Playing Video Games for Racial Justice, part 2 of ??

In which I review three more games out of the Itch bundle: A Mortician’s Tale, Mon-Cuties for All, and Verdant Skies

I enjoyed doing this so much, I did it again! You can find part one here.

A Mortician’s Tale

Love this banner art! Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

A Mortician’s Tale is a short, story-driven “empathy game” by Laundry Bear Games, exploring the Western death industry through the eyes of Charlie, a fresh-out-of-school goth mortician.

Most of the story happens via in-game emails. There’s a long-running email conversation with a friend (sister?) who works in a museum, and daily newsletters that keep you up to date on innovations in the death industry. Emails from your coworkers and bosses present the contrast between small, “mom and pop” funeral homes and the big corporations that are replacing them.

In between reading email you do your job — preparing the dead for burial or cremation, embalming them with tiny adorable tools, and attending funerals.

In fact, the mechanics of the tiny adorable embalming tools might lull you into thinking this is Yet Another Simulation Game — an odd one, sure, but I have played Graveyard Keeper. The mechanics are well-designed, and on the whole they feel good to use. Which is great! Except it’s easy to get distracted by the mechanics and forget that Story is Happening.

Witness: tiny adorable embalming tools. Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me — I arrived at the end to find I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the story. I knew something impactful had just happened, but it was diminished by the fact that I couldn’t remember who it concerned! This probably wasn’t helped by going into the game not knowing how incredibly short it was.

Basically I need to go back and replay this game so that I can get the full impact of the story. I’d urge you to not make the same mistake I did — keeping in mind that the gameplay is only about an hour long.

Also worth noting: there’s not really much branching going on here, so replayability is limited. I noted only one point where you had to make a choice, and it’s unclear to me if anything different happens on the other path. I guess I’ll see in my inevitable replay!

Overall, I rate this one 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Mon-cuties for All

Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

Mon-cuties for All by Reine Works is a game about raising monsters on your country farm. It was tagged “clicker game” in the Itch bundle database, which was precisely what I was in the mood to play (see: Plant Daddy, from my last post).

it takes the clicker part of “clicker game” very seriously, and I came out of this game with a sore finger.

This game starts with a long and not particularly relevant intro involving the farmer who’s selling you his farm in the country. He seems uncertain about your gender, which leads you clunkily into character creation. (Funnily enough, after all that, the best you can get towards a non-binary gender presentation is “androgynous.” I mean, I guess it’s something?)

Then the farmer… disappears? “Is that supposed to be important?” I wondered, but it never comes up again.

You start with one monster who’s already living in your barn — a tanuki, in my case, although the other possible option is something called a “carbuncle.” While I understood this word to mean “a cluster of boils on your body,” apparently it has another meaning in the world of monster ranching, which is “a fox-like creature with a gemstone in its forehead.”

(After some research on the always-reliable TV Tropes, I figured out this usage of carbuncle dates back to Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but it has been used greatly in anime and Japanese RPGs. The game also features the nekomata, a creature from Japanese folklore, so yeah, there is a very anime/Japanese folklore aesthetic to this game).

I’m sorry, if this banner art doesn’t say “mid-1990s anime,” to you, I don’t know what to say. Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

At any given time, there are only three things you can be doing: feeding/taking care of your monster, attending a prize fair, or shopping. When I discovered that, I very much had a moment of “… seriously, that’s it?” I dunno, maybe I expected to shovel monster poop on my idyllic country estate?

First, let’s talk about the “taking care of your monster” part of the game. Holy hell, is it a lot of clicking. That is basically all it is — do X number of clicks in a very generous amount of time, and your monster will smile instead of looking surly. (Personally I prefer a surly-looking tanuki, but YMMV). After three such feedings, your monster will level up.

And require more clicks to level up again.

To give you an idea of how absurd the amount of clicking is, you start by having to click… 10? 20? 50? times? It varies by monster, but it felt reasonable at first. But by the time you’ve maxed out your monster, it’s a total of something like 5,000 to 20,000 clicks each time you care for them, and just… NOPE.

