Interesting Games of 2017: The Personal Is (Still) The Political

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Back in November, I questioned rather “personal games” (or “zinester games,” or what have you) were still a thing. My provisional answer was that they weren’t, at least not in the well-defined “scene” sense that seemed to be the case around 2013–2013. There are simply far too many things being released these days. I can’t even keep up with everything itch.io recommends for me, let alone everything that’s actually put out there.

Still, though, if there’s less of a distinct personal game “scene” these days, no one would deny that there are still small, personal, semi-autobiographical games dealing with delicate subjects out there. There’s just too many of them. But that’s one of the things that criticism is for: to curate. I’ve decided to do my part. The most interesting (which is not necessarily to say successful) personal games I’ve encountered in 2017 are below the fold.


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EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK

(Alienmelon, released January 31)

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK is the swift kick in the teeth you receive when someone previously assumed to be down for the count suddenly swivels back into a standing position. Billed as an “interactive zine” by creator Nathalie “Alienmelon” Lawhead, the game is about living with trauma. The types of trauma that its vignettes cluster around are familiar touchstones in the history of personal games—depression, anxiety, social isolation—but the presentation is unfamiliar and electrifying. Visually, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK resembles the animation of Don Hertzfeld filtered through the scuzzy digital haze of Paper Rad. It courts what might best be termed a “Amiga malware” aesthetic, cobbled together from pop-up windows and cramped piles of icons. It’s one of a few handful of games that fits comfortably within this history of avant-garde video art.

The game goes a lot of places, from the general (cynical jabs at the paucity of non-cliché language we can use to encourage people who are emotionally hurting), to the specific (the way in which the quantified nature of social media can toxically reify pre-existing social anxieties), to the hyper-specific (Lawhead’s own struggles finding the right audience when working in the medium of digital games). But along each and every step, it feels utterly defiant. Part of this defiance comes through in the game’s unrepentant bad attitude: this is a game about living with trauma, not “getting over it.” It offers neither pat naïve solutions nor apologies. But there’s also a triumphant temerity here. “The more you harass us,” this game seems to shout, in its own poisoned, perverse way, “the more powerful art we’ll be able to make.”

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK is available for Windows and macOS on itch (DRM-free).


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We Are Chicago

(Culture Shock Games, released February 9)

As I have mentioned beforeWe Are Chicago is a failure that is worth looking at, and talking about. From a technical standpoint, it is a clunky mess, largely because it foolishly chases production values that just weren’t achievable on its budget. Its failures run deeper than that, though: the game is an instructive illustration of the limitations baked in to telling stories that aren’t your own, even when you make your best efforts to include collaborators to shape your end product. We Are Chicago is a game that doesn’t know its audience, because, in the end, it has no audience. It is a message game born out of a desire to say the right thing, to no one in particular, for the point of saying it. But nobility doesn’t go very far in matters of art.

We Are Chicago is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux on the Humble Store and on Steam.


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Anna Anthropy’s nine 2017 releases

Anna Anthropy published nine things on itch.io in 2017. Did you publish nine things on itch this calendar year? No? Maybe you should re-examine your life priorities. I know that I’m being inspired to, looking at this list.

Granted, not everything that Anthropy pushed through this year was a “videogame.” According to her own descriptions, three of them were digital games (Hatlight, Herding Cats, and Aunt Flora’s Mansion), one of them was interactive fiction (Ghost Burgers), two of them were analog games (Do It Yourself Surgery and Uroos Maluroos), and three of them were digitally-distributed zines (Pocket Guide to Elevator SorceryTowers Fall Down, and The Major Arcana). Still, though: she has been having a frighteningly productive year, any way you slice it.

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If I had to chose one game out of all of these to recommend, of course I would choose Herding Cats (released May 12). It was something I was actually going to mention in my Videogame Cat of the Week series, before I retired that. It takes the basic premise the Hidden Village challenge in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (make friends with every cat!) and extends it into a deceptively difficult puzzle game.


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Butterfly Soup

(Brianna Lei, released May 29)

For years, it seemed like all the notable queer games were about the trauma of navigating homophobia. Games like LIM (merrit kopas, 2012), and Coming Out Simulator 2014 (Nicky Case, 2014), and A Russian Valentine (empty fortress, 2014) were stressful affairs, sometimes impossible to “win,” just to prove a point. True, since 2014, Robert Yang’s been making a series of joyous and ribald games about gay sex. But as far as the social aspects of queer lived experience go, games have struggled to get past the basic “homophobia as gameplay challenge” model.

Hopefully, 2017 marks the end of this model’s dominance. Butterfly Soup is one of the most charming and downright sweet games I have ever played. Not having grown up as a queer Asian girl in Oakland (and, furthermore, never being a baseball fan), Butterfly Soup‘s cast of characters are pretty far removed from the group of friends I had in high school. But that’s my loss! Spending time with these teen girls was one of my favorite experiences of 2017—and certainly among the funniest.

