The Scratching That Itch series is where I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
One year ago, I started Scratching That Itch as a way to simultaneously cover games from the massive itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, and keep the conversation about systemic racism and racial justice going. That conversation reached the international stage after the murder of George Floyd by (now former) police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The murder was captured on video for all to see, and spurred an unprecedented discussion of institutionalized racism against Black people and other people of color in America and around the world. A year later, Derek Chauvin has been convicted on all charges, and we’ve seen some progress towards police reform, as well as inevitable backlashes that only highlight how much work is still to be done.
I also randomly picked and wrote about 69 games (and other things) from the huge bundle, just under 4% of all the entries. I’ll be continuing the series for the forseeable future, but I decided to round up some of my favorite entries from year one here. Read on below.
Best Tabletop Role-Playing Game To Read Even If You Can’t Play It: Visigoths Vs. Mall Goths
A surprising number of entries in the bundle are tabletop role-playing games that require multiple humans to play, which meant I couldn’t actually play them before writing about them. Fortunately, many of them were still quite entertaining just to read. None more so than Visigoths Vs. Mall Goths, which vividly describes a suburban Los Angeles mall in 1996, where high school kids into goth culture (or rather, the commodified version of goth culture marketed by big brands) clash with Visigoths transported from the time of ancient Rome. This very strange and very specific premise is eloquently and hilariously fleshed out in the book. Everything from the layout of the mall, complete with pun-riddled store names, to the various characters that work and hang out there, is laid out in laugh-inducing detail. There are even several pre-written adventures, covering everything from getting autographs from your favorite band to dealing with — gasp — metalheads. Read my full post about it here.
Best Solitary Space Mission: Orison Of Mercury
If you fancy a lonely journey through space, on a mission to find a new home for humanity, Orison of Mercury has you covered. Created as part of the Antholojam, it uses a stark gold-and-black color scheme and retrofuturist interface to great effect, letting players move through a procedural sector of space, finding and scanning planets. Most are uninhabitable, but occasionally a promising candidate will appear, and players can even launch a probe and explore the planet surface in first-person. An excellent mood piece. Read my full post about it here.
Best City Exploration: Lingotopia
Lingotopia is a game designed to teach players a new language. For me, however, the real joy was wandering the streets of its beautiful city, rendered in an eye-catching low-poly, flat shaded style. Amble underneath aqueducts, cross canals via arched bridges, check out the fancy houses in the upper city or wander through the slums near the docks. Learning a few words of a new language is a nice bonus. Read my full post about it here.
Best Visual Novel: Conversations With My Anxiety
I’d never actually played a visual novel before starting this series, and I was lucky that the first one I tried is a gem. Conversations With My Anxiety is short and sweet, managing to tackle the anxiety accompanying a first date while remaining positive and often funny. It also has lovely papercut art, with animated backgrounds or other imaginative touches like the window that tears open in the protagonist’s forehead when the titular conversations with their anxiety occur. Just a few minutes to play through once, but adaptive enough to warrant multiple plays, it doesn’t take up much time but it spends it well. Read my full post about it here.
Best Actual Novel: Books & Bone
It’s also the only novel that’s come up so far, but Books & Bone really grew on me. It’s not without problems, but there are enough nicely executed twists in this fantasy tale to steer clear of cliche and establish some memorable characters. Enter a secret, subterranean town of necromancers, hiding from those above who would exterminate them, and find a story about family, community, and ambition. Read my full post about it here.
Best Spelunking: Miasma Caves
One of the larger offerings to come up in the bundle so far, Miasma Caves is all about exploring the titular caves and unearthing artifacts that can be sold to support your small town. There’s no combat, just the caverns themselves as obstacles, but even simple navigation can be tricky. Especially once cave-ins and other dangers reveal themselves. The story is told through the artifacts you find, and kept me plumbing ever deeper, stumbling upon new cavern types and the occasional natural wonder. Making it back out before succumbing to the miasma can be difficult, and the penalties for failing harsh, but this wasn’t enough to spoil the joy of spelunking. If careful cave navigation and treasure hunting sounds fun, definitely check this one out. Read my full post about it here.