Now, lest you think this is worse than it actually is, let me talk about another of the game’s three activities: shopping. In the shop you can buy “treats” and “toys” that will make your clicks more effective, in standard clicker game way. However, they are priced such that, at the beginning, acquiring them is veeeeeeery slow. So while you might not have to make 100, 500, or 2,000 clicks directly, you still have to click a lot, especially at first.

What else can you do in the shop? Well, you can buy new monsters, and… that’s about it. (I did note with some amusement that the feline shop owner, Nyahjit, is clearly an homage to the Khajiit of the Elder Scrolls).

Where do you get the money for shopping? Prize fairs. These are basically trivia games. Trivia about what? It’s a little bit of everything! Some of it is about cats (sadly, all those farming parties in my ESO guild Feline Good Meowporium did not prepare me for this), some of it about Reine Works and the game itself, and some of it is just random. (“Who was the first queen of England?” or “What is the highest recorded distance a goldfish has jumped?”)

Either way it’s unlikely you’ll already know the answers to most of these questions, so you won’t be making much money at the prize fairs until you figure them out. This doesn’t take too long, as the set of questions is pretty small, and they are introduced in tiers based on the “level” of the prize fair. (It’s unclear to me how the game decides what level of prize fair you attend?) If you answer all three trivia questions correctly, you win a prize; otherwise you get a meager consolation prize of (IIRC) between $25-$100, depending on level of the fair.

It is… not a lot of money. And since money is how you buy treats and toys that allow you to do less clicking… again, in the beginning, there will be lots of clicking.

I also felt like the game just sorta… ends, rather than wraps up neatly. It finishes after you’ve acquired your final monster — an incubus, in my case, as it was the most expensive — without you leveling that monster up. I felt was being rushed out the door just as I got to the party!

(The leveled-up incubus was quite the handsome fellow, by the way. I would like to have tea with him and share my thoughts on post-Reformation epistemology. For a brief moment I was sad this wasn’t a monster dating sim…)

Tho seriously, that bodice… jacket…. thing is doing him no favors. It’s clearly meant for someone with boobs. Although, being a demon, I’m sure he could have boobs, if he wanted to…

On the whole, I wasn’t very happy with this game. There was too much clicking, and a lack of different activities to do. I guess I expected more simulation-y aspects to the game — that “taking care of your monsters” would be more than just clicking repeatedly. Once you’ve done all the clicking, too, there’s probably not more than an hour of gameplay here. Plus I’m just not a super fan of the cutesy anime style to the storytelling.

That said, I have only good things to say about the art, music, and the sound effects. Someone clearly put great care into crafting the different sounds for each monster, and the different levels and color palettes for the monsters. These felt polished, even if the story and gameplay didn’t always.

On the whole I give this a 2 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t for me, but I can see how it might appeal to others!

Verdant Skies

Verdant Skies by HowlingMoonSoftware is a life stimulation game in the vein of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. Here, you play a colonist on an alien planet, doing things like growing plants, fishing, cooking, and scavenging for scrap to improve your homestead and your colony, all while managing your energy, which slowly depletes over the day.

First things first: I love this thumbnail art, used to promote the game on index pages on Itch.io. It made me want to jump in right away, before I even read the description. If the job of the thumbnail is to sell the game, then it succeeded admirably.

I mean, it may help that I have a dress like that.
Also: note the subtle rainbows!
Credit: Verdant Skies on Itch.io

This thumbnail is pretty representative of the game art, too, with the hand-drawn style of the cut scenes contrasting with the more pixelated style of the actual gameplay. I like both — whoever the artist(s) are, they use color in ways I really love.

Like many games in this genre, Verdant Skies gives you the ability to romance, marry, and have children with the NPCs you encounter in the game — from the stern-but-ultimately-kind colony director to the ditzy blond photographer who begs you not to eat fish. But unlike most of these games, Verdant Skies rejects outdated notions of gender or sexual orientation.

