10: HOW TO WIN A RIOT (Nôtre-Bloc). I’m in two minds about including a game so flamebaity in its self-promotion. The outcry over historical level pack Boston to Soweto was entirely predictable but worked marketing marvels: its splash page now quotes the laws under which it’s banned in eight (and counting) nations. It’s more agnostic than the titular ‘win’; whether you aim to maintain peaceful resistance or prod the Authorities into bloody, headline-grabbing overreaction is entirely up to you.
Credit where due – it was Judas Goat! that first twisted the casual-sheepdog genre by putting you in charge of the BrownianAlibi engine’s particles. But JG was more toy than game; Riot’s agency is deeper, with strong currents beneath the flailing. Particles come colour-coded: the black Organisers are under your direct control, but the rest – shading from shit-starting red Agitators to yellow Malcontents all the way to blue Onlookers – shift in colour and behaviour-patterns depending on how things play out, granting different levels of influence. The action is almost dreamlike, white Authority dots surging or breaking as rainbow patterns swirl inside the crowd: you usher and coax, but you never fully control anything. The real agency is in preparation, where you have to invest points in training, decide what kind of equipment to encourage, and learn about what the Authorities are likely to field (the level that combines sabre-wielding cavalry with teargas is the worst).
9: RZEŹ (Exfutura). The plot and character of this is not worth a damn – it’s a story of loyalty, jealousy and stupid teenage pride amid small-time gangs in Lublin, with a strong feel of slushpile screenplay about it – but the combat, oy. Rzeź is based around the idea that fights are a mix of posturing, mad rage and terror conducted by kids who are mostly faking it. Rather than designing a system to sing like wuxia choreography once mastered, it was designed for the messier parts of a Kurosawa battle sequence. All the love in the animation has been poured into stumbles, flailing arms, shocky hesitation, scrums, panicked flight, desparate ground-fights. The timeline of the story is brief enough that every non-disabling injury taken in a fight persists, so that by the finale the Nasty Crew – and their foes – tend to be sporting a great many grubby bandages. The cast is visibly finite.
It is a game about violence designed to nauseate. By about the midpoint, when the feud gets really vicious, I was hesitating because I didn’t want to see anyone else get kicked to death. At times this lent the schlocky writing a certain grace – “You’re weak!” yells second-in-command Liść after an inconclusive skirmish, “You don’t want this!” and no, no I don’t.
The studio talked a big game about every possible outcome of a fight affecting the story; in the event, it appears that they managed this by making very few characters really matter to the story. (Unless you decide that they do; hopefully you’ve all seen the Save Kamil Let’s Play, wherein Guy Heder tries to keep the scrawny redhead, an enemy whose main purpose is to die in the first skirmish, alive and walking until the end.) The conclusion is an oddly-enjambed anticlimax. The lack of a confident narrative is a gaping wound; this is a game that loses little if you don’t ever finish it.
8: THIS IS HEAVY PETAL (Heavy Petal, various). Those accusing the Institute of a certain favouritism towards Heavy Petal should recall that we excoriated their hackwork efforts Grand Ball and Hussar Princess, and found their biggest-budget work ever, Opera La Maupin, glittery but insubstantial. This Is Heavy Petal is a fanservice beer-money piece, for sure, but it’s still full of surprises. HP tapped into their extensive (and, frankly, really weird) fandom to create short, non-canon works in their worlds. So we have four pieces about Taffeta Kingdom, two from Couture and one Maupin. TIHP hasn’t seen much attention outside the inmost fan community, which is a shame, because there are some really solid works here.
Three of the TK offshoots are predictable but lovingly-rendered OTP vehicles about Taffeta characters, notable mostly for careful targeting to fandom conerns, written by community-favoured authors with their less palatable edges filed down. Footwork – focused on fan-favourite dancing-master Rodrigo – is more interesting for inverting the tutorial, letting you grant dancers techniques to manipulate events. Picaro is a Gothic-weird story about a knavish cad who unwisely buys a cravat from the Couture boutique; Silk Fractal takes the clothes-making heart of Couture and expands it into a beautiful, plotless but evocative toy. Eight Positions of the Blade is particularly dear to us because, briefly and sharply, it cuts through the spectacular artificial theatrics of Maupin to the nasty calculus of dueling culture.
