This is the one hundred ninety-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the 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.

Our one hundred ninety-second random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is hiding a lot of sharp teeth beneath its cute exterior. It’s POM SIMULATOR 9000, by d Marie, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

weary, transformation, dog, burger, comfort

I am intrigued by this selection of words.

POM SIMULATOR 9000 was made with Twine, a free tool for creating interactive fiction. The download for the game is simply an HTML file, which then opens in a web browser. It leans towards the visual novel end of the interactive fiction spectrum, although it only has a few illustrations, and is mostly just text. Players click on the highlighted words to proceed to the next bit of the story, and can occasionally make a choice. Its page boasts of three bad endings, one pretty good ending, and one true ending. I’m happy to say I arrived at the true ending on my first go, and didn’t want to spoil it by going back for the others. But players who want to see everything can easily rewind to any point and try a different selection.

The story is told from the point of view of Diego Foxglove, described on the page as “a 6’4” former drug dealer who sprouts mutant mouths and turns into a giant wolf-dog to fight killer alien fungus.” I’m just quoting that because I don’t think I can summarize any better. The transformation and alien fungus sound exciting, but they’re not really what the story is about. The focus is on Diego and his girlfriend Calliope, and the problems they’re both dealing with. As the story begins, Diego has just had a really bad day. I get the sense he has bad days fairly often.

POM SIMULATOR 9000 does not shy away from tough subjects. Both Diego and Calliope are going through a lot, and they don’t always handle it well. The page gives a self-ascribed PG-13 rating to the game, for “blood/gore, swearing, and mild sexual themes” as well as “body horror, racism, mentions of abuse, drugs, and violence.” Players should heed this content warning, as the game gets into all of those things. It is very sweary. Diego may turn into a wolf-dog in battle, but I wouldn’t call him a werewolf… more of a swear wolf. Except, of course, when he instead turns into a dog that is almost, but not exactly, like a Pomeranian.

This unexpected transformation is at the heart of the story, and it means that among all of the heavy themes, there are also a lot of cute scenes about being a tiny dog and enjoying it. Yet these are not throwaway moments. They are crucially important as Diego figures things out, and weave effortlessly into more serious conversations and less pleasant situations. I was really impressed with the writing here. Both main characters are wonderfully realized, and their relationship feels more true than most I’ve encountered in games or indeed fiction at large. The themes are familiar, common in stories about queer or marginalized communities: the lingering influence of a traumatic past; facing constant judgment from others based on one’s appearance or demeanor; the fear that those people might actually be right. But what if you suddenly found you could transform yourself, and in an instant change how everyone sees you? How would that make you feel? How would you react?

POM SIMULATOR 9000 is longer than I expected. I played it over two sessions, although it doesn’t appear to save one’s position in any way, so I recommend keeping that browser open until reaching one of the endings. It uses this length well. There’s time to set up the characters, and room for them to develop over the course of its runtime. There’s time for multiple difficult conversations, which pave the way for a heartfelt and affecting conclusion. It’s perhaps easy, as an outside observer, to choose the path to the “true” ending, when such choices might be a lot harder for Diego and Calliope in the heat of the moment. Given the generally excellent writing, I can imagine what might have happened if Diego let his anger get the better of him, if he was too afraid to be open and honest about his feelings, as we so often are in life. Those options exist in the game, but I’m thankful that POM SIMULATOR 9000 gave me the opportunity to make better choices.

If you can handle the topics in the content warning — and don’t mind a lot of swearing — POM SIMULATOR 9000 is an easy recommendation. It’s got great writing, great characters, and packs an emotional wallop. Oh, and as the tagline promises, there are burgers. If you are intrigued, but missed it in the bundle, POM SIMULATOR 9000 is available for any price you wish to pay, including free.

That’s 192 down, and only 1549 to go!