Tag Archives: games

Inexpensive Indie Games Worth Your Money

If you’ve ever played an online multiplayer game, you know the world of gaming can be incredibly off-putting and toxic. It’s hard to go a single day without another player challenging your sexuality, calling you a slur, or just being so obnoxious that the game becomes unplayable. This might be why I’ve gravitated towards games of the offline, single-player variety, mostly roguelikes and platformers and strategy games.

At this point, though, the only thing holding me back from being a truly insufferable video game hipster is that I don’t want to keep them for myself. I want to take you along for the ride.

There are games that are pure art; games that put a smile on my face every time I play them; games that make me grind my teeth and make my hands slick with sweat. A lot of them cost less than a third of what the big-name companies are churning out year after year with very little variation or improvement – yeah, I’m talking to you, Bethesda and Bungie. Unfortunately, the lack of a big name often means lack of big advertising. Indie games rely on positive reviews and word of mouth to generate hype.

So here’s some hype for inexpensive games that are absolutely worth your time and attention.

Here is my criteria for a game to make this list:
1. It must cost $20 or less.
2. It must not be made by a major developer.
3. It must be critically acclaimed.
4. I can reasonably suspect you might not have heard of or played it. (Imagine me typing this out as I push my thick-rimmed glasses up higher on my nose and sip on my vanilla soy latte, because I am hipster trash.)
5. It must be memorable for its story, music, or some other aspect of its design – that is, art apart from gameplay.

These rules eliminate some of my most favorite games right off the bat. Rules #1 and 2 prohibit Katamari Damacy, which is ostensibly still in the underappreciated vein; rule #2 also cuts out Portal and Team Fortress 2, the latter of which is, incredibly, still going strong and completely free to play. And, of course, no Fallout. No Final Fantasy. No Legend of Zelda. No Tetris, even! These games don’t need me. I’d like to shine a light on some of the lesser-known ones.

Image result for celeste game

I know, y’all are sick of hearing me talk about this game.

Will I ever stop? No. Celeste is that good.

In case you haven’t been within earshot of me in the past 18 months, Celeste is a 2D platformer about climbing a mountain to prove something to yourself. During her climb, Madeline is forced to confront the aspects of herself that she hates; without spoiling anything, it is only when Madeline learns to accept herself as she is that she is able to move forward. For a game that appears so simple, Celeste totally surprised me with its deeply moving story of anxiety and doubt and the healing power of forgiveness.

This game is the complete package: the pixel art is beautiful, the music is perfectly composed to evoke certain feelings, the plot tells an important story – and even when you want to crack your Nintendo Switch over your knee out of frustration, the rush of euphoria that you feel when you finally, finally beat a screen that killed you hundreds, thousands of times is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before while playing a game. The tougher the challenge, the more rewarding the payoff. Did I mention that the music is extremely good? It is extremely good.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WITH YOUR MONEY
There is a reason why Celeste won Indie Game of the Year in 2018. Just play it already!

$20 on all platforms.

Image result for faster than light game

FTL: Faster Than Light is a real-time strategy, space opera Oregon Trail. What, that alone isn’t enough to reel you in? It is somehow seven years old today and I’m still playing it like it’s brand new. That’s probably because no two play-throughs are the same; the game feels different every time.

The name is a pun on “for the loss,” which tracks with the general roguelike gameplay: you’re going to lose way more often than you win. Choosing from a variety of ships and crews, the player has to navigate across randomly-generated space, making choices and experiencing consequences and, of course, beefing up the ship with cool weapons and subsystems. So much of FTL‘s gameplay is subject to chance that it’s difficult to truly master; aiming to complete achievements gives a sense of direction and accomplishment.

I include FTL over Into the Breach, a time-based strategy game released last year by the same developers, for two reasons: for FTL, the ratio of success to failure (that is, feelings of triumph to frustration) is much more tolerable, and the music is very good, evolving as the player enters new territories and the intensity of the confrontations ramps up.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
FTL never stops being new and fun, even if you’ve played through it hundreds of times. Between the variety of ships and the random level generation, each experience of the game is guaranteed to be different. Plus, the music just plain slaps.

$10 on Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS.

Image result for monument valley game

If I could give one game as a gift to everyone in the world, it would be this one. Monument Valley is an absolute treasure.

Monument Valley combines puzzles with Escher-like optical illusions in a gorgeously colorful world. The puzzles are never especially challenging and interacting with the environment is always gratifying. Underlying the visual aesthetics is a delightfully subtle soundscape to accompany the music and an equally subtle story about the protagonist and her place in the world.

