A birds-eye view of the level Too Many Trees in Marble Marcher.

Marble Marcher is a marble racing game by CodeParade. It plays a bit like a futuristic Super Monkey Ball tech-demo: race as a marble along an evolving procedurally-generated map to reach the finish flag.

The game has 24 maps available, each throwing you into different environment or challenge. Some levels evolve underneath as you make your way to the flag, meaning that you can never quite predict the correct path. You even face the risk of being crushed if the fractal closes in on you. Others offer a more technical challenge—fast and precise movement is required to get to the end of Beware of Bumps, or else you'll fall right off the fractal. There are even novelty ones: the object of Hole in One is to drop through a hole in the center of a fractal, to reach the flag on the other end.

Staring down the first level of Marble Marcher

This game is worth checking out purely because it's impressive from a technical standpoint. It uses a unique fractal physics engine with procedurally generated maps and ray-marched graphics. Because of this, this game is computationally intensive—the game requires a dedicated GPU to run at 60fps at a reasonable resolution. I'm unqualified to comment on the math, so it's worth checking out a short video from the developer that dives a bit deeper:

Sure, even though this game is mostly a tech demo, it's actually enjoyable. The variety of levels means it's easy to get about 30 minutes of enjoyment out of it, especially if you like Super Monkey Ball style games.

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David in Telling Lies

Okay, kids, get out your pen and paper; you’re taking notes.

Telling Lies is a voyeuristic narrative full motion video game by Sam Barlow. You scan a government-collated database of recorded conversations, looking deeply into the stories of, and relationships between characters.

The desktop and Retina software in Telling Lies

Surveillance Software

The game takes place in a “desktop simulator” that feels a bit like an Ubuntu Linux desktop environment. The meat of the game takes place by searching for clips in Retina, a pretty plausible piece of surveillence state government software. The videos you call up are, for the most part, one half of a two-way video call. Unhindered access to these personal videos is what makes the game ultimately feel voyeuristic. You know that you shouldn’t be watching this—these people didn't exactly consent to the government recordings. But, you just want to see how their stories unfold, and feel closer (or more distant) from some characters.

The game’s main character, David, is played by Logan Marshall-Green, supported by three other characters played by Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan. David is a vastly complicated character and plays at the center of the giant nest of lies and half-truths that make up this story. I most closely followed the relationship between David and Ava (Alexandra Shipp’s character), a climate change protester that David gets quite close with.

The videos you find and watch feel, well, deeply personal. When you’re watching these actors in movies or on tv, they feel distant and non-impactful, no matter how compelling their delivery. Here, you almost feel them looking right at you, as they deliver their performances right into a camera for you to see. This delivery makes the videos feel truly raw—almost like they are government intercepted recordings of video chats—and can go on for minutes at a time.

Ava in Telling Lies

The evolution of the story

Sam Barlow, the game’s director, is a master of non-linear stories. His first indie title, Her Story, uses a similar video query interface. Where Her Story first experimented with the mechanic—by querying and reviewing small segmented snippets of a few police interviews—Telling Lies evolves it. You’re now watching full videos, hunting for keywords that not only help you progress your understanding of the intertwined plots but also finding the other half of the call you’re watching—seeing the other side to the story.

Throughout the game, I filled up four pages of my notebook, covering anything from notes on characters, new keywords to search, to quick scribbles from piecing together sudden story revelations. You’ll want to take notes too, either using the in-game note tool, your own notes app, or classic, analog pen and paper. (I recommend the latter.)

You see, the story isn’t laid out on paper. Nothing exists to say, “here’s the plot.” The only thing that guides you is the game’s initial query of LOVE. This gives you a few videos to skim for keywords and gather your initial impressions. Then it’s up to you to build your knowledge and understanding of the characters, their relationships, and their stories, and uncover their lies and half-truths. My experience won’t be like yours—we might have different conclusions about people’s motivations here, and that’s what makes this interesting.

Gameplay Tip:

If you query a video and feel like you’ve missed something, you can always scrub backward to earlier points in the video to see more.

