2 Weeks Into itch.io's Bundle for Racial Justice & Equality

Wed, Jun 24, 2020. Tags: Games, BlackLivesMatter.

Everyone’s been talking about the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality lately, and for good reason. Not only has it raised a staggering eight million dollars for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Community Bail Fund, but it did it by putting together a bundle of 1,741 games — valued at $9,504 — and selling it for for $5. Amid all the vacuous corporate statements on “supporting diversity,” itch.io took an uncompromising stance in support of racial justice and really brought its community together to make a difference.

In the aftermath, a lot of people have found themselves with nearly two thousand indie games and no idea where to start. It’s been two weeks since I bought the bundle, and so I put together this short list of the games that really made an impression on me. I ignored smash hits like Night in the Woods, Oxenfree, and Quadrilateral Cowboy; partly because everybody’s already heard of them and everyone knows they’re fantastic, and partly because I played them too long ago to write anything more interesting than platitudes about them.

Here’s how I rate the games:

These work like Michelin stars: A 👍 is my lowest rating, but it’s still a hearty endorsement. Games I don’t recommend don’t get an emoji.

Without further ado, here are my five new favourites from itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.

Overland

Overland is a turn-based strategy game featuring permadeath which follows a small group of survivors on a road trip across North America during an alien invasion. The moment-to-moment gameplay is a lot of fun, and although the randomly-generated campaigns don’t have much in the way of storyline, the atmosphere is fantastic.

Overland is somewhat unique in that you are not expected to kill all the enemies in each level. In fact, doing so is often altogether impossible. Each level is about dashing to grab some supplies, sprinting back to the car while fending off aliens, and speeding away down the road, often running over a few enemies in the process. Supplies are tight, and you always feel desperate for more. From the beginning of a level, you’re looking to get out as quickly as possible before you get swarmed.

I’m almost reminded of Into the Breach. The tactical decisions aren’t quite as complex as in Into the Breach, but the tense atmosphere and constant sense of urgency makes it more engaging. Between the panicked sprints back to the car and the difficult decisions about what leave behind when you run out of inventory space, it really feels like you’re fighting to survive.

The game is fairly forgiving: you can restart each level with no penalty as many times as you want. This is fantastic for players who are learning the mechanics, but eventually the free restarts can grow to somewhat spoil the experience, since they let you try & retry each level until you get an optimal outcome. Fortunately, there’s an option to disable restarts when starting a new game — consider turning them off once you feel comfortable with the mechanics of the game.

I was a bit surprised to learn that Overland was made by Finji, the dev behind Night in the Woods. But in hindsight, it makes sense. Night in the Woods was also excellent at conveying emotion through gamefeel.

Overland gets a ⭐ for being so much darn fun.

The Testimony of Trixie Glimmer Smith

The Testimony of Trixie Glimmer Smith is a visual novel about Trixie, a lazy university student who gets dragged into some unsavoury eldritch goings-on when she finds a copy of the cursed play The King in Yellow. I quite enjoyed it. The story is engaging, the characters are fun to be around, and the jokes land pretty well. Somehow Trixie manages to balance eldritch horror with comedy while still delivering on both.

The banter and dialogue is funny and well-written. Trixie has a rich and self-deprecating inner monologue — she’s the main attraction, character-wise. During my playthrough, I made friends with a hyena named Heidi who runs a mystical antiques shop, and the back-and-forth between her and the protagonist was great fun. And Nikita, Trixie’s demanding and prickly friend, makes for a great comedic foil to laid-back and unmotivated Trixie. Mixed in with all of this is an unsettling throughline of Lovecraftian horror which was itself done pretty well.

Trixie gets a 👍. I had a great time with it. It’s worth giving it a spin if you enjoy visual novels.

A Short Hike

Exactly what it says on the tin. A Short Hike follows a girl spending the summer in Hawk Peak Provincial Park. You’re tasked with taking a short hike up to the park’s namesake, Hawk Peak. To do that, you’ll need to find some golden feathers, which act as a stamina bar for climbing. That’s basically all the pretext the game gives you before leaving you with a whole island to explore. And boy, is it fun to explore that island.

A Short Hike is a master class in exploration gameplay. The island is full to bursting with interesting landmarks, beautiful scenery, characters with funny dialogue, short quests, and collectibles. I was always curious about what was waiting for me where I hadn’t explored yet, and I was always satisfied with what I found.