This is one of those games where it’s better to show than tell, so here, feast your eyes on the beauty of these puzzles.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Once you’ve played this game, you’ll never forget it. Monument Valley is evidence that games can be art.

$2 on iOS and Google Play.

Image result for stardew valley

My skin is clear and my crops are flourishing.

Of any game on this list, I suspect this is the one that most TRUE GAMERS have heard of. It was created by a single developer (Eric Barone, how you do this?) who thought the Harvest Moon series was going to shit (true) and wanted to get back to its roots.

There is something strangely soothing about developing a routine that involves repetitively completing tasks: watering crops, caring for animals, exploring and mining and fishing, getting to know the villagers in town. Farming simulators are wonderfully therapeutic balms for us Type As who love the satisfaction of striking items off a list and maintaining good time management.

What’s cool about Stardew Valley is that it is a true indie success story, made by one person whose interactions with and feedback from fans made this game incredibly popular very quickly, eventually generating more than $1 million in revenue. When’s the last time your spiteful project made $1 million? Not any of mine, but maybe someday.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you enjoy farming simulators like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley is worth your time. Behind the revolving door of mundane tasks and simple pixel art is a charming story of a community coming together in support of each other, their little town, and their quiet way of life.

$15 on all platforms.

Image result for florence game

Florence is a combination of puzzles and interactive art, designed by Ken Wong, the same creator behind Monument Valley. The player follows the titular Florence as she navigates through a dead-end job and a tense relationship with her mother, to an exciting new relationship, to settling in to a predictable routine, to a devastating breakup, to her growth and flourishing as an artist. It is the story of how people come and go in our lives and how we grow through those connections.

You can finish this game in one sitting, easily – but that hour is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Florence’s life is so deeply relatable to young people, and the player’s interactions with her experiences of love and loss feel very personal. The storytelling – all visual, very little dialogue – is brilliantly intuitive, and the orchestral music follows the emotional tenor of the plot in a very moving way.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Florence is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It is like an interactive graphic novel. One of the game mechanics – using actual puzzle pieces to show how conversations get easier as we get more comfortable with someone – was so clever and insightful. The music is beautifully composed and rises and falls along with the story, making it an intensely emotional experience. Honestly, if you get through this game without getting even a little misty-eyed, I don’t think we can hang.

$3 on iOS and Google Play

If you’ve got nostalgia for choose-your-own adventure stories or text-based games, you’re in luck: A Dark Room will scratch that itch, but it will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

A Dark Room, as the name suggests, is bare: no graphics, no sounds, just text – and even the descriptions are sparse. You wake up in a dark room and make a fire. You don’t know who you are or where you are. You meet a stranger, who helps you build shelter, which attracts more people just like you. It seems like everyone is working together for a common goal – safety – but are you? As you become more powerful, you start to explore the world outside your enclave, and your relationship with your community changes.

This game will make you feel completely in the dark for almost the entire duration. It gives you so little information that it feels impossible to make meaningful decisions, and those choices have consequences. I’ve heard that there are multiple endings for this game, but I’ve played through it a few times and have only gotten bad ones. After a certain point, the bad stuff feels inevitable. It feels like you’ve become something you barely recognize, like you’ve completely lost control. The ease with which I fall into this outcome is something I still think about a lot. This might have been the point.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you like using your imagination and sparse, dystonian storytelling, you’re in for a treat. A Dark Room is a great throwback to text-based adventure games, and since the gameplay demands some waiting on the part of the player, this is a perfect game for a long flight or car ride.

(Not to be confused with The Dark Room, which looks like a less elegant execution of the same concept.)

$2 on iOS and Google Play – free browser version here!

Image result for crypt of the necrodancer

You ever put off doing something for a long time because you know you’re going to love it and you’re not ready for the commitment? That was what Crypt of the NecroDancer was to me. The overwhelmingly positive reviews didn’t do it; it took hearing one of the tracks at random on Spotify for me to be like, hold up, I need more of this.

Yeah, I am late to this party, but better late than never!

Crypt of the NecroDancer synthesizes a roguelike dungeon crawler with a rhythm game. Everything you do has to be on tempo with the background track – moving, attacking, blowing stuff up, finding and purchasing items. The levels are, to a certain extent, randomized, and they only last for the duration of the songs. You can get through a whole dungeon in less than ten minutes, which makes this game excellent to kill time here and there.

This game has a surprisingly sharp difficulty curve for beginners. The tutorial is sparse; it throws you to the wolves (well, skeletons and bats) more or less immediately. You’re going to die a lot in your first 30 minutes or so. I got really frustrated. But once I remembered that this is a strategy game, not a hack-and-slash, and became a little more thoughtful about my movements – paying attention to the enemies’ movement patterns especially – the game got easier and a whole lot more fun.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Crypt of the NecroDancer doesn’t take itself seriously, and the music is just so dang good. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, it feels like you enter the drift when the music starts playing. I forgot how immersive rhythm games can be, and how time seems to fly by so quickly, even as it’s being divided up neatly into individual songs and levels.

