any of that stuff is going to actually pull me in. But the story of a disillusioned sniper abandoning his army and seeking redemption makes for a splendid hook and could be quite compelling.

But putting that story in this engine simply does not work, at least for me. I dunno, maybe if you feel like Apocalypse Now would have been even more intense with trivial fetch quests and random puzzles, this might be the game for you. Otherwise, I have to recommend passing on it.

Will this next game have me pounding potato chips in the middle of a gunfight for their precious salty healing powers?

Page 17, Game 16: The Bookshelf by linda c

“A solitaire game about reliving stories, recognizing the past, & rewriting the future.”

Only if I put them there. Time to write some Pringles dystopia.

Justice Playthrough #179: Animal Lover

A genuinely touching and occasionally quite moving “interactive” romantic novel that I’m glad I played and that I would recommend….

… except for the pacing.

Oh my sweet FUCK the pacing.

Page 28, Game 16: Animal Lover by Trainwreck Studios

So, just as a reminder, in the very likely event that you’re reading these reverse-chronologically: the game is named Animal Lover, and the tagline is “Five boys, five animals, more trouble than they’re worth.” And I very deliberately chose to make my bestiality joke in meta format, by claiming I was not going to make a bestiality joke.

Hold that thought.

You are a 22-year-old woman, still living at home, working as an administrative intern for a veterinary clinic over the summer. You’ll be returning to school soon, where you’re studying to be a proper vet yourself.

A bunch of irrelevant incidental “scene setting” shit happens, then an adorable little girl walks in with an adorable little hamster named Hamchop.

Look at that happy little guy, he has no idea how much going to he vet is going to suck

He reminds you of your own childhood hamster, Mr. Barbasol. So cuuuuute! He shoves his adorable little hamster nose outside of the cage as you’re taking him back, and on impulse, you lean forward and kiss him right on the snoot.

At which point he immediately turns into a very naked dude.

Lacerations are to be expected when a werehamster transforms inside of their own cage

At which point your humble reviewer is suddenly all “OMFG THIS GAME IS GOING TO ASK ME TO FUCK A HAMSTER.”

But, no. Turns out our boy Edmund here is a prince from Ye Olden times who’s been suffering under a witch’s curse — and your kiss has transformed him back into a human for the first time in hundreds of years. Hoory!

You get him some thrift-store clothes (you’re a broke-ass college student living at home working as an intern, you don’t exactly have a lot of liquidity here), and then he drops another bombshell on you; he thinks he saw another critter who was just like him back when he was a shelter’s office pet. A cat that, to his eyes, had another human dude trapped inside of it. So you head down to shelter and sure enough, when you adopt and kiss a raggedy-ass cat named Apollo….

I gotta admit, with that separator bar, it looks less like “Shouty anime girl censoring his junk” and more “Bro really needs to trim his pubes”

… you get some more hot guy wang as Frankie enters the game.

This raises the question: how many guys like this are out there, witch-accursed and doomed to live as critters? Well, you now have TWO boys who can spot ’em, so you may as well find out. But there’s a problem; you transformation kiss suppresses the curse, but doesn’t remove it. At night, someone has to get re-critterfied.

This game gets a lot of things right. In a lot of ways, the characters you encounter (including, as the tagline indicates, a total of five cursed critter-boys) all have a lot of depth and thought put into them. The game explores pieces of this wacked-out situation in a very intelligent, grounded way. There are scenes that are honestly quite moving. This is billed as a “dating sim,” so I put on my best straight-girl mask and decided Frankie (a refugee from the 50’s) was the one I was most interested in and … yeah, as simulated boyfriends go, it was a compelling relationship. I played it until the end.

… which took somewhere in the ballpark of six hours.

As many things as the game gets right, it gets just as many wrong — and the pacing is, by a mile, the biggest issue. SIX. GODDAMN. HOURS. Of reading, and clicking. Reading, and clicking. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click.

The game gave me just enough — and I mean only barely by the skin of its teeth JUST enough — interesting stuff to read that I kept going. The majority of the time I spent on this game was with literary packing peanuts, pointless bullshit that ought to have been summarized in a sentence — preferably packaged with another set of pointless bullshit in the very same sentence.

But, no. Click, a sentence starts to appear, describing how the doctor has not checked her messages, and is asking you if she has anything. Click, the sentence stops slow-rolling and simply appears. Click, click, sentence saying you don’t know. Click, click, uhm. Click, click, no. Click, click, doc says she’ll give you stuff to do in a minute. Click, click, take your time, doc. Click, click, rush over to the answering machine. Click, click, the machine has three messages. Click, click, Dr. McMillen! Click, click, …she said. Click, click, yes protagonist? Click, click, hey, there are three messages. Click click, who from? Click, click, uhm. Click click, I dunno. Click click, okay, listen to them. Click, click, sure, I’ll do this obvious and mundane part of my job. Click, click, I feel bad about lying when I told my boss I got in early when in fact I only barely beat her through the door. Click, click, I want things to be good. Click, click, the answering machine as a blinking play button. Click, click, I press the button. Click, click, hi there. Click click, doctor. Click click, we are doing a survey. Click, click, BEEP. Click, click, that beep was me stopping the call as it was not important. Click, click, the doc hates robo-calls. Click, click, her hatred of robo-calls actually makes me nervous. Click, click, now I’m pressing the delete key. Click click….

