Outside, you notice the sky is duller, the air cooler, ground muddier — and the trees, like you, confused. “Why do people enjoy this?” You ponder. You warm your hands and watch as a child uses the condensation from his breath to live life, briefly, as a dragon. The act might fool his parents, but clearly you are far less gullible. Listlessly, you keep on the road toward home. If, only, you had known there was a way you could have avoided it all. To sit, comfortably, in your chair — but also roam about, in another place or time.
Recently, after discovering the indie game client and community of itch.io, I’ve had the chance to escape the outdoors, wandering through the worlds and dreams of a number of creators. I’ve been surprised equally by the breadth and volume of the short, and, more often than not, free experiences available on itch. So this short list is a compilation of what I consider the ‘cream of the crop’, there, in the genre of walking-simulators. In no particular order, I would suggest playing, these, in a quiet and dark place.
Note: All games are free to download, about 30 minutes to an hour in length, and should perform adequately on low-spec machines
“Dreams of Being is an exploration through some scenes from my dream journal. My keeping of a dream journal was inspired by games such as Yume Nikki, LSD: Dream Emulator, and #21: The World, so I guess you could say that the game was too.”
Projects on itch.io are often created, in part, as submissions to a ‘game jam’ — a contest and/or showcase of creative concept under the constraint of time, as well as a general theme. Dreams of Being, being one of these submissions, was featured as part of March 2018’s Meta Game Jam, which aimed to, “comment on / deconstruct / parody / satire game design, game mechanics, games development, or game culture . . . ”
In this way, it’s no wonder so much of Dreams of Being functions by subverting player’s expectations of ‘game’. Not unlike our own sleepy subconsciousness, the world is tied together through strange passageways, repeating symbols, and — without revealing the technique by which this is done — images familiar to the player. You may, even, find company along your way.
- Surreal landscapes without overt horror or unnecessary ‘jump-scares’
- Non-linear navigation — wandering is highly encouraged
- Technical issues with some player’s configurations, but very few bugs overall
“We all have or have had people helping us become a responsible and caring person, and this short narrative game is an ode to these people.”
Lieve Oma’s author, Florian Veltman, places players in the very kind of autumnal surrounding described above. Here, you spend an afternoon with your kindly grandmother who guides you on a walk — collecting mushrooms for supper, and offering advice for your challenges in coming of age.
- Color palette and overall aesthetic distracts from the slow speed of movement
- Length of game is appropriate to the scope of the story
- Players’ interest in the dialogue will depend on their own age and childhood experiences
- Sometimes unclear where the environment can/should be explored
“Maybe you will find some meaning here. I don’t know.”
In some ways, Secret Habitat is a straightforward experience. It’s a procedurally generated series of buildings, each an alien-kind-of-art-gallery. The museum’s works — glitchy, randomly titled paintings, in my opinion, are best accompanied by the distorted audio samples, a part of many of the exhibits. Outside is colorful, but hazy. If you intend to enter this world through an altered state of mind, it’s probably best to proceed with caution.
- Original concept for a procedural environment
- Lacks length and relayability, except for the most curious
“Oh no, I fell asleep on the train… Where am I?”
Florian Veltman returns, this time, accompanied by a team consisting of Alexandre Taillefert, Martin Gugger, Felix Meunier, and Baptiste Virot. The Endless Express is a cel shaded, train-based journey in which the player hops from station to remarkably stranger station. Some of the more unique aspects of this game include checking the time via the watch on your wrist — to follow the stations’ schedules — as well as the in-game menu manifesting itself as a ‘portable room’, summoned by the player whenever they desire.
Of note would have to be Endless Express’ soundtrack and characters — neither of which express an overarching story, but create an odd and cartoonish atmosphere. Not unlike Dreams of Being, there is a sense that, maybe, this is a not a place completely part of consciousness. Everything feels ‘off’ by a marginal degree, yet… it was relaxing to walk through.
- Well developed and unusual atmosphere
- Developed as a proof of concept, rather than fully-formed game — there remains a number of bugs and unimplemented features