Butterfly Soup is drenched in the same warm, quippy, hang-out humor that won my heart in Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016). However, unlike FirewatchButterfly Soup doesn’t have the benefit of top-notch voice acting. This leads me to conclude that Brianna Lei’s writing must be better than the writers at Campo Santo. Please, somebody quickly give this woman the resources to helm a full studio specializing in adventure games and visual novels. Or a comics series. Or whatever it is she wants!

Butterfly Soup is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux on itch (DRM-free). You can name your own price. Make it high. It’s worth it.


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Little Red Lie

(WZO Games, Inc., released July 7)

Will O’Neill’s follow-up to Actual Sunlight (2013) is a soul-searing righteous scream against our current socioeconomic order. It affected me deeply, as you can see in the post I wrote the day after playing it. It still deserves to be played and to be talked about more.

Unlike when I first wrote about it, Little Red Lie is now available for Windows and macOS on itch, as well as being available on the Humble Store and on Steam. All three versions require Steam, though—a necessary step, as it turns out, since some of the game’s twists and turns rely on players’ tendencies toward achievement-chasing.


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Please Knock on My Door

(Levall Games, released September 7)

There have been plenty of games about depression, social anxiety, and self-loathing made before. (Including some mentioned in this very post!) What really sets Please Knock on My Door apart is how systems-heavy it is. Sure, there were some numbers going on under the hood reacting to your choices in Depression Quest. But Please Knock on My Door‘s numbers are both deeper and more transparent. This is a genuine attempt to translate depression and anxiety into game mechanics —and not in the facile puzzle platform-y sense of Sym (Atrax Media, 2015)Please Knock on My Door wants to be a simulation game, modelling the emotional risk and rewards of behaviors such as watching TV too late or taking time to do dishes every day when you are suffering from depression.

It’s surprisingly deep, too, with different strategies courting different dangers. Forcing yourself to think about the events that initiated your character’s downward spiral will result in an immediate loss of “mental fortitude,” but will put a certain amount of points in a bank of future fortitude (as your character is gradually facing what they have been emotionally avoiding). You have to be careful, though: sometimes, toxic self-loathing disguises itself as thoughtful acknowledgement. It is difficult to determine the difference before it is too late … which is, in my experience, quite accurate.

Ages ago in 2013, a debate raged on between “zinesters” and “formalists,” a battle for the future boundaries of the concept of “videogames.” Was it important for the word “game” to retain strict boundaries, defined by its procedures? Or was inviting new voices and new subject matters into the medium well worth any “risk” diluting the term might pose? It took four increasingly dark years, but Please Knock on My Door presents an unexpected truce to this now-quaint-seeming debate. Here is a game about personal subject matter, sporting all the RPG-style numbers you could ask for.

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Or not! And that’s the really interesting part. Before you start up a game, Please Knock on My Door gives you a range of options pertaining to how transparent you want its stats to be, and how much you want them to affect its story. It is a fascinating compromise, and a very worthy use of development-hours.

Please Knock on My Door is available for Windows on Steam.


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Path Out, Chapter One

(Causa Creations, released November 2)

So, 21 Days wasn’t the only game to come out this year about Syrian refugees. The episodic Path Out also dropped its first chapter in November. It has the distinct advantage of being directly autobiographical, detailing the story of creator Abdullah Karam’s journey out of Syria and into Europe by way of Turkey.

The first chapter is a slight little thing, so it is difficult to have a whole lot to say about it. The game does contain some notable surprises, though. When it first boots up, its simple RPG Maker graphics call to mind the likes of Mainichi (Mattie Brice, 2012) or Actual Sunlight (Will O’Neill, 2013). Suddenly, though, Karam himself makes an appearance, in the form of a picture-in-picture video feed. Throughout the chapter, he offers commentary. Common Western misconceptions about what Syrian life is like are corrected, and distortions brought about by the needs of gameplay (or just RPG Maker’s limited capabilities) are forthrightly acknowledged. Karam is not always the most articulate lecturer, but his personal voice is much appreciated, giving the whole thing a very Jean Rouch-y feel, with the limits of representational strategies being critiqued by all those involved. It will be interesting to see where this one goes.

The first chapter of Path Out is available for Windows and macOS on itch (DRM-free) and on Steam.


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Hair Nah

(Momo Pixel, released November 15-ish)

This one was a big hit at the Ci3 offices back in November. And deservedly so: it is rather glorious.

Hair Nah is a throwback to the Newgrounds aesthetics of yesteryear, when all a game needed was to be colorful and silly and play in your browser to spread virally throughout the internet. There is something joyous in its bold simplicity, its absolute commitment to doing one, silly thing, and doing it well.

But there’s a twist: beneath its bright colors, Hair Nah is a highly personal rant, calling out a certain breed of clueless behavior that inflames racial tensions. It is, in short, a Newgrounds-style game for the Dear White People age, using humor and sarcasm to voice a common racial gripe. It is silly, addictive, personal, and political all in one, as revolutionary as it is old-school. It had its fifteen minutes of fame, but it deserves to be remembered beyond them … maybe even put on a few syllabi.

Hair Nah is a free browser-based game. It is hosted here.

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