Free to be Weird is a kind of spotlight/written let’s play of small, free, indie games. When most people think small, free, and indie they probably imagine some YouTube fodder making loud sharp noises and calling itself “horror”. We won’t be talking about those. Free to be Weird is going to be about unique ideas from voices that might otherwise get lost in the internet. I can’t guarantee they’ll be any good, but I can guarantee they’ll be interesting.
So game jams, one to three or so day events where indie developers make games in hurry, are always chock full of cool ideas sometimes good games. The Ludum Dare is one of bigger jams out there and it’s most recent theme is maybe it’s best: you are the monster.
There are a lot of great games that came from this. I’m going to talk about two that really caught my eye. General minor spoiler warning.
So most game jam games are pretty minuscule in terms of gameplay but are carried on a strong premise, and Carewolf is the perfect example of that. In it, you play as a man cursed to be a werewolf when night falls… but he doesn’t want to kill anyone, so he has talk to everybody in his village and convince them to stay indoors at night. Also, letting (almost) anybody know that you’re a werewolf will get your hairy ass burned at the stake, so be careful. This is accomplished with a series of logic puzzles built around a simple conversation system.
Thankfully, it has enough absurdist humor baked in to keep things fresh for it’s three levels. For example in the first town everyone is going out tonight because of a birthday party. You won’t be able to directly convince anybody not to go to the birthday party, the most you’ll be able to do is offend them so they’ll refuse to talk to you. What you CAN do is convince the hostess of the party that her birthday is next month (if you say last month she won’t care for some reason) and then you tell everybody that the party is canceled. The second town is more varied with you having to talk to a werewolfologist that you can share your secret with and a unicorn hunter to whom you have to convince that you ate all the unicorns. In the last town everybody’s going out because they’re all sleeping with each other. Someone is a cheater, and someone else has a disease. You have to figure out who and tell the interested parties to keep everybody inside at night.
After night falls in each level you see yourself in werewolf form(frankly you look more like a weredachshund). You go from house to house, and if somebody stays at home, you just see a green check and move on. If they come outside however… you see a red x and move on. I know it’s almost certainly done out of laziness, but I feel I still should applaud the decision to make killing so viscerally unsatisfying. If killing was in any way appealing or had any emotional content at all, be it gross, scary or funny it would run utterly counter to the games’ premise (and you know that if a AAA publisher used this premise they would have a lovingly rendered cutscene of your weredachshund disemboweling people).
Anyway, you don’t win this game so much as complete it. At the end of a level, you are told how many people you killed. I managed to only kill one person on my second playthrough and I knew exactly what I did wrong. I felt no urge to play it again though. Carewolf’s greatest strength is that it’s exactly as long as it needs to be; If it was one level longer it would feel like a chore, and if it was one level shorter it would feel, frankly, like this next game.
So The Sacrifice is far and away the best looking game on the Ludum Dare. Everything has this heavy, moody line art reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon and even the faux-Gameboy monochrome(which is a really odd trend I’ve notice with indie developers) lends a very effective bleakness and miasma to the whole affair.
It’s soundtrack is nothing short of gorgeous. It, again, is quite similar to Darkest Dungeon but I think it may even surpass it. It’s sweeping and sinister and really gets you in the mood for some dark deeds.
The premise also might be the strongest of the group, using the “you are the monster” theme in such a cool way. In an isolated fishing village you are the leader of a cult known only to five families. In worshiping Chernobog, you promise peace and prosperity to your people. There is, of course, a price. Once a season you must make a human sacrifice of a member of one the aforementioned five families. You are the one who decides who dies each season.
Of course the centerpiece, choosing the unlucky bastard to be fed to the elder god so that it doesn’t eat you all, is always going to be interesting. You have five names, each with a pro and a con. Some people are popular and their death will be a larger blow to the village’s morale. Some have a bunch of kids so that if they die, extended family will have to take care of them and that will hurt productivity. Some people have beautiful eyes. On the con side we have pyromaniacs, child abductors and (worst of all) people who think this whole “human sacrifice” thing isn’t in everybody’s best interests.
It’s a shame that the actual gameplay sucks.
So you start out with a beautifully drawn map of the town. The parts you can click on are the houses of the five families. From there, the head of each family will say something more or less unhelpful and you can tell them to spend the season producing food, shelter, or goodwill. At the end of the season you choose the sacrifice which will affect the town in various(almost always negative). Each of these resources deplete faster than you might think and basically depending on the roll of a twenty sided die so you never really know what you need until Chernobog rises up in anger to kill you all. It’s just a little too difficult to make it past the first year, and there’s no way to mitigate that randomness or really assert any kind of mastery whatsoever. There’s difficult, there’s Dark Souls, there’s Nintendo hard, and then there’s just stupid hard. It’s like I Wanna be the Guy without the jokes… or is it?
It occurs to me that Chernobog does absolutely nothing to help you. The village doesn’t keep from starving to death because of your sacrifices, but because you decided that everybody was going to farm instead of smile or enjoy anything this season. In the beginning, all of the families talk about how their new cult has brought peace and prosperity to their village, that their dark deeds are directly helping their people; but when things get rough (and they will) it becomes clear that you’re getting nothing and the families know it. They sacrifice because they’re terrified of what will happen if they stop.
That’s a really cool meta narrative. It certainly doesn’t justify a game with such a brilliant premise being lazily churned out as “Shadow Over Innsmouth Clickers”. But hey, it’s free. Free to be Weird