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InfinityWaltz’s Column of Curiosities – Scary Science Fiction

Monthly Column – December’s 2020 Top Three Hidden Steam Gems

In the excitement of putting together our Top 10 Indie Games of 2020, a few strange gems slipped under the radar.

These December 2020 releases will take you into science fiction territory, but beware: there are some things mankind was not meant to know, and the…entities…you will encounter in these games might not be friendly…

Stars Die

by Eric Juvi

The premise of Stars Die is a little bit H.P. Lovecraft and a lot Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation: plucky scientists researching a bizarre alien landscape that’s suddenly appeared in the middle of the ocean, complete with mutated animals and strange artifacts of unknown origin.

Adding to the mystery, the player character arrives from out of the blue – figuratively and literally – showing up to the island and its accompanying research station unexpectedly. This provides additional mystery: who in fact are you, and what is your role?

Solo developer Eric Juvi does a decent job answering these questions, and while the dialogue between scientists can tend to be a little on the dry side – and toward the end of the game, a bit too heavy on exposition – it’s nonetheless intriguing, and the ability to focus on specific NPCs gives things a lot of replay value.

The game’s environments are at least as compelling as the game’s dialogue, a pixellated, lo-fi take on science fiction psychedelia, all weird alien plants and fungoid protuberances at odd angles in colors not ordinarily found in earthly biology.

Even without the plot and dialogue, this one would be worth picking up just as a walking simulator for fans of fractal art and psychedelic menace.

Vessels

by Local Space Survey Corps

A conversation-driven take on ‘70s-influenced science fiction horror, Vessels is reminiscent of the creepier episodes of shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who. Its tale of a spaceship crew stalked by an alien intelligence that can possess their minds could even be mistaken for an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

The television similarities, and especially the ‘70s and early ‘80s influences, are even more overt in the game’s presentation, with low-poly but evocative spaceship corridors reminiscent of the original version of Battlestar Galactica. The crew’s common room even has orange carpeting and a CRT television!

The plot, however, is timeless, and the narrative twist – putting the player in the role of the alien intelligence rather than the unaware crew – refreshes a familiar narrative trope to recreate the feelings you got the first time your favorite science fiction show turned into horror.

Solid dialogue and character insights that drive the plot forward without feeling superfluous make this extra engaging, even as goal-oriented adventure game mechanics make it easy to play crew members off against one another and sabotage their mental – and eventually physical – health with surprisingly little guilt.

Compelling and thoughtful.

Human-Like

by Strife AI

Endless runners probably aren’t your go-to genre for oppressive space terror, but Human-Like manages it, thanks to a relentless, murderous robot chasing you through a malfunctioning space station strewn with dead bodies – the result of illegal AI experimentation gone awry.

Technically not an endless runner – it has an actual “win” state achieved by shutting down various terminals – the game serves dual-purpose as a demonstration of developer Strife AI’s work on game AI and machine learning. As the chase continues, the robot learns your approaches to the environment and begins to mirror them, evolving from clumsy Star Wars droid tripping over crates to acrobatic T-1000 killing machine before inevitably catching up to you…with fatal consequences.

Impressive stuff for such a seemingly simple game mechanic, and a little chilling when you’re on the receiving end.

Free Games

December also saw a couple free first-person adventure games worth checking out:

Summerland

by Fyre Games

Fyre Games have already released several narrative-focused adventure games. Summerland, the studio’s latest, uses a series of surreal afterlife trials to revisit key memories in the life of a troubled cop. Without giving too much away, the story is interesting, the sound design is incredibly effective, and the outdoor environments alone make this worth the download (even if some of the indoor scenes come off as a bit sparse).

The Picture in the House

by Dystopia Game Studio

While I have a couple of complaints about The Picture in the House – there’s no save function, and there’s a side-to-side wobble to the movement that I found nauseating – Florentine developers Dystopia Game Studio have done a solid job adapting one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser-known short stories to the first-person adventure game format. Basic adventure tropes like light inventory puzzles and readable books combine with solid sound and lighting design for an interactive version of a story skipped by more casual Lovecraft readers.