Marketing artwork for Link's Awakening, dramatically composed to depict Link's drive and determination in this adorable new 3d world.

Okay, okay, I know. This isn’t an indie title at all. But bear with me, I’m trying something new.

The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a remake of a classic 90’s era Gameboy title. The remake clings onto the classic gameplay of the original but adopts a retro-modern 2.5D tilt-shift aesthetic.

There’s really a lot to say about how good this game is. There have been ample positive reviews, in both the 90s and 2019. But, that’s to be expected—Nintendo wouldn’t have remade this game for the Switch in 2019 if it wasn’t a good game to start with.

A screenshot showing Link attacking an enemy with a sword in the overworld.

Mechanical Language and Accessibility

Link’s Awakening is an exciting modern case study for how game design has changed over time, particularly in terms of game mechanics and accessibility. Yeah, I know I overuse the word “mechanics” on this site—and some jokes have been made at my expense for it—but this post is a deep dive on mechanics.

Even with the ground-up redesign and new style, the actual gameplay of Link’s Awakening is relentlessly classic. In the 26 years since this game was first released, game design has vastly evolved. For example, there’s more understanding around the quality of life and player experience, and how exactly that applies to games these days. Every designer knows fetch quests are busywork, and tasks that require blind trial and error are recipes for player frustration—but, that knowledge only comes with time.

Link attacking a dungeon miniboss with a sword.

Minimal player hinting

For what it’s worth, Link’s Awakening has an immaculate, linear story, and it’s hard to get lost in the narrative. The plot is primarily driven by the owl character. And if you do get lost, you have the telephone booths where you can speak with Old Man Ulrira.

But the primary challenge is the how—the game isn’t shy about telling you your goal at all, but occasionally extremely teasy about showing you how to get there. In one Old Man Ulrira call I got hung up on (about the Yarna Desert), he gives you a tip and ends the call, saying “Hmmm... How much more obvious do I have to be,”—but figuring out how to get to the desert was one of the hardest tasks in the game for me. The game teasingly expects you to try everything until you eventually figure it out.

In today’s games, there’s usually hints to give you a sense that you’re on the right track. Like brighter lighting when you’re on the right path, or scratches and wear pattern textures around frequently used doors. But, in Link’s Awakening, I found myself trekking across the map several times, fully knowing my ultimate destination but not the slightest clue of how to get there.

And, in that sort of way, the game has a relentless difficulty ramp. It’s far too easy at times, which leads to Polygon’s “perfect Zelda for younger fans” review, but also quite tricky when you’re spinning your wheels searching for more solutions.

Inscrutable Boss Difficulty

The dungeon bosses are also a quality example of how player accessibility has changed. While most bosses in the game are rather quite tame, a few have a Dark Souls’y level of difficulty, with just one way to elicit their weakness and deal damage to them.

I’m usually okay with battles give me a specific window of time to get in a hit, or that force me to switch to an appropriate weapon. It’s rewarding to figure things like that out. However, this game offers no hinting to indicate to you that you’re close to figuring them out.

The game doesn’t discriminate between failure here. If your strategy, weapon, or timing is wrong, you’ll get precisely the same block animation in every case. There are no alternate animations to give you an idea that you’re making any progress—even something like a subtly different deflection, or additional shield noise. There’s also nothing like “anticipation” animations in this game—sorts of subliminal hint that indicate certain times are good to get in an attack.

This made me write off too many strategies that were initially correct because I wasn’t getting the sort of reactive feedback I expected—something to hint that I was close but subtly wrong. This only made my returns to these initially correct strategies frustrating and unsatisfying—I knew I was right, but my execution was just slightly wrong.

Oh, and the difficulty curve varies wildly on you: sometimes the boss in the very next dungeon can be a total breeze, like something wide open that can be taken down with three or four arrows with and a complete disregard for precise timing.

Link avoiding a water spider boss

It’s too easy to spoil yourself

This game was built in an era of Nintendo Power magazine subscriptions, Prima strategy guides, and the Nintendo tips hotline sticker on the back of your GameBoy. Now that the internet has superseded these, the nature of information accessibility has changed.

Whenever I hit a brick wall as a kid, I’d usually scour a strategy guide to get an idea of what to do next. And it wasn’t cheating to use these—things like the Prima Strategy guides and Nintendo Power often offered critical worldbuilding and flavor while guiding you on your journey through the game.

Today’s answer, however, is searching the internet. In this world of hashtagcontent and profit engineering, a walkthrough is no longer flipping through a nicely editorialized worldbuilding book for subtle hints on what to do before giving you the right answer. Instead, anything you get is a dry, ordered list that cooly gives you your next immediate action. (This also puts you at risk of spoiling yourself to the next ten or so things you have to do if you scroll too far down the page).

Link happily fising, holding a fishing rod and a recently caught fish.

It’s still a good game

The collective knowledge of how to build games has evolved for the better. This means that more carefully considered gaming experiences do exist these days. (Even though there’s still repressed undercurrents of discussion about the accessibility of difficulty in games.)

A dive into Link’s Awakening shows that games designed these days are far better in handling their difficulty ramp, and giving players enough of a framework of what to do when they’re blocked. That means, we can have games like the Dark Souls series, which are far more difficult than a game like this, because we’ve learned how to teach players how to observe, struggle, and grow through things, like gameplay hinting.

That being said, I massively enjoyed playing this game, and I’m super glad this remake exists. It’s a good dive into nostalgic gaming, and it was interesting examining this game through a bit of a modern lens.

Ocarina of Time remake next, Nintendo?

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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.

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.

Floor 2 of a Warrior playthrough of Dicey Dungeons, showing the map and enemies.

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.

A cutscene in Dicey Dungeons, shwoing the Witch die.

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.

There's more to be seen!