This game feels like a love story to FMV video games, an all but dead genre, and shows more games like this can exist today. Which is why I’m posting about it here—It’s not a true indie title, with a credits roll of hundreds, but it feels like an indie-scale game gone right. I want more things like this, and want to see more of this from small creators.

Telling Lies is available on Steam for Windows and macOS.

The Battle UI in Dicey Dungeons

Dicey Dungeons is the latest title from Terry Cavanagh and his team, best known for the difficult games Super Hexagon and VVVVVV. It’s a hybrid dice rolling and roguelike game that is jam-packed full of charm. 

You take control of dice that each embody different specialized tropes. Like a thief who can use steal powers of your enemies, or an inventor who incessantly invents new cards. It’s set in what feels like an adorable and friendly juxtaposition of 70s era game-show and children’s board book. Well, the “friendly” is only surface level—the host, Lady Luck, has you trapped, forcing you to play a rigged game forever.

Your goal is to acquire cards, defeat enemies, and level up, as you battle your way to the final boss. In battles, you roll dice and drop them onto cards that have different effects, like your attacks, magical abilities, or other things to spice up the fight. You need to make judgment calls when deck building as you progress like, do you take a big fire attack or a small poison attack that stacks?

This is a game of patient trial and error, really. In each playthrough, you go down different routes with your builds, to get to the final boss. When I fail, failure actually feels good. It’s not pure RNG that determines your failure; that would make it unsatisfying. However, when I fail, I usually can tell where I’ve gone wrong with a build. Perhaps it’s overspecializing in poison, not bringing anything along to deal with limited health, or not having a card to deal with extra dice on the table.

I’ve previously said that I’m not much of a roguelike player, but Dicey Dungeons does a pretty good job of making me feel relaxed in the genre. Most critical decisions—visiting a shop, or picking up loot—are limited to simple “either/or” scenarios, like choosing between an ice or fire attack card. I’ve never encountered a giant screen of options that I need to choose just one thing from, which would cause frictive indecision that would ultimately make an anxious person like myself grow weary of the game.

This game has a lot of repeat playthrough potential too. There are six characters, with six episodes per character, and each one changes their base traits in what seems to be simple ways. The changes in each episode actually have a dramatic effect on how you approach that run with that dice friend.

According to Steam, I’m now 10 hours into Dicey Dungeons, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in it. Thus far I’ve had successful playthroughs of the first episode for all the dice friends, and have gotten through a few second episodes too. It’ll be a game I continually pick up and try to through casually. Dicey Dungeons is available on itch.io for Windows, macOS, and Linux, and includes a Steam key.

Interacting with the blinded scientist, Patrick, in the game Intercom.

Does it ever feel like you need superpowers, money, or an audience to be a hero? Not so in Intercom, by J. J. Morgan. You can be a real hero by simply pressing space to beep.

You find Patrick, a laboratory assistant, stuck blinded in his lab. Using the beeps of your intercom, you invent a beep-based language to help Patrick sense and escape the traps of the lab. With a few short levels of adventure, and coming up with new beep sequences, you'll be able to get him to safety.

This game came in 3rd place in the GMTK Jam 2019, with the theme "only one," which is masterfully applied by only having one way for you to interact with Patrick. (A more-polished variant of this game would be perfect for a particular playful handheld I'm excited for.) It's short and sweet; you'll be through it in 5 minutes.

A therapy session is in progress, in the game Eliza—a game which explores parametric AI-based therapy.

Eliza is a visual novel by Zachtronics, the developer of puzzle games Opus Magnum, Exapunks, and other Zachlike games.

The visual novel explores the potential impact, ethics, and effectiveness of an AI-driven digital therapy program, Eliza. You take control of Evelyn, a newly hired proxy for the Eliza program.

AI doesn’t make the world go round

Eliza sessions are delivered by Proxies, contract workers who serve as a therapeutic human intermediary between the two way conversation of AI and client. An Eliza proxy wears AR glasses, getting a realtime stream of patient vitals, sentiment analysis of the patient’s words, and scripted guidance on what to say to a patient.

