Dogs gain their sheep-herding ability through a combination of breeding and training. Some are wired for the job from birth; some have at least a predisposition but require that extra push to make the task almost instinctual. The same can be said for the game Sheepwalk!, a retro throwback to simple puzzle games that uses as few graphical bits as possible. You control an unassuming, small pup who herds sheep into their pen. Each level presents new challenges, like a wolf who lurks on the sidelines waiting to snag your sheep, or baby lambs who flee when you get close. Sometimes there are even terrifying (but still adorably 8-bit) rams who try to knock you back.
Sheepwalk! pumps some upbeat tunes into the background to give off the vibe that it’s just another day at the office, so to speak. New design elements roll out slowly over the course of the game’s 30 levels, so you have plenty of time to get used to each one before the next comes. Apparently it’s easy to learn a few new tricks, even if you’re the gaming equivalent of an old dog.
For generations, men and man sympathizers have relied on the simple act of fishing—sitting silently in a boat, floating on the water, alone with their thoughts—as a form of therapy. Relaxing and peaceful, it’s the original form of self-medication. This sense is often lost in video game representations of fishing, though, as such games tend to be goal-oriented and (at least theoretically) action-packed. Moonlight solves this problem, counter-intuitively enough, by more closely resembling a familiar arcade experience. The result is less “fishing” and more “bioluminescent pachinko.”
There’s a score, and there are achievements. These are typically signifiers of competition, yet there is no great compulsion to “beat” anyone in a game of Moonlight. There is no change to the landscape if you score especially well, nor is there any shame in failure. You’re only playing against yourself and your own expectations. This is, perhaps, the most emotionally accurate representation of fishing in video games to date. Best of all, it doesn’t take more than a couple minutes of your day, and you don’t smell like fish when you’re done.
Before descending into ASCIIvania’s multi-roomed cavern—constructed entirely out of American Standard Code for Information Interchange symbols (that is, computer text)—you enter your name. The first letter of your name is your first tool in what turns into a 28-word arsenal. Messages and seemingly random letters block your way through the cavern, and to progress you have to flex your Scrabble muscles, pondering what letters you have and what they can spell in the environment. If there’s an O in your way, roll up with an N to make it disappear. Collecting red letters ups your arsenal and special characters give you new abilities. The exclamation point, for example, will reverse gravity.
That’s a neat premise, but ASCIIvania’s appeal is that it feels lived-in, not just clever. The room reserved for “shunned and feared creatures” is where Q is waiting for you, and it’s genuinely spooky when you arrive and see that lonesome letter trapped inside. Unfortunately, the ending shatters that feeling. Once you’ve got all the letters, that’s it, game over. It feels premature, but ASCIIvania is a sweet time while it lasts.
It was inevitable that the Slender Man—the creepy, stretched-too-thin stalker from some unearthly dimension created by SomethingAwful user Victor Surge—would become the antagonist of his own game. The suited stranger has been the subject of blogs, short stories, and web video series, many of them terrific, and the central unknowability of him makes the character the perfect villain. What wasn’t as certain was that a game based on him would be as primally terrifying and good as Slender is.
Slender does but one, tiny thing, but the game does it enormously well: It puts you into the woods in the middle of the night, then aims to terrify you with what might lie behind any given tree, like the protagonist of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story might cower from demons. The goal is to collect eight pages, stuck to various landmarks (including a long, empty tunnel and some abandoned bathrooms) inside a fenced-off, wooded area that seems to be an old, abandoned park. With every page grabbed, the difficulty ramps up, the Slender Man lurking somewhere in the dark, just waiting for you to happen upon him so that he might drain your sanity.
Everything in Slender is dedicated to placing you in the middle of the night, just waiting for something to lunge out and grab you. (The sound design is particularly impressive in this regard.) Endlessly playable, Slender is at its best when its evoking the feeling that comes when you’re lying alone in the dark, and a door somewhere creaks open, and it’s probably just the cat…but can you know?
