In this grab bag: make friends with the narrator, search for your life's purpose while wearing a poncho, wade through a depression blizzard, and remind yourself to tell someone you love them.
The itch.io grab bag is a recurring feature intended to showcase tiny, curious, and otherwise intriguing games available on the titular digital platform. I am in no way affiliated with itch.io, but I consider it an exceptional platform for indie games and one that doesn’t receive as much attention as it ought to. Hence this post, a snapshot of delightful little gems made by cool people with a lot of heart. You can find them all, and a cornucopia of others, at itch.io, and be sure to check back soon for future grab bags!
Secrets Agent by Joni Kittaka (Browser – Free)
One of the biggest reasons candid videogame commentary videos have become so popular is because they break down the barrier that has existed for so long between the gaming press and its audience. When you hear someone talking to you not an anonymous consumer but as a deliberate supporter, a friend even, it makes you feel connected. You’re no longer just a reader, you’re part of the conversation.
Joni Kittaka’s Secrets Agent is, in basic terms, about sneaking into a mansion and stealing back a gemstone. But really, it’s about the way we communicate with each other; how the way we see ourselves contrasts with how others view us, and how difficult it is to get away from people’s expectations and assumptions. As you wander through Secrets Agent’s crayon drawn world, Kittaka narrates and directs you through the game, cluing you in to puzzle solutions and occasionally digging in to their own insecurities.
The experience is a bit like a friend helping you through a game they love, and learning along the way that what they love is not so much how the game plays but how it made them feel. I felt a lot of things playing Secrets Agent, but mostly I walked away feeling warm and comforted. At only 5-10 minutes long, that seems a fair trade for your time.
Sand and Stars by Dave Makes (Windows, Mac – Free)
The western is personified by the idea of the legend. In the wake of seemingly endless plains where the law has no hopes to reach, westerns thrive on the powerful image of the people who rose up, known to towns all across the land for their incredible exploits and godlike presence. As a genre, westerns have fallen out of fashion for being played out, but another reason I see for their fall in popularity is that people have become disenchanted with simple stories of people carving their name in history. It’s too selfish, too idealistic, and too detached from reality for modern tastes.
Sand and Stars from Dave Makes turns the western inside out by recognizing that most people will simply be forgotten. Sand and Stars’ world is small and its walls are imposing. People and crows and cacti have stories to tell, but soon they run out of anecdotes and everyday wisdom and send your poncho wearing traveler off to make their own destiny as best they can. The game’s most potent moment comes when you wander up on a cliff to look at the stars, and the person you meet remarks that “a man lives, a man dies. What happens in between is…well. Just stories now.”
Sand and Stars is a lonely, contemplative game, but one which I think speaks to our collective desire to make something of ourselves and the difficulty in doing so. We all want to be someone, but there comes a point where we must all recognize that we are only ever going to be ourselves. I am not sure that Sand and Stars provides any answers for the sort of questions this line of thinking brings up, but it’s a mental nugget to chew on as we all dissolve into existential angst.
Losing Control by Lisa Janssens (Windows, Mac, Linux – Free)
Two things stand out about my freshman year of college: bad food, and nights spent sitting in trees crying over everything and nothing. I have been fully aware that I suffer from severe depression for a long time, but it was not until I left home and was on my own that it became borderline debilitating. I would miss classes, subject myself to cold nights outside just so I would feel something, and loiter in the cafeteria all day because I was too scared of being alone and what I might do to myself. Even as I found friends, it was difficult for me to accept them, and more than once I found myself cutting everyone out of my life because I was too scared they would do the same. It wouldn’t be until halfway through my sophomore year that I would finally get on medication and begin seeing a counselor fulltime, both of which have caused me to finally begin to crawl out of the hole I had dug myself a long time ago.
Throughout this process I have come to appreciate the time I spent sad, pouring my heart out to friends, wandering aimlessly hoping I might stumble upon the right path. It was miserable, to be sure, but it taught me a lot about myself, and I feel I have come out a better more empathetic person for having been depressed so long. Losing Control by Lisa Janssens cycles through many of these same thoughts, attempting to showcase that negative emotions matter as much as positive ones.
As you wander in circles through a snowstorm, the game slowly unravels your character’s emotions, beginning in a place of deep self-hatred and loneliness and ending on a path towards happiness and healing. It is a torturous experience, slowly navigating through a blinding blizzard while toxic thoughts pop up from the environment, but it is a deliberate process which mirrors the often-recursive nature of depression. You go through the same feelings again and again, slowly climbing a spiral staircase until you can see things more clearly. Sometimes, as in Losing Control, that path is difficult or impossible to discern, but what matters is that you keep climbing. Eventually, you’ll get there.
It would be a gross deception to say that I can entirely identify with the internal conflict at the center of Emma Lugo’s SYZYGY. I have lived most of my life as a masculine presenting, straight white man, and have only recently begun to truly delve into my own identity politics to discern if that identity is who I want to be. But while I have never struggled under the weight of being queer, I know what it feels like to be young and to think you are the only one who truly gets what you’re going through.
For most of my teenage years I was leaning over the edge of suicide. To this day I feel anxious when I see hairdryers, toxic chemicals, and exposed knives, because part of me still fears what I may do to myself if given the chance. I have been much better recently than I can remember ever being, but healing is a process and not necessarily a definitive point you ever truly reach. I believe that is what left me tearing up as I traversed SYZYGY’s monochromatic forest, picking through relics of someone who used to be there.
I lost one of my closest friends this year, not by suicide but he is gone all the same. You learn quickly when someone leaves how little you have left of them to hold onto. Maybe a photo or something of theirs to hold onto. Ultimately, though, they are just fragments. Incomplete reminders of a hole that will not and cannot be filled. I do not know if SYZYGY is about someone Lugo lost, or if its anonymity is meant to allow it to stand in for the thousands lost to suicide whose stories are often all too similar. I think it will mean different things for everyone who plays it, but it will always be about loss. Loss of self or a friend or a lover. Loss of innocence or identity. Loss of the blissful ignorance so many feel towards death until it touches someone they love. SYZYGY is short and hollow, but it is in its gaps that its truths are most felt. Don’t wait to tell someone what they mean to you, or you might not get the chance.