If you’re the type of person who can be immediately sold on a $20 indie game you’ve never heard of based on a mild recommendation from a random internet blogger, then dammit, I have to try. For your sake.
In mid-December a game called Glittermitten Grove came out on Steam, and, like most games, was ignored by all 125 million Steam users. You can’t really blame them. I mean, watch the trailer for yourself:
With cliché resource gathering, no unique art style, and a voiceover that could’ve been taken straight from a direct-to-DVD Barbie movie commercial, nothing about the game makes it stick out as worth playing at all. That is, until a couple weeks ago, when something happened, and Glittermitten Grove became one of the biggest news stories of the year. People rushed to play this girly game about managing a pixie village in hordes, downloading it immediately upon hearing about it so they could be the first to discover its secrets.
Instead, they discovered something else: that Glittermitten Grove is actually pretty fun.
No, it’s not the most original game in the world, but the way its systems tie together puts a few cool spins on the survival genre. It goes beyond preventing the player from mathematically exploiting the kinds of inbalances you’d expect from a run-of-the-mill resource management sim; by implementing some clever mechanics, it forces the player to use their brain in new ways entirely.
It all starts with the limitation that fairies like to build their homes in physics-obeying treetops. Place a building on a weak branch, and it’ll crash to the ground, meaning the player must construct their homes only in sturdy parts of the tree or wait for it to grow large enough to support them. However, if smaller trees aren’t getting enough sunlight, they’ll fail to bear fruit, meaning less food for your fairies. The player has to balance their tree growth just perfectly to sustain an ecosystem that can produce enough resources to survive while also being capable of growth.
Making the player think about how their actions will shape the environment enhances the feeling of being a fairy who lives in harmony with nature, and adds a nice set of consequences to the imperialistic “EVERY TREE MUST BE HARVESTED” nature of a lot of other survival games on the market. The game being about goofy fairies doesn’t prevent it from instilling those sorts of real emotions in its players, either; the first time I witnessed every single one of my trees immediately go dormant on the first day of winter, striking me with the realization that I had no means of obtaining food for three months, will go down as one of my most memorable gaming moments in a long time. And when my last starving, freezing fairy on the verge of death was rescued on the first day of spring by a group of fairies who had left earlier in the year, the relief I felt was astounding.
But, like… let’s be real. We’re talking about a game whose Steam description mentions “collecting berries for our prickleberry loaves and finding treasure with our special fribblesham fireworks.”
Well, now’s your last chance to quit scrolling and find out for yourself, but if you’ve used the internet at all in the past few weeks, you probably already know.
The game contains a secret door that you can find deep underground, and when you click on it, the real game begins. Frog Fractions 2, referred to in-game as “TXT WORLD,” is an ASCII-art action adventure reminiscent of DROD, ZZT, and The Legend of Zelda, which contains about a dozen “sub-games” with their own inventive concepts. And it’s great. The developer lists games like Fez and Spelunky as inspirations, and TXT WORLD is right up there with them. Its core mechanics are taken to their furthest extremes, with every tile and action in the game used in ways you’d never intuitively think of. While I hesitate to call the game a “sequel” to Frog Fractions 1 in anything other than name due to its distinct lack of bug porn, it’s absolutely worth playing for anyone who loves games that stretch their brains.
Even after clearing all of the game’s challenges, though, there’s still one thought that I can’t get out of my head, and it’s something I’ve seen echoed a lot:
“That fairy survival sim was actually pretty good, and I never would have played it if it didn’t have anything to do with Frog Fractions 2.”
And this bugs me because Glittermitten Grove definitely isn’t the only game on Steam that I’m sure I’d love if I even knew it existed. When the game first came out, it was buried in the mountain of other new releases. No one cared about it whatsoever. But after we were all forced to play it, we realized that it was actually worth our time—and there’s no telling how many other games this is true for.
There isn’t even a bad guy to point fingers at. A million people have written a million articles about how the indie bubble is bursting, how Steam is more crowded than ever, and how game devaluation is ruining our industry, but the fact of the matter is that there are just a ton of really creative people out there nowadays. One of the first projects I ever uploaded to itch.io in early 2014 was the 1717th game page created on the site; I uploaded one in late 2016, and it was the 107,111th.
It’s physically impossible for someone to play every single game on the entire internet that they might enjoy, and it’s not financially feasible to take gambles on random fairy games you see in the New Releases section either. That doesn’t, however, mean that platform holders (and, to a lesser extent, game critics) couldn’t be doing a better job recommending games to their consumers. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a new song on our Spotify Discover Weekly playlist and falling in love with it. Steam should be doing the same thing—and, to be fair, they’re trying.
This issue goes beyond indie games, and even the games industry as a whole. With as huge as the internet is, it’s just not possible right now to see all of it that you’ll find interesting. Even with all the recent talk of fake news, censorship, and curated social media, I find myself wishing I could press a button that would show me exactly what I care about and throw out all the rest—and the first marketplace to come up with an algorithm that does that is going to make a lot of money. As the developer of Frog Fractions 2 himself said just a few days before the game came out:
Imagine having a button that could bring you the next Ocarina of Time the second you pressed it.
That’s what I want.