The hard part of being a pet owner: Not anthropomorphizing your companion. Sprinkles is not a person! She has feelings and needs but she doesn’t think of them in abstract terms. Animals have a different perspective, and that’s the premise of Perspective. As the dog in this game, you can turn snakes into boxes or spikes into coins just by shifting your point of view. Sure, most dogs can’t do that. And most dogs don’t follow their masters through a series of bizarre jumping challenges in some kind of underground dungeon, either. Perspective is, however, an affecting little game that captures that fundamental difference in point of view between human and pet.
You control a colorful mutt with a skill for jumping. The goal is to reach your friend, the old lady, standing at the exit of each self-contained stage. To get there, though, you have to avoid obstacles like deadly snakes. By changing your perspective with the push of a button, these perils become harmless—a snake turns into a crate, for instance. Finding the safe path isn’t always as easy as it seems, as the snakes and bats aren’t exactly eager to cooperate. The difficulty ramps up dramatically when you begin controlling multiple dogs at the same time.
The dog’s narration reveals a tender past. Coupled with Jorge Boscan’s quiet piano melody and the nicely animated characters, an otherwise tense game of precision action becomes touching and contemplative. Perspective may not let you think like your pet, but it will make you at least try.
I never gave a thought to joining the debate club in high school. Part of that can be chalked up to a general aversion to confrontation, but it also has a lot to do with the difficulties in marshaling evidence and using this evidence to forcefully articulate compelling arguments. I prefer to resolve disagreements with a mix of Zen koans and vapid sports clichés, and by randomly paraphrasing Bertrand Russell.
None of this works very well in Argument Champion, where Corax—the ancient, cyclopean argument demon—helps you divine your audience’s beliefs and tailor your arguments to fit those preconceptions. You and your opponent are each tasked with picking a subject and then arguing for your chosen stance while dismantling your opponent in the eyes of the crowd. Through Corax, you can figure out which arguments poll well with the audience and which unpopular ones you should link to the other guy. When it’s your turn, you pick an idea out of the crowd’s thought bubbles and try to either link it to your own through a thematic chain, or tie it to the other debater like an Akinian albatross.
I can’t argue that strongly for Argument Champion, for a couple of reasons. Basing your attack on the audience’s preconceived ideas might be the norm in the era of cable news, but debate is always more impressive when you have the chance to change someone’s point of view. Plus, skill doesn’t always apply in the game. For instance, a woman in the crowd thinks about how she loves “Howard,” and you’re supposed to link that to your topic of communism? It’s possible, somehow, but only through mostly random guessing about Howard’s social and economic proclivities. I might as well give 110 percent out on the field to the sound of one hand clapping, since God doesn’t exist.
Given how sugary-sweet Super Adventure Pals’ outer shell looks, it’s surprising just how bitter its world can be. You start as a small boy wearing a floppy baseball cap and carrying around a stuffed giraffe, wandering around a world full of lush trees and shiny gold coins. Sure, you have a little wooden sword, but how bad can things get?
Pretty bad, it turns out. You venture out into worlds infested with spikes, gorillas, and guys that look like the Kool-Aid Man (but full of bombs instead of sugar water). All the while, pleasant music plays as if you’re on one of the bonus levels of Super Mario World, even as you make critical jumps and dodge exploding blocks like a sadistic level of Mega Man.
Luckily, Super Adventure Pals has a sense of humor about himself. That menacing first boss you’ve seen looming in the distance? Merely a big fish inside a giant tank. That terrifying old man in Treevale, the town that serves as your home base? Just looking for his lucky Speedo. And that adorable stuffed giraffe? It turns out he gains abilities as you play, making him as essential as the sword you carry. Looks can be deceiving.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing. There are certain bits of pop culture these days that, when you see them, the only explanation available is “because the internet.” Nyan Cat is a looping video of a pixelated cartoon cat with a Pop-Tart for a body, riding an endless rainbow. Snakes On A Plane is an actual thing that got made into a feature film. Lana Del Rey. When one thinks of these things and wonders, “Why?” the answer is invariably “because the internet.”