For one thing, in designing your character, gender is irrelevant –you select the hair, face, and clothing you want from options that are more-or-less gendered, but gender is never explicitly stated, so you are free to define your character how you like. (In the narrative, your character is always referred to as “they” in the third person. Ideally I’d prefer the ability to choose pronouns, but this is pretty good, too).

As I’ve been doing lately when it’s an option — like in Mon-Cuties, in fact — I picked a fairly-androgynous-but-slightly-femme gender presentation. Is this telling me something about my gender presentation IRL? Maaaybe, I dunno. I’m pretty gender apathetic, all things considered. But that’s neither here nor there!

(I read some complaints that “none of the faces are masculine enough!” but that was on the Steam forums, so I tend to write that off as the gripings of toxic masculinity — the real villain of Verdant Skies!)

Given that gender is irrelevant, sexual orientation only has as much meaning as you, the player, ascribe to your character and who they romance. And there are many fine choices for romance, including at least one non-binary character using they/them pronouns — Zaheen, the colony’s doctor.

(I don’t think I’ve met all the NPCs yet, so there could be others, too).

There’s a lot of racial diversity in the cast, too — admittedly, ethnicity doesn’t matter much in space, but it’s implied you all come from Earth, where such things definitely do matter. At least three characters are Black (Jade, Anthony, and Wyatt), Zaheen is coded Middle Eastern, and the mechanic Rosie is Latina. Again, there could be more diversity among the characters I haven’t met yet!

And then there’s the Scottish character, Nessa. I have a… thing about bad Scottish dialect in fiction, and this character has a bad case of Robbie Burns. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, some of that with honest-to-god Scottish people, and I am pretty sure that ACTUAL MODERN-DAY SCOTTISH PEOPLE DON’T SAY “AMN’T” for “am not.”* That said, she is a redheaded farm girl who loves animals, which is exactly my jam. I may romance her. (After Wyatt; see below).

*(Actual Scottish People have informed me that “amn’t” is rare but does occasionally come up, mostly among older folks. Still I maintain that if Nessa were any more aggressively Scottish, she’d be a talking plate of haggis).

Luckily for my highly romantic heart, some characters in Verdant Skies are open to polyamorous relationships, which is really the first game I’ve played that allows that! I haven’t explored it yet, but it’s something I’m looking forward to checking out. According to posts I’ve seen on the forums, some of the mechanics break down in actual play, in that ultimately you can only choose to live with one spouse. The developers have expressed a desire to make that work better, but it requires a lot more dialogue trees, i.e. more work, i.e. probably more money and/or time.

Personally, I developed an attachment to the Black botanist Wyatt. He had me at “lovely specimens of Poaceae around here, eh?” Like the totally well-adjusted human with the totally misspent youth that I am, I knew immediately he was talking about grasses, and was able to respond with “WHY YES, I especially like the purple ones!” Clearly it’s love at first turf, although our relationship is still growing, as we take turns at the gene splicer or bump heads while harvesting mushrooms.

Like you do.

Did I mention he’s a punster? (Pundit?) BE STILL MY HEART.

Speaking of gene splicing, I want to say a word about the gene splicing mini-game, which allows you to combine a traits on plants (and later, animals, too) to select for the traits you want. At least for plants (I haven’t explored animals yet), you have traits like “juicy” or “tasty,” that increase the nutritional value, as well as ones like “regrowth” or “double yield,” that change how you harvest them.

I was worried I was “doin’ it wrong” at first, especially since I hadn’t watched the “Verdant Skies Gameplay – Genetic Splicer Tutorial” video. But it’s actually pretty intuitive — put two seeds in, and drag a slider back and forth until you get the traits you want. One end is all the traits from the first seed, and the other end is all the traits from the second seed, and the order you put them in the splicer does matter.

On the whole, it’s a fun system which feels satisfying to use! But then, if you don’t have good mechanical representations of mundane(ish) tasks in a life simulation game, then what do you have?

