Queer Games Bundle: Undoing the Curse

For the second year in a row, queer indie game developers and gamers alike are celebrating Pride Month with the Queer Games Bundle. Until the end of June, interested parties can download almost 600 games and game-adjacent zines for $60, with a cheaper option available to those for whom that cost is prohibitive. Described as “an initiative to collaboratively support as many queer indie/micro/art devs and makers as possible,” the bundle is a project of swampbabes, a small New York organization of game artists. Swampbabes, as a collective, is “interested in sharing experimental, non-commercial, renegade games-related art and projects and providing a platform for diverse voices and bodies outside the structures of already established hierarchies.” 

“kate sees your future,” by game creator Bagenzo

The bundle certainly provides a platform for diverse voices. There is a massive amount of content in the bundle, so much so that the selection might be intimidating. Let me provide some starting points. For those intrigued by last week’s blog post, there are two volumes of a zine chockablock with Twine tips and tricks, called “The Twine Grimoire.” Wordle fanatics might be entertained by Herdle,” which casts Wordle’s distinct collections of squares as farm animals in need of herding. Did my post about stealing back your time via poetry resonate with you? You might find joy in “Time Bandit,” a game for Windows and MacOS that forces the player to slow down.

If tabletop roleplaying is your preferred gaming mode, never fear—included TTRPG guides range from the adorable and arguably self-explanatory “Rodents With Guitars” to the cyberpunk “Escape from Neo-Millenia.”  I was pleasantly surprised by the number of bundle entries incorporating tarot, like the solo journaling game “My One True Wish,” the browser-based “kate sees your future,” digital tarot deck, “Slimegirl Tarot,” and “A Note in Time,” a TTRPG about writing a letter to your younger self.

“people are labyrinths” by game creator Vian Nguyen

The puzzle-minded among you are likely to enjoy the game RESYNC, available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux (the bundle can be filtered according to the operating systems compatible with each game). RESYNC challenges you to work with robots as allies, solving puzzles to “uncover the true purpose of the mysterious outpost” on which your character has crash-landed. Then there’s the browser-based “people are labyrinths,” a collection of mazes studded with wistful dialogue boxes meditating on topics such as loss, the complex inner workings of other people, and an unwanted job.

Swampbabes states on their website that they hope the community their work fosters “begins to undo the curse inherited from mainstream video game culture.” They leave up to the imagination what exactly that curse is, but if you too feel that mainstream video game culture is cursed, and want to do something about it, purchasing the Queer Games Bundle is a win-win situation: hours of fun for you, and financial support for queer game developers. As of this writing, over a thousand gamers have purchased the bundle, raising almost $66,000 that will be split among the creators at Pride Month’s end.  


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Love Poems and Games: Twined Together

For most gamers, Zork is the classic example of a choose-your-own-adventure, text-based gaming experience. Although Oregon Trail is relatively adorned in images, italso fits the bill. When I think of this genre of game, my mind goes down a slightly different path. Instead, I first think of the Zork parody Thy Dungeonman, hosted on Flash cartoon site Homestar Runner. Then, I think of the queer indie games made in the early 2010s on Twine.

Open-source, hypertext-based storytelling tool Twine was invented by web developer Chris Klimas thirteen years ago. At the time, Klimas had no way of knowing what a hit the program would be in the indie gaming community, but was inspired by the creativity of its users to keep improving its functionality. On November 3, 2009, he wrote about finding a love poem that Dan Waber was scripting in Twine, and said, as a way of explaining “Why I’m Doing This,” “what I’m doing helps people do real things, to make poetry even. There aren’t that many developers out there making things that people make poetry with. I feel lucky.”

Black Mirror imports the choose-your-own-adventure format to viewers’ TV screens

Perhaps Twine’s greatest brush with mainstream fame occurred when the creative team behind Black Mirror used it to storyboard the interactive episode “Bandersnatch.” Mostly, however, Twine has occupied a countercultural space in the world of storytelling. As Adi Robertson wrote in last year’s “Text Adventures: How Twine Remade Gaming,” “Twine’s simplicity felt liberating. It imbued games with the DIY spirit of homemade zines, many of them weirder, sharper, and queerer than their mainstream counterparts.”

