Recently I played Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), an indie video game which bills itself as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.” I’ve been playing so many (short) games lately that I can’t take the time to properly review them all, but I wanted to collect my Facebook musings about each game in one central place.
First, let me steal this description of the game from Wikipedia:
The game is set in 1807 with the player assuming the role of insurance inspector for the East India Company. The Obra Dinn, a merchant ship missing for five years, has reappeared off the coast of England with no one alive aboard. The player is dispatched to the ghost ship to perform an appraisal, reconstruct the events of the voyage, and determine the fates of all sixty souls aboard, providing a cause of death for those deceased or a probable current location for those presumed living. Investigation is accomplished through the use of the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch capable of transporting its user to the moment of death of any corpse located. The game, played in first-person perspective, uses a “1-bit” monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh computers.
I just started playing Return of the Obra Dinn last night, the… new-ish? new-er? game by Lucas Pope, who did Papers, Please.
As usual with his games, I don’t really know how to describe them? It’s a puzzle game, I guess? You have to discover the fates (mostly, deaths) of the 60 people on board the Obra Dinn, using a magical stopwatch that shows memories of the person’s life. It’s mostly a deductive reasoning problem, but a SUPER COMPLEX one.
It’s hard! So far I’ve only solved 6 of the fates after 3hrs or so of play. It requires some careful observation skills — like: what is that accent? What part of the ship are they in? How do other people address them? How are they dressed? What manifest number is on their hammock?
Also love the early Macintosh-era graphics.
Additional things I wrote in the comments:
Since I’m bad with faces, I enjoy giving [the passengers] dumb names based on their appearance in the Life at Sea drawings. “Kicky neckerchief guy,” “tuque guy,” “tattoo guy,” etc.
You can actually pick what version of early computer graphics you want! I stayed with the early Mac era graphics, because it brought back memories of playing Oregon Trail on my Mac SE with a whopping 20mb of hard drive space.
The game is fairly lenient as to manner of death, disappearance. In many cases it will accept multiple different causes, such as “speared” “spiked” “bitten,” etc.
I feel like having toured the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, in Portsmouth, UK, really prepared me for some of these puzzles. (Like… of course all the midshipmen hang around together! Or: what’s an orlop deck?)
From July 2, 2022:
Okay, folks who have played Obra Dinn: when are you supposed to leave the ship? Because (I think) I’ve uncovered all the memories I can except for the stuff in “The Bargain,” which explicitly says “this will be revealed once you leave the ship and turn in the book.” I’ve only uncovered 36 fates, though, and I thought you weren’t supposed to leave the ship until you solved all 60. But I’m already scraping the bottom of the barrel for clues, and I have no more memories (I think) to uncover on the ship, so I’m wondering if I’ve misunderstood something.
As a friend informed me in the comments, you do have to solve 58 out of the 60 fates before you leave the ship if you want the “good” ending, i.e. where you actually figure out what happened.
By this point it was some of the tricksiest puzzles that stumped me. Looking up videos about all the clues in the game, it seems I wasn’t the only one struggling to identify the Chinese topmen, or to tell Alexander Booth apart from Hamadou Diom. There were definitely a couple of places where I had to guess, or brute force the solution. The “fates are revealed in groups of three” mechanic does disincentivize guessing, though, which was both a blessing and a curse.
From July 3rd:
Also, apropos of Obra Dinn — good goddamn I love the music in Soldiers of the Sea. Those bells! It gives me shivers.
Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who is known for his scathing reviews, actually liked Obra Dinn — but he did not like the music. He is just wrong.
On the same post I commented:
And apparently Lucas Pope composed [the music], too? This man is too talented.
Later that day I wrote this:
I finished Obra Dinn!… I still have so many questions.
For all that I solved the game — discovering the fate of all 60 passengers on board — at the end I still felt like I didn’t really understand the throughline of the story. Of why things had happened, and why the ship seemed to be cursed.
I won’t copy over all spoilery questions I had, but I answered a lot of them by Googling “return of the obra dinn story” and finding this. Warning: wildly spoilery. I’d only suggest following that link if you, like me, got to the end and still had a ton of questions about the plotline.