I never felt like I was being pushed too hard either — there’s a quest early on where a kid asks you to find 15 seashells for him, but there are well over 15 seashells in the game. Seashells are rare enough, but not so rare that you ever find yourself angrily hunting down one final hidden shell. Even for the completionists, the game is great at putting its collectibles in interesting places without being too opaque about where they’re hidden. Without looking at a guide, I found 19 out of the 22 feathers in the game, which is pretty good for me. I’m usually much worse with collectibles.

The graphics, incidentally, are to die for. The game is absolutely gorgeous, which is part of what makes the island’s unique scenery quite so much fun to explore.

A Short Hike gets a ⭐, for being so nice. It’s well worth your time.

Receiver

Receiver is a novelty, but it’s the best kind of novelty — the kind that changes your perspective. Receiver is a realistic first-person shooter simulator. The game offers three guns, each of which is operated slightly differently, and with great respect for the way a firearm actually works.

If you want to reload your Colt 1911, for example — my favourite of the three — you’ll have to eject the magazine by pressing E, store it in your inventory with 2, pull out a fresh one with 1, insert it with Z, and release the slide lock with T. If you already released it before reloading, remember to rack the slide with R afterwards, or your gun won’t fire when you run into an enemy.

In this way, Receiver is as much a management simulation as it is a first-person shooter. You’ll need to count bullets with the revolver, and carefully manage your magazines with the 1911, or you’ll find yourself without a working weapon.

Video games tend to present firearms as magic wands that make enemies disappear, but that’s an abstraction, just like driving is in any other video game. Where a game like Jalopy forces you to confront the messy reality of keeping your car repaired and refuelled, doing manual tire replacements on the roadside and making sure you always have spare parts, Receiver forces us to understand a bit more of what it’s like to entrust your life to a small box of springs and grease with a trigger.

Fussing over magazines and re-arranging all your cartridges between fights is a pretty fun experience. It’s very tactile, and I felt very cool every time I ejected my magazine after a fight to see how many shots I had left, inserted it again, and took a peek into the chamber to make sure it had a round inside.

Receiver‘s story is delivered solely through 11 tapes, which can be found lying on the ground in the randomized levels, but it’s a surprisingly robust story even despite its small size. Even if it’s more like incidental lore than a real narrative, it adds a lot of uncanny flavour to the world.

The game’s biggest weakness is in how unforgiving it is. The enemies kill you in one hit, which suits the game’s theme of realism, but walking around a corner only to be immediately shot by an automatic turret which just happened to be facing you feels very unfair. At its best, the combat is lots of fun, but surviving sometimes feels like more an exercise in getting lucky than a test of skill.

I also wish it would let me choose which gun to use. The 1911 is my favourite, but somehow I always seem to get stuck with the revolver, which is the least interesting of the three guns.

Receiver won’t last you very long, and it’s not particularly deep, but it’s very cool. I certainly found it worthwhile, and I had a good bit of fun with it. I give it a 👍.

Noise1

Noise1 was definitely one of the sleeper hits of the bundle. The store page describes a game where you interact with the world by typing commands into a console in real-time, TV-hacker-style, which seemed like a really neat interface. That’s what motivated me to pick it up.

Noise1 delivers on that promise — the gimmick is fun, and the game keeps it fresh by adding new mechanics every few levels. Having to watch for typos at critical moments really adds some tension, and I loved the narrative flavour of the entire game taking place through a remote terminal connection. Slow typers may find themselves frustrated with the challenges, but I’m a fairly unexceptional touch typer and I was never forced to use the SKIP command.

The way it goes is, you stumble into a remote terminal connection with a stranger who is trapped on a space station, and they ask you for help escaping. You type commands in the terminal to open different doors and distract guards as they sneak around the station.

The gameplay is compelling, but where Noise1 really shines is the story. Although the “graphics” are just differently-coloured ASCII symbols arranged in a grid, the storytelling is very much a cut above what I had expected. It’s tense, and personal. You develop a real connection with a little @ and a X through only some sparse dialogue.

It’s a really excellent game, so I’m giving it a ❤️. It may not be as polished as some of the other entries on this list, but you should definitely pick this one up.