In 2013, The Guardian‘s gaming blog shared a post entitled, “Anna Anthropy and the Twine Revolution.” Anna Anthropy isn’t the only game designer highlighted in the article as a revolutionary in the world of gaming; merritt k and Porpentine Charity Heartscape are also mentioned as crucial figures who made the most of Twine’s capacities. Heartscape’s Twine works include Howling Dogs, an award-winning claustrophobic simulation of a prison cell, and k’s include (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You, which is exactly what it sounds like. As we ring in LGBTQ pride month, the Anna Anthropy Twine game that I’d like to look at closer is called Queers in Love at the End of the World.

Queers in Love at the End of the World lasts exactly ten seconds, time kept by a countdown in the corner of the screen. The game begins with the white text on a black screen, “In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her.” Each of the bolded words is clickable, leading to more options for how exactly you might want to spend these last moments. No matter what, when the countdown reaches zero, the game ends the same way: “Everything is wiped away” (more lyrical than The Oregon Trail’s “You have died of dysentery”). Clicking through to the afterword provides one last piece of context, the scrawled words, “WHEN WE HAVE EACH OTHER WE HAVE EVERYTHING.”

A year after dubbing Anna Anthropy a leader of the Twine Revolution, The Guardian published games critic Cara Ellison’s “A Verse About Queers in the Love at the End of the World. The subheading, “Twine developer Anna Anthropy turns game mechanics into poetry,” calls back to Klimas’ early inspiration: love poetry. Ellison’s verse refers to the ten-second timer as “tyrannical,” in agreement with Adi Robertson’s claim that Twine games “can compromise [the] sense of control” that a reader would normally have over the pacing of a choose-your-own-adventure-story. Ellison writes: “I want to treat those Twine rooms like Carrie’s prom night and gut them / I want to call that timer’s parents and say DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT HAS DONE TO ME,” pouring frustration onto the page. This is a desperate, angry love poem to a simultaneously brief and expansive interactive love poem.

My earlier post about translating poetry encouraged you to approach poems as games, with a willingness to engage in creative, productive failures. The queer Twine revolution of the last decade shows that it is also possible to treat games as poems. Any game built from language has the capacity to be movingly lyrical and verbally innovative (even a game of Dungeons & Dragons DMed by Vin Diesel). The first Twine Revolution may have passed, but Twine is still an available tool. Why not take it for a spin and map out a poem-game of your own? The second Twine Revolution might begin right on your laptop.


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PN Product Review: GeoLogic

[Note: I received a free copy of this puzzle in exchange for a fair, unbiased review.]

Imagine embodying the forces behind the Big Bang. Science fiction writers do this all the time, bringing into being entire new planets, studding them with swathes of land and bodies of water, devising chemically unfamiliar atmospheres. While I am a writer, fiction is not my forte, meaning that the wonders of world-building are typically out of my wheelhouse—at least, they were. Enter Thinkfun’s GeoLogic: World-Changing Logic Puzzle. This puzzle sells itself as an opportunity to “create your own world,” and “become a planetary architect,” promises that appeal to me as a science fiction fan. The puzzle is recommended for ages eight and up, and requires only one player, though planet-building can be a team activity too.

GeoLogic offers a route to science-fictional world-building other than the written word, bringing the invention of alien landscapes into the hands-on, three-dimensional realm. Born from a conversation between inventors Ken and Jeremy about the concept of a thirty-sided game die, the puzzle consists of a thirty-sided planetary core, fourteen snap-in-place pieces representing five biomes, and sixty challenge cards. Cards range from easy to expert, each indicating where certain biome pieces should go on the planetary core to start. The solver is then left to figure out where to insert a list of remaining biome pieces in order to completely cover the globe’s surface.