$15 on all platforms.

Image result for gris game switch

At the start of the game, as the main character loses her voice, her world crumbles and drains of color. Gris uses simple linear platforming to take the player through the five stages of grief, painting a deeply emotional portrait of loss – without using any words at all.

You can finish this game in one afternoon, if you’re smarter than me. I found some of the puzzles to be unbelievably unintuitive; sometimes the beauty of the art obscured the way forward even in the most straightforward of puzzles. Despite that, though, I think this game is worth playing. The art is stunning; as the protagonist progresses on her journey, more color is added to the environment, creating an impossibly layered watercolor dreamscape. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Gris has, without exaggeration, the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in a game. Combined with the music, which ebbs and flows gorgeously, Gris is a subtle but intensely moving experience – even if, like me, you have to look up the solutions to a few of the puzzles. Fortunately, the occasionally frustrating gameplay didn’t dampen my appreciation for the gorgeous art and score.

$17 on macOS, iOS, Windows, and Nintendo Switch.

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My Last Deployment, by the Numbers

Days deployed: 58 (thank me for my service)

Hours sat in window: 80

Air medals earned: 0

Times carrying the pisser: 3

Times spilled pisser on self: 0 (an improvement)

Fires: 1

Fake fires: innumerable

Emails from Mom: 20

Emails from Dad: 1

Longest uninterrupted study session on single subject because I’m too polite/awkward to say “alright, I get it”: 3 hours

Gym sessions: 45

Deadlift working weight: +50lbs

Body weight: +5 lbs

Times mediated interpersonal drama: 4

Times I thought everyone was trolling me but they weren’t and I got sad for no reason: 3

Books read: 12

Overdue travel videos completed: 2

Seasons of Letterkenny watched: 2

Times said “ferda” or “dirty fucking dangles, boys” or “crush some sandos” or “dust on praccy”: sorry

Celeste C-Sides completed: 5

Times listened to Cuz I Love You by Lizzo: 58 (daily)

Average hours of sleep: 6

Ambien intake: ???

Times sleep interrupted by whoosh of crows alighting from roof: any night not on the Ambo

D&D sessions: 7

Times teased by pilots for playing D&D: every opportunity

Crew diss tracks written by rider: 8

Actual qualifications competed: 0

Meaningful contributions to the mission: 0

Days until command closes for good: 340

Days until I get out of the Navy: 340

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Books to Recommend to Anyone

I struggle with giving recommendations of any kind – movies, music, games, TV shows, and books especially. I worry that my taste is so niche that no one else will like what I like – or worse, that my recommendation will reflect some bizarre personality trait that will forever change that person’s perception of what I’m all about. So when you find me giving an emphatic recommendation, when I’m begging you to experience something, it’s because I believe so strongly that it isn’t just for weirdos like me.

It definitely helps to know the other person’s tastes. I thought that the movie Your Name was so beautiful and moving that I want everyone else to see it, too, and have a nice therapeutic cry, but I also understand that a lot of people are not about that weeaboo life. That’s totally fine; in fact, it’s probably for the best. Personally, I’m offended when someone recommends any young adult-genre books to me or any movie where violence and gore are featured prominently. Y’all gotta know by now that those are not part of my brand.

So when I say I would recommend these books to anyone, I mean that I would include no less than the following people: my family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, Bible study group, strangers, significant others, and people whose opinions of me I genuinely care about. It should come as little surprise that the majority of these picks were also recommended to me by friends and family – the people who know me best.

In no particular order:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

An extremely useful book with a very lousy title. It would be more accurate to call it Common Sense for Dealing With People. It contains gentle reminders that other people are just like you and want to be treated with dignity and respect. Wild, right? But sometimes we do need those reminders, especially when we hit social roadblocks. Recommended to me by my mentor.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

An entertaining romp through New England history. This is worth listening to on audiobook – Sarah Vowell has a very distinct voice. I am partial to this particular book of hers because I’m from the region, but I think it is enjoyable for anyone interested in learning about our country’s earliest days. I also really liked her book Unfamiliar Fishes about Hawaii’s history and its “acquisition” (very dramatic air quotes) by the United States. Recommended to me by a close friend.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2011)

Usually I’d feel a little uncomfortable recommending books exceeding 500 pages, but these two stories made huge impressions on me. Both are translated works by non-American authors and both are multi-generational family sagas – the first about the Korean experience in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan, and the second about sailors from the Danish town of Marstal. I read Pachinko when it started receiving a lot of critical acclaim, and I picked up We, the Drowned completely on a whim (actually because of the very good cover art).

