Finding a happy mushroom in the Good Time Garden.

The Good Time Garden is a surreal environment exploration game by James Carbutt and Will Todd. That says everything yet nothing at all. I have no clue how to describe this game, even though that’s kind of what I do here. The Good Time Garden is one of those surreal things that you have to let happen to you. But, let’s still take a stab at it:

You play as a naked flower guy—dick and all—that’s bloomed out of a plant in the ground. Unashamedly bare-assed, you walk around and explore this world. You’ve got your hands to slap and pick up things, and using your nose as a fountain to water things.

Feeding the blob in the Good Time Garden.

The point of the game is to bring food to this sort of big throbby mouth creature—that’s probably your mom or something of the sort. (The creature sports the same kind of head and hair as you, but has a distinct lack of legs.) You walk about the world and find new bits to interact with until you can pick up and carry some food back for it. Rinse and repeat.

There’s a tiny bit of Rube Goldberg style interactivity to this game (which heightens the surrealism). For instance, watering a flower can convince a giant frog to unroll its tongue, allowing you to cross a river.

A modest bird and a fully grown apple tree in the Good Time Garden

The allure of The Good Time Garden is its fantastic art direction. It features hand-drawn scenes and characters that could be described as “Adventure Time but pink.” (But, it’s perhaps a bit more NSFW, considering the cartoonish dicks and butts). It’s also got a tremendous ambient soundscape that perfectly fits the wet, naked, grassy world.

The Good Time Garden is a cute, pink, surreal experience, that’ll take about 20 minutes of your time. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and macOS on itch.io. Happy feeding.

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A screenshot of Death and Taxes on day three, with cawker open and your instructions from Fate.

You know the saying: “Nothing is more certain than Death and Taxes,” right? Well, in Death and Taxes, you play as the Grim Reaper, assigned the job as the arbiter of death for humans in peril. It’s up to you to choose if they live or die.

Dialogue with Fate, your boss, in Death and Taxes. Your actions will have consequences.

It's a boring office job, with perilous consequences

Fate, your boss and keeper of world order, assigns you a new batch of humans each day from your assigned region of Cosmopolis City in Sun County. Your instructions might be to mark one or two people with the Marker of Death, or—more sinisterly—to mark anyone with an engineering or medical background. You could mark Charlie Gocq, the CEO who practices insider trading, or David Garver, an IT architect that builds digital assistants. Or you could ruin the life of a sweet grandma who collects porcelain.

You keep track of the news on your phone—using Cawker—that shows tweet-like news reports, like threats of fire in Sun County, or an announcement that a social media star has fallen off a cliff will taking a selfie. Following Cawker helps you keep in touch with the world, and measure the impact of your actions: take out too many people in the medical field, and you’ll see tweets (cawks?) about an epidemic.

Yeah, it’s another tinderlike game—you’re given a stack of humans in peril and mark those for death based on your instructions. Like in Animal Inspector—you don’t get free rein over your choices. Instead, you do have to report to your supervisor who assigns you different work. There’s still something so compelling about the presence of choice in these games, even if the gameplay isn’t super shaken up from it. You can still disobey, and it has a bit of an impact on the world.

Deciding whether an AI reseracher makes the cut in Death and Taxes.

Does death matter?

The introspectiveness is what makes this game interesting. It trades away some potential silliness, and instead, you face some philosophical conversations with your boss at the end of each day. There are some tough questions for you to think about, like if it’s even ethical for you to be making these choices at all. Some responses could be silly or flippant, but there’s a lot of meaty answers like “you’re the one that gives me the rules,” or “I’m not happy about the situation.”

And for that, Death and Taxes is an engaging game for all the questions it poses—who really should get the thumbs up or down compared against someone else. It’s a free demo available on itch.io.

Synthesizing propofol in MOLEK-SYNTEZ, a Zachtronics game like Opus Magnum.