I adored much of this game — the music, the writing, the voice acting, the stylized graphics, and of course, the puzzles. Despite my confusion about the individual details of the story, the emotional impact was always clear. You could tell it was a passion project for Lucas Pope, and that he took the time to make it just so.
All that said, one thing I didn’t love was the user interface. The game gives you no guidance as to the controls; you just sort of have to discover them organically. (Don’t ask me how long it took me to figure out I could zoom in on figures to match them to their picture in the “Life at Sea” drawings). Navigating between scenes seemed clunky; I’d love a way to pull up a scene from the logbook rather than having to go to the body in question. I also wish there was a way to replay a scene from the beginning while you’re in it.
All in all, I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars.
The only bad thing is? Now I’m in the mood for puzzle games, but there’s nothing quite like Obra Dinn. There are many puzzle games, but after surveying my friends, we couldn’t come up with one that had the same blend of logic puzzle + story-driven + unique aesthetics.
That said, I dove into a few other puzzle games after that, and — dopamine willing! — I might say a few words about them later.
Or: come see me play my favorite 20-year old video game, beautified for 2021 audiences!
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately modding The Elder Scrollsinto completely unrelated games, like RimWorld. While there’s something magical about turning a science fictional game about building a colony on the rim of known space into a game about running a Dunmer cornerclub, it just wasn’t scratching That Elder Scrolls Itch ™.
So! I decided that since it had been ten years since I last played Morrowind, I was overdue for a replay. And this time, I was going to stream it on my Twitch channel.
Why? I want my friends to see Morrowind through my eyes. I wanted to show you Morrowind — but remastered for 2021. I want you to know why I love it so much; why I think it’s the finest iteration of the “venerable” series.
The nitty gritty details
This game will be running on OpenMW, “a free, open source, and modern engine which re-implements and extends the 2002 Gamebryo engine for the open-world role-playing game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.”
The advantages to using OpenMW are many — it fixes many bugs with the original engine, and adds features that the original game didn’t have, like distant terrain. It also makes modding cleaner and more, well… modular.
And mod it I sure would! Not knowing where else to start, I Googled “modding OpenMW” and came upon a site of the same name. Modding OpenMW features a number of different modlists, as well as detailed instructions for implementing them.
I started by implementing the massive Total Overhaul list. But I ended up stopping after the first few items, and implementing a modlist that was best summarized as “Graphics Overhaul plus some bug fixes.”
Why? Well, after putting more thought into it, I’d realized I wanted to (mostly) leave the vanilla gameplay untouched. My goal was for folks like you, dear reader, to see Morrowind through my eyes, right? How could I do that if all the rough edges had been smoothed off? Some of what I love about is those rough edges!
So ultimately: I modded the graphics out completely and fixed the obvious bugs, but I didn’t, say, add in a poison system, or rebalance the economy, or fix the messy leveling system.
(As it turns out, “graphics overhaul” and “obvious bugs” are more subjective than I thought! But that’s something I can talk about more on my stream).
Is this ready to play?
It sure is! It took me about a hundred hours, and many emails with the (very responsive and helpful) author of Modding OpenMW, but I now have my 250+ modlist working smoothly. I’m a dozen or so hours into a test game, and so far it’s been rock solid!
… not gonna lie, there were moments where I was like “I’m never following a modlist again,” but I’m glad I stuck with it. The end result is lovely. (See: the featured image for this post).
So where do I sign up?
I’ll be starting “Morrowind Remastered” on my Twitch channel on Weds, December 1 at 7pm EST (UTC-5). I will aim to stream Wednesday and Sunday nights at the same time — or more or less frequently, as I feel like it. Because I’m a rebel, and nothing makes me want to do something less than scheduling it 😉
Your best bet to find out when I’ll be going live is to click the big purple follow button on Twitch; that should email you when I go live.
If you are more asynchronously inclined, you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel, where I plan to upload the VODs.
I’m also posting occasionally on Twitter about the process of setting up the game. Sometimes I use my liseplays Twitter account for this, but more often it’s threads like this on my main lisefrac account:
And that’s it! I hope to see you in the stream!
ETA: I also published a Google Calendar with the dates, if that’s helpful to you:
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.
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
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).
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…)
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 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.
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.
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!
(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, 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.
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, 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.
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 😉 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 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.
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.