12/16/2022

Ready, Set, Play: 2022’s Best Science Fiction Games

33:27 minutes

a collage of cover art for six video games. from left to right, top to bottom: 'so you've been eaten' which features an illustration of a person in an old timey diving outfit in a cave with creepy plants, 'stray' which features a cgi render of a cat wearing a futuristic backpack with a warmly lit cyberpunk city behind it, 'citizen sleeper' which features an illustration of a cyborg looking at a spaceship and futuristic city bathed in pink light, 'genotype' which features an illustration of an old timey notebook and some papers, 'somerville' which features an illustration of a huge spaceship made up of purple glowing triangles hovering over a man looking up at it, and 'dune imperium' featuring an illustration of a small moon orbiting around a much larger desert planet

There were many exciting science fiction and science gaming titles released this year. Whether you enjoy video games, board games, learning about mendelian genetics, getting immersed in hard tactical sci-fi, or just want to be a cat wandering around a gorgeous cyberpunk city, we have you covered. Joining us to discuss our favorite sci-fi and science-y games this year (and the slightly recent past) are Maddy Myers, Deputy Editor of Games at Polygon and co-host of the gaming podcast Triple Click, and Mandi Hutchinson and Suzanne Sheldon of Salt And Sass Games.


Maddy Myers’ Picks:

Deputy Editor of Games at Polygon, co-host of gaming podcast Triple Click

Citizen Sleeper

Developed by Jump Over The Age

“Set on a futuristic space station populated by both humans and robots, the player’s success in “Citizen Sleeper” depends entirely on a set of in-game dice. You play as a robot on the run from corporate ownership, and even your own mind isn’t quite yours, since a real human’s past memories have been uploaded into your psyche to provide you with a facsimile of a life lived. You start off homeless and scrambling for work, but because you’re on the run, few people want to associate with you; engage in manual labor and hope for probably outcomes from your dice rolls, and eventually, you’ll realize ‘Citizen Sleeper’ isn’t about teeth-gritting survival so much as it is about the people you meet along the way. Most of ‘Citizen Sleeper’ isn’t about the dice rolls at all—it’s long, text-based conversations with the colorful characters who live in the world around you, each with their own hopes and futures.”

Norco

Developed by Geography of Robots

“This point-and-click adventure game, set in a futuristic version of Louisiana, tells the story of a young woman named Kay returning to her hometown in the wake of her mother’s death. Kay soon learns her brother has recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances—and speaking of mysterious circumstances, her mother’s death seems related to a haunted mobile phone app she was using. The app purports to be an on-demand gig economy service, but signing up for it leads the user down an unearthly, addictive rabbit hole. With the help of the family’s pet robot, ‘Norco’s’ heroine solves the mystery of her mom’s death, learns her brother’s whereabouts, and discovers much more than she expected about her family and its out-of-this-world history.”

Somerville

Developed by Jumpship

“This adventure game about the immediate aftermath of an alien invasion on Earth features a lot of walking through areas that have exceedingly bad vibes—but walk you must, because you’re playing as an ordinary man just trying to make his way through a harsh and newly unfamiliar landscape. ‘Somerville’ lacks dialogue, instead relying on its painterly visual style and moody, ominous sound design to propel the player forward, on and on, through the desolation. Telling a story without words is no small feat, and the game’s minimalism does leave a lot of questions unanswered—at least, not explicitly. The resulting experience requires the player to observe every facet of its horrifying environments carefully in order to understand how to move past it all.”


Mandi Hutchinson’s Picks: 

Co-host of board game review channel Salt And Sass Games

cover art for the game 'so you've been eaten,' which features an illustration of a person in an old timey diving outfit in a cave with creepy plantsSo, You’ve Been Eaten

Design by Scott Almes; art by Kwanchai Moriya; published by LudiCreations

“Designer Scott Almes tackles digestive troubles in a unique way in ‘So, You’ve Been Eaten,’ a game for up to two players. One player acts as the Miner who must be eaten in order to literally extract crystals from the belly of the Beast. The other player is the Beast who must develop its immune response by activating bacteria to attack the Miner. ‘So, You’ve Been Eaten’ is a neat game that explores how the body works in a fun and slightly abstracted way.”