Best Personal Piece: Escort Yourself Out
A highly personal student project, Escort Yourself Out is brief but memorable. Interactive sections heavy with symbolism mix with visual novel style direct commentary from the author, touching on various subjects including the game itself and whether it is effective at communicating its message. It deals with themes of trauma and mental illness, but in a positive way, and it avoids sweeping generalizations in favor of presenting the singular experience of the author. I love the art too, which uses a pastel color palette against a white background with barely-sketched details, easily highlighting the important parts of the scene and offering mere suggestions of the rest. This is the kind of game that itch.io is known for, and which you won’t find on any other storefront. Read my original post about it here.
Best Asteroids: Asteroid Farmer
Asteroid Farmer is clearly inspired by the classic arcade game Asteroids, but it makes one brilliant change: the player’s ship cannot shoot. Instead, it must pick up turrets from the passing supply ships, then drop them off at preset hardpoints so they can start automatically shooting the asteroids. This shifts the focus to flying around the asteroid-filled screen using the classic “thruster” movement, making for delicious tension. I was often executing careful, low-speed maneuvers to thread a path through a cluster of drifting space rocks, making tiny adjustments to my trajectory with a few controlled burns. Then, when the turrets had reduced most of the asteroids to valuable nuggets, I would tempt fate with some fast flying to collect them. A great twist on a classic arcade formula. Read my original post about it here.
Best Gene Wolfe Reference: Troika! Numinous Edition
Another tabletop role-playing game entry, this one is more in the mold of Dungeons & Dragons, with a party of adventurers exploring strange locales and battling enemies. But the locales are really strange, with magic and science fiction mixing in a bizarre multiverse. What caught my eye were direct references to The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, arguably the greatest work by my favorite author. If you’ve ever wanted to roleplay through the Autarch’s court and face off against the terrifying alzabo, Troika! Numinous Edition has you covered, but it also contains much more (perhaps lifted from other sources of inspiration?). Mechanically it’s an unusual beast too, adapting combat rules from the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and adding in a weird initiative system that means not everyone will get a turn each round — but they will get a chance to react, since every attack goes both ways, and often the attacker will come out worse for the attempt. Worth a look for tabletop role-playing game fans who are looking for something a bit different. Read my original post about it here.
Best Animal Combat: Chipmonk!
Chipmonk! is basically Golden Axe, but with chipmunks. And it’s kind of great. Beautiful pixel art, woodland creatures imaginatively repurposed as medieval warriors, and solid combat make for a pleasingly slick game. Worth checking out for any beat ’em up fans. Read my original post about it here.
Best Pick That Wasn’t Actually Random: Celeste
I was already playing Celeste when the bundle launched, so it doesn’t count as a random pick. But since it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, it would be criminal to leave it off the list. A tough platformer about perseverance and self discovery, it’s masterfully designed, excellently written, beautiful to behold and features an incredible soundtrack from Lena Raine. The design team is headed by Maddy Thorson, who is an old hand at crafting excellent platformers, and this one is their magnum opus. A must play. Read my original and quite lengthy post about it here.
My Favorite Pick From Year One: Space Hole 2018
Last but the opposite of least, my personal favorite pick from year one of Scratching That Itch is Space Hole 2018 (which has introduced spaces between the words of its title since I originally wrote about it). A psychedelic odyssey through strange dimensions, it plays like some bizarre combination of walking simulator (well, space shuttle flying simulator, I guess) and Super Monkey Ball. Where I feared an assault on my senses, I instead found a relaxed and beautiful journey through countless colorful and imaginative places, all set to wonderful music from dl Salo. The game is unexpectedly huge, with titular space holes connecting dozens if not hundreds of levels, each a new feast for the eyes and ears. Finding every last thing in the game entails some tough challenges and secret hunts, but players can instead simply meander through this beautiful game and marvel at each new vista. It’s a very cool experience, and one I never would have learned about without this bundle. Read my original post about it here.
And there we have it, the highlights from year one of Scratching That Itch. If I can keep up this pace, it will take me a mere 25 more years to get through the bundle. Let’s do this.