It’s three in the morning. My coffee tastes like lukewarm bathwater and I’ve spent the last eight hours playing through thirteen short sci-fi games all developed within the span of a month. I should be tired, and probably a little bit grumpy since I don’t like staring at a screen for that long, but each of one of these small games has kept me wide awake in rapt attention, mostly because they’re all so different from one another. They’re also all quite good. For example, Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap? invites me to tell a story to a rude, extraterrestrial audience and chuckle at their hilarious critiques as I try to spin a tale that will impress them. Orison of Mercury on the other hand has me racing around the galaxy, marking habitable planets in the hopes that I can produce enough colonies to ensure humanity’s salvation.
Antholojam, a game jam curated by Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz that took place during November and December last year, produced fifteen sci-fi games diverse in both subject and tone, all of which are now available for the public to play. The jam started as a conversation, Zoe told me in a Skype interview: “We had stopped off at this amazing guitarist’s place in Leeds, and we had kind of been smoking weed and talking about sci-fi anthologies and how great they were and how you don’t see that sort of thing as much anymore. And I’m like ‘oh wow, that would be perfect for a jam.’”
Shortly after that conversation, Zoe sent out the call on Twitter for what would eventually become Antholojam. Those interested were invited to send in pitches; those who had their pitches accepted were given a month to develop their game. Alex laid out some of the finer details of organizing the jam: “We had curated the creators based on what we knew about them and the strength of their pitches… I mostly took care of the general coordination. We had official contracts drafted for everybody to make sure that nobody could get screwed if something happened. I was really pleased with how wildly different all the games were. You had Twine games like the Twine game by Tom McHenry, which is hysterical, Tonight Dies The Moon. You have a point ‘n click murder mystery, beautiful illustrations. You have deep space mining stuff, you have terraforming stuff, you have like…talking to a bunch of rogue AIs on earth. It hit all the notes that we really wanted to hit for evoking the golden age of sci-fi.”
I emailed several of the participating developers to ask them about their experience, and one of the constants I noticed in their responses was how satisfied they were with Antholojam’s efficiency behind the scenes. Kimberly Parker, part of the team that developed murder mystery Steal My Artificial Heart, told me she was impressed by the polish of the site that Zoe and Alex had created for the jam. Pablo F Quarta, who helped developed the tabletop game Space Journey! (a celebration of both Star Trek and Whose Line is It Anyway?), wrote to me saying “I had been wanting to participate in a game jam for quite a while. In the last year I’ve become more and more interested in making games and game jams seemed like the perfect opportunity to dip my toes in the collaborative process. Antholojam was the first game jam I ever participated in and I think it was really a great experience.”
Michael Bell, who created the spooky soundtrack for The Absence of Is, said he thinks that the game “fulfills its role as a ‘jam’ game very well. For my part, I’m pretty happy with the way the music turned out.” Carolyn VanEseltine, one of the designers for Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?, told me the team was “incredibly proud of the result” and that they were especially delighted to see what sort of stories people were making within the game.
So far Antholojam, which is Pay What You Want, has performed well and spent a few days as the top seller on itch.io. In light of that success and the positive response from the participants, I asked Zoe and Alex if there was a chance for another Antholojam, perhaps one focusing on a different genre like fantasy or hardboiled detective stories. Zoe didn’t hesitate in answering: “Absolutely. Just considering how much positive energy just floated around … [The participants] were really cool to us, and it’s really cool to see them start talking to each other and be talking about what next game they’re going to do… I would be super down to do it again.”
Alex added that he was up for another jam as well: “Yeah, it is Antholojam 1. I think we fully intend to do more of them… we’re just going to wait for the right time when we feel like we can do it the same kind of justice, and we’ll just go from there.”
All the Antholojam games are available to be played online or they can be downloaded from itch.io. Below you’ll find a summary and my own (mostly spoiler-free) assessment of each game.
A Call To Mars is a short interactive fiction story about astronauts searching for a mysterious signal on the red planet. There are several paths to pursue, each with different endings for the player, who steps into the boots of one the astronauts. The writing is strong; both the gorgeous artwork of Mars’ desolation and the eerie soundtrack are well done. Definitely worth a few playthroughs, especially if you’re into interactive fiction.