And to make sure I’m not exaggerating, to make sure I’m accurately describing how click-tastically tedious the gameplay often winds up being, I just replayed that section of the game. It is an accurate summary of gameplay. You’re welcome.

There are two more messages to go. None of them are relevant. None of them are meaningful. None of them make so much as the barest contribution to the story this game is telling, none of them do anything to help establish the theme or the tone or drop little worldbuilding nuggets that will pay off later, none of them do anything except exist and pad-out the runtime. And yet to get to the good parts of the game, you must click, and click, and click.

I have had this exact complaint in other visual-novel-style games, enough so that the part of my brain that tries to force me to be fair in spite of myself wants to say hey, it’s just a convention of the genre. Maybe what I perceive as tedious, glacial pacing is, for a true fan who would have actually played this game deliberately and not because a random number generator told them to, part of the chill laid-back appeal. Part of me wants to believe that I’m just being unfair.

But the rest of me calls bullshit, because I’ve seen this before: in fiction. Specifically, un- or self-published fiction. Novels, short stories, whatever — the author just goes on and on and on and on and on and on about pointless bullshit the reader has absolutely no reason to care about, at all.

Writing fiction is hard — but actually writing the words is SO much easier than DELETING the words. The difference between amateurs and pros is often that the pros can CUT things. Amateurs frequently make the mistake of thinking that every word they write must be read. That the more time they spend on a project, the more more worthwhile it is. That if some trivial nugget about their character’s existence is interesting to them, it will be interesting to the reader.

They are wrong.

I have seen this dynamic play out, over and over again, in every flavor of written media I’ve ever engaged with. It absolutely plays out here.

Which is a shame because, like I said, the good bits are very often QUITE good when the story can be arsed to actually get to them.

Unfortunately, I have to qualify my praise for the good bits. As a work of speculative fiction, Animal Lover is sloppy as hell. Not awful, not a complete disaster. But sloppy.

It explores some parts of the burgeoning situation, but not all — and the omissions glare. For instance, there’s the question of where are these temporally-displaced boys are going to stay or what they’re going to eat — as mentioned, you are a broke-ass college student/intern, so your resources are limited. So, that’s good!

But, how does the kiss-to-de-critterize thing work? Are YOU the only one who can do it, or can the boys, like, kiss each other when one of them goes back into critter mode? The question is not even asked until very deep into the game, and even then, it’s asked and answered off-screen by your best friend (who honestly seems kinda sheepish about kissing one of “your” critter-boys) in what feels like a throw-in to address a beta reader complaint. All characters assume that you are the only one with the magic lips needed to transform them back to humans. This rings outrageously false, and seems like one of the first things the guys involved would try figure out.

Ditto for the whole “temporal displacement” thing. Some of these guys have been critters for a long-ass time. Now, it turns out that they’re not just one single critter — Prince Hamster hasn’t just been one single hamster. Every time a hamster-him dies he’s reborn as a new hamster, and given that the little fuckers only live a few years, he’s been a LOT of hamsters. That’s good! That’s well thought-out! An immortal hamster would frankly have drawn a bit of attention!

But why does he take to the modern world so easily and casually? I mean, I don’t want to WALLOW in fish-out-of-water olden-times time traveler tropes, but it seems worth acknowledging, at the very least — and it only barely gets the occasional nod here and there.

What about 50’s refugee Frankie? Frankie, like everyone else in this game regardless of their original era, speaks flawless modern idiomatic English except for those rare moments when the game remembers that his slang would sound completely different, daddy-o. His transformation was recent enough that it’s plausible some of the people he knew are still around — but very, very old. There’s no Steve Rogers visiting Peggy Carter on her deathbed here, though; that aspect of the character is never explored. Nor is the fact that his mother, who he lived with loved very much, surely died decades ago. Frankie doesn’t process that grief — or any other grief, really. Why did we not have a scene where Frankie looked up her obituary?

Other characters were transformed recently enough that most of the people they knew are still around … but probably not all. Surely they’d learn of some unwelcome deaths if they bothered to look. But, no. Nobody bothers to look up friends or family. It’s like nobody outside of this little circle exists.

There is one exception to the rule, when one character bumps into an old friend by happenstance, and it’s wrenching. The guy grew and changed without him, and it feels like a betrayal, even if it was perfectly natural. It’s one of the aforementioned Good Parts I referred to. It raises the question of why the game had so few other moments like it.

There is another partial exception, in that one of the boys got transformed very recently, within the past year — and he makes NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to reach out to the people who PROBABLY WONDER WHERE THE FUCK HE VANISHED TO and had just resigned themselves to both him being dead and to them never getting a definitive answer on it one way or the other.

