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.
It’s now been three years since I started the Scratching That Itch series, randomly picking things from the 1741-strong itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. Last year, I was feeling pretty grim about our progress towards racial justice, as it seemed a backlash of racist, bigoted politics was sweeping America. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, removing vital abortion protections; it has now done so. Shootings were on the rise, as were voter suppression laws. Hearings were being held on the January 6, 2021 insurrection in the nation’s capitol, but I was not confident they would amount to anything.
I may have been a little too pessimistic. The insurrection hearings found that former President Donald Trump and several of his associates violated federal laws and conspired against the United States, and recommended prosecution. That prosecution hasn’t happened (yet?), but Trump is facing multiple investigations and indictments, and I’m daring to hope that some of them may actually find him guilty. Beyond Trump and his followers, however, progress towards racial and social justice remains frustratingly stagnant in America. I have no reason to think things will improve anytime soon, and yet I find myself more hopeful this year. I don’t know why. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed into law last August, is a positive step towards clean energy investment, but I can’t reasonably expect it will have much social impact. Perhaps it is just that, where I feared discussions about racial justice would fade from public discourse, they have not. We have a lot of work to do, but I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that we can do it.
I also randomly picked and wrote about 37 games or game-related things from the massive bundle. That’s a slower pace than the first two years, which was somewhat inevitable as pandemic-related lockdowns lifted and in-person work largely resumed (and also just because I’ve been playing a bunch of other stuff, too). Still, that brings our total over 3 years to 163 bundle entries, which is more than 9% of the whole thing! I’ve highlighted some of my favorite picks from year three below.
Best Squigglevision: Un Pas Fragile
If Google Translate is to be believed, “Un Pas Fragile” translates to “A Fragile Step”, which is a perfect title for this lovely, short game about a young frog named Camille who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Camille’s story is told over a series of wordless vignettes, which mix hand-drawn greyscale backdrops with watercolor art for characters and important objects. Characters are also shown with something similar to squigglevision, imbuing them with so much life. Guide Camille as she eats breakfast, waits for the bus, meets other students at school, and attends ballet lessons. Watch her adapt her routine as the seasons turn, and she gains confidence leading up to her final ballet performance. Un Pas Fragile only takes about ten minutes to play through, but it is completely adorable and highly recommended. Read my full post about it here.
Best Climbing: HATCH
I initially hesitated to recommend HATCH because its freeform climbing can often frustrate. Players must endeavor to stay out of the deadly light of the half sun as they climb the mysterious and massive tower, and it’s easy to clamber a good ways up before getting fried and having to repeat a lot. But HATCH really grew on me despite the frustrations. Its first-person climbing is surprisingly fast and liberating, since any surface that’s less than vertical can be clambered up, just as easily as walking. So its challenge becomes one of gauging slopes, making daring leaps with a wonderfully high and floaty jump, and making sure to keep the tower between oneself and the sun. The tower is impressively tall and the ascent strange and atmospheric. I’ve thought about HATCH a lot since I played it, which is enough reason to recommend it to you. Read my full post about it here. I also note that developer Rubeki is working on a new game called Lorn’s Lure with some similar climbing mechanics, which has a demo available now from itch.io and Steam.
Best Blinds: VIRTUA BLINDS
Sit at a desk in front of a window, with a view over a perfect ocean. Mess with the TV and the desk lamp if you must, but we all know why you’re really here: for the blinds. Open the blinds. Close the blinds. Change the angle of the slats in the blinds. Bask in the glow of the sun as it moves across the sky, or block its rays to enjoy a bit of privacy. The blinds are magnificent. This is VIRTUA BLINDS. Read my full post about it here.
Best Blurry Landscapes: HubWorld
HubWorld is only a few minutes long, but it offers several lovely lo-fi landscapes to wander through, complete with relaxing synthesizer music. Sort of like a simpler and shorter Proteus, although the music is not linked to one’s surroundings as it is in that game. If you need a quick bit of relaxation, HubWorld will fit the bill perfectly. And no, you didn’t forget your glasses… the landscape in HubWorld is just blurry. In a peaceful way. Read my full post about HubWorld here.