7: THE SCYTHIAN QUEEN (Bytewax): Gonna say it: this is Bytewax’s long-heralded return to form. Since creating the modern GBG (before Analogie dependency-web games were an awkward niche-within-a-niche) they’ve rested on their laurels rather, putting out a game or two every year in precisely the Analogie mould while the genre they created outpaced them. Sure, Scythian Queen is a big step up from Bytewax’s recent output, but most of this is just belated adoption of techniques pioneered by their own successors. What makes it exceptional is writing and voice-acting: all the principal characters are voiced by RSC veterans, and the live stage version of Queen launched before the game itself.
Somewhere in Ancient Greece, four men, each luminaries in their field – historian, philosopher, poet, general – have gathered Symposium-style to discuss the Queen of the Scythians, sprung from legend and now advancing through Greece with fire and the sword. They tell stories to try and figure out who she is and what she represents, each elaboration more outlandish than the last. Servants move softly about in the background. The web builds in the darkness overhead, a precarious tower.
6: THE DUNGRADUSH (Vij Ghatak / Mikey Shakespeare / Cromlech Games). Only small children and the dying can see the Dungradush; it’s a combination of house-spirit, imaginary childhood friend and crochety immigrant grandmother. You never see more than glimpses of a whiskery snout and a scaly prehensile tail. It only wakes up at mealtimes, to swim in the soup-pot and meddle with its family.
Gameplay is akin to a cut-down Sims without the omniscient viewpoint. You can’t leave the home – a small terraced house with a scrap of garden, somewhere in the urban UK. You can’t create characters, and can only get them to do stuff indirectly. They’re hard to manage, so your motivation, as in most management games, is to multiply your influence. Here, that means ensuring a regular supply of small children (when they grow up they can’t see you), getting everybody home for dinner (absentees are beyond your influence), and making sure that soup is always served, because you can’t swim about to gain energy in pizza. Big family gatherings are the best, but if they don’t involve soup you get drained quickly. You also want to avoid family members moving out while they still have Last Requests attached to them. (The dying make requests of you: keep X out of trouble long enough to finish school, find a good spouse for Y or a secure job for Z. Fulfilling them is how you level up.)
Ghatak has said that Dungradush started out as a comedy based on her own family – “I was nineteen, attending university from home, and it was write this or murder my mum” – and the initial appeal is that you get to play the dreadful interfering mother-in-law from a bad sitcom. But it builds into a deeper piece, about the love of the old for the young, how hopes can stifle or nourish. “Early on I was tapping all my second- and third-generation friends for funny auntie anecdotes; the project only got serious once I started interviewing the aunties.”
5: ANDRASTE II NASTY (Double Door). Given what happens to the comments section every time we venture an opinion on A2N, we’re just going to compile quotes from our favourite takes on it.
“…the sequel to the cult hit has essentially… betrayed the audience that made it possible.”
“…in the intro when that hip-grind funk kicks in, yeah thrown outta heaven for being too nasty / she ain’t give a shit but she gets all the whaat, I’m like, holy fuck, they did it, I’m home, we’re home.”
— Voxel Astra
“To understand Andraste II, you have to get that there are two main ways to totally miss the point. The first is best-illustrated by that mod that lets you control Andraste’s shapeshifting – like, we didn’t even want that to be something we had full control over. The second is to play the game to completion without ever jerking it.”
— Pauline Breaks Their Warriors, lead developer
“…systematically face-sits every sacred cow of game fandom…”
— New York Record
“…we unequivocally condemn this colonial appropriation and objectification of our sacred heritage…”
— official statement, Unified Neoceltic Convention
“…reflects the ever-evolving nature of the Divine in an overflowing, authentic expression of that most blessed of joyous urges…”
— official statement, Iceni Nation USA
“Because what the world needed was a female Stiffy Makane.”
