Tag Archives: music

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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The Truth About Screen Time

According to the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I average about 4.5 hours each day staring into one (1) glowing rectangle.

If you are over age 40, you’re probably thinking: “That’s because your generation is addicted to screens.”

4+ hours does seem like a lot, especially considering I don’t have my phone with me during the workday. For that much daily screen time, I must have my phone in front of my face from the moment I get home until I put my head down to sleep. Do I?

The answer is a little complicated, both yes and no.

If the purpose of Screen Time is to raise consciousness about how much we use our phones, it’s doing a decent job. Getting notifications every week with those statistics invariably generates the same response from me: “Huh, am I really?” With that in mind, whenever I’m tempted to scroll endlessly on a social media app, I reflexively recall that Screen Time will confront me at the end of the week with an exact figure for my idleness, which does inspire me to use these apps with a little more purpose. In fact, Screen Time awareness brought Facebook down from the #1 to #4 most-used app on the list. Not bad.

Here is how my current average usage breaks out from a pretty typical week at the time of this writing (the last week of May):
Safari 7.5 hours
Libby 5.5 hours
YouTube 5 hours
Facebook 2 hours
Nike Running Club 1.5 hours
Instagram 1.5 hours
Tumblr 1.5 hours
Facebook Messenger 1 hour
Google Maps 1 hour
Music 1 hour
Messages 45 minutes
Podcasts 45 minutes
Notes 40 minutes

What stuck out to me right away is the number for the Podcast app. If you know me, you know this: I listen to a truly untenable, possibly immoral, number of podcasts. Turns out that the definition of “screen time” is pretty rigid: the time that the phone screen is literally on, no matter what else is running in the background.

How we use our phones expands so far beyond just sitting and staring, scrolling on pictures, crushing candy. We use our phones even when they’re not in our hands; for me, it turns out, this is when I use my phone the most.

I went back through all the podcasts I listened to in the past seven days. If my screen had been active for all the time I was listening, that number would have ballooned from 45 minutes to 1,002 minutes, or almost 17 hours. (In just one week! Great, that’s a number I’ll never unsee!) But because my phone screen is turned off while I’m listening, Screen Time tracking doesn’t kick in, and my sins remained hidden – until now. This is true for Music, too. I listen to music while I drive and work out and shower, all of which probably adds up to an hour or more per day. But because my phone screen is not on during that time, it doesn’t count toward Screen Time.

YouTube presents the opposite example. The hours spent on YouTube seems really high, and I know it’s accurate because my phone screen has to be on for YouTube to continue playing. I use YouTube for a ton of different things, though, and very few of them involve me actually looking at my screen, which seems completely contrary to the nature of the app. I like to put on clips of late-night comedy shows as something to listen to while I’m cooking and cleaning and doing things around the house – something I can glance at without having to commit my full attention. The number of hours spent on YouTube is actually a good indicator of how much time I spend on chores every week. Less than an hour per day seems about right.

All combined, I spent about an hour or two per a day on social media apps. To some, this will seem like a lot. To others, not much at all. For most, it’s probably average.

It shocked me, though, that none of my app games amounted to enough time to show up in these numbers at all. I feel like I’m always checking my cats on Neko Atsume. But these check-ins, while quite frequent, only last a few seconds at a time, which even in weekly aggregate don’t amount to much.

So, a more truthful rendering of the Screen Time weekly tally would look something like this:
Podcasts 17 hours
Reading 13 hours (Safari and Libby)
Social media 6 hours (Facebook and Messenger, Tumblr, Instagram)
TV, distractions 12 hours (YouTube and Music)
Fitness 2 hours (Nike and Notes, which I use to track my workouts)

All of this is not to exculpate myself, to make it seem like I’m above being glued to my glowing rectangle. Evidently, this is not the case, and clearly I need to be distracted from thinking my own thoughts at all times. But giving some consideration to the numbers that Screen Time puts in front of my face every week made me appreciate the variety of ways in which devices have made themselves relevant to the minutiae of our lives, keeping us connected and entertained even when they aren’t the recipients of our undivided attention. In fact, it made me realize that my phone usage has changed drastically from my eyes to my ears, from active to passive – not unlike how devices are now, too, always listening, always ready for the command to solicit their input.

What will a post about device usage look like in a decade? A century? Will we outgrow the physical aspect entirety and these device functions will merge seamlessly with existing infrastructure (smart homes, etc)? I hope I find this post again when I am very old, if the internet is not obsolete (cool) or abolished (very cool). I hope I can look back fondly at how quaint and naive I am now and how far technology has come. Or maybe we will soon reach another innovative plateau, one that I personally won’t see the other side of. Either way, a pre-loaded app in my phone made me think for quite a while about the integration of devices into our lives, and that was something I absolutely was not expecting.

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ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF

In April 2007 – ten years ago – I was getting ready to graduate from high school and start college. What an exciting time! I had so much ahead of me and I didn’t even realize it. I knew I was on the cusp of something huge and important, but it was all obscured in a fog, and the unknown can be scary.

When I felt insecure as a teenager, I would imagine talking to an older, cooler version of myself, someone who had been there and done that and came out on the other side. It sounds silly but it gave me a lot of hope.

Well, here I am: “Older and not at all wiser,” my Chief from the ship told me once on my birthday. Ten years of life and learning definitely provide a wider perspective, and although I still have a long way to go, here is some advice that I would give to 18-year-old me. (I like to imagine future-me rolling up to younger-me on light-up heelys, wearing shutter shades and drinking a smoothie – because those things are both Indisputably Cool and also Relatable to 2007.)