Developers: Sydney Meeker, Brick Stonewood, David Hunter, Courtney Billadeau and Nathan Powers.
This one is a neat little gem that’s begging to go from prototype to polished game (a la Gods Will Be Watching). You play as a civil engineer for Planetary Adjustments. Your job? Terraform a useless hunk of rock. A Planet Wakes is a combination of Sim City and Super Motherload. You construct buildings, like outposts and nutrient farms, and those structures build up resources. As you build more and travel from place to place, an intriguing story populated by amusing characters emerges.
Developers: Delia Hamwood, Gemma Thomson, and Mysterious Entities.
This game is one madcap, hysterical version of Mad Libs that wears its Douglas Adams influence on its sleeve. You play as a “distinguished human guest” at a restaurant who must tell a story to a group of non-human customers (including a curmudgeonly robot and a dog named Laika) in order to get them to pay for your drinks. The real joy with Canned Rice comes from creating a story with the objects on the table in front of you. Not only can you insert them into your story, you can also decide what they represent symbolically. Each character in your audience is amusingly selfish and prone to rudely critiquing you. If you’re in need of more than a few chuckles, play this.
Developers: Caelyn Sandel, Carolyn VanEseltine, Danielle Church and Jamie Sandel
Your standard sci-fi story about robots or artificial intelligence usually involves some fear, unfounded or otherwise, that said robots will rise up and destroy humanity. But what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if they just wanted to be pals? Fire Theft, despite its dark, atmospheric visuals, is a cute and moving game about an NSA investigator who befriends several AIs, each with distinct personalities. Fire Theft is pretty short (15 minutes at the most) but it’s a lovely, well-conveyed story that doesn’t waste a single moment, tackling issues of gender and identity with aplomb.
Developers: Micah Johnston and Matt Starsoneck
In Intergalactic Ambassador, you play as a screening agent for earth. Your job is to gauge the threat potential of any ship that approaches the planet. Intergalactic Ambassador is a tough decision-maker game in which you may find yourself feeling torn between your sense of duty and your compassion. For example, one of the first sequences involves a small cargo ship hailing you for help. The captain of this ship does not explain what’s going on, or how they ended up drifting in space, instead urging you to trust them when you ask for an explanation. You can mobilize the planet’s forces to destroy them, let them drift on in despair or send them assistance. One choice might end the game, while another earns you a pat on the back and allows you to progress onto another scenario. A bite-sized game for anyone who enjoys the likes of Papers, Please or even Telltale’s episodic adventure games.
Developer: Andrew Baillie
“I want to go to a park where the trees have brand names on them. Just once,” the woman’s message reads. To me, that line perfectly captures the balance between humor and melancholy in Killing Time at Lightspeed, a game about reading social media on a traveling spaceship. As a passenger on the ship, you’re interacting with your social media stream (called Friendpage Timestream) while you travel to your destination. Your flight will only feel like a half hour to you, but the further away you get from the planet, the more time passes there. Hours. Months. Years. I felt a sense of growing despair each time I hit the “refresh” button, watching people go from talking about minor annoyances in their lives to discussing the riots breaking out everywhere on Earth. Killing Time at Lightspeed is, more than anything else, a timely game about technology and the role of social media not just in the future that developer Gritfish has created but in our present reality as well.
Lost Chrononaut is a gorgeously illustrated tabletop card game that can also be played in a browser. You star as a time traveler on the moon trying to get back to their own time. The game has different classes and multiple endings and features a wicked, jazzy soundtrack. I’ve played through it twice and have met a cruel fate each time, though I enjoyed my time with the browser version immensely. There is also a physical edition available for purchase ($24.99).
Developers: Daniel Richmond, Megan Hoolehan, Jen Tacy, Robert Judd, MJ Branden, Joe Spicer, Michael Peppler, Anthony Grubowski, Tyler Jones, Cheryl and Denton.
In Orison of Mercury, you play as a traveller who must find habitable planets and mark them as suitable for habitation. You travel around a Tron-esque grid, checking planets, gauging their atmospheres and sending down reconnaissance drones to the surface before making a call. Or you can just hop from planet to planet willy-nilly, marking each one as habitable and hoping for the best. The game gives you considerable freedom in how you handle your mission, and later it reveals the fate of every colony you founded. Orison of Mercury is a tightly focused strategy game with a loose narrative, one that I can see myself losing several hours in the future.