1-2 players
30 minutes

a large box for the board game 'my father's work,' which features an illustration of a forboding castle with many spires in a cold, dark, mountainous landscape, with a lightning storm raging aboveMy Father’s Work

Design by T. C. Petty III; art by Anh Le Art, Cold Castle Studios, Eric Hibbeler, Damien Mammoliti, Janos Orban; published by Renegade Game Studios

“’My Father’s Work’” lives on the science edge; it’s a somewhat macabre game in which players assume the role of scientists and compete to perform devious experiments. However, you’ll have to watch your sanity, because if you get too deep into your experiments, you’ll be faced with obstacles to overcome—like the townspeople coming after you. ‘My Father’s Work’ is a highly immersive, app-based storytelling game in which the choices you make will influence the game’s outcome.”

2-4 players
180 minutes

a box for the board game "twilight inscription," featuring a collage fantasy illustration of several characters: an anthropomorphic lioness wearing futuristic battle armor holding a shield, a humanoid inside a militaristic futuristic spacesuit holding a large gun, and a small goblin holding a double sided knife. behind them is a planet in space with a sun behind it. above the planet are intimidating angular long spaceshipsTwilight Inscription

Designed by James Kniffen; art by Anders Finér, Tomasz Jedruszek, Alex Kim, and Stephen Somers; published by Fantasy Flight Games

“‘Twilight Inscription’ is a science fiction-based game in which the Lazax Empire has fallen, and your faction sees an opportunity to reclaim what was once lost. You’ll do this by rolling dice each round, marking up one of your four boards—Navigation, Industry, Expansion, or Warfare—and improving your faction’s position in the game. ‘Twilight Inscription’ is the lighter, pared-down version of ‘Twilight Imperium,’ a heavily thematic and immersive experience that’s well known in the hobby game world.”

1-8 players
90-120 minutes


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Suzanne Sheldon’s Picks:

Co-host of board game review channel Salt And Sass Games

cover art for the board game 'genotype' which features an illustration of an old timey notebook some papers, and peas and peapods scattered around themGenotype: A Mendelian Genetics Game

Design by John Coveyou, Paul Salomon, Ian Zang; art by Tomasz Bogusz, Amelia Sales; published by Genius Games.

“Gregor Mendel is the 19th-century friar credited with the discovery of modern genetics. In “Genotype,” you play as his assistants, competing to collect experimental data on pea plants by trying to control how the plants inherit key traits from their parents: seed shape, flower color, stem color, and plant height. The observable traits of a pea plant (its phenotype) are determined by its genetic makeup (its genotype). The relationship between genotype and phenotype and the nature of genetic inheritance are at the heart of ‘Genotype: A Mendelian Genetics Game.’

Even though there’s a strong scientific foundation to the theme of ‘Genotype,’ you don’t need a PhD to play it. This is a very fun, lightweight game that you can play with your family and maybe learn something along the way.”

1-5 players
45-90 minutes

a large box for the board game 'terraforming mars: the ares expedition.' the illustration on it features two astronauts in spacesuits with their helmets off, overlooking a vista on mars with some rudimentary bases. the landscape is mostly mars' rusty red sand, but the bluff the astronauts are on is more greenTerraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

Design by Sydney Engelstein, Jacob Fryxelius, Nick Little (I); art by William Bricker, Sydney Engelstein, Jacob Fryxelius, Garrett Kaida, Nick Little (I), Nio Mendoza, Justine Nortjé, Naomi Robinson, Andrei Stef; published by Fryx Games

“‘Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition’ is an engine-building game in which players control interplanetary corporations with the goal of making Mars habitable (and profitable). You will do this by investing mega credits into project cards that will contribute to the terraforming process. In order to win, you accumulate a high terraform rating and as many victory points as you can. Players raise their terraform rating by increasing global parameters: oceans, oxygen, and temperature. The game ends when there is enough oxygen to breath, large enough oceans to allow Earth-like weather, and temperature that is well above freezing. It will then be possible, if not comfortable, to live on the surface of Mars!”