The Eliza sessions are held by human proxies because the company behind Eliza, Skanda, feels that interacting with computers feels impersonal and unnatural. Theoretically, a realtime conversation feels more natural and less contrived—it’ll challenge a patient to open up more, so Eliza can listen.

However, patients are incredibly aware that they’re still interacting with an AI. Sometimes, they’ll even break the “fourth wall” and say that they’d just wish for an actual human exchange with the person that’s delivering the Eliza-based therapy.

Evelyn talking with Erland, in the Eliza server rooms.

Can a chatbot provide effective mental healthcare?

The game exists in a world affected by a mental health crisis, not unlike today. (I’m personally someone affected by this, too. As someone going through therapy, this game feels close to me, in a way.) Many people in-game are seeking treatment, and Eliza seems to be the option for most, not because it’s good, but because it’s cheap.

You see, therapy is a process of listening, understanding, and challenging a patient to change and improve. Eliza’s treatment seems to land at either end of ineffective and adept at this, depending on the particular patient. For example, Eliza will happily listen to a long-winded essay from a patient, yet its follow up response is banal and unempathetic: “it seems that something is really troubling you.” It’ll fail to drive deeper on the pain or augment the conversation contextually—it’s just an AI’s lexical notation of what the patient is exhibiting.

The biggest miss for Eliza is in the “solution” department, which is a glorified ad for more Skanda services and partnerships. After a patient has poured their heart out during their appointment, Eliza gives cold and scripted recommendations for an app and a pill. In a way, this kind of highlights a big issue with a service this—if you have cheap therapy as a service, is the company really invested in addressing your root issues? Or, will they just do the absolute minimum to keep you happy and keep you as a customer?

At a cafe, discussing Eliza's role in the future.

What if you get to change things?

But what’s your role in all this, as a proxy? Well, chapters take their twists and turns. It turns out that not only was Evelyn a previous Skanda employee, but she was also a principal engineer for the Eliza project.

And that’s what makes this game compelling. It sets up an AI-driven near-future dystopian world and then sets you up to explore what that means. How does your role in this change if you made Eliza? What would you differently? What would you do to change the future?

Each chapter introduces some sort of plot-shift, that twists your feeling of the overall effectiveness of Eliza, your alignment and empathy for Evelyn, and your sentiments toward other involved characters—like the Skanda administration and other ex-employees.

And here’s where the game really hits close to home for me. If you’re on the inside of a large company and can see something is going wrong, and you want to try to change that momentum, what really happens if you speak up? Sure, you internally know that speaking up is the right thing to do, but, likely, you could just be seen as a troublemaker, and ultimately pushed out. Your in-game relationship with Nora (an ex-Skanda engineer, turned artist) and Erlend (the new engineering leader of the Eliza project) make you grapple with the feeling from differing perspectives.

The obligatory zachtronics solitaire game in Eliza.

An effective new entry from Zachtronics

Yeah, it’s dramatically different from anything you’d expect from a Zachtronics style game, but that honestly makes it worth the play. They approach the subjects of engineering, AI influence, and ethics from an informed perspective. There’s no handwaving and namedropping of just the right keywords to make it “seem” competent. It’s apparent actual programmers and engineers wrote and influenced this game, and they know their audience will be technically minded.

It’s different from other visual novels I’ve played too. It’s fully voice acted. It’s got a Zachtronics style UI, suited to the story they’re telling. With this, it manages to feel like a visual novel of their own, not that they just decided to do something new and build a game on top of RenPy or Twine.

And, overall, Eliza is effective at exploring the philosophical and ethical issues of our world, today. It doesn’t try to give you the answers or arrive on any novel conclusion—it wants to make you think. I bet you’ll come out of the game feeling totally different than I did, and the game gives you the freedom to experience that.

At the very least, you still get to play another solitaire game from Zachtronics.

There's more to be seen!