Besides cute botanists, I mean.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite games out of the Itch bundle so far, and I went whole-hog and rated it 5 out of 5 stars. It’s nearly my perfect game!


So that is three more games down! Only… 1735 more to go?

The next games from the bundle I’ve been playing are Changeling and A Short Hike, and I hope to write about those next — maybe along with one other game? We shall see!

Playing Video Games for Racial Justice, part 1 of ??

In which I review three games out of the Itch bundle: Overland, Pagan: Autogeny, and Plant Daddy

Like many people, I purchased the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io. I may be unemployed, but $5 is not a lot to ask for 1,741 indie games, comics, books, and RPGs! (I even chipped in a little extra).

By the time the sale was over, Itch had raised over $5 million dollars, 100% of which was donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Community Bail Fund.

(As an aside, I’d like to point out that Itch is a small indie games storefront, so they’re not exactly rolling in dough. And yet I don’t think we’ve seen similar initiatives from, say, Steam/Valve, or Blizzard, or any AAA game studio… gee, I wonder why that is? Does it start with “c” and rhyme with “shmapitalism”?)

Of course, now that I’m bought all these games, how do I figure out which ones to play? Out of a list of 1000+ games, how do I find stuff I like?

Some folks have put together tools (spreadsheet, app) that will help you to search through them by ratings, tags, description, developers, etc. The webapp will even suggest a random game for you! These are great, but you still have to know what you’re looking for — or at least be willing to click the “random game” button a lot.

So how do you get turned onto games you might like, but might not know you’ll like? For me, the answer to that is often “friends’ reviews.”

Therefore, I think it’s only fair for me to write up my impressions of the games from this bundle that I play. Hopefully this will only be the first post in a series!

Overland

Overland, published and developed by Finji (the spousal team of Adam and Bex Saltsman), is a “turn-based survival game” where you and a band of unlikely heroes — including some dogs! — take a road trip across the U.S. in the wake of a bugpocalypse.

First point: this is a game where you can definitely pet the dog. Your whole team can be dogs, if you like! Dogs wearing beanie hats and little backpacks!

… this is not a very good strategy, alas, as dogs can’t drive or fill up the car with gas.

Contrary to this awesome t-shirt, the dog cannot drive. (Credit: the Finji shop, where this item is sadly out of stock).

I’ve sunk dozens of hours into this one already, so clearly this is a compelling game. Challenging, too, as I haven’t managed to beat it yet — the farthest I’ve gotten is “The Mountains”, which is the second-to-last zone, where the bugs are crowding in faster than I can deal with them. I still feel there is a lot of room to perfect my strategies for the basic “get gas, drive to the next stop” mechanic.

Ultimately, though, I can’t play this game for very long stretches. It’s the sort of game that requires making hard choices — do I leave someone behind so that the rest of the team can escape? Do I murder this other survivor at the gas station because they might steal my car? — and the consequences of those choices. That is part of what makes it so emotionally compelling, but also stressful to play for long periods.

I also don’t love the controls. It took me a while to get the hang of the “right-click to switch which party member you’re acting as.” Even with… twenty hours? or so in this game, there’s still a lot of me muttering “undo, undo” when I accidentally move where I don’t want to. (Thank goodness for that functionality!) Maybe it plays better with a controller?

But even if it’s not an “always” game for me, I still seriously admire the artistry that went into creating a game at once attractive and wrenching. When you consider there’s some degree of procedural generation that goes into this (in the dialogues between your party members, or in what stops appears on your map), that’s even more impressive.

Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars (out of five). I think it would most appeal to fans of games like FTL or some of the XCom games, with its tactical, turn-based combat and difficult decision points.

Plant Daddy

Plant Daddy, by Brady Soglin is “a laid-back browser game about raising houseplants in your sunny apartment.” You can play it in the browser without having the bundle, or by purchasing it you can download and play it on Mac, Windows, or Linux.

The living room of my “sunny apartment,” late in the game. Matt’s comment was, “So this is apparently a plant hoarding simulator?”

