Screenshot of Bird of Passage, which depicts the ghost standing, preparing to enter a taxi, on a Tokyo street.

Bird of Passage, by SpaceBackyard, is an atmospheric narrative puzzle, set in taxi cabs traveling the streets of Tokyo.

You play as a low-poly ghost-bird-eye-thing (a technical term, of course), and you travel at night in taxis, recounting your stories to the drivers who take you around. It turns out that the ghost you embody died in the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, and is seeking answers as they continue along their path.

The atmosphere and vibrancy of the deconstructed Tokyo are lovely. The game boils down its vision of Tokyo to just the bare essentials to deliver its view of Tokyo—a taxi cab, various taxi stops, bright lights, and road markings all serve to give you the feel of a big city without actually rendering a big city.

Screenshot showing the dialogue options in Bird of Passage, while traveling in a taxi.

This is a perfect game for a pensive dark rainy day. It’s not quite the same, but I found myself getting lost in thoughts in this game—like when you’re a passenger in a long car ride and your mind starts to drift.

Gameplay Tip:

It’s not necessarily easy to intuit the best choices to progress the story. For the best route to the end of the game, and to avoid repetition, keep track of your dialogue choices. One of the taxis you enter will give you a hint for what you’re looking for—once you heed their tip, the route to get to the end of the game will be clear enough with a little bit more trial and error.

My playtime of Bird of Passage was about 30 minutes—but yours can be a bit shorter with the non-spoiler gameplay tip above. It is available on itch.io for macOS and Windows.

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The title card of Speak Easy, showing the characters, and art deco style.

Speak Easy, by Shots on Sunday, is a prohibition-era bartending game set in a 1920s-era Chicago.

You take the role of Ruth Moran, bartender, and proprietor of an illicit speakeasy, named “The Straight and Narrow.” Set over three nights, you serve drinks to a revolving cast of characters dropping into your speakeasy. You prepare them a spread of drinks, at their request, from your elegantly drawn and well-used recipe book.

“The Straight and Narrow,” your speakeasy, is set in a smoky Art Deco style as you’d find in the world of BioShock. Inter-day story exposition in Speak Easy is told through slides depicting a vignette of Ruth’s world and inner thoughts, but the biggest story beats come through your interactions with patrons.

Ruth’s Recipe Book in Speak Easy, featuring elegant hand-drawn art

You see unrequited love between two patrons—a doctor and his patient. Sapphire Riviera, another patron, is far too drunk and is claiming to be a star that you should already know. Pearl is an intoxicated police officer, and realistically, a patron you’re perhaps too friendly with—considering the prohibition, y’know. Of course, you also have the occasional drop-ins of the heavy fist of the mob supplying your speakeasy.

The interactivity of the bartending in Speak Easy is well considered, and is easily the best part of the game. Yes, Speak Easy certainly shares mechanical similarities with VA-11 HALL-A, the highly acclaimed cyberpunk visual novel, but the bartending in VA-11 HALL-A is more “click to mix.” Speak Easy’s bartending feels more real—you’re grabbing bottles from the shelves, picking up and squeezing the fruit, and shaking up drinks (with your mouse!) while preparing drinks for customers.

The Art Deco atmosphere of Speak Easy, as Ruth prepares a drink for a patron.

In terms of polish, I’d like for the ability to increase dialogue print speed. Also, even though it’s not necessarily a “choices-matter” style game, I felt like there was inflexibility to some dialogue—I wound up sternly kicking out a customer, where I’d have preferred an option to ask them to leave more politely.

This is an excellent showing from a student team of ten. It’s worth dropping in to chat with a few patrons, make a few drinks, and learn a bit about Ruth’s story. My playtime in Speak Easy was about an hour, and the game is available for Windows on itch.io.

A screenshot of Once Upon A Time in the West, showing the lodge where the events of the game take place.