1-4 players
45-60 minutes

cover art of the board game 'dune imperium' which features a large desert planet at the center with two moons in orbit in front of itDune: Imperium

Design by Paul Dennen; art by Clay Brooks and Nate Storm; published by Dire Wolf Games

“‘Dune: Imperium’ is a game that finds inspiration in elements and characters from the Dune legacy, both the seminal literary series from Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson, along with the new film. As a leader of one of the Great Houses of the Landsraad, raise your banner and marshal your forces and spies. War is coming, and at the center of the conflict is Arrakis, the desert planet. ‘Dune: Imperium’ uses deck-building to add a hidden-information angle to traditional worker placement. Defeat your rivals in combat, shrewdly navigate the political factions, and acquire precious cards. The Spice must flow to lead your House to victory!”

1-4 players
60-120 minutes


D Peterschmidt’s Picks:

Producer, Science Friday

Stray

Developed by BlueTwelve Studio

“In ‘Stray,’ you play as a cat trying to reunite with your cat buddies, who you’re separated from early in the game. To do so, you have to traverse through a decaying and gorgeously detailed cyberpunk world, and solve environmental puzzles (in a very cat-like way, of course) to proceed to the next part of the city. Need to get through a skylight? Just knock over a can of paint above it to break the window. Along the way, you’ll meet anthropomorphic robots and uncover the mystery of what happened to all the humans. And yes, there is a dedicated button for just meowing.” 

Available on: PS4, PS5, PC

Hardspace: Shipbreaker

Developed by Blackbird Interactive

“It’s the early 24th century. The Lynx Corporation controls not only Earth, but the entire solar system. You play as a low-level salvager, taking apart spaceships in Earth orbit, making sure not to cut through the wrong section—lest it depressurizes and kills you in the process. You earn money from dismantling these ships, but never enough to get even close to paying off your $1.2 billion debt to Lynx for signing up for the program. While the indentured servitude themes of the game are heavy, deconstructing the ships in the right order is meditative and satisfying. Plus, you might even find solidarity and collective power with your fellow workers along the way.”

Available on: PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PC

Subnautica

Developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment

“You’ve just crash-landed on an ocean planet. You’re alone, and getting hungry and thirsty. Dangerous and territorial creatures patrol the waters around you. You need to get back home, but all you have is a life raft with scant supplies, and a fabricator that requires local resources to make survival equipment. This is the setup of the excellent open-world/survival/crafting/mystery/thriller game ‘Subnautica.’ How can you learn to not just survive, but thrive on an alien world? Gather local resources, from which you can extract resources like titanium and silicone, and make supplies including batteries, submarines, and even entire undersea bases. If you enjoy oceans, marine biology, and/or submarines, this game is for you.” 

Available on: all platforms


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Segment Guests

Maddy Myers

Maddy Myers is the Deputy Editor for Games at Polygon and co-host of the gaming podcast Triple Click.

Mandi Hutchinson

Mandi Hutchinson is a teacher and co-host of Salt And Sass Games, a board game review channel on Youtube and Twitch.

Suzanne Sheldon

Suzanne Sheldon is a co-host of Salt And Sass Games, a board game review channel on Youtube and Twitch.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Every December, we talk about our favorite science books of the past year. And we thought this year, why not do the same thing with some of our favorite science fiction video games. I know you’re all playing them.

Joining me is producer D Peterschmidt to lead us through this discussion. Hi, D.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Hey, Ira. Yeah, have you been playing any games recently?

IRA FLATOW: I have to admit that I’m playing the games that are like first person shooters, trying to get some skill in that. And I’m shooting Martian blobs with eight arms on them. So that’s as far as my science fiction video game playing goes.