The challenge cards are optional; they are intended for players who would prefer to test spatial-logical skills rather than engage in more free-form, creative play. This mode of engaging with GeoLogic still has a science-fictional appeal; it just happens to fall more into the category of consuming science fiction than acting as its mastermind. If you dream of discovering new planets through a process of trial-and-error, then you’ll likely find using the challenge cards a perfect way to spend an afternoon, working your way up the ladder of difficulty levels.

If you’d rather ignore the challenge cards instead, you can take the game up on its suggestion that you “get creative and design your own planets.” As the box asks, “Want to create the largest landmass known to humans? Or oceans that span half the globe?” Now’s your chance! This approach to GeoLogic does require a certain amount of spatial-logical skill, as the goal remains the same: cover all thirty sides of the planetary core in some combination of awkwardly-shaped desert, forest, mountains, tundra, and ocean. If you are looking for a purely creative exercise, you might find the limitations of where the different biome pieces fit to be a frustrating hindrance to your imagination running wild.

An example of a built world that does not meet the goals of the game.

The solver most likely to be enchanted by GeoLogic, by my estimate, is the Tetris fan who longs for a more tactile experience—snapping the pieces into place on the core is very satisfying—and who can appreciate a sprinkling of science-fictional creativity. Those driven to the product by the idea of creating new worlds are less likely to feel fulfilled, but the core and biomes could certainly be used as a jumping-off point for contemplating what different worlds are possible. Dreaming big and freely when it comes to alternate worlds is important, yes. Possibly more important, for those interested in changing the world we’ve been handed, is knowing how to still dream big when complex limitations are imposed upon us from outside.


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Puzzles (and Games) in Pop Culture: “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point”

“Strange things happen at the one-two point,” is a proverb based on the ancient East Asian board game Go. As summarized by cybernetic Cameron (played by Summer Glau) in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,“It means the usual rules don’t always apply.” More specifically, the proverb refers to the strategic idiosyncrasies of certain playing positions on the Go board; “the heuristic principles of fighting along the sides or in the [center] often fail in the corner,” Go wiki Sensei’s Library clarifies. When we fight our way into tight corners, the laws of reality that we previously knew shimmer and warp. The more boxed-in we become, the more we need to expect the unexpected.

This is a fitting sentiment to feature in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the fourth installment in a media property dealing with time travel and its resultant paradoxes and alternate timelines. The show depicts its characters having fought their way deep into tight, reality-bending corners in their attempts to prevent apocalypse. By the second-season episode titled for the Go proverb, the rules established in 1984’s The Terminator—what we can expect from time travel, who’s an ally and who’s an enemy, what to do if you want to live—have been thoroughly warped.

In the episode “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point,” Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) is deeply fixated on a pattern of three dots. Earlier in the series, another time traveler left her a message in blood on a safe house wall: a list of important names with three dots next to it. Seeing these dots in her dreams, Sarah is convinced that there’s more to them then the smeared fingerprints of a dying comrade; her investigation leads her to Dakara Systems, a tech start-up with a logo of three dots. She and Derek (Brian Austin Green) break in late at night, stealing all of the computers’ hard drives and bringing them back to Sarah’s teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker), an accomplished hacker.

On the hard drives, John discovers designs for an artificial intelligence system, a find that sets off Sarah’s internal alarms, but John explains that the designs are useless in light of Dakara Systems’ lack of processing power. Derek calls it a dead end, accusing Sarah of instigating a wild goose chase, an accusation she rebuts with, “Artificial intelligence, the company logo, the three dots—”

“Are fingerprints,” Derek says. “It’s just blood.”

“Everything on that wall has meant something,” Sarah argues. “It’s all blood.”

Sarah is sure that The Turk, the chess-playing AI that she’s been hunting for since it was stolen from inventor Andy Goode, can be traced to Dakara Systems. Derek has lost faith. While John initially has his doubts too, by the next morning, he’s made Sarah and Cameron an appointment to meet with the heads of Dakara Systems. He explains his change of heart: “Andy Goode was building a chess program . . . It always starts small.”