You’re approaching a lodge in the wilderness. As you near, you see the flash of two gunshots, followed by sharp drum beats and a jump cut to black.

These are the first moments of Once Upon a Crime in the West, a narrative murder mystery game, by developer National Insecurities, exclusively available in the Humble Monthly Trove.

On the twelfth day of Christmas


As you enter the cabin, you encounter an array of highly-stylized corpses strewn about and find the bartender impaled with a knife in his eye, beckoning you in. It’s the twelfth day of Christmas, and it’s a good one—“except for all of these dead folk,” the bartender quips. The bartender instructs you to use a magical camera—conveniently left on a nearby table—to step back and relive scenes from the previous eleven days, to figure out just what happened here.

The Bartender, Elijah, stabbed in the eye. (Once Upon a Crime in the West)

You’ll meet a spread of characters with different personalities and reasons for being at this cabin over the twelve days of Christmas. Some are there to get away. Others, mercenaries, trying to find who killed the old sheriff of Old Town. You’ll also meet the new sheriff of New Town—who might also be the new sheriff of Old Town? (It’s hard to keep track.)

You should already be able to tell this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously. The game is rife with black comedy, witty writing, and silly on-screen gags. Scene changes are accentuated with sharp drum beats and quick cuts. The bartender, Elijah, throws a coin in the swear jar every time he swears—a gag which does not get old. Even the people staying with you at the lodge are hardly fazed by an on-screen death during a poker game—instead joking about it after a moment of reaction.

Some of the cast, playing poker. (Once Upon a Crime in the West)

It’s familiar, but not too familiar

Sure, this game bears substantial mechanical similarities to Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, but that doesn’t detract from it. The colorful and stylized low-poly character graphics are a sharp departure from Pope’s title, and this game has an entirely different spirit and gravity to such a similar situation.

In a way, it’s also a step up in difficulty from Return of the Obra Dinn. After you finish watching the events of the prior eleven days of Christmas, you’re left to deduce what happened by linking polaroid pictures of characters together. The game doesn’t hand hold you during this point—you need to rely on your notes and memory of the dialogue to make these connections. Perhaps the game should allow you to rewatch previous scenes, but this also feels like an extra challenge, one that’s extra rewarding once you’ve made all of your logical conclusions. (If you get stuck, I do have a screenshot of the solution—I can quietly provide it so you can finish out the game. Keep your game open, there’s no saving.)

Gameplay Tip

You can play the scenes in any order, but it seems best to start from the First Day of Christmas. Also, I did encounter some oddities when just starting the game, after placing the camera and scrolling to switch days—the game wouldn’t respond to my scroll wheel. If this happens, you may be standing too close to the camera, somehow. I was able to get it to work if I stepped back.

Once Upon a Crime In the West is available for Windows, exclusively in the Humble Monthly Trove. My playtime was about two hours. It’s worth a shot if you enjoyed Return of the Obra Dinn, or are just up for a comedic murder mystery.

A screenshot of a desktop while playing Subserial Network, depicting the chat, email, browser, and music player.

Set in a world of synthetic life, a group of synths, made in the image of humanity, seeks to make unauthorized modifications to themselves—by adding a serial port, to be able to communicate via networks rather than by human means. You play as a CETUS agent, tasked to investigate this group, learn about them, and find their leader, Andromeda.

This is what you’ll find in Subserial Network, a cerebral visual novel, by Aether Interactive.

Enter the Mesh

Mechanically, Subserial Network plays out like a multi-window desktop simulator, similar to the interactivity you’d find in Sam Barlow’s Her Story—but this takes place on your very own desktop, rather than its own fullscreen window.

For the most part, you’re browsing the mesh network, bouncing from page to page, searching for context clues that hint you toward new keywords on the mesh net. As you’re finding new pages, you’ll also discover the email addresses of various synths online. Some will be happy to chat, others will realize who you are, and will be uncomfortable speaking. Certain conversations are two-way—you have the option to pick your replies to emails which change how the characters reply to you. You’ll also pop into IRC-style chat rooms—which the game doesn’t make enough use of—and see several synths interact with each other in real time.