Best Fishing: Rod, Reel, & Fist
I could just as easily have said “best tabletop role-playing game for beginners”, but Rod, Reel, & Fist will appeal to experienced players too. With a table-creaking 288-page book, this massive role-playing game is all about fishing, through a system that combines a rock-paper-scissors style gambit system with dice rolling and push-your-luck design. But it also includes a ton of excellent writing, from rosters of non-player characters to meet, to fully detailed scenarios to play, to entire alternate settings to use (take your fishing to a cyberpunk world, or the atmosphere of Jupiter). All this makes it a great choice for players who are new to tabletop role-playing games and could use some guidance on setting up and playing a fishing adventure. It’s appropriate for all ages too. Read my full post about it here.
Best Trap-Filled Tower: DROID7
DROID7 is an arcade-style platformer about a cute robot climbing a deadly tower, trying to outrun a huge laser. It’s simple but expertly crafted, with satisfying controls, pleasing pixel art, and perfectly timed comedic elements. It simply feels good to play. And while the early focus is just about climbing as high as possible and getting a high score, DROID7 does actually have an ending that dedicated players will be able to reach without undue punishment. An easy recommendation for platforming fans. Read my full post about it here.
Best Short Story Collection Disguised As A Tabletop Role-Playing Game: The Bloody-Handed Name Of Bronze
Sure, the game part of The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze does sound pretty cool. Based on bronze age myth, characters can inhabit a Fated Hero, who charges into danger with dice granted form their immortal patron and the legendary trophies they’ve collected on their adventures. Or, they could inhabit a Namedealer, who can speak the ancient Language of Names and thus make deals with (and gain dice from) anything in the world that has a name: creatures, objects, rivers, even the sky itself. Weaving collaborative stories with these characters sounds fun, but that’s mostly because the 222-page book comes with five short stories by various authors, each annotated with examples of how the stories would play out as a game session, complete with dice rolls to determine certain outcomes. There are tales of lovers trying to break free from an obligation to the river they travel, of heroes on the run from a furious father’s army, of monarchs trading their crown for the chance to guard the steppes as a mighty beast. These stories are a treat, and having a narrative role-playing game with a strong theme attached to them is just icing on the cake. Read my full post about The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze here.
My Personal Favorite Picks From Year Three: SYSCRUSHER And The Rainsdowne Players
When I played SYSCRUSHER for this series, I was certain it would be my favorite pick from year three. An incredibly stylish first-person shooter, it puts players in the shoes of the titular Syscrusher, a mercenary facing off against the robot army of the corrupt AI known simply as ADMIN. Its retro look manages to be gorgeous, with the cool blues of the high tech buildings contrasting against the bright reds of incoming laser beams and ADMIN’s face on screens and robots’ face plates. The four weapons are all a joy to use, with or without the rechargeable slow-motion power that helps line up headshots. An excellent retro synthesizer soundtrack is a bonus, and SYSCRUSHER doesn’t outstay its welcome with a runtime of about 30 minutes. An easy recommendation for a quick burst of action goodness. Read my full post about it here.
But then, The Rainsdowne Players popped up late in the year, and it’s an absolute gem. Players guide two young actors as they explore the city of Rainsdowne, meet its inhabitants, find inspiration in unlikely places, and put on plays in their rundown theatre using the inspiration cards they’ve collected. Each play has five elements chosen from the ever-growing roster of cards, giving players a ton of creative freedom to design interesting plays, even as they try to determine what particularly picky audience members want to see. It’s wonderfully written, genuinely funny and joyful, and surprisingly lengthy if players try to track down every card (as I did). A lovely, relaxing game, even when playing the rhythm-based minigames during the actual performances. I highly recommend it. Read my full post about it here.
Don’t make me choose between SYSCRUSHER and The Rainsdowne Players. Just play them both, you won’t be disappointed.
All right, that’s it for year three of Scratching That Itch. If I can maintain the average pace of the first three years, I’ll only need about 32 more years to get through the entire bundle. Let’s go!