Developers: Matt Duhamel, Mint, Detective Moose.
Planet of a Poisoned Past is an impressive adventure game that takes place in “the distant future of 2003.” You play as Maria, a computer wiz and newcomer on an expedition to a strange planet to retrieve valuable resources. The story takes off after a few minutes and it’s one I don’t want to spoil here. The most striking part of Poisoned Past is its visual aesthetic, which evokes both Futurama and Jet Set Radio.
Developer: Sophie Houlden
According to the game’s webpage, Space Journey is a “tabletop roleplaying game where the players become the actors and director of the cult hit TV show Space Journey! The actors must play out the scene presented to them while the Director will help the actors improvise the scene by relating the scraps of material as handed down from the producers. Actors must use their signature styles to overcome the tests and obstacles placed before them, and must not break character lest they ruin the episode.”
I haven’t gotten a chance to play this one yet since it requires real human beings occupying a decently sized physical space. However, Whose Line Is It Anyway? wrapped inside Star Trek does sound like something that I’d love to try sometime.
Developers: Jack Timmons, Lorin Grieve, Maz Hemming and Pablo F. Quarta.
A dame has been murdered, her heart stolen. You’re a robotic private investigator who’s fresh out of his box. Can you solve the crime? Steal My Artificial Heart is a short visual novel (about 20 minutes) in which you try to solve a classic mystery in a goofy, futuristic setting where robots speak like classic noir film characters. A fantastic little story with great pacing and lovely artwork; it’s a must for those who enjoy detective stories.
Developer: Team Gigglesquid
The Absence of Is is a short, disturbing game concerned with people exploring the possibility of the afterlife. You play as a doctor administering an anesthetic to three patients and monitoring their vitals. As they get closer to death, a computer records “sense data,” which are basically visions. But are these visions glimpses into the undiscovered country or are they merely a swirl of dreams and memories? And, more importantly, are these recordings worth the lives of your three comrades? The Absence of Is, fittingly enough, lets you decide the answer for yourself.
Developer: Ice Water Games
Tonight Dies The Moon is a miserable game. I mean that as a compliment. In this game, the earth and the moon are at war and you must choose to be a citizen of one of those places and fight the war. It’s a lot less exciting than it sounds. As an earthling, I cried in the back of a taxi when my parents didn’t give me money I needed, and I worked in a cubicle, running simulations and fudging numbers in a spreadsheet, desperately wishing for any existence other than the one I was living. It’s a sad, beautifully written game that dares to be complex and verbose. It’s also quite funny. “They have spreadsheets on the moon, too” is a line that will stick me for a long time.
Developer: Tom McHenry
Valkyries of Vela is a tabletop game ostensibly inspired by the likes of Starship Troopers where players must take on mysterious aliens referred to as “Bugs.” From the developers themselves: ” Players will form a party of up to five members of the Valkyries of Vela Special Forces. They will be armed with skills as sharp as their wits and wonderful weapons like rayguns, miniguns, and Very Sharp Knives. Each will have their own special talents and stats which will be their key to survival.” For the same reason as Space Journey!, I haven’t had the chance to play this one, but barbecuing giant extraterrestrial bugs sounds like it’d make for a great party game.
Developers: James Snow and E. N. Hempstead
Voice of Vamana is game that deals largely with the terror of space. Not just “you might float away from your ship and be burnt to a cinder by the sun” space but the spaces we inhabit, the spaces in which we move around. You play as a traveller investigating a massive, floating temple-like artifact. You start out in a series of metallic corridors with a woman speaking to you to give you support via a comm unit. Eventually you make your way to a hanger that leads to the open majesty of starry space. From there, you spend at least five minutes floating from the ship to the artifact. That might sound boring, but it’s actually quite tense. The stars swirl all around you as you float towards your target, evoking certain scenes from 2001: A Space Oddysey and Dark Star. Once, I bumped my mouse and sent my vision askew, making me panic as I looked around, trying to find my destination again. Of course, the real horror begins when you reach the artifact, but I’ll let you find out all about that yourself.
Developer: Connor Sherlock
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.