Dick move, bro. Or did you just hate everybody?

There’s other sloppiness. Edmund’s Ye Olden Times home country is referred to as Rosalie, which I presume is somewhere between Florin and Guilder. He doesn’t know when he was transformed because, despite being an educated noble, he apparently didn’t know what dates were (and as best anybody can figure it was before the Salem witch trials). His country and culture are apparently so ancient that they’ve been forgotten completely, and yet he seems to carry absolutely none of it with him or mourn the loss of an entire world. That’s just fucking lazy.

The game lasted about six hours. For the amount of content it actually contains, it should have been over and done with in two. Or, the dev could have kept it at six hours but replaced all the tedious minutiae with interesting stuff (of which there was SO MUCH left unmined). Either one would have made the game immeasurably better.

… assuming this actually needs to be a “game” in the first place. I’m not convinced that it does. The decision points in this “game” are few and far between, and often aggressively irrelevant.

Choose your own Nietzsche!

At one point early in the game, my vet boss asks me WTF is going on. Well, that loud clatter was a hamster exploding into a hot boy! Do I lie, or not lie?

I chose “not lie.” “Not lie” seemed like it was shaping up into one of the game’s themes, and at that moment I was still getting a feel for the game’s world. Maybe the doc would be like “Holy shit, a werehamster? I haven’t seen one of those since my first year at the clinic!”

Instead, after I chose to not lie, the game told me I’d chosen wrong and I lied anyway.

Gaming is an interactive medium. Animal Lover is barely interactive, and often only grudgingly so. At another point, I tried to take things in a racy direction to see what would happen. The game wagged its finger at me. Shame! It’s a dating sim, but not THAT kind of dating sim! SHAME!

I eventually wound up with Frankie, and while he was definitely who amongst the critter-boys I found most appealing (dude seems like he REALLY wants to grow as a person), I do not have the slightest bit of confidence my own choices influenced that outcome.

But I did play it to the end. I did want to see how it came out, and the last hour or so is tense AF. Granted, up until that final hour (and sometimes even within it, gyah), it was switching back and forth between “Keeping me interested” and “Wasting my fucking time” so aggressively that I sincerely wondered whether I’d wind up glad I stuck with it or pissed-off at myself for throwing good money after bad. The game wound up landing on “glad I stuck with it.”

Barely.

But that is indeed where it landed.

I’m not sure I can actually, you know, recommend this game. But given that I’m glad to have played it, I’m not sure whether it’s right to not recommend it either. I suppose if you’re a fan of the genre, you might dig it less ambiguously than I did.

I will say that if I encounter another game from this developer, I’ll be willing to give it enough benefit of the doubt to stick with it for a while. That’s more — MUCH more — than I can say for the majority of the visual novels I’ve come across thus far. There were a lot of good moments here. If only they comprised the actual bulk of the game.

Will this next game scold me for sexualizing hanging out with attractive people in a hot tub in our underwear?

Page 2, Game 3: Long Gone Days by Camila Gormaz

“Modern-day RPG that imagines the world of war that’s coming for us, with a focus on civilians and language barriers.”

I’m thinking no hot tub shenanigans of any sort, sexy or chaste.

Justice Playthrough #178: Cassette

It’s exactly what it said on the tin.

Page 57, Game 11: Cassette by Shapeforms

Looks like one of those things that’s a really solid solution for an extremely specific problem. Are you working on a project with an audio component that would benefit from having some high-quality sound effects that are somehow related to tape playback or players? The clicking of buttons? The squonking of speeding up or slowing down? Wanna go for an old-timey 80’s feel and dirty-up your soundtrack the white noise of shitty recordings? Need something to use as a background noise, perhaps, or as part of a transition from one part of your YouTube video to the next?

You probably answered “No.” In fact, given how few people I expect to actually read this, I would honestly be surprised if there is a single human being who answered “Yes.”

But if you DO need those incidental sound effects, then holy shit, do I have good news for you.

There are 200+ high-quality .WAV recordings of tape-related noises here, helpfully arranged by topic into folders. Want to find THE PERFECT sound of a button clicking? That sumbitch is in here somewhere, waiting for you to find it.

Is this next game gonna remind that for all my pretentions to create games I really haven’t done very much of that at all?

Page 28, Game 16: Animal Lover by Trainwreck Studios

“Five boys, five animals, more trouble than they’re worth.”

Uhm.

Well, it’ll remind me that I’ve never made a game with a title and tagline that pretty much dare the reader to make bestiality jokes. So that’s reassuring, actually.

Justice Playthrough #177: Troika! Numinous Edition

This is not what I thought it was going to be.

I’ve been stumbling over various Troika!-adjacent things throughout this trawl — a zine here, a stat block there. Together, they’ve created an image frenetic gonzo weirdness, a game where anything goes and everything is possible — the more hallucinatory the better. I assumed that the core book would have a similar sensibility, that the “rules” would be a set of dashed-off loose guidelines, tossed together to let a group of RPG buddies get together and tell a really weird story while hotboxing the game room so hard that just touching the Player’s Handbook you’d left on the table will get you a contact high for the next month.