— qwertyriah, entire review
4: ADVENTURE CAPITAL (Swingeing Cuts). Adventurers flock to the small village of Ruddy Teme, flooding the market with treasure and inflating the price of ale and wenches. Oke Branter, mayor, town planner and de facto sheriff, must balance the needs and demands of locals, adventurers, wannabe-adventurers, failed adventurers and the adventurer-support industry, not to mention his own friends, self-enrichment and survival.
It’s more than a parable about the greed and short-sightedness of volatile growth, however: it concerns community and what should (or can) be done to nurture and police it. Much of this is management stuff, heavily augmented by vignettes in the best tales-from-the-village/dragonpasser tradition; the character writing is strong enough that one can care about the fates of minor NPCs. It has an excellent handle on how to keep catastrophic failure entertaining right to the bitter end.
3: MIDDEN MINER (Ghosted Past). In the future, archaeology digs will be done with nanobots, which will somehow be subject to the laws of human-sized gravity in order to work as a 2D dive-and-climb mining game. You guide your nanominer into the depths to collect potsherds, bone fragments and pollen, then assemble them into Conclusions and slowly piece together a profile of changing material cultures.
Conclusions need refinement, though, and sometimes can be outright misleading. The multiplayer version, a co-pete thing where you vie to contribute the biggest slice of the Final Synthesis, has a weirdly-balanced information economy: the main strategies appear to be Grant Hog (rush to make lots of shaky conclusions early on for grant money, intending to switch later on) and Hermetic (sit on all your best conclusions, wait for data to get cheap, then dump them all right at the end faster than anyone else can absorb); to my mind this is a completely different game from the contemplative dirt-boring, and also I am terrible at it.
2: THE PILLOW TWINE (Antonia Krebs): For twenty-seven years, beginning with the publication of Twine 2.0, Krebs wrote a short game every two weeks; all but a half-dozen were previously unreleased. With no particular objective in mind, the results are all over the map: maybe a third are diary entries or reconstructed memories, vignette re-tellings of particular moments. There are experiments with memory-palaces, mouseover glitch-poetry, artsy demakes. There is a good deal of smut. The degree of fictionalisation fluctuates hugely, which has led to much speculation and ill-considered amateur sleuthing, upon which Krebs has sensibly refused to comment.
Krebs’ facility with a dashed-off sentence improves massively over the first decade, too, so if you bounced hard off the thoughtstreamy noodling of the earlier pieces… play another hundred or so and it’ll get better. (The games refer back to one another so much that it’s ill-advised to skip forward, though. If you lack the time, our very own Pillow Twine Concordance diagrams the more obvious self-allusions.)
1: THE BOOK OF PRESTER JOHN (Gloria). Sprawling, side-trek-y CRPGlike. Somewhere in the East (the architecture is mostly Central Asian-ish; clothes and people look mostly East African; naming mostly Persian/Greek), around 400 AD. Prester John has unified a Christian kingdom, but he’s more of a charismatic than a theologian. Various tribal divisions, unconverted pagans, and turbulent neighbours threaten his nation. Sick, old and haunted by the prospect of schism, he tasks you with compiling an official Bible; you travel across the kingdom, copying books from religious communities and debating over which parts to authorise.
Sold as the biggest dependency-web game ever made, but – importantly for a form with a reputation for being opaque – it starts out small, builds gently, and has a deep and intuitive interface. It trains you on Old Testament choices before the more fiddly New Testament texts become available.
Between the towns and monasteries, you spend a lot of time riding mules through dusty scrubland, setting up camp, watching the stars by a campfire. At first this has a sort of austere tranquility about it, but as you hone your skills and acquire squabbling NPC followers this erodes. Everyone in the Kingdom has a noisy opinion: at one point you are kidnapped by bandits, but inevitably their leader throws down over Christ’s pre-existence and then it’s on. Everything is politics: on my first run I aimed at the Textualist approach, then faltered and ended up trying to build an Egalitarian/Ecumenical coalition, and eventually fell in with the centralising, pragmatic-moderate Palace faction because everyone else was mad at me.
The best part, though, is the ability to export your final canon into an actual Bible. This year’s Institute budget did not stretch to the calfskin-bound doorstop, but we are very pleased with our faux-leather pocket edition.