2017 was a remarkably hectic year for many, and 2018 will likely match or surpass its pace. Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to justify focusing, as I do, on fringe, alternative games, and hard to keep up my old enthusiasm for seeking out works that get little play even in my own professional milieu.
Still, a healthy number of games stood out to me, and helped remind me what got me excited about the medium in the first place. I’d like to help share these games with the world. It genuinely gives me great joy to do so.
The past year saw some mainstream heavy-hitters like Nier: Automata and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and some really impressive indie releases like David Kanaga’s Oikospiel Book I and Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods. But my specialty is the weird, small, obscure stuff. The stuff that rarely earns a blurb on major gaming sites. That, to me, has always represented the cultural vanguard of the medium, and it’s still where the coolest stuff is happening. (I would even argue that those more notable releases owe a certain creative debt to more obscure, oddball works.)
In no particular order, here are a few alternative games that really impressed me in 2017. Some of these games I have written about previously, while others I am either in the process of writing about or intend to write about in the coming weeks. Most are inexpensive or free and can be played in under an hour, but may still be enough to challenge preconceived notions of what the medium is capable of.
Without further ado, here are some of my favourite small games of 2017.
POST/CAPITALISM – COLESTIA
Post/Capitalism by Colestia is a short game (playable in about 20 minutes), modeled on Sim City and other world-building and resource management sim games. But, whereas “Sims”-style games usually compel the player to reproduce capitalist orders in with a technocratic passivity, Post/Capitalism asks the players to peel back the layers of ideology that produce such systems in the first place, and offers changes to those base assumptions in order to produce a functioning socialist society. I love the way this game allows players to visualize the ways in which ideology feeds into material conditions, and makes it a little easier to imagine the kinds of changes that can lead to revolutionary consequences. Post/Capitalism may be considered a companion piece to Crisis Theory, in which Colestia uses the mechanics of a flow chart in order to expose the fundamental instability of capitalism. Pay what you want for Post/Capitalism on itch.io. (Crisis Theory can be played for free in your browser.)
IT’S AS IF YOU WERE DOING THE WORK – PIPPIN BARR
It’s As If You Were Doing the Work by Pippin Barr is an interesting polemic on white collar labour–particularly the kind that takes place on office computers. Rooted in the critique that many workers are so trained by their work that as they’re slowly replaced by automation, they will still crave feelings of “productivity” associated with their former jobs, the game satirically claims to provide people with a fix for these cravings. It’s As If You Were Doing the Work mimics the desktop of a Windows 95 operating system, and has the player fulfill seemingly-pointless busy work, from writing out emails to filling out spreadsheets. These tasks keep coming, sometimes faster than one can clear them, but don’t appear to be tied to any specific purpose. The game is a wry, thoughtful and original meditation on “cognitive labour”, elegantly illustrating relationships between things like automation, gamification and a specific kind of labour alienation from actual physical commodities that’s common to computer-based work. It can be played for free in your browser.
GLIMBY – STEPHEN THECATAMITES
Glimby by stephen thecatamites is an endearing toybox of a game in which we get to know the title character, a gelatinous, vulgar, green being with a heart of gold. Rifle through Glimby’s things, read Glimby’s private notes, gawp at Glimby’s many impressive photographs and souvenirs. Be impressed at Glimby’s myriad and grand accomplishments. This game is text-heavy and relies on a pastiche of rudimentarily animated doodles for its visual aesthetic. In the context of Glimby, this works. The game is short and simple, but densely packed, and strikes a tone somewhere between endearing and caustic. It’s funny and heartfelt and a little bit dark, and can be played in under an hour. Play Glimby for free in your browser, and feel like you either made a friend or behaved like a stalker. Either way, Glimby still loves you.
SACRAMENTO – DZIFF, BEN SWINDEN
Sacramento by Dziff and Ben Swinden is a very pretty, hand-drawn game about the fleeting nature of memory. This short game is surreal and achingly beautiful, with vivid pastel pinks, blues, yellows and oranges melting into each other, and calligraphic animations of fish, birds, rolling hills and dancing stars. This impressionistic games is deliberately hazy, with incongruent parts that all flow together thanks to aesthetic and thematic cohesion. Sacramento is a great example of a game that shows rather than tells, exploring its central theme through interaction and touch as much as through visuals and sound. Pay what you want for Sacramento on itch.io.