D PETERSCHMIDT: I don’t know. It sounds like you’re pretty deep in it to me. But there were just so many cool sci-fi and science-related games this year that I think our audience would really like. And I got this great panel together of video and board game experts, and we’re just going to talk about our favorites.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. I’ve got my notepad out to take notes on this. So let’s hear what you’ve got.

D PETERSCHMIDT: All right. Today, we’re sharing our favorite sci-fi and science games from 2022, and the slightly recent past, since this is the first time we’ve done one of these. Here to talk video and board games with me are my guests, Maddy Myers, deputy editor of games at Polygon, and co-host of the gaming podcast Triple Click Welcome, Maddy.

MADDY MYERS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

D PETERSCHMIDT: And Mandi Hutchinson and Suzanne Sheldon, who run the Twitch and YouTube channels Salt and Sass Games, where they play and review board games. Nice to have you both.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Hello.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Thanks for having us. Hello.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. And just a reminder that everything we’re talking about will also be on our website, and you can check out the full list of games at sciencefriday.com/bestgames.

So I can start us off.

MADDY MYERS: Please.

D PETERSCHMIDT: My first pick is a game called Stray, which everyone has probably played on this call.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Oh, I just bought it. I got the PlayStation 5. So now Stray is ready for me to go. It looks so cute.

MADDY MYERS: It is. It is.

D PETERSCHMIDT: And the art direction is so good, too. But this is one of my favorite games this year. It happens to have these great sci-fi themes and settings. You basically play as a cat. You get separated from your cat buddies pretty early on in the game. And you have to traverse through this dystopian cyberpunk-y world to get back to them.

It seems like a pretty shallow game on the surface. You’re trying to traverse and solve these environmental puzzles as a cat, which is super fun. But then you get deeper and deeper and you’re like, oh, there’s a whole story going on here. And where did all the humans go?

And you get your own robot companion along the way, who helps you translate this gibberish robot language into English. Which I also love, because it implies that cats understand what we’re saying and just choose not to listen to us.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I haven’t played it, but I’m very much looking forward to. Because all of my friends have said it’s so good. And I just thought, OK, so it’s a cat wandering, and we get to just follow the cat doing cat things. And I’m like, I mean, that’s still cute and I’m here for it. But now that you’ve gone into depth, I’m like, no, no, it sounds like there are actually more interesting things you can do as said cat. And then, apparently with the PlayStation, the whole haptic–

D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: –with the controller is a thing. So very excited.

MADDY MYERS: I would say what makes the game work so well is that you don’t fully control the cat. The reason why that matters so much is because usually in a game where you’re controlling a character, you can make them look really silly and inelegant, and you can have them jump and twirl around and make mistakes. But a cat wouldn’t necessarily do that. A cat always looks very elegant and very poised. And even if a cat is falling or making a mistake, it still manages to pick itself back up.

And Stray really capitalizes on that. There are so many cute ways that the cat behaves in this game I think because you don’t have full control over them. And that also mimics the overall theme of the fact that we mere humans could never possibly deign to understand what goes on in a cat’s mind.

D PETERSCHMIDT: There’s also a dedicated button for meowing that you can just like press over–

MADDY MYERS: Very important.

D PETERSCHMIDT: And you can actually get an achievement for pressing it a lot. And the achievement is titled A Little Chatty.

[LAUGHTER]

Which I got like almost immediately in the game.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I literally was going to ask you if that was a thing, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I’m so glad to hear this.

MADDY MYERS: Yeah. There’s also a specific prompt, if you’re standing on a rug, you can make biscuits–

D PETERSCHMIDT: Oh, my god, that’s very good.

MADDY MYERS: –with your paws.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Huh! I love it.

MADDY MYERS: Very cute.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. So that’s Stray. You can play that on PS4 and PS5 and PC. And I’m going to throw it to you now, Maddy. What’s your first pick?