MOLEK-SYNTEZ is a puzzle game by Zachtronics, known for SpaceChem, SHENZHEN I/O, and TIS-100. It’s a cousin to Opus Magnum, but with chemistry instead of alchemy.

It’s 2092, and you’re a chemist living in a cold Romanian apartment. Your task is to program a molecular synthesizer—your MOLEK-SYNTEZ—by breaking and building bonds in ordinary industrial chemicals to synthesize new pharmacological molecules.

A gif of the synthesis of Dapsone, an antibiotic, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

These walls don’t do a damn thing to keep the cold out.

Synthesize the good stuff

You're filling the shoes of a 2090s era chemist who's fiddling around with hydrogen bonds. Brief glimpses of this chemist's life fill out cutscenes between puzzles. "The walls don't do a damn thing to keep the cold out", he thinks.

As with most Zachtronics games, the subject matter drives the rules and mechanics of the puzzles. Chemistry knowledge isn't essential here—the mechanics and rules are something you can pick up on the fly, and it's only as complicated as counting bonds between atoms.

It's a pretty textbook "Zachlike" game—you know what to expect if you've played Zachtronics games before. Completing and optimizing puzzles is the journey. This time, though, you’re bonding benzene and carbamide to make Asprin. Or methanol and hydrochloric acid to make chloroform.

In each puzzle, in order to build your target molecule, you program six emitters that add, remove, or shunt hydrogen atoms to and from your target, as well as various operating controls like shifting your emitters, moving or rotating your targets. You program these options on a timeline on the left side of the screen, manipulating and emitting until you finally output your target product. Initially, you’ll seek just to build the molecule altogether. But as you gain experience with reaching solutions, you can more actively devise methods to optimize your programs, like completing target molecules in the fewest number of operation cycles, or with the fewest number of modules or symbols.

A screenshot of the programming of Dapsone, a few steps into producing the target.

Build and optimize your programs

The real game the rewarding feedback loop from optimizing. Once you solve a puzzle you've been chewing on for a bit, MOLEK-SYNTEZ shows you a histogram of solutions, which serves the purpose of setting a newer, harder benchmark for you just a bit out of reach. It's an effective trick in getting you to dive back in and iterate further.

I’m captivated by the irresistible need to optimize my solutions in these games. There’s an unspoken gentleman’s agreement between my friends and me: we’re just going to continue to over-optimize and usurp each other’s leaderboard positions until we get bored of the game. (But we’re here to help each other if someone gets stuck or misses a trick). Naturally, there's also a subreddit where people have been sharing gifs of their solutions.

If you don't have many Steam friends who have picked up this game, you can turn on percentile measures as benchmarks for you to compete against. I try to target my solutions to be in the tenth percentile of whatever category I'm shooting for—the first percentile is too daunting, and I still like to progress onto later puzzles too.

A gif of the synthesis of Mescaline, a hallucinogen, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

Someone who believes the world is logical is bound for disappointment.

The minimal graphics shouldn’t distract you—even though it’s got cold computer-like looks like TIS-100, the difficulty and accessibility are quite similar to Opus Magnum.

As is tradition, it also includes a new variant of solitaire. It’s a vanilla solitaire variant, but rather than storing cards in the upper foundations, you “cheat” cards onto the top of any pile of your choice. If it sounds precarious, it is—it gets out of hand quickly.

The game’s soundtrack is a 90-minute atmospheric ambient experience, composed by Matthew Seji Burns, who is the composer and writer behind Zachtronics games, and also the director of their visual novel, Eliza. (Which too many people have sold short, and deserves another shout because it’s one of my favorites this year.)

A gif of the synthesis of Aspirin, an analgesic, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

They all resemble each other, don’t they?
One might get you high as fuck, the other will kill you.

I’ve completed just over half of MOLEK-SYNTEZ’s levels so far. This game may not have the flourish and polish of Opus Magnum or SHENZHEN I/O, but it’s cut from the same cloth—if you’ve enjoyed those, you’ll enjoy this one.