Every one of my preconceptions was either exactly on the money or spectacularly wrong.

Page 2, Game 9: Troika! Numinous Edition by Melsonian Arts Council

Where I was right, of course, was the over-the-top weirdness, like if Hunter S. Thompson had a Tolkien phase. The game’s default setting is a kind of dimension-hopping sci-fi fantasy dreamscape, but assembling a complete vision of just what the hell it looks like is left strictly as an exercise for the players and GM. Just rolling-up a few characters at random with a die I happen to have on my desk gives me:

  • Necromancer. “The least popular of magical practitioners, necromancers are shunned by the major centres of learning, left to their own devices on the edges of society, passing on knowledge in the time honoured master–student dynamic. This loneliness encourages students to make their own friends.” Starting possessions include “Zombie Servant or Ghost with whom you have developed a codependent relationship.”
  • Derivative Dwarf. Looks just like a REAL Dwarf, but other Dwarves can tell you’re just a shitty, uninspired knock-off, and will shun you accordingly.
  • Claviger. A member of a society of Key Masters wandering the universe looking for doors to open — no matter how terrible it might be to open them. You are so festooned with keys that they collectively count as decent armor.

Monkeymonger, Parchment Witch, Fellow of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, whatever random-ass nutjobbery you happen to roll up has at least an even chance of putting you in the shoes of an “archetype” you have never even heard of before.

That was my first surprise: character creation involves no decision making on the part of the player. Dice rolls will tell you how skilled you are, how tough you are, how lucky you are, and what your wacked-out deal is, and away you fuckin’ go. The implicit assumption here is that there’s little chance a player would come up with a concept weird enough for the setting — and honestly, if the players are mostly basic bitches like me, that assumption is almost certainly correct.

Aside from the lack of choice, character creation was more or less the bonanza of bugfuck madness I came in expecting. But then came my second big “Wait, WTF?!” moment: The Rules.

The Rules are, in fact, a completely straight middle-weight dice-based RPG, somewhere around the Apocalypse World level of complexity. Roll 2d6, add a very specific thing. You can petition the GM in an effort to convince them that your Taxidermy skill totally applies to this fight against an angry demon-bear, I suppose, but other than that, the rules are emphatically non-wacky. In fact, they’re meant to be tense as hell. Combat initiative involves creating a deck of cards or pulling shit out of a bag or something similar, such that you know you’re going to act eventually, but you have no idea when — and in the meanwhile, is gonna try to envelop and suffocate you, hopefully it won’t kill you first.

This is why character creation is so fast: combat is lethal. You’re encouraged to come back with a new character before the party is done arguing over who gets your dead one’s stuff.

The stiff formality of the rules seems wildly out of place on first read — but I think I get it. It’s like my band instructor used to say, you can’t play loud unless you can also play quiet. (Which was a very polite way of telling the trombone section to please shut the fuck up already.) The rigid structure is there to prop-up all the insanity, to keep the whole thing from collapsing into a mushy pile of stoner ranting.

There’s a lengthy list of spells, of course, and that’s where the wackiness comes gleefully lurching back into the frame, but they’re nothing to fuck around with. Attempting to cast them at all will cost you hit points. You’ll need to make a skill roll to actually get them off, and if you botch with a roll of double-sixes, you’ll roll on the “Oops!” table.

The consequences of an “Oops!” range from mild annoyance to total disaster to whoopsie-doodle, you kinda stopped existing, time to roll up a new character.

There’s a bestiary, consisting of either familiar creatures given bizarre new twists or things that are just built from the ground up of compressed WTF. Along with the character creation options, the bestiary is doing the bulk of the legwork in establishing the game’s universe. As mentioned, coming up with the narrative infrastructure to house this lunatic menagerie is very much a “you” problem.

The sample adventure is banal to the point of gleeful self-parody. The party are checking into their hotel. Their room is on the sixth floor. The elevator is a nightmare. The stairs aren’t really any better.

This trawl has clarified a concept that already existed in the fringes of my gamer-brain but that I had never really needed to articulate: half of running a good game is matching the ruleset to the players. Not every glove fits every hand. There are games I’ve encountered that I dismissed as being Definitely Not For Me but that I could nevertheless envision as being a lot of fun if they had the right people playing them.

Get the wrong players at your table, and I would expect Troika! to be a tedious exercise in weirdness for the same of weirdness, of pitching Wacky Randomness!!! against the wall to see what slithers off and tries to start its own ska band. With the right players, this could be a truly unique and memorable experience.

I’m honestly thinking either one of my current D&D DMs would fuckin’ crush a Troika! campaign. At the very least, if they were so stoned last session they forgot what the characters were doing, it’d be very much in keeping with the spirit of the game.

Is this next game going to force me to carefully consider whether casting this spell is worth the risk of me barfing up a small horde of gremlins who will then try to bite everybody’s faces off?