A 1980s reconstruction of the original chess-playing Mechanical Turk.

Dressed up in their best wealthy-investor chic, Sarah and Cameron meet with father-and-son team Alex (Eric Steinberg) and Xander (Eddie Shin) Akagi of Dakara Systems. Probing for connections to The Turk, Cameron poses a crucial question to Xander while Sarah and Alex grab coffee: “Do you like chess?” Later, when Sarah asks her what all of the evidence is adding up to, Cameron says, “Not The Turk. Xander doesn’t play chess. He prefers Go.” She pulls out a folding wooden board inscribed with a grid. “Xander said it’s been calculated that there are more possible Go games than atoms in the universe,” she continues, laying out black-and-white discs in the board’s center. “He’s offered to teach me how to play.

Sarah counters, “Did he offer to tell you about his AI?” and when Cameron reiterates that Xander’s AI is not The Turk, Sarah says, “But it could be a piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen that before.”

Cameron responds, “Strange things happen at the one-two point.”

I won’t spoil for you which strange things happen here, at this point where Sarah Connor and her allies have boxed themselves in strategically by changing reality countless times in an effort to stave off nuclear apocalypse. Instead, let’s dwell together on the beauty of that phrasing, the “strange things,” as a way of describing action in a game so deceptively simple: black and white stones laid out on a grid. They don’t seem like they should stack up next to the strange things that happen in a work of science fiction—the way the air crackles and sparks with blue light whenever a new time traveler tears a hole through the decades; how a Terminator’s robotic skeleton designs a chemical bath for itself that allows its flesh and skin to regrow; the liquid metal CEO played by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, whose arms extend at will into gleaming daggers.

By placing Go on the same playing field as these miraculous, speculative sights, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles reminds us that games needn’t be elaborate to be magical, needn’t be novel to be surprising. As long as each player is an elaborate, novel human being, an ancient game like Go can continue to startle and move, to belong meaningfully alongside us in the twenty-first century—and further onward still.

have thought to look for otherwise.


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Six Characters in Search of Free Will

Last week, we traveled back in time, before the dawn of escape rooms, to what was nonetheless a perfect example of escape room horror: the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” Now, let us jump forward, past the present, into the near-future. A clear thematic descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit,” Black Mirror‘s speculative “USS Callister” takes the “everyone is a toy” premise of “Five Characters” further than the Twilight Zone episode carried it (the Black Mirror showrunners have even described the episode as “Adult Toy Story).

In contrast to “Five Characters,” the setup of “USS Callister” is not especially simple. We begin in a clear Star Trek homage as the starship USS Callister‘s crew, helmed by Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), celebrates a victory. Abruptly, the show cuts from this slick, primary-colored setting, to a world much drabber and closer to our own. Daly is revealed to be the unassuming founder of a virtual-gaming company called Callister, and a fan of the retro sci-fi television show Spacefleet. Each of his crew members from the opening scene reappears in the Callister office as a different coworker; all, at best, seem indifferent to Daly’s existence.

Enter newly hired programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), who is as big a fan of Daly’s work as Daly is of Spacefleet. She and Daly awkwardly hit it off, until the company’s co-founder, James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), waltzes in and steals Cole’s attention. Next thing we know, Daly returns home to sign into his VR game and reappear on the USS Callister‘s bridge. There, we see a side of him that was not immediately obvious before: he is power-hungry, violent, reveling in belittling the crew.

The next time Daly is in the office, he steals Cole’s thrown-away coffee cup and takes it home, where he uses her DNA to create a sort of virtual clone of her. This clone, despite Daly’s desire to play god, is not a mere plaything; she is fully sentient, retaining all of the original Cole’s memories, feelings, and personality. When she awakes on the USS Callister, miniskirted and vintagely coiffed, she is terrified. Without Daly present, the other crew members explain the situation, that she is stuck forever in a modded version of the VR game the original Cole programs: Infinity. They are all digital clones, all stuck.