Sitting on the Outside

But really, this is a game about more than all that. You’re an outsider looking in, observing a group of synths fighting for and figuring out a new identity for themselves. This is, after all, a story about change, and the game doesn’t shy away from analogs you’ll see in the trans community. Synths are learning by doing, and relying on the stories of others to get the energy and inspiration forward. You’ll find synths who’ll tell you your name, and then tell you they don’t care about their name—that’s just what they’re called. You’ll find stories of loss and growth. (Delightfully, you’ll also encounter a group of synths just excited about their favorite TV Show. and write fanfics about it.)

In all that, this game successfully captures a feeling of an internet we don’t know today. It reminds me of my days as a kid, bouncing around America Online—not really knowing what I’m looking for, but hunting for something interesting to consume my time. It also reminds me of the early days as a member of Reddit and Twitter communities. The days where everyone proximally knows each other, and you felt like you could strike up a conversation with anyone; before everything grew too large, and sadly, too anonymous and angry.

Subserial Network Splash Screen

The game makes excellent use of its retro cyberpunk aesthetic. The classic 90’s style UI is just so lickable. I mean, the title card for the game is typeset in Baskerville—it feels like you’re launching 90s-era Photoshop 2.0 in Classic Mac OS. It totally nails it.

If you’re a fan of Her Story or are looking for a cerebral visual novel which forces you to hunt for clues, Subserial Network is likely a game for you. Subserial Network saves your progress, and my total playthrough took approximately two hours. It is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, free as part of the Humble Monthly Trove, or standalone on itch.io for $9.99.

Sort the Court screenshot, showing the king speaking to his royal advisors.

If you could control a kingdom, would you be a benevolent ruler—one that feeds the people and pays for luxuries for your kingdom? Or, would you want to tax a circus, and sponsor a shifty character that steals from your citizens?

Sort the Court is a simulation game by Graeme Borland, where you play the role of a king or queen, ruling over a cute and whimsical kingdom, deciding whether to approve or reject the whims of townspeople.

Along the way, you meet a delightful array of citizens seeking your assistance. Chester, a wooden chest, is hexed to eat humans repeatedly, and eventually seeks your help to have the hex removed. Miriam and her owl, Albert, are wanderers, and share some stories with you before going on their way. You'll encounter Yarno, an advisor to the king of the Comfy Kingdom, followed immediately by Button Boy, who tells you that they’re actually the real advisor to the king. You’ll also get drop-ins from Boots the cat, who always wants to be scratched.

The circus comes to town in Sort the Court.

As your kingdom grows, you face new challenges. Following a dragon attack, you have to fund your blacksmith so they can smith a blade—the dragonslayer—to kill a dragon which has stolen from your kingdom. Later your decisions involve intermediating in quibbles between other nearby nations, like a conflict over marshland.

And, hey, I know how hard it can get for a modern ruler sometimes. In order to build a new, ornate town square—surely the best use of money—I did have to steal some coins from my citizens to make ends meet.

However, some of the game can get repetitive—being nicknamed “The Creep King” by Lil’ Fang time and time again grew to be frustrating while I was waiting for actual story progression decisions. But, there’s enough to the game that you’ll keep with it and pattern match; when you recognize someone frequently returning, you’ll just jab y or n, and send them on their merry way.

Amy Gerardy produced some excellent art for this game. The characters are delightfully realized, and the backdrop that evolves over time as your kingdom grows is beautiful. The background music, by Bogdan Rybak, is chill and whimsical. It reminds me of the main menu music for Life is Strange—something uplifting that you can listen to on a loop for hours.

If you enjoy a “ruler simulation” game like Reigns, you’ll appreciate Sort the Court. It’s available in-browser, or for Windows, Mac, and Linux, on itch.io.

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