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Scratching the Itch

Airwaves

Morse code is hard and in Michael Luo’s Airwaves you’ll decipher a lot of it. You’ll need a pen, paper, and lots of concentration, but the reward is an intriguing interactive novella and an immense amount of satisfaction.

You play as three generations of radio operators, deciphering morse code messages and typing them into your typewriter. Each input unlocks the next part of a family’s sorry story, appearing on the page of your typewriter told against a backdrop of modern Chinese history and surreal hallucinations.

In each chapter you will decipher a handful of messages, each getting more complex than the last and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the relentless dots and dashes. Accompanying the game is a cheat sheet to help just experience the story, but I do urge that with patience, even adding one letter each time you play the message, the intrigue will deepen and the payoff will grow.

While many games are somewhat technical, your interface with the controls defining your progress, the challenge of Airwaves happens almost entirely outside itself. Deciphering each message happens on paper, this real space letting your actions connect you with the character in a physical way.

Maybe because of this connection the transitions can sometimes feel clumsy. The shifts in time and your character’s lucidity are sometimes jarring, in part because of their frequency, in part because of the directness of the writing, and in part because that physical connection only extends to the code breaking and not the character themselves.

Outside of these transitions, however, the writing is a mix of feverish, folklorish magical realism and state documents that meshes a politically bureaucratic world with a deep history. It can be hard to grasp the concrete elements of the story, but the vivid imagery carried me through any moments of confusion.

In each chapter you are placed in a new environment with objects to explore, each offering a panel of text that appears to offer historical context to it. With a story so drenched in fantasy it is sometimes hard to tell where the reality parts from the fiction, regardless, each detail is enticing outside of its potentially educational role.

Airwaves engages an unexpected skill in an effective way to draw you into a compellingly twisted narrative. It’s currently available on itch for you to name your own price. The rest of Michael Luo’s work can be found on his website.

Categories
Scratching the Itch

Last Train Home

It’s dark. The sound of the train lulls you into a mode of complacency, waiting for your stop, but you know something is wrong. The carriages are eerily quiet. The passengers are in a purgatory-like state. It feels familiarly like a train home and that’s the trap.

Last Train Home was made for MiniJam 47 by hby. For a maker who only has a few games under their belt this is a great achievement.

Your interaction with the game is simple, you move left and right through the train cars and talk to people with ‘x’. Most elements of the game are solved through fetch quests where one NPC will have the item that another needs.

Your control of the character, as is common in horror games, is a central part of the horror. You move slowly and you’re only armed with simple interaction. If posed with a threat then your arsenal to deal with that is within that very limited and very human frame.

The atmosphere is a clear stand out, however. The sounds of the train are perfect. The movement of the screen keeps you with the movement of the carriage in a way that theatre students bobbing in unison could only dream of.

The game is a well contained entity, the build up perfectly paced for the unravelling pay-off at the end. The pay-off itself is part predictable and part surprising, enough for me to satisfy my curiosity and fuel my fear. The ending, avoiding any spoilers, is an excellently realised moment, the simplicity of the game reaching an unexpected visual crescendo.

In around 15 minutes, Last Train Home offers an accomplished and contained narrative horror experience. Here’s hoping hby brings us more in the future.

Categories
Scratching the Itch

RE:RUN

You run fast and platform faster. They attack erraticly, but precisely. you can be dead in seconds, but respawn a second later. This is non-stop action with careful thinking required to land the jumps and hits to get to the end of each level.

RE:RUN is made by Dani with a great soundtrack by Neo Nomen, both of them with large YouTube followings. Dani is making a name for himself with physics based shooters and platformers. This one, made as a part of the 4th Brackeys Jam, is proof that he’s one to watch.

The level design is unique in that it often spreads in a few directions. Each time you collect a power-up, you are sent back to the start of the level, often with a new path now open to you, it either being accessible only by double-jump or with a wooden plank blocking the path that needs a sword to break.

The platforming and combat are both janky as hell, but that’s a core part of the fun. Landing a jump is fiddly from how fast you’re going, you have Overgrowth (currently on sale) levels of airtime on floaty jumps to reach awkward, seemingly impossible distances. That feeling of airtime though is brilliant, especially when it’s coupled with landing a perfect swing to knock a ragdoll enemy off the side of a platform.

Without perfect polish, this game goes straight for the pure joy of jumping and fighting. Each of the 10 levels offer a new challenge that isn’t just a simple step on from the last. The puzzle-like interation with where to go in the environment and how to deal with the enemies, mixed with the chaos of combat makes the experience a tonne of fun each time.

Dani has an upcoming game on steam, KARLSON, which looks to be going further with the same sort of ideas here. RE:RUN, in the meantime, is simple, fun, and easy to lose yourself in for a bit over half an hour.

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Scratching the Itch

Terra Nil

This world is barren and toxic, but you get to save it. With a selection of recognisable and solarpunk eco-machines your task is to transform a desolate wasteland into a lush ecosystem. Still in active development, Terra Nil by Sam Alfred, Jonathan Hau-Yoon, and Jarred Lunt is already an incredible eco strategy game.