Page 57, Game 11: Cassette by Shapeforms

“Play. Pause. Rewind. A library of tape sounds.”

Unless somebody had a very strange experience with the cassette era, I’m thinking not.

Justice Playthrough #176: The Three-Body Problem

Less a “game,” more of an “interactive short story.” And less “interactive” than “makes you click to keep reading, and gives you explicit options to stop reading.” And less “short story” and more “primer on BDSM/power exchange relationships and how consent works within them, starring some queer forest witches.”

But, fuck it, if you’re in the mood for a semi-interactive primer on BDSM/power exchange relationships and how consent works within them starring some queer forest witches, I think I can recommend this one.

Page 28, Game 5: The Three-Body Problem by RoAnna Sylver

And … shit, I don’t know what else to say here. Kinda shot my load in the cold-open on this one.

To get into this one, you have to accept it for what it is. If you go in expecting a game where you’re making meaningful choices and shit, you’re gonna be disappointed. If you go in expecting a story that doesn’t have an obvious informational agenda, again, you’re gonna be disappointed.

But speaking as someone on the fringes of the kink community, as primers in BDSM relationships go, this is a totally solid one. Worlds better than fucking 50 Shades, that’s for sure — because unlike that wretched literary pustule, I’m quite confident this author actually knows what she’s talking about.

The big interactive element here is that it’s written in second person — you’re a submissive witch lady about to get your knifeplay on, but you’re interrupted, plot and exposition follow. The writing is solid. If you have a submissive streak, might be kinda hot — though that’s really not my deal, so I’m just guessing.

Mildly skeeved by the price, though which is $5 as of this writing — and this is not the first time I’ve had that reaction. Why am I so fussy about that? Just seems like a lot to ask for what’s basically a short story. At that price point, I’d expect at least a small anthology of erotically-charged forest witches teaching me the finer points of kinky sex. If I’d paid $5 expecting a game-game, I’d be feeling pretty punked. But, again, maybe if you know what you’re getting ahead of time, it’s worth the money.

Honestly, if you think you’d dig it, you probably will. Might just be worth your time.

So is this next game gonna tell me I’ll be getting well-laid shortly?

Page 2, Game 9: Troika! Numinous Edition by Melsonian Arts Council

“The Other world’s favourite fantasy RPG”

Oh, my. Based on the Troika supplements I’ve seen thus far, I’m honestly hoping not — because it’s gonna be fuckin’ WEIRD.

Justice Playthrough #175: Penicillin Issue #3

Once again, very hit or miss. But here’s the thing about a gaming zine this aggressively weird: all it takes is one “hit” that nails you in that sweet spot of close enough to your own sensibilities that you want to add to your game yet simultaneously bugfuck crazy enough that you’d never have come up with it on your own, and the entire zine instantly becomes worth your time. Something in here could very easily make your table go “DaFUQ was that?!”, in the good way.

Page 33, Game 11: Penicillin Issue #3 by Micah Anderson

And what’s waiting for you in this issue?

  • The Peridem, a kind of asexual succubus. Not necessarily evil, but definitely a bit dangerous. Are they ethical demonkin, or douchebags? Unlike the last issue of the zine, this one offers stat blocks; I think these stats are for Troika?
  • A loosely defined haunted house storytelling game, presented as a one-page comic.
  • Dwarves. Issue #2 gave us halflings that were sentient fungus inhabiting children’s corpses; this time, we have hyper-conservative communist lumps of living metal. Offers up a fantastic explanation of where the mystical metal orichalcum comes from. (“That’s a really nice war-hammer.” “Thanks, it was my grandfather.”) This one, too, has a stat block. Apparently, the author took some “You really need to provide some stat blocks” feedback to heart, and wrote-up D&D stats so you could play one of these rusting little fuckers in your own game — assuming your game is 1st edition. 70’s-era Dungeons and Dragons. Complete with THAC0. And yes, I recognized the mechanics immediately. This is the kind of piss-take I can get behind.
  • I was just thinking to myself “The layout seems WAY less painful than the pink-and-black nightmare I remember from issue #2,” and then I hit an encounter with middle-aged wine-obsessed nymphs that I literally had to turn my laptop sideways in order to read. Based on the songs of ABBA in general and the musical “Mama Mia!” in particular.
  • Medicinal amphibians. Seriously, fuck having “Eye of Newt” as some sort of lame-ass all purpose magic ingredient; here’s a shitload of charts to roll for some magic amphibians that’ll cure what ails you. What kinds of amphibians? Do they, like, secrete the healing mojo from their skin, or do you have to powder them? Is their power so weak that you’ll need to coat yourself head to toe in them, or is just one of them so potent that it might accidentally kill you? Roll some dice, find out.
  • Nacre, City of Squid and Snail. Are your underground cities insufficiently weird and/or terrifying? Nacre is here to “help.”
  • Alligator Blood. Some performance-enhancing drugs just aren’t worth it. Unless you’re fighting for your life. Then, really, don’t you need every advantage you can get?
  • So You Contacted An Outer Horror. Look, coming up with original and truly horrifying Lovecraftian entities isn’t easy, and it all starts to sound samey after a while. Here’s a series of horrible d6 charts to help correct that for you.