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (1957)

Shirley Jackson is best known for her spooky stuff. People read “The Lottery” in high school to scare them out of being judgmental little terrors, and now that The Haunting of Hill House has a Netflix remake, Shirley Jackson is probably more popular than ever (at least, since she first published “The Lottery” and got flamed for it). A lot of folks don’t know that she has written humor, too, centering around her family life with her husband and children. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are those rare books that made me laugh out loud. Shirley Jackson is masterful at calling attention to small, seemingly mundane details – only this time, it’s for the sake of humor rather than horror. I’m on a quest to read everything Shirley has written, and if you don’t have a taste for horror, this is a book anyone can and will enjoy.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (2013)

I picked this up at the small, dusty library at one of our deployment sites. Where better? As I worked my way through this book, I had a hard time containing my emotions – especially when reading in public. This investigative account of Iraq war veterans readjusting to civilian life will be challenging to read if you, too, have served, but it is so important that stories like these – true, tough, sobering stories – become part of our American collective social consciousness. So many people live their lives completely unaffected by our many wars churning overseas; they have to know what it’s like for the people who come home from them.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)

An English nurse is sent to a small Irish town to observe a child, hailed as a miracle from heaven, who claims she can subsist entirely without food or water. Is the child telling the truth? If not, to what lengths will she go to maintain the lie? This story, based loosely on true events, demonstrates the careful balance between scientific skepticism and human empathy. It poses a tremendous moral question about the limits of personal autonomy. Recommended by a book podcast, and read it almost entirely in one sitting.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)

This is a little closer to the “weirder” end of the spectrum given the subject matter one of the principle characters is obsessed with, but this is a short and important story about identity and belonging amidst intense social pressure to be different. The main character finds herself falling behind other people her age, socially – she only works part-time and has no interest in dating or starting a family. She is completely fine with it until the people around her make feel like something is wrong with her for being happy with what she has. There is something wrong with her, but not in the way that everyone thinks. Recommended by a ton of book reviewers toward the end of 2018.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2011)

Oh yes, you know I’m on this bullshit right now!

Despite being very interested in cleanliness and organization, I put off reading this book for ages. I was afraid of being browbeaten into minimalism, shamed for wanting to surround myself with all of my worldly possessions. But, at the start of this year, Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix was released, and she got wildly popular – and also widely condemned. I read her book not with the intention of implementing her method into my life, but to get educated on her ideas so I, too, could participate in The Discourse™. Unfortunately for me, Kondo is such a sweet and charming person, and her ideas about keeping only the belongings which bring you the most joy seem so fundamentally true and useful, that I couldn’t find much wrong with her system. In fact, I discovered that her critics were deliberately or mistakenly misconstruing Kondo’s principles. I am in the process of tidying my house right now.

Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling

Obviously. Yes. Of course.

I am astonished that I am meeting grown adults who never experienced the Harry Potter stories. But what if the appeal wears off with age? Are the books still enjoyable as an adult? I started re-reading them a few months ago and, yes, these books are absolutely still a delight. So if you’re late to the Hogwarts Express and worried that it won’t appeal to you anymore, fear not: these stories are just as magical now as they were decades ago. JK Rowling is an incredible storyteller. Her ongoing murder-mystery novels (the Cormoran Strike series) are also very, very good, but I know that genre is pretty niche and not for everyone.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

If I were to write a book, I would want to write one just like Jon Krakauer.

This is an account of Chris McCandless, a young man who hitchhiked his way up to Alaska to live alone in the wilderness – and how he died. This is, I think, the only book recommended to me by my brother, who has way more interesting hobbies than reading. It appealed immediately not only to my love of investigative journalism, but also my heart’s deepest desire, which is to live in complete solitude in nature. This story shows clearly the dangerous line between idealism and cold, hard reality, and it is something I will never forget. Jon Krakauer is a truly gifted writer.


The most fascinating thing about this list is that none of my most favorite authors or books are on it. These books are so important to me that recommending them to someone else makes me feel intolerably vulnerable. Having someone reject them would feel like they are also rejecting me. It’s hard not to take it personally when it is your most favorite thing. These books reflect who I am.

But I am going to be brave. Here are some of those books, just in case:
Cryptonomicon or Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Mélusine by Sarah Monette
Saga (comic series) by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Likeness by Tana French
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

I hope some of these books will strike you as interesting. Please feel free to recommend your favorite books to me! I am always happy to read the things that you think are important or left an impression on you.

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