Walton describes the situation as “an eternal waking nightmare from which there is no escape,” but Cole tries to escape regardless, running through the ship’s halls until Daly transports her back onto the bridge. She refuses to play along with the Spacefleet roleplay premise, so he uses his God-like powers to torture her until she agrees to cooperate. Still, that first flight from the bridge is not Cole’s last attempt to wiggle free of Daly’s clutches. Her schemes just get more strategic. Even when she learns that the reason Walton plays along is that Daly has Walton’s son’s DNA on a lollipop in his minifridge, Cole sees this as further motivation to take Daly’s toys away from him.

After another fumbled escape attempt that provokes Daly’s sadistic ire, Cole finally hits upon a winning plan. She spots a wormhole out the ship’s window, representing an incoming update patch to the game. Cole suggests flying straight into the wormhole, thereby deleting all of their code, killing them. Freeing them. First, however, it’s necessary for someone out in the real world to destroy the DNA hoarded in Daly’s minifridge.

The plan is for Cole to go on a mission to a planet’s surface alone with Daly, where she distracts him. Meanwhile, the crew beams up the device that Daly uses to control the game and contact the outside world. The crew is able to contact the real-world Cole, and blackmail her with the cloned Cole’s knowledge. They compel her to order a pizza to Daly’s apartment so that he’s forced to temporarily exit the game, then, while he’s occupied, to: 1. steal all of the DNA in the minifridge, and 2. replace the nodule he uses to connect to the game with a decoy that does nothing.

Cole distracts Daly by luring him into a lake.

The end result is that the crew of the USS Callister is able to successfully fly into the update patch wormhole without Daly’s interference. Contrary to their prediction, this does not erase their code; they are not killed, but they are free. They are transported from Daly’s personal, modded version of Infinity to the greater Infinity, which lives in the Cloud. Meanwhile, Daly, in his attempt to chase after them, has gotten himself stuck in his own game.

This is a much more optimistic ending than that of “Five Characters.” The characters not only are able to transform themselves from playthings to game-players; in doing so, they escape the confines of their limited world—within reason. While they are no longer imprisoned within Daly’s computer, able instead to roam the Cloud-stored game universe, they are still technically bound, forever, to the starship.

If we classify this as escape room horror, with a requirement of the genre being that someone must escape the room alive, then we are working with a more ephemeral, existential understanding of what constitutes a “room.” The characters’ ultimate goal is not to escape their physical surroundings, but to escape the game rules that have been put in front of them. The horror herein is not about literal claustrophobia, but about the gnawing psychological claustrophobia that comes from an absence of free will. They are not escaping from the ship; they are escaping from hierarchy. It is the perfect distillation of escape rooms as a team-building exercise, driving home that there is no “dictator” in “team.”

A review of the episode in The Atlantic pointed out that whereas so much of Black Mirror‘s storytelling is about “the terror of being connected,” “USS Callister” goes in the opposite direction. What begins as a seeming cautionary tale against the horrors of video games becomes, instead, an ode to collaborative approaches to gaming. The fact that the crewmembers still have each other and an infinite universe to explore is presented, unequivocally, as a happy ending. It’s a happy ending that anyone who finds joy in shared game experiences like escape rooms, multiplayer video games, or tabletop role-playing will no doubt find resonant. Hell is not other people; it is other people having undue power, and stripping us of our personhood.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Person of Interest

In 2011, speculative CBS thriller Person of Interest began with the premise that a computer genius named Finch (played by Michael Emerson) had built an AI that could tell when acts of violence were about to occur in New York City. In order to intervene, he hired a former special operative named Reese (Jim Caviezel). The only information that the AI ever provides is a social security number; each episode, this leaves Finch and Reese to solve the central question: does this SSN belong to a victim of an impending crime, or a perpetrator? Do they need to be stopped, or saved?