Is it all great? Hell no. But it’s for damned sure unique. If you’re running a fantasy RPG and any of the above sound like they’d add something to your game that you’d like to have, by all means, go get some.

Will this next game feature random encounters with cultists who cover themselves in cat-sized snails who are probably slowly eating them alive?

Page 28, Game 5: The Three-Body Problem by RoAnna Sylver

“Queer Celestial Witches Navigate Scary Woods And Each Other”

I’m guessing nobody’s getting covered in giant snails unless something goes very, very wrong. But I don’t think it’s off the table entirely.

Justice Playthrough #174: Memoir En Code: Reissue

As expected, a very deeply personal bit of artsy expression. It honestly didn’t work terribly well for me — but this one’s so achingly sincere that I really can’t go too hard on it without feeling like a colossal douchebag, so here we are.

Page 6, Game 21: Memoir En Code: Reissue by Alex Camilleri

This is a series of minigame vignettes representing various times in the developer’s life — the short description says it’s a “game album,” and having played it, yeah, that’s what it feels like. It’s a series of tracks, each one unique and representing … something.

Also included: a camera the artist is conscious of not being able to use well, and a tablet that’s still charging up

Each little mini-game feels very different from what came before (with the notable exceptions of the two desktop bookends), but the minimalist art style and chill, ambient soundtrack all work to give the whole thing a unified feel, which I definitely appreciate.

You can interact with the vignettes in various ways; each mini-game helpfully lays out which keys are relevant at the bottom of the screen. For the desktop “levels,” you just mouse around and click things. There’s one where you’re in a train saying goodbye to your girlfriend; you can choose what to say, but I think it doesn’t much matter. The most gamelike of the mini-games is probably the one where you have to find the best place to study in an apartment full of inconsiderate dickbag roomies who keep turning the TV on and stuff.

No good, there’s a distraction here….

But the problem with this game is that you need to find a good place to study and then … wait. Do nothing. Watch the bar there on the right creep slowly upward while the bar on the left creeps slowly downward. Maybe turn off the TV or whatever a roommate turned on. But otherwise, the way to “win” this game is to basically do nothing.

I consistently had that issue. These little games are very pretty and pleasant, but they’re not particularly interactive — and gaming is an interactive medium, god dammit. The worst offender was the hair-growing “game.” I found a button on the left that turned on the “Director’s Commentary,” and it explained what the hell was going on. Basically, the dev felt very self-conscious about his large ears growing up, and feared that everybody was staring at him. So, he wore his hair long to hide them. But sooner or later came the inevitable haircut, and the whole cycle would start all over again.

That’s all well and good. I’m quite sympathetic. Those sorts of micro-traumas can leave their marks, you know? I can see mining that for some good art.

Shaggy peace of mind

But the way he turned it into a “game” was there’s a section where you can approach the mirror or … not. Then you can push a button that will make your ears grow, or you can … not do that. Then there will be eyes, which will stare at you balefully when your back is turned. Then you can push the button that will make your hair grow, or you can … not do that. Then there are more eyes, but this time, they’re not looking at you. Then the haircut happens, and you’re back to the beginning — no matter what. The “game” is deliberately an infinite loop, and the only way to “win” is to stop playing it by pressing the “skip” button.

That’s not fun. That’s not engaging. That’s just fuckin’ annoying.

This reminds me of some other low-key “Click around, see what happens” style games, the most obvious being Islands: Non-Places. When they work, they have a kind of dream logic to them. You explore, you see what happens next. If the game has me hooked, it’ll be something I find interesting.

Memoir En Code just didn’t keep me interested. I’m sure everything in here was deeply meaningful to the dev, but the mark of good art is that it retains some sort of meaning, some ability to evoke an emotional response, even when the viewer has only a fraction of the context for it that the artist had. Memoir En Code falls short of that. While I’m sure a mini-game about wandering aimlessly around a beach kicking stones evokes a very specific and charged set of memories for the developer, there just wasn’t anything in it for me. There really wasn’t anything to explore, and if there were any surprises, they eluded me completely.

By far the rawest track had to be the finale, which was a reprise of the first bit of desktop exploration. You click around, you see what happens … except this time, when you click on the picture of the guy and his ex girlfriend, you don’t just get a repeating cycle of two text boxes. You get an ongoing plunge into hurt and loss, represented by the game fake-glitching out. That engaged me. That felt immediate to me in a way that most of the other stuff simply didn’t.

Yeah, homeboy’s processing some feels here

As I have often mentioned, I am one seriously basic bitch. Gimme some zombies and spaceships and shit blowing up. I’ve found I can enjoy artsy games like this if they’re done well, but Memoir En Code just doesn’t clear that bar for me. Still. It’s far from being a total waste of time, and there is a lot to recommend it. If you enjoy games as experiments in personal expression more than I do, it might absolutely be worth your while.

