Priceless Play – 19 January

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A grapefruit sits on a table, uneaten and alone. It is a very sad scene.

Before I started my PhD, I was an Inbox Zero kind of person. I used labels. Folders. Conditional filtering! These days, I might as well have a permanent out-of-office message. This isn’t to say that I never read my e-mails, but rather that they get filed into a section of my brain which I have deemed, “Later.” Within the distant confines of Later, I promise myself that when the “right time comes round for it,” I’ll remember whatever e-mail or Tweet or Instagram post I was looking for, and I’ll be able to pull it out at the perfect moment. Reader, I do not. Welcome to Spring Cleaning.

This regrettable e-mail crime has doubled down since I began writing this column. When people send me their games, I want to be a careful recipient, and to honour those e-mails with a response. But when the mass PR presskits start rolling in, I lose my nerve. There are gems in that there inbox, I just know it. So, I decided to take a minute and spend some time with a considerable number of those games sitting in my inbox. What you see before you isn’t every gem in there, but it’s a start. I wish you luck on your own inbox journeys.

Soft Earth by Jonathan Sorce

Soft Earth’s subtitle declares that “every ghost story is a love story,” spinning the oft-quoted David Foster Wallace line (recovered from his personal letters, years after his death) in a different direction. When Jonathan wrote me, they pitched the game as a “trans ghost story,” which is a fantastic collection of words. Soft Earth has every requirement for a ghost story: there’s a haunted house, a young adventurer out on her own, and an eerie soundtrack. But more than that, the game itself is a masterful use of Twine to tell a beautiful story about family, loss, and the tension of discovering your own queerness as a child in the south.

I grew up in Virginia. It’s south of the Mason-Dixon, but to anyone from the “proper south,” I’m as much a Yank as any New Yorker. Who cares if I love buttered, salted grits for breakfast or if I sat in the grass to watch the Bishop’s bluegrass festival in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains every Fourth of July for a decade (watermelon and barbecue not optional). I also grew up about a mile from the largest army base in Virginia, which sent kids to the same middle and high school that I went to. My first long-term girlfriend was the daughter of two high-ranking army officials, which might be more terrifying than any ghost story. Suffice to say that Soft Earth is a game built for my interests. It takes about forty-five minutes to an hour to play, a bit longer than most of the games I feature. But if you can make the time for yourself, Soft Earth’s original soundtrack, illustrations, and story should be more than enough to make it worth your while. I highly recommend it.

Midi the Cat from Gaming Garrison

Midi the Cat is a great game. I love this game. I can’t believe I let this game sit in my “Later,” mind folder for this long. The premise of Midi the Cat is that you are a cat (incredible) piloted through a number of platforming puzzles by the power of music (oh my god). Using the QWERTY keys as your instrument (or an actual keyboard if you have one), you must guide your small and kind cat through a dangerous lair of lasers and spikes. Equipped with the unstoppable force of a good tune and a solid beat, your cat will soar with leaps and bounds.

Midi the Cat does a great job of introducing you to musical mechanics slowly and with patience, but it’s not the game’s fault I’m bad at both platformers and rhythm. You have an on-screen bar graph, a clear beat to play along to, and a little keyboard graph to be your guide. My partner, a professional musician, was very encouraging as I played off-beat and sent the dear cat to any number of endless platforming abysses. Despite these cat crimes and my own poor sense of musicality, I keep coming back for more.

Joanie by Joey Schutz

I meant what I said last year about teaching you how to cook, and if it takes a surreal VR game to do it, so be it. Now, my eyes can’t do “real” VR, because of my weird eye-history. Thankfully, Joanie is available to play in both Virtual and Real realities. Schutz’s game is a clear love letter to the many games of Brendon Chung, of Thirty Flights of Loving and Quadrilateral Cowboy fame, and here they take on a similar series of interconnected scenes which tell stories of family, dance, and robots.

As Schutz puts it, “cook potato soup and break your grandmother’s old friend out of the nursing home.” The controls can be a bit finicky when playing with a mouse and keyboard, but with a dash of determination, anything is possible.

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