MADDY MYERS: OK. My first pick is a game called Norco, N-O-R-C-O. And this is a game that I personally played on PC, but it’s on PS4 and 5. It’s also on Mac. And it is a maybe six hours mostly text-based point-and-click adventure game. And it is set in New Orleans, but it is in a future that is an alternate universe version of our own. So it’s very familiar.

But the main character who you play as is sort of a daughter returning to her home after some time away. Their family has a robot who works with the family. But it’s like an extremely rusted, old robot. And the dilapidated town has been taken over by this corporation. And you are solving a mystery over the course of this game. You’re trying to figure out where your brother disappeared to and also what happened to your family overall.

And there ends up being this haunted smartphone app that is causing chaos in the world around you– like a gig economy app, but it’s haunted. Like, there’s magic in this game. There’s creepy, otherworldly beings underneath the waves. And some of them are trying to control you via a smartphone app.

And I just really loved the mixture of the mundanities of a part of the world that has already been in at the mercy of corporations and corporate control and, like, the oil economy and climate change– and, I mean, the list goes on. And to have a game set in that world that is coming up with a magical realist way to comment on how it feels to face that kind of corporate control and still have a robot character, still have otherworldly beings, but then also mix in just the everyday life of being someone who grew up in this part of the world and navigated that, it’s really cool. It’s got an incredibly weird ending.

But I super recommend it. It’s one of those indie games where you’re like, wow, you had a take and you really got out there and said something hyper-specific. And that is one of my favorite kinds of art, period, when somebody really has something to say.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. So that was Norco. And Suzanne, let’s go to you.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Sure. So first up for me I wanted to bring up Genotype. And this one is spot on the nose in terms of how it incorporates science into the wonderful world of boardgames. Genotype is published by a group called Genius Games. And their entire mission as a publisher is to incorporate direct scientific principles and properties into a super fun and engaging and clever board game experience.

This is literally a game in which you play Gregor Mendel’s assistants competing to collect data so that you can control the phenotype and genotype through things like seed shape and stem color and things like that. It’s so on the nose. But all of this is done through card play and using dice and trying to match things up.

So even though there’s just all this really great scientific foundation to the theme of the game, it’s not like you need a PhD to play it. This is actually a very fun, lightweight game that you can play with your family and maybe learn something along the way.

But in general, Genius Games, I could recommend any of their games because they just do such a fabulous job of creating really fun family games around science. And I think they’re fabulous.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yeah, that’s a good one. I’m all about– I was maybe just really nerdy in school. So I’m a teacher. So I can really appreciate education. And science was always one of my favorites. I always loved learning about genotype, your recessive gene, dominant gene. I would spend hours trying to figure out, OK, so if I had a kid and someone had this gene– you know what I mean? And it kind of brought me back.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Punnett squares are the new mash. Yeah, I’m following.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yes, exactly. So this game brought me back to those days. But that’s a good choice, Suzanne. I really enjoyed that one.

SUZANNE SHELDON: You’re such a nerd, Mandi.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I know. I really am actually.

[LAUGHTER]

D PETERSCHMIDT: Well, Mandi, can you tell us how much of a nerd you are with your first pick?

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Oh, yeah. Actually this totally shows how much of a nerd I am with my first pick. So I come from a family of nurses and people who work in the medical field. So I had to go with the game So, You’ve Been Eaten.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Dun-dun-dah!

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I know. You’re like, what does that have to do with science, right? There’s a back story here. So this is published by LudiCreations. And the designer, Scott Almes, had said that he had some challenges with his stomach– so stomach problems. And I’m sure we can all relate. I know I can. And he wanted to create a game about that.

And you’re all thinking, this sounds disgusting. It’s not. It’s something we can relate to. And it’s meant to be like a more, I guess, intimate game. It’s for one to two players. But you could play it as a cooperative. So with a bigger group of people all together. And it plays in a short amount of time.