Also, at entry #174, this game represents me getting 10% of the way through the entire Bundle. I was kinda hoping for something I really loved to have that distinction … but honestly, I’m hoping for that every time I roll the dice for the next game. It wasn’t quite for me, but for this milestone, I’m totally find with stumbling across something weird and deeply personal that I otherwise never would have taken a second look at. Feels right, somehow.

Will this next game feature a level where I’m tempted to draw dicks in the sand and then at the last minute choose not to screenshot it because nah I don’t want to be THAT basic?

Page 33, Game 11: Penicillin Issue #3 by Micah Anderson

“The third issue of the World’s Other Only RPG Zine”

Hmm, I think I’ve encountered other issues of Penicillin. What did I think of them?

Looks like I’ve reviewed issue #2: “[T]here’s some really fucked-up shit here. I can definitely recommend it for GMs looking to make their fantasy worlds less rote and more creatively dark.”

Oh, yeah. That one. So in all likelihood, less drawing of dicks, more clever existential dread. I’m down for it.

Justice Playthrough #173: BulletHell Planes

As the early stage of a larger work, this shows promise. However, it looks like it’s meant to be a complete game unto itself. Ah, well. At least it is (as of this writing) free.

Page 51, Game 21: BulletHell Planes by Gijs Westerdijk

Vertical-scrolling 1942-style shooter. You have a plane with guns, you have lots of foes, go!

The graphics are simple. The only sprites in the game (aside from the bullets) are you, the red enemy planes, and the purple enemy planes. The purple boys will steer towards you, and as such are by far the larger threat. The red guys will just keep cruising straight ahead, and you can honestly just ignore any of the ones that aren’t in front of you.

So many targets….

You have a pair of machine guns, one mapped to each trigger. As you fire them, a gauge (a heat gauge?) goes up. When it hits the top, your guns stop firing — disaster! But then, all of a sudden, a big-ass laser blast erupts! Hooray?

So … I overheated my guns and they briefly turned into lasers?

This is … very weird. It feels like the game is trying to discourage me from just holding down the triggers and going all perma-blast, force me to fire off more controlled bursts. When the guns stop firing, it very definitely feels like punishment; I can shoot the enemies’ bullets out of the sky, so loosing my own guns leaves me vulnerable as hell. But then, the laser blast goes off and shit gets wrecked.

What’s the intent here? Am I trying to keep one gun firing while strategically overheating its comrade?

There’s a lot here I’m not getting. There’s a multiplier, and I have no idea what it’s for. Every once in a while, it blips up to “x2” before dropping back down to x1 almost immediately. What’s making it go up? What do I need to do to keep it there? I have no idea.

I eventually figured out that the unlabeled number at the top-middle of the screen represents my hit points. If I run out of hit points, I sometimes go to this “Last Stand” mode, where it insists I waste X enemies in a very short amount of time to continue playing. If I fall short, game over. I get one Last Stand per play — I think? Maybe?

This game wants powerups, so badly. I want to be able to restore my health. I want guns that can hit harder. I want more weapons, or different weapons. I want some mini-bosses, and full-on boss fights. There’s just SO MUCH room for more stuff in this game, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist.

Gameplay isn’t bad. I’m normally grumpy when mooks in a vertical scroller like this require multiple hits to kill, but this one allows you to spray out enough bullets at a time that the combat feels more exciting than frustrating. Likewise, when you see a flight of purple foes, you’ll want to blast a hole in them and fly through it; once a plane goes past you, it can’t hurt you any more.

If one of my friends presented this to me as a game they were working on, I’d be pumped on their behalf. It’s one hell of a promising start, with a lot of room for improvement. But as a finished product, it’s lacking. There’s just not enough game in this game.

Doesn’t suck, though. And like I said, as of right now, it’s free. If you love the genre, what the hell, there are worse ways to kill a half hour.

Will this next game offer me something other than an eternity of grind?

Page 6, Game 21: Memoir En Code: Reissue by Alex Camilleri

“an · autobiographical · game · album”

I don’t know what a “game album” is, but this sounds like an intensely personal artsy kinda game. So yeah, I’m anticipating very little grind here.

Justice Playthrough #172: Galactic Wars

Decent little retro game that falls just short of being freakin’ awesome.

Page 9, Game 7: Galactic Wars by VolcanoBytes

First off: it’s playable in-browser, so if you want a taste, click the link.

Imagine a side-scrolling Galaga. You have a little pew-pew ship, there’s an enemy fleet of pew-pews dead ahead. Go get ’em!

Three swirly-boys who wanna slam into me

You fly around, you shoot, they asplode. When they all asplode, a new wave comes to take their place. They will, of course, try to asplode you right back. You have three lives to see how much havoc you can wreak.

Also, powerups! More guns! More zoom! More shoot!

