Welcome to the eighth installment of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I talk about games, all types of games, and the ways we play them. This week let’s peer into the relaxing, otherworldly indie games that are all about engaging with the atmosphere. I love game nights and hours-long video game sessions, but lately I’ve felt stretched a little too thin to get fully engrossed in those. Instead, I’ve been checking out more short-form surreal-y games, the kind where the mechanism is familiar and easy to pick up, and the satisfaction of finishing them comes more from watching the scenery unfold. There’s clearly a way to play these games, but it’s not wrong if you just want to immerse yourself in the surroundings and accidentally beat a few levels. It’s all the fun of lucid dreaming, with none of the potentially dark nightmarish turns! Here are some of the prettiest, most subtly unsettling ones that have caught my eye:
Still in development, Surrealista is a puzzle game set inside the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, where you’ll encounter some familiar neoclassical shapes, walk in the shadows toward a far-off horizon, and contemplate the void. Maybe even several voids. You can check out the first five levels in the Alpha version (great fun to just hang out in and explore for a change of gaming pace), or just wait for the bigger release to come this December.
Monument Valley is a gorgeous 3D mobile game that deals in “impossible architecture and forgiveness.” You play as Princess Ida, who must journey through stages in search of forgiveness for…something. Each level incorporates different optical illusions and architectures that evoke Escher drawings. I’m into optical illusions, I have looked at lots of science textbooks and Magic Eye pictures, but I still had a real, visceral reaction to watching Princess Ida make it through these physically impossible buildings. Gameplay is intentionally easy, as Monument Valley was conceived more as an experience than as a “game,” but I say that the soothing, uplifting world it builds and the degree of exploration I get (you can even play in camera mode, so you can see and screenshot every beautifully constructed bit) makes this firmly A Game.
What’s a surrealist homage without a dream sequence? In the case of Back to Bed, it’s an entire sleep-walk through 30 levels of shifting landscapes that follow a dream-like physics. Like in Monument Valley, you explore 3D worlds of architecturally questionable construction, and like Surrealista, it has very strong overtones of Surrealist art, but in this case, you are the subconscious! And you’ve got to direct your sleep-walking human-host back to bed without letting him fall off the edges of the universe, or bump into oversized, elongated, misplaced objects in the way. Also, beware of the floating eyeball.
If you’re a dream manifestation in Back to Bed, then in The Tender Cut, you’re rummaging around in someone else’s subconscious. Short ‘n’ sweet ‘n’ unsettling as hell, The Tender Cut is a first-person, one-room exploration game set in the first few scenes from the disjointed, dream-like movie, Un Chien Andalou, and there’s more references to the rest of the movie scattered around the room, if you can find them. Speaking of eyeballs! If you’ve seen the film, you know what’s coming (and you’re dreading/anticipating it the whole time, which is the point), and if you haven’t, well! There’s some stuff about eyeballs that you’ll have to confront if you want to make it to the ending. In fact, there’s more than one ending, so you’ll confront several stuffs about eyeballs.
Let me know some of your favorite games to play when you want to unwind and look at some beautiful artwork. Additionally, if you’re in the Bay Area, consider checking out Queerness and Games Conference next weekend!