The environment is made a delicate puzzle. You must power your structures with turbines, but turbines need hills made with your own water wheels, these wheels need new waterways made with extractors that need their own power from those wind turbines. Your tools require an ecosystem of their own to function, this challenge forming the spine of the game’s difficulty.

Rejuvinating the environment comes in three stages. Firstly, you clean the land, using greenhouses to convert the wastes to grassland. Then you bring biodiversity, bees make meadows of flower, by creating careful fires you encourage woodland out of the ash, and with updated greenhouses you can encourage wetlands and arid scrublands. Finally, you deconstruct your buildings, leaving the world to flourish alone and create a rocket to fly the parts away.

Each building remains until it is removed in the final stage. This small and honest feature encourages careful planning and attention to the importance of each of your actions. With a limited set of resources you can’t litter the land with eco-machines, that will only make your recovery mission fail. It’s these small, thoughtful mechanics that make this a game that is genuinely concerned with the reality of care for an ecosystem, even if told through a sci-fi lens.

Difficulty is the main downside the game currently has, early levels are incredibly straightforward and the final level has had me stuck for hours, getting close, but constantly hitting a wall. Meadows can be infuriating to create when you need woodland trees to do so, but woodlands can only be made by burning meadows, a viscious loop that can leave you needing to restart if there’s too much woodland or too little surrounding grassland.

That being said, early levels are awe inspiring and later levels are filled with a pragmatism. The real world struggle for the enviroment is an uphill battle, having this control over an ecological mission is freeing from that. To see once dessicated environemnts made whole filled me with a sense of power and joy.

The challenges of later levels reminded me of the delicate struggle that we are in, finding a way to discover a lifestyle that interfaces with our environment. Instead of being disheartening, the rising hope of early levels left me with a desire to find a way to make the harsher challenges work and transform the wastes of the game and the world we live in.

Terra Nil is already a brilliant game to play and a beautiful musing on ecology. Technology may not be the way we save our own environment, but it’s fun and hopeful to play the fantasy of it. Keep an eye out for v1.0.

Categories
Scratching the Itch

The First Step

The First Step by Vsevolod Sevostianov and Katrin Kuskova is a simple puzzle game that doesn’t tell you the rules.

Each level is a grid of colourful, patterned tiles (though if the patterns aren’t to your taste you can turn them off). You click on one of the tiles and set in motion a ball of light that will start a journey from tile to tile, removing the tile it leaves, one by one, until none remain or it has nowhere to go. The way the ball moves is determined by the colour of the tile it is on, for example red will move the ball to the left.

The concept is simple, but your understanding of the game is its uniqueness. You aren’t made aware of the properties of each colour tile, and as teleporter tiles are introduced you are left to learn that for yourself and fail in the process.

This is where The First Step is special, you are encouraged to learn from your mistakes through trial and error. The serenity of the audio and visuals brought me to a state where I was happy to relinquish control, let the ball take its path and see what better place it could have started. I never felt like I needed to learn the properties of the tiles. Instead I was contented with failing and improving which, in wider life and games, is a hard feeling to capture.

Inconsistently, the game does offer a tutorial for a new mechanic in the final 3rd. As tiles that make your ball jump a space are introduced, a pop-up appears to tell you the properties of each colour jumping square. I mostly ignored the window, it’s a strange choice to go from being offered no information to suddenly being guided. Despite the information interruption the feeling of cluelessly fail forward continued, but a sad shadow of feeling the need to engage in a more traditionally puzzle solving way haunting my progress.

The strong sense of positive failure is also challenged by the fact that you are given a set of lives. You get quite a generous set, but there is a growing sense these your failures will cost you as a set of poor judgement calls can start to burn these lives away.

These stalking stakes give your choices weight, you can’t just click randomly and you do have to think to progress, but the thought of replaying the same puzzles wasn’t fun. The ball moves at a leisurely pace and, though I didn’t lose all my lives and don’t know what happens in that case, I likely wouldn’t have seen the end if I was sent back to the start.

The First Step offers a space to reflect on accpeting failure. The game won’t take you more than 20 minutes if you manage to get by on the lives you’re given and the journey might just fortify you against the pressures of the world.

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Scratching the Itch

The Night Fisherman and The Outcast Lovers

Far Few Giants have been working on larger projects for a few years now, putting together short VR narrative projects. Recently the two developers have broken off on their own to make The Night Fisherman and The Outcast Lovers, both available to play for free right now.

The Night Fisherman and The Outcast Lovers tell an intense, interactive story of an immigrant in the English Channel and the people that have a chance to harbour and help them. Both have arresting visuals that are saturated with a stark colour scheme and each take only 10 minutes to play. The first of the two is a little clumsy with some missing assets, but the writing and the story more than let you overlook some rough edges. 

Both games are currently available on itch.io where you can pay what you want and also find their extensive back-catalogue of shorter collabs for game jams past. The Night Fisherman is also on Steam with The Outcast Lovers joining it on the 29th July. Far Few Giants are set up on Patreon offering a new narrative game every month and if they continue with this quality production then they’re more than worth supporting.

Far Few Giants are working towards Ring of Fire, adetective noir puzzler set in the solarpunk utopia of New London’. You can play the prologue for this right now on itch.io and Steam with the full game set to drop some time in 2021.