The powerups are, unfortunately, a bit of a mixed blessing. See that “Fire Power” gauge down there at the bottom? It’s basically an energy meter. If the meter is too low, you can’t shoot — and the more bullets you fire, the more you drain it. So, the three-way shooter drains it three times as fast. Given that you might actually WANT a shitload of bullets flying in a straight line out in front of you to try and blast that jerk with the mega-laser, the three-way shooter may be a tool you don’t actually want to have.

There are also some lightning bolts that will allow you to go faster; you can grab up to two per life. Going faster is a huge boon in this game but it comes with the unfortunate knock-on effect of emphasizing how sluggish your starting ship is. This is one of those games where you have to dart in and out trying to get shots off without getting hit; without the power-ups, you’re about as nimble as a Zamboni.

One of the powerups will boost your Fire Power gauge to max and keep it there for a few seconds, allowing you to frantically blaze away as fast as you can work the fire button. This, too, calls attention to how much less fun the game is when you DON’T have this enhancement, and will likely find yourself unable to shoot at a crucial moment should you be too aggressive.

What’s more, as the game goes on, the more mini-bosses start showing up, like these guys who launch missiles at me:

It’s those two blue guys in the back

They take more hits to kill, and are a generally satisfying way to escalate the difficulty. But as you might guess, when you die, you lose all your powerups. So, if you clawed your way to Level 9 with max speed and three orbital shooty-boys spinning around you and one of the mini-bosses takes you out, that’s pretty much game over. You’ve back to Zamboni-land, sluggishly galumphing about.

This game is fun; I played it probably a dozen times or so. It totally would have gobbled a ton of my quarters back in the day. But … man, there are just so many places where it gets in its own way, little things that drag it down. The bad-guy ships move from right to left, but will lurch forward to discrete levels at random intervals. If you’re in the way, you die. So, if they’re too far to the left, unless you’re operating at full nimbleness, your best bet is to wait for them to lurch all the way off the screen and reappear on the right, where you can duck in and snipe them more safely. You may have to wait a while — but don’t worry, as long as you stay out of the firing lane for those ships, nothing can get you. A bad-ass 8-bit laser frenzy should not have intervals where you feel like you’re waiting for a traffic light to change.

When you die, your new ship has a few seconds of invulnerability — during which, you are unable to shoot. WTF? This was a minor annoyance, but an annoyance just the same. You may not interact with powerups that you already have (or have maxed-out). Again, WTF? Why not hand me some points and clear a bit of clutter off the screen? Again, only mildly annoying, but still annoying. When I have my orbital shooty-boys, they lasers they shoot come from some random point in their orbit that has no relationship to where they are on the screen, which means that trying to fire into a different lane has nothing to do with timing and everything to do with luck. Again, WTF?

Galactic Wars isn’t bad, but I want it to be better. I want the entire game to be as fun as it is when I’m at maximum nimbleness and can go hog wild with my laser cannons. I want more cannons to mean more gooder. I don’t want to have to get specific powerups before the game really becomes fun; I want it fun right away.

I’m greedy like that.

This is clearly not the best version of this game. But if you’re a fan of the genre, by all means, give it a try. It’s still pretty decent.

Will this next game feature bosses that make funky noises when I chip-off some of their HP?

Page 51, Game 21: BulletHell Planes by Gijs Westerdijk

“Shoot your way through the enemy lines in hyperpowered aircraft!!!”

Let’s go ahead and call that a “FUCK YEAH!!!!!”

Justice Playthrough #171: Draw Nine

Go play it.

It’s neither the best nor the most ambitious game I’ve found in this trawl, but it’s nevertheless a very cool little experience. It’s playable in-browser, and it’ll take you all of fifteen minutes. So why not give it a go?

Page 53, Game 19: Draw Nine by Damon L. Wakes

You’re a freshly-minted graduate of the Arcane Tower about to set forth into the world. You have nine magic cards, of three types: horses, spiders, and snakes. Now off you go on your adventure!

A hand fulla magic

You’ll choose a path, you’ll encounter a situation, you’ll choose a card to deal with it: horses to be nice to people, snekkos to murder, and spiders to just fuck things up.

It’s a text-based game, sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure thing, except you’re traveling with nine solutions in your pocket. It’s not exactly a challenging game; I’m pretty sure there’s no real way to lose any particular encounter, it’s just a matter of what flavor of “winning” feels right for you.

And yet, I still found it satisfying. The dev crafted a kind of folkloric feel that worked quite well for me. Even if the destination remains the same, the choices you make along the way still feel meaningful. You encounter a beggar: do you aid him, infest him with spiders, or give him a big ol’ faceful of snek? How about those annoying entitled townsfolk? That tower up ahead looks dodgy; do you head for it anyway?

Journey before destination, mate.

It’s a trifle, I suppose, but a very thoughtful and well executed one. If you’re in the mood for something chill and text-based, I can definitely recommend it.

What awaits me at the end of this next journey?

Page 9, Game 7: Galactic Wars by VolcanoBytes

“a 8bit Space shooter in Pico 8”

Ah. Death and explosions. I’m into that, too.