This was the first bundle game I played, and I enjoyed it so much I pretty much binged it. Of course I appreciate anything involving plants đŸ˜‰ But I also like the options you have for displaying your plants, I like the goals outlined on the to-do list, and as a long-time fan of alchemy-type systems in games, I was intrigued by the rare traits mechanic.

To me, Plant Daddy feels a lot like an idle game — click some buttons, gain some currency, come back later to click some more buttons and watch numbers go up. That’s not a bad thing! To the right kind of person — and I am that kind of person! — those sorts of games can be very relaxing. At the time I bought the bundle, that was precisely what I was looking for, and I sure found it!

I just wish there was more to it? It’s easy to play through most of the items on the “to-do list” in a day or so of regularly checking in — I think the only one I have left to complete is “find a plant with four rare traits,” and I don’t have a great path to achieving that.

That brings me to another point. I found the search for rare traits enjoyable at first, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Each plant has a 7 digit “seed” number, and there seems to be some pattern to which seed numbers correspond to what rare traits — for example, the first three digits encode the plant species; all Ancient Ferns have numbers between 090 and 097, but only some of those will have rare traits. The last four digits encode traits in some additional way; they seem to work in concert with the first series, but it’s not 100% clear how. You can enter (almost) any seven digit number into your plant workbench and grow that seed, but there’s no guarantee it will have any interesting traits. And basic combinatorial mathematics will tell you that 7 digit numbers = a LOT of possible permutations.

Plus there’s at least some randomness to what digits correspond to what traits in what plants, because I still haven’t figured out a way to get predictable results. I’ve had the best luck combining the two sets of digits as groups, rather than just incrementing or decrementing the whole series. But even working with series I know encode 1-3 traits, I only get plants with 0-3 traits.

I have a feeling the four trait-plants are encoded with a completely different series than the 1-3 trait series, but short of brute-force guessing, or lucking into a plant with four traits from the shop, I have no systematic way to find those magic numbers.

(I guess a lot of people just go on the game forum to get seeds for four-trait plants, but that doesn’t seem like much fun to me. I may do it eventually, though, to satisfy my completism).

Another quibble: as a browser game, this runs in a Unity window within the browser. This is not exactly optimal, performance-wise. Now that my apartment is filled with plants, it lags starting up, and the longer I run it, the more it sounds like my computer (a brand new Macbook Pro) is about to achieve liftoff.

Given this, I considered downloading it and running it as a desktop application — an option, especially if browser games aren’t your thing. But that was when I discovered that your save doesn’t sync between the versions, so I would have to start from scratch for each platform.

(Plus fundamentally this feels like a browser game — see the comparison to idle games, above).

Despite these concerns, I got a lot out of this one! I think it will appeal to folks who like idle games, or who just want something relaxing and low-key in a stressful time. Three out of five stars.

Pagan: Autogeny

Pagan: Autogeny by Oleander_Garden is “an experimental first person open world role playing game set in the digital ruins of a largely abandoned MMORPG.” I saw that and was like YES PLEASE INSTANT DOWNLOAD, because if there’s anything I like, it’s games that comment on the experience of playing a game. (Hence my love for the Jvk.esp creepypasta, and my general love for the lore of the Elder Scrolls).

Speaking of creepy, the major thing I want to say about this game is it’s CREEPY AF. I think that feeling is forged by a combination of nostalgia and incompleteness — or, to crib from the phenomenal Itch copy: “It is heavily inspired by long-forgotten bargain-bin 1990s adventure games, and by a general ethos of user-hostile design.”

The nostalgia, first. From the first screen, which asks you to pick your resolution (defaulting to 1024×768!), you are treated to a Windows 95-era loading screen for an MMO ostensibly named “Plaza 76.” Once you load in, you find yourself a pixelated lobby — the graphics are about on par with, say, the original DOOM, or TES II: Daggerfall. A giant card offers you some instructions about how to move around in the world, but you’ll soon find they’re woefully incomplete.