Even though this was a surprise drop with minimal fanfare from Zachtronics on a random Monday, it’s not one to miss. MOLEK-SYNTEZ is available on Steam in early access and will be available on other platforms after the early access period.

The title screen of Afterparty, depicting Hell with a close up shot of of a bottle of alcohol.

Afterparty is a Hell-based narrative adventure by Night School Studio, known for the acclaimed mystery adventure game, Oxenfree. You play as Lola and Milo, two recently deceased friends who find themselves in Hell—mistakenly, or so they think. Soon after arrival, they learn of a loophole: outdrink Satan, and he’ll let you return to Earth.

Celebrating Charlies bachelor party in Afterparty.

The Abyss

If you distill it down, the point of this game is bar-hopping: drift from bar to bar, order new drinks, and chat with different people as you take on the various puzzles and situations in the game.

This variant of Hell isn’t all that bad of a place. It’s a darker and slightly more tortuous facsimile of Earth. It eschews what could have been a grim horror setting, and instead brings a casual levity to Hell. Satan really could be your friend—and not in a “satanist” way; “hail satan” is used sarcastically in this game.

That said, you’re here after hours where everyone—humans and demons—are off the clock. The allusions to Hell while on the clock sound much, much worse.

One of the vignettes with Wormhorn, your demon.

Your Own, Personal Demon

There’s a wide variety of characters that you encounter in your romp through Hell. You’re assigned a personal demon, Wormhorn, who is responsible for a lot of non sequitur interruptions in your story—she drops in at inopportune moments to offend you. There’s also a demon nicknamed Fela—short for, uh, Fellatio—that requisitions you to help investigate some odd happenings at one of the bars.

One of the highlights is Sam, voiced by the inimitable Ashly Burch, who is your taxi driver throughout the lava rivers of Hell, ping-ponging you from place to place. She’s your friend, and also there for a lot of the exposition, giving you tips and background information for each new situation you’re soon to land yourself in.

Naturally, Satan is the center of the party. Hell is his domain, after all, and you find yourself at his home several times throughout the game. It turns out the big guy isn’t having that good of a time—he’s a bit of nice guy, but can’t keep his right friends and family around him. So maybe you’re not showing up at the best of times, but you’re not going to back down from the opportunity to make your way back to Earth.

The drink menu at the Schoolyard Strangler, a bar in Afterparty

The Schoolyard Strangler

The drinks—Hellcohol, harder stuff than on Earth—are pretty smart, and add a delightful punch of flavor to the game. Each different drink mixes up the game by unlocking new dialogue options tailored to the drink you’ve had.

You take a sip of your drink to unlock the new dialogue associated with your drink. If you don’t take a sip, you limited to default options, or you can say nothing at all. Not every choice is wise, though; mentioning romance to Asmodeus—a club-hitting monarch going through a rough breakup—might earn you some ire.

Even though there are some generic drinks like Bloody Stool give you a punch of confidence, some of the drinks shake up the dialogue. The drink The Grand Exhibitionist makes you talk like a vaudeville villain. Bluebeard’s Last Wife makes ye talk like a pirate—shiver me timbers! Oh, yeah, there’s even a drink that’s advertised as acid. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Encountering Satan in Afterparty

After, Party

Afterparty falls in my sweet spot of narrative games where you feel like you’re in control of the story. Night School committed to an actual branching narrative here; your choices take you down substantially different paths where you meet different characters and have different dialogue, even though you’re still going to wind up a drinking game with Satan at the end. There’s enough content for multiple playthroughs here.

Also, for such a long game, the writing sure holds up. You don't get bored of the comedy. Milo and Lola are realistic, flawed characters that you can certainly relate to in some way or another. It’s a testament to the writing that the dialogue stays consistently funny and doesn’t get dreary or fall apart during the game.

Afterparty is your perfect Halloween weekend game, and it’s available on PS4, Xbox One, and the Epic Games store for Mac and PC.