WHERE THEY CREMATE THE ROADKILL – THE GUNSEED COLLAB
Where They Cremate the Roadkill by The Gunseed Collab is a fascinating, intensely bizarre RPG in which you must fight to survive, despite the small snag of combat being highly illegal in the game’s world. This existentialist descent into the heart of madness leans heavily on the grainy, punky zine aesthetic of predecessors like GZ Storm’s Vidiot Game or the works of developers like Mason Lindroth and Jake Clover. The mechanics are a little more conventional than the themes and aesthetics, but the game’s disorienting interface makes figuring out how to play an adventure all on its own. But this fits: Where They Cremate the Roadkill is similar to other satirical RPGs (think Shut Up And Jam), in that it uses and subverts RPG conventions in order to communicate its overall themes. What earns it a special mention is that it combines this satirical sensibility with a penchant for the avant-garde and even grotesque. Like Vidiot Game, Shut Up and Jam or lesser known works like eoeoeo344’s criminally underrated Don’t Talk To Them!!, Where They Cremate the Roadkill is an RPG that is very much about RPGs. Like other alternative games, it then uses that language to muse on existential alienation and depression and how these things interact with modernity. It’s a synthesis of things that have been happening in alternative “zinester” game spaces for a few years, and it pulls off the balance with panache. Incredibly, Where They Cremate the Roadkill can be purchased on Steam for $11.99.
HELL – AHINTOFLIME
Hell by ahintoflime is a metaphysical point-and-click adventure that takes the player on a journey through the underworld. Rather than fire and brimstone, however, Hell takes a more expressionist tack by inviting the player into an endless, black-and-white nightmare of haunting, macabre imagery and Lynchian symbolism. Rooms melt into other rooms, and any meaningful concept of space is thrown to the wind. Reminiscent of classic speculative point-and-click games (Tass Times in Tonetown comes to mind), Hell presents its version of Satan’s domain as an operating system that runs after your player-character has already passed away. Stylized as a classic point-and-click adventure game (but without the whole “rub random items together and hope something happens” conceit), Hell is an engrossing, vividly imaginative and disconcerting representation of the afterlife. Pay what you want for Hell on itch.io
EARTHLING PRIORITIES – KONSTANTINOS DIMOPOULOS
Earthling Priorities by Konstantinos Dimopoulos is a short but promising point-and-click game in which you play a young worker with a severe case of false consciousness. Set in the not-too-distant dystopian future, this game follows the brief story of one scab trying to get to work, only something odd has happened: the automatic front door to his apartment has been struck by lightning, and has developed sentience and a will of its own. The door tries to convince the scab tech worker that he is being exploited, but this only buys the player time to root around the apartment, finding increasingly improbable items to rub together in order for the player-character to reach his goal. Earthling Priorities is very short, leaving us wanting more, but it is a clever and amusing lampoon of the dominant ideologies in tech culture. I hope to see even more from Dimopoulos and company, but in the meantime Earthling Priorities can be downloaded from itch.io and played in about 15 minutes.
SIXGAMESINONESIMULTANEOUSMEGAPACK – YESYES
Sixgamesinonesimultaneousmegapack by development collective yesyes is an awesome, almost Dadaist pastiche made up, quite literally, of six games in one simultaneous megapack. That doesn’t simply mean one folder containing six applications. Instead, yesyes have ingeniously combined six games, made by six members of the group, into one impossible mega-game. A “Twine-style Game” (Shiyun “Vanilla” Liu) is layered on top of a “Flying Game” (Dennis Carr), a “Toilet FPS” (Longxiao Li), a “2D Rolling Game” (Corey Bertelson) and so on. The effect is a boisterous, cacophonous mess in which the only way to make sense of anything is to try one’s damnedest to focus in on one or two things. Sixgamesinonesimultaneousmegapack takes industry wisdom about marketing game content and spits in its face, and does so in a way that’s lighthearted, enthralling and oddly beautiful. Get it on itch.io and play until you get bored.
THE TROLLEY – NICHOLAS O’BRIEN
The Trolley by Nicholas O’Brien is a poignant, melancholy first-person game about the closure of a trolley system in a fictional rustbelt American city. You play as a transit worker who must perform tasks like boarding up gatehouses, unplugging phone lines and throwing out old paperwork. Interspersed with these tasks are the contemplations of the worker, who muses about corporate greed, urban planning, the changing economic and cultural landscape, technological changes and so on. The Trolley is heavily inspired by the real-life closures of trolley systems all over America, and despite that quintessential blockiness of Unity graphics, borrows from experimental cinematographic techniques in order to strike a tone that’s at once nostalgic, sorrowful and resigned. The red hue that lights up the game’s skybox and shines on every blocky texture gives The Trolley a feeling of perpetual sunset, a nice touch for a genuinely affecting game that considers public transport in the context of a city’s people and its culture. Get The Trolley on itch.io.
The games in this list each engage with the medium in an original, singular and dedicated way. Some are more avant-garde or surreal, while others are more straightforward, but they all manage to use the medium in an unusual and compelling way. This, to me, is the stuff that moves an art form forward. Please take some time out of your day to give these games a try, and if you can, spare a few bucks for their creators.
Here’s to what will surely be another extremely weird year.