Here in the lobby you can acquire a few starting items — a tarot card (an equippable item that increases your stats), a mystic blade, “labor vouchers,” and a few skill-up items. From that lobby, you can launch into various different biomes, which offer different adventures and things to find.

A view of the lobby of Plaza 76, including a neon “Food Court” sign.. I would not eat the sesame chicken from that food court, let me just say. (Credit: the Pagan: Autogeny page on Itch.io)

Just like any MMO, right? Except you’re alone and this world does NOT hold your hand.

(FWIW, I never played around much in early MMOs myself — my first one was City of Heroes in 2003 — but visually this reminds me a lot of watching my husband play Phantasy Star Online on the Sega Dreamcast).

The incompleteness, next. I think this arises out of the setting — a deserted MMO — as well as that aforementioned “user hostile design.” Overall, this gives the game the sense of an abandoned project, just as the creators doubtless intended. That you can’t extrapolate what lies ahead from what you’ve already passed through is the source of some of the creeping horror you come across in the game.

A few words about that user-unfriendliness — don’t expect any features you would have in a modern MMO, like a map, or a way to look your current buffs and debuffs, or, heck, even your hit points. I took to drawing maps on paper, because otherwise it’s easy to wander in circles in some of these zones.

Plus, like many old-school MMOs, too, when you die, you lose some of your items (thankfully most stuff is easy to reacquire), and respawn back in the lobby.

Like any good MMO, your experience is tied into your skills and equipment, and how those tie into the setting. Your skills include “murder”, “poetry,” “caffeine”, “body morphing”, and “estrogen.” You’ll pick up your first points in these in the lobby, which you may notice has only one bathroom, marked as a ladies’ room. That bathroom is also where you’ll find your starting tarot card, the High Priestess — traditionally associated with feminine power, this tarot nerd notes. Finally, one of the “quests” — as much there are “quests” — involves putting together a mannequin from body parts you find lying around the world; this increases your body-morphing skill.

Starting to notice a theme?

So yeah, there there is a continual, low-grade trans energy to this game, which is perhaps the “cursed gender_magick()” mentioned in the game description on Itch. (I was only a little disappointed that it wasn’t as transparent — pun not intended but certainly welcomed — as that description let me to believe).

This game apparently has multiple endings, but I have only discovered one so far — which is as surreal and vaguely terrifying as you might expect. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that the game also plays around with breaking the fourth wall in a way that some of my favorite horror games do (i.e. Eternal Darkness, and yes, even that creepypasta I mentioned above).

If I have one complaint about this game, it’s that I have a lot of crashes to desktop (that are clearly not scripted — the game will make you question that, though!) The game description suggests using the 64-bit version if that keeps happening, so I think I will try that on my next trip to Plaza 76.

Another small quibble is that, having found the most obvious game ending, I’m at a bit of a loss of what to do next. I’ve explored all the obvious areas; there are apparently some hidden areas, but I don’t have a great idea of how to find them. And there’s at least one boss monster I’m not sure how to defeat! I’m sure if I poke I’ll uncover them, but the lack of a path forward makes me somewhat disinclined to do so. I wonder if this is where having a formal quest system might help?

One piece of advice I’d like to give to anyone who picks up this game is — make sure you read the manual in the install folder! You can go into this blind if you want the fully “user hostile” experience, but after your second or third trip it will definitely increase your enjoyment to understand what some of the equipment and tarot cards do.

Overall, I rate this one 4 out of 5 stars. As this is the third Pagan game by Oleander_Garden, I’m definitely inclined to check out the the other two that aren’t included in the bundle (Pagan: Technopolis and Pagan: Emporium).


All right, this got long, and I covered fewer games than I expected — but I hope you find it useful all the same. I think if there’s one thing I take away from this first round of games, it’s the world of indie games is broad and fascinating, and that I’m just sad I didn’t discover Itch before this!

(I’d also like to remind you to rate and review any Itch games you like! It will be helpful for those games’ visibility).

Join me next time, when I’ll discuss A Mortician’s Tale, Mon-Cuties for All, and Verdant Skies.