SR-16, author of previously reviewed Space Street, reached out to me a little bit ago with an essay they put together analyzing a trend in indie RPGs on Itch. They focus on one of their games that followed it, where it went wrong, and another similar game that did it right (by someone else). While I’m not particularly sure where I stand on the specific issue, I figured I’d at least be open to sharing their thoughts and “getting it out there”. No edits below, simply copy, paste, and share. Agree, disagree, want to discuss? We have a comment section, and a growing discord if you want to get into it.
(All opinions are those of SR-16, and not necessarily the creators of this publication)
The more and more I dive into the infinitely long meal of creativity, OSR modules, graphic design students, and typos that is itch.io’s “physical games,” section, the more and more I feel an insidious pattern creeping through the “new and popular,” section, like a strange mould in that otherwise delicious infinite meal.
Don’t get me wrong, I still do love that metaphorical meal, some of my favourite sessions should be credited to those kind souls who toil away on art, graphic design, writing, game design, and marketing just to put something up for free, or very cheap, on the site. However, the kindest thing to do for an emerging creative community is to offer some constructive, and very subjective, criticism, so as to guide it along what you feel is the best route it can take.
This insidious and emerging pattern is that of the strangely samey solo game. For the record, I have no issue with solo games in concept, but the strangely samey solo game is not just a solo game, it is a solo game which feels almost identical to play in practice as each and every other strangely samey solo games on the site. Such a solo game is normally only a couple pages long, it is always a journaling game, and is mechanically barren save for a simple instruction manual on when and how to complete diary entries. Most of them also specify a setting, but as they normally lack the mechanical depth to reinforce that setting in the act of play, it would be better to just let me use the game for any setting I like without feeling guilty over removing one of the few nuggets of originality these games feature. The sad result of this as you play, is that you could get a very similar experience simply by playing another solo game that falls into this trend and switching the setting.
These shouldn’t be individual games, they should be modules, expansions, and setting guides for existing solo games, because they already are that in essence, these games add very few original mechanics, only a new setting and diary medium at best. I myself am guilty of this issue, my own game – incoming call – features a solo mode which is in practice very generic, it’s greatest step towards making the experience of play unique to other such games is that the audio logs you create are addressed to specific people, but in a world already graced with RPGs entirely playable through the medium of writing letters in character, this is hardly an original innovation.
This isn’t to say there aren’t also very innovative solo games, in games which innovate with a proper ruleset of new mechanics, rather than just a setting and a single unique mechanic if you’re lucky, we can find wonderful solo experiences which are very different to play in practice compared to any other solo game.
A great example of this comes from Christopher Bissette’s “the wretched,” which utilises a Jenga tower as a metaphor for your decaying spaceship’s structural integrity, along with a deck of cards used to prompt journal entries, and a two-phase day of tasks and entries. This game in particular, as a great example of a great solo game, shows the flaw in many of those found on itch – it has a properly developed and extensive set of rules that guides the player through the story they create, making it well worth its price-tag. Furthermore, I hope this shows I don’t think solo games have complex GURPS-style rulesets, they merely need to have enough rules to truly feel different to play from one another, and not just like playing the same game in a different world.
I hesitate to name and shame these examples of flawed solo games, many itch developers are working on passion projects and simply don’t deserve uninvited harsh critique, so in conclusion, you can check out incoming call’s solo mode, and compare it to the wretched. It’s truly the best way to see the difference, they both take place in very similar settings, but Bissette is the only one out of us that has quite obviously created a game which truly feels different to play from other solo games.
I hope this article has atoned for my lack of originality in tacking on a poorly thought out solo mode to my game, and remember reader – donate what you can to the especially great itch products we’re lucky to have.