But in So, You’ve Been Eaten, you have a miner and a beast, and they face off against each other. And the miner gets points by collecting these crystals. And I think the crystals are supposed to signify things in your tummy. We’ll just leave it at that. And the beast earns points by developing immune responses to– by its bacteria, by attacking the miner.

So you’re thinking, wow, that’s– yeah, this is kind of a bit odd for a board game. But the point of it is you are trying to resist all the bad things that are happening in your stomach by collecting some cards. And a lot of these cards allow you to prevent some bad things from happening, and collecting these crystals and keeping them away from that evil miner, or whatever potentially– in my case, it’s milk– that might be aggravating your stomach.

So So, You’ve Been Eaten is an odd kind of theme, but it definitely talks a little bit about the body and how it works, but in kind of a fun way. So I liked it.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Do you get– are you dealt certain cards? Like, in this play-through, you’re allergic to milk or you’re allergic to whatever else and–

MANDI HUTCHINSON: You know, I took it there, but no.

[LAUGHTER]

My brain took it there, but no. The cards are there, but they’re basically crystals. And you’re trying to accumulate a certain type of each crystal in order to push these tracks up. Because if it hits bottom of the crystal tracks, the miner has won. So you do want to try and collect specific types of cards in order to acquire these crystals that are on the board.

But you can be like me and be imaginative and name these crystals like lactose intolerance. There’s nothing wrong with that.

D PETERSCHMIDT: You make your own game.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Exactly. Science is fun, everybody. Make it fun.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. So that’s So, You’ve Been Eaten.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yes.

D PETERSCHMIDT: OK. My next pick is a game called Hardspace: Shipbreaker. That’s Hardspace, colon, Shipbreaker, which is a ridiculous name.

[LAUGHTER]

But this is set some number of centuries into the future. It’s one of those where this huge corporation has taken over Earth and the solar system and the politics and all that stuff. And you’re a low-level space salvagers for them, and you’re taking apart spaceships. You have a laser welder thing. You’re trying to make sure you disassemble them in the right way so that it doesn’t decompressurize on you and you die or whatever. But you have to separate the components of the ship into these different areas, like the furnace and the recycler and all that, to get the max amount of money, basically.

But you start off with you wake up and you’re like– it’s, Welcome to the Lynx Corporation. You are $12 trillion in debt to us. And it’s like indentured servitude. And you’re there to pay off your debt through taking apart these extremely dangerous spaceships.

So like the meat and potatoes of taking apart the ships is really meditative. And there’s this great Americana soundtrack that’s in your helmet as you’re taking these apart. But eventually, some of your coworkers start messaging you. And they’re like, hey, so there used to be these things called workers’ rights hundreds of years ago on Earth. And maybe we should look into that again, and not have to endure this.

They also take a copy of your genetic material. There’s a huge long legal document you have to sign. But the developers actually wrote everything specific to this game. So like you give us full legal ownership of your genetic material. And that’s kind of the death system, how it works. So you die, and then they resurrect you from the DNA copy they have on you. And the computer is like, don’t worry. This is mostly painless– mostly.

But there are certain tech billionaires who are like, we should basically have indentured servitude on Mars, and it puts you directly in the shoes of one of these low-level workers with this really interesting workers’ rights story going on in the background. So yeah, that’s Hardspace: Shipbreaker. That’s on PS5, Xbox, Series S and X, and PC.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I like that. It has a lot of different themes going on in there.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, it’s got a lot going on. But you’re like, I know I’m working for this uber capitalist organization, but it is actually kind of fun taking apart these spaceships. Try not to think about the larger picture here.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Right.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Anyway. Maddy, what have you got next?

MADDY MYERS: OK, my next one is Citizen Sleeper, which is not entirely dissimilar to Hardspace: Shipbreaker actually. It’s available on the Nintendo Switch, PC, and Mac, Windows, and Xbox. And it is set on a space station many, many years in the future. Who the heck knows when?

But instead of playing as a human worker or even an alien worker, you are a robot. But you’ve been given a human consciousness that’s been uploaded. But it’s only been uploaded to you from somebody else’s memories to make you a better worker. And you are owned by a corporation. But the game actually starts with you on the run from that corporation.