(In lieu of a meaningful coming-of-age song, please enjoy my unironic favorite jam of 2007.)

It’s okay to do stuff alone. You feel very ashamed about your love of solitude. You will feel judged and weird. You will put yourself out there out of obligation when you’d rather be rolling solo. It’s normal to feel that way; extroverts tend to dictate the rules of the social sphere. You’re going to deal with that insecurity for a long time. But doing things by yourself is so important to who you are fundamentally that you will stop caring what other people think. Your favorite person to spend time with will always, always be yourself.

Making new friends is hard. Your first year at college is going to be the loneliest of your life. But you will make new friends, some of them best friends, and your love for your high school friends will only increase as you get older.

Appreciate your family. Right now, you’re relieved to be away from them, but that novelty will wear off. It won’t be long before you only see them once a year, and it won’t be a guarantee. You’ll think about them every day.

Get help. You’re going to experience depression without understanding what it is that you’re going through. You could talk to someone, or get more sleep, or manage stress, but you won’t do any of these things, and as a result you will spend more than a year not feeling anything at all. You will remember this period of your life in as an empty grey haze. As it turns out, you can’t “cure” depression, but you can minimize its interference in your life so much that it is barely there at all. It gets better with practice.

No one else is to blame for your feelings but you. It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to take away your sadness. It’s not fair to put that expectation on them. Learn to find happiness from within yourself – easier said than done, I know, but once you figure it out, no one can take it away from you. Take care of yourself so that others don’t have to.

Walk away from things that make you unhappy. So much of your life right now is comprised of first experiences, and you worry that each one will also be the last. It won’t. Life is full of new and interesting surprises, but you have to be open to them.

You’re still going to struggle with body issues, even after you lose weight. These struggles get easier with age, and even as your body weight fluctuates up and down, you will learn to love yourself for reasons apart from your appearance.

Stop telling yourself that you’re not as smart as your friends. Everyone is smart in their own ways. You’re going to learn some very hard lessons by categorizing people as “smart” or “stupid.” Figure out what you’re good at and maximize it in your life. Pay attention to how the people around you excel at different things, too.

Get comfortable with failure. Once you get out of school, you’re going to fail a lot. It gets less uncomfortable each time. It makes you more resilient and, most importantly, it makes it easier to…

Take risks. They usually pay off, sometimes in ways you don’t expect, and when they don’t, the fallout is rarely severe enough to alter your trajectory.

Listen to your parents. It won’t be long before you call them for advice before you make any big decision. They’ve done it all before. It makes them happy to help you. They are unbelievably smart and resourceful.

Stop thinking about settling down. The world is full of interesting and wonderful and terrible people. Get to know more of them. You’re going to limit your opportunities by trying to align someone else’s priorities with your own – and you’re not going to meet someone who will do the same for you for a long, long time.

Treat people better. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. Treating someone with kindness makes both of you happy. Be good to people even – especially – when they don’t deserve it; it says more about your character than theirs. In a culture that equates offensiveness with authenticity, being nice will be a radical act.

I can’t wait to see what 38-year-old me has to say, ten years from now!

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RECLAIMING MUSIC

For a while, I stopped listening to an album that I really enjoy because it was the soundtrack to a time in my life that I was trying to lay to rest. Born and Raised by John Mayer is one of his best, in my opinion, but I’m pretty biased in favor of anything remotely folksy. It was an instant favorite. I listened to it over and over in the spring and summer of 2013. Now it’s bound to memories of that time – many of which I want to forget.

Born and Raised makes me think of…

  • Sandy, sunburnt skin and cold showers.
  • Two long road trips. Trips to the fish market in his 1968 Volkswagen beetle with no A/C, the leather seats making my legs and back sweaty in the heat. So many trips to Dunkin’ Donuts.
  • Learning to sail. Intense anxiety. Not wanting to sail again. Doing it anyway, to make him happy.
  • Dirty motel rooms.
  • Brunch by the beach. Sunday morning mimosas.
  • Lap swim in the dark. Watching the sun rise through the sky lights of the locker room.
  • Muggy morning runs on the unlit chip trail.
  • Staying in on Friday nights to play Borderlands 2 together.
  • PAC events. Loving color guard, hating drill. So many graduations.
  • Long marches. Sweating through a uniform every day.
  • The sunset over Pensacola. A year of being in love, wildly, but receiving very little in return. Struggling between selflessness and sacrifice versus needs and expectations.

These are mostly happy memories, but I don’t have enough distance from that relationship to look back on that time with a detached but appreciative fondness. I’m not ready yet. Even positive reminiscing dredges up negative feelings; the rose-colored glasses eventually come off and I remember the deprivation, manipulation, rejection, and ultimately the destruction of my self-esteem. The music recalls memories of the past, and memories of the past invariably lead to feelings of sadness and hurt.

But I love that album. I don’t want to lose it because of these now-bittersweet memories, so I’ve been trying to “reclaim” it. I’m trying to associate it with a new kind of experiences. Whenever I’m feeling happy or peaceful, I’ll play the album or sing it to myself. I’d like to cognitively reassign the album to positive feelings which are independent of time and location. I want to enjoy the music again, earnestly, freely, with no emotional baggage.

Do you have music that makes you remember certain times in your life? Has it ever been hard for you to listen to an artist or album after it became associated with a bad time?

goodbye cold, goodbye rain
goodbye sorrow, goodbye shame
 
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