Milford The Ghosts is a horizontal shooter about a gentleman ghost who shoots replicant ghosts at…stuff. Enemies and obstacles include dolphins, cacti, fire hydrants, time bombs, jelly blobs, asteroids, birthday presents, and cats. Destroying these seemingly random opponents increases the rate of your ghostly fire, and taking a hit slows you back down. How can a gentleman ghost get hit by these things when he’s, you know, a ghost? Well, he’s a gentleman. Maybe he thinks it’s impolite to go intangible. Whatever the case, Milford The Ghosts is a game that makes absolutely no sense and is all the more compelling for it.
Yes, Seedling shares a lot of its DNA with The Legend Of Zelda. When you emerge from a subterranean dungeon in Zelda, though, you may be surrounded by bad guys, but at least the sun is out. In Seedling, there’s only darkness.
Even in the outdoors, Seedling’s world feels like a haunted house. There are ghosts that peer at you from trees as you walk past, with whom you can’t communicate. There are blizzards and black holes that obstruct your vision. And even though the days theoretically cycle through to night, it feels like it’s always 2 a.m., your path illuminated only by a dim, floating rock you’ve picked up. Boss battles take place in caves lit by a lone torch, and the gear you pick up—variations on Zelda weapons and armor, like a dark suit and a magic wand—are meant to steel you for the horrors of night.
But Seedling’s central pursuit subverts the darkness: You must find a single seed, scattered throughout the world, and plant it. Seedling asks its players to weigh whether the pursuit of this seed—hope incarnate—is worth venturing into total bleakness, and it’s a question that pulls you into the black.
Monty Python’s vision of the quest for the Holy Grail featured a notably horseless King Arthur, accompanied by his faithful patsy, Patsy. To produce the nobility fit for a king, Patsy rhythmically clunked two coconuts together and made the familiar clip-clop sound of a horse’s hoofbeats. Shockingly, they fooled no one. Once Bennett Foddy puts you in “control” of the unicorn in his newest keyboard-smasher CLOP, it soon becomes clear that the Clop is as much a unicorn as King Arthur’s coconuts are a horse. The beast may have the appearance right, but the specifics are all wrong. He is cursed with a center of gravity of a hefty tube TV and the coordination of a drunken rag doll.
The medieval-tinged game begins when a local japer named Sherrod mentions a rumored virgin across yonder hill. A wary Clop gets the message. Though Clop “mislikes hills” by his own admission, the quest begins and you take the reins, moving each leg individually. Forward motion seems initially feasible by alternating legs on the same side, and with the right timing, Clop whinnies his way into an uneasy, yet workable trot.
Then come the rocks. Faced with tiny stones and mild inclines, Clop will often fall upwards onto his back. Sherrod throws out a biting taunt, and it’s Game Over. There are no save-points, and beyond inching forward in the hidden Lame Horse Mode, there are no readily available or apparent strategies to win. CLOP is impossible, but not unplayable. At the end of the day, Clop may as well be a set of coconuts, but according to videos on YouTube, CLOP apparently has a legitimate ending, which is more than The Holy Grail can lay claim to.
There’s a reason why Waiting For Godot: The Video Game was never a blockbuster. Imagine a Super Mario game where Mario and Luigi sit around World 1-1 and exchange chin-scratching philosophical musings about the meaning of the Mushroom Kingdom. Lame, right? That doesn’t seem to scare off the creators of Nihilumbra, a puzzle game that proudly wears its Sartre on its sleeve.
You begin the game as a shapeless black blob emerging from a hellish place of darkness called The Void into a new world of dense forests, harsh deserts, and haunting caves. The Void hates your ambition and the humanoid form you’ve morphed into, so it sends out shadowy creatures to force you “home.” Self-actualization for your character comes in the form of colors that accent your all-consuming darkness. White, for instance, grants the ability to summon ice, and green creates spongy bounce pads. Meanwhile, a narrator alternates between encouragement and hopelessness. Could the voice be your own conflicted inner thoughts, or is it the omniscient creator of The Void?
Melancholy isn’t a mood evoked often in video games, but indie darlings like Braid and Bastion have both proven that it can be done when orchestrated with a deft touch. Nihilumbra follows in the footsteps of those games by striking the right balance between brooding existentialism and the joy of discovery.