Solving this question typically involves a veritable cornucopia of guesswork, research, hacking, plot twists, and pieces of paper taped to walls and connected by webs of string (one of my favorite TV tropes, featured in Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Chess also features prominently, as do various secretive systems of communication. No episode is quite as likely to appeal to your inner solver, though, as season four, episode two, “Nautilus,” which aired on September 30th, 2014.

In this episode named for its chambered nautilus shell motif, Finch and Reese receive the SSN for chess grand master and college student Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard). She’s AWOL from school and chess in pursuit of a mysterious game’s prize. The game began with a post on an obscure message board: an image of a nautilus, captioned, “If you seek enlightenment, be the first to walk through the chambers.” There was data hidden in the image of a nautilus, and it sent Claire off down the rabbit hole.

Following her, Finch watches as she pulls a tab of paper from a lost dog sign, with a nautilus watermarked behind the numbers. After calling the number leads to nothing, Finch realizes: “It’s not a phone number . . . it’s multiplication.” Multiplying produces GPS coordinates, pointing to a location in Harlem.

There, a mural of seemingly random shapes (painted by artist Apache Gonzalez) covers a wall. Once again, there’s the nautilus. Back in his office, Finch studies a photo of the mural, finally recognizing it as a variation on a Bongard Problem. He explains, “This particular type of puzzle presents two sets of diagrams. The diagrams in the first set share a common feature. The blocks never overlap with the curved lines. Conversely, in the second set, the blocks do touch the curves, but there’s another common element.”

Reese interjects, “There’s a different number of blocks in each diagram.”

“Using this pattern,” Finch continues, “I can fill in the blank space with the only number of blocks left out, which is three, thus solving the puzzle, creating a sort of three-pronged arch.” Googling, Reese finds a matching photo of an arch in Central Park.

That night, Claire is near the arch, standing in traffic. When Reese interrogates her about her apparent death wish, they’re interrupted, but later, the answer comes to light. If you stand at the right point in the street, banners for “motorcycle safety month” visually blend together to show the faint image of a nautilus. Beneath the nautilus: pictures of traffic lights that Finch correctly identifies as the equivalent of Braille dots. They spell out, “184th and 3rd.”

Claire’s next found in a biker bar at 184th and 3rd, staring at a bulletin board decorated in gang logos. One features a skull with nautiluses for eyes; letters surround the skull in a seemingly random arrangement. At an otherwise dead end, Reese sits at his desk, rewriting the letters over and over, seeking a scrambled word, until Fusco (Kevin Chapman) determines that the letters refer to musical notes, forming the tune to “New York, New York.” Reese is able to deduce a location: the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Here on out, the puzzles become simpler, less compelling; from a Doylist standpoint (referring to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perspective, as opposed to fictional character John Watson’s), we might assume that the writers have decided that it’s time for the plot to dominate, turning the puzzles into mere perfunctory means to an end. I’m convinced, however, by the Watsonian explanation, that Claire has sufficiently proven herself, and the AI game-master is content now to lead her by the hand.

But why the nautilus shell? In the episode, computer hacker Root (Amy Acker) refers to the nautilus as one of nature’s examples of a logarithmic spiral. It’s commonly also referred to as an example of the golden ratio, but as explained in “Math as Myth: What looks like the golden ratio is sometimes just fool’s gold,” that’s not so true. Is that they key—that the prize Claire seeks is fool’s gold?

The episode’s primary puzzles have been solved, and the series has come to an end (though it can be streamed on HBO Max). Still, this one question of the nautilus’ significance remains. What is the symbolic connection between a nautilus shell’s chambers and the “enlightenment” the game promises? Is enlightenment encoded in the logarithmic spiral, or in something more particular to the mollusk itself? I don’t have the answers, but as the nineteenth-century poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. shows, Person of Interest’s screenwriters were not the first to see something spiritual in the nautilus, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

In closing, I offer the following excerpt from Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative to mull over in your own pursuit of the nautilus shell’s deeper meaning:

The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.


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