The Title Screen of Card of Darkness by Zach Gage

Card of Darkness is a card game by Zach Gage, Pendleton Ward (of Adventure Time fame), and Choice Provisions. Card of Darkness is like a game of solitaire mixed with distilled roguelike elements and a vibrant atmosphere. But don’t let this game’s sweet colorful aesthetic deceive you; this game is trying to wind you up. You’ll be seeing cards for days—they’ll even haunt your dreams.

Pick up a card

The game is relatively simple. Each game starts with a few cards face up. A card can be anything: a wide variety of monsters that will attack you, a chest that gives you gold, potions to heal yourself, various weapons to attack—you name it.

Here’s the catch, when you’re attacking with most weapons, you need to match your weapon’s even/odd parity with the monster card. So, if you have a sword with a value of four and the enemy has six, you’ll take two damage and keep your sword. But if you have that same four value sword against an enemy with five, you’ll be hit with one damage, and your sword will break. So this game isn’t always about picking up the heftiest sword—you might lose it with the very next card you have to pick up.

You progress through levels by picking up enough cards to reach the stairs or volcano at the top of the screen. If you pick up a card from a pile, you can’t leave that pile unfinished before advancing. You also need to keep careful watch of your health and try to forecast what will happen with the marked cards that you need to pick up before proceeding to another level.

A flavorful adventure

Considering that Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, is behind the art of Card of Darkness, it’s exactly what you can expect—colorful and silly, yet with a marked sense of adventure. Each region you visit presents a different flavor of game design and art, like new monsters and weapons with varying mechanics with increasing complexity.

For example, Fearfoxes lose three value every time you pick up a monster, so you try to pick up others first. A Potion of Patience is a regular portion, but its value goes up by one each turn. Later, there are beefy fire swords, Burning Steel, which damage you by one each turn while equipped. Further still, you encounter Horrors; they’re monsters that do enough damage to leave you with one health. They’re pretty, well, horrible, until you realize that killing one horror can kill all the horrors on screen.

Strategy and well-balanced randomness

Card of Darkness is an RNG heavy game, and the randomness of the game is not your friend. That said, the randomness does bring balance and depth to this game. It softens the difficulty when you’re just starting, and also deemphasizes the need to min/max the game for advanced players. And in that sense, the game feels well-tuned. It usually feels like you can figure your way out of a tense scenario, but if you do fail, a restart of the level might be the run where you squeak through. I love how this feels—it gives you a euphoric feeling of “oh god, I just barely made it through with one health.”

The fun of this game is the problem solving to get ahead of the randomness. How do you tailor your Cards of Darkness for each level? It’s chasing the thrill of steamrolling a level because you found a buildout of Cards that’s a bit busted. (If you’re not changing your Cards of Darkness on most levels, you may be getting stuck for longer than you need—especially boss levels.)

Sure, the game is hard, but it’s not unfair. You might get the occasional level with brutal RNG where you give up immediately, but the game wants you to finish it. There’s no penalty for failure—if you have poor luck, it’s as fleeting as bad a hand of poker. And You’re coming out ahead every time—you’re bound to pick up some coins from each level, enable you to get more tokens or slots for Cards of Darkness that give you an extra advantage when you may be quite stuck.

Fall in the deep deep end

Card of Darkness is probably the best idle game on Apple Arcade so far. Like many other Zach Gage games, it’s a great game to pick up in idle moments, like waiting in line at a grocery store or trying to multitask while listening to a podcast.

I’ve played for several hours so far, and while I’d like to say I’ve finished the game, it looks like I still have a bit more to go—I’m presently battling my way though The Baxlan Delves as I write this (which is level six of eight). Based on my experience, I can say it’s a game just for “hardcore gamers”; it’s relatively accessible for anyone to pick up—with persistence, you’ll make it to the end of the game.

Card of Darkness is available for iOS and tvOS with an Apple Arcade subscription.

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