You’ve already had a life as a worker. And now you are basically being shipped off as parts. You are trash, but you are trash that is owned by someone else. So you need to escape. And you basically work a series of odd jobs on the space station to which you’ve escaped at the charity of a series of other humans that you meet– like a person who owns a restaurant, a person who owns the scrapyard.

And much later you meet this autonomous collective that is growing mushrooms on the space station. And that ends up unfolding into a series of really poignant stories about what life on a space station like this could look like, people trying to live outside of the capitalist systems under which it was built and find a different future for themselves, including people like your player character, who might not even be considered people legally, but who clearly are, and have feelings and have capabilities.

And I’ll also say this is much more of a hard sci-fi and tactical game. It can be quite difficult. Because you can get into a poverty spiral, for lack of a more positive way to describe it. Like, if you don’t do enough odd jobs, you can end up constantly repaying debts and never winning– if that makes sense.

SUZANNE SHELDON: So it’s like real life.

MADDY MYERS: Yes. Unfortunately, yes.

[LAUGHTER]

This didn’t happen to me, but it happened to a friend of mine who played it so I feel it’s worth mentioning. I managed to stay clear of my debts pretty well and understood how the systems worked. There’s some luck and some skill-based aspects to navigating the way that you pick up odd jobs and so on. But as long as you pay attention, you should be OK. But there is a sense of stress in Citizen Sleeper. And I would say that’s a part of the design and a part of the world that they want to build.

And that’s on top of just the larger themes about whether you are or not a person and what abilities you have as this automaton. You’re capable of hacking in ways that human beings cannot because you can tap directly into other operating systems and speak to them. And I just thought that was really neat to see a game telling that kind of story. And it’s certainly a common theme right now to have these games by independent artists freaking against authority and institutions.

But to have one about a character who would normally be a side character and have them be the hero I thought was fascinating and really wonderful from a sci-fi fan point of view.

D PETERSCHMIDT: It’s also like I think most sci-fi stories that have a robot or AI component, most of them are inherently sympathetic to that characterization. But it seems like there’s just been so many games in the last couple of years where the AI-human aspect of it has been way more in the forefront or just way more as a sympathetic force in these narratives.

MADDY MYERS: Yeah, I love that. Not to say I don’t like GLaDOS in Portal, or whatever. But I do love to see a robot who has some feelings, has some thoughts and their own opinions.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I did hear it had a strong narrative element to it. It’s one I had been eyeing for a little while.

MADDY MYERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It’s a very episodic feeling. I played it all in one whack on a Saturday. It’s like six to eight hours. But not everybody is blessed with no life as I am. So I would say it benefits from you getting to know each of the other people on the space station and seeing what their whole story is individually, and having that be almost an episodic experience of just these little slices of poignant story, where you get to know someone and learn more about the world around you– but also have that sci-fi backdrop, where you are capable of hacking and doing all this other cool robot stuff.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Very cool. I love this.

D PETERSCHMIDT: So that’s Citizen Sleeper. And Suzanne, let’s go to you.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Sure. So next up for me, I wanted to talk about Terraforming Mars, the Ares Expedition. Terraforming Mars is a really popular board game in the tabletop world. But they just came out with a lighter version, called the Ares Expedition. And this is just such a fabulous, mostly card game, in which you are trying to terraform Mars. And you’re monitoring things like the oxygen levels and the temperature and creating greenhouses so that you can grow plants and generating heat and things like that.

And it’s just a really clever game that you have to make interesting difficult choices as you’re trying to figure out what you’re prioritizing, how you’re balancing, oh, well, if I do this, it’ll produce a lot more oxygen, but then our temperature is going to drop. Or if I do this, all of our plants are going to die, but I’ll have a new pet in the territory. That kind of thing. And you’ve got to have pets on Mars.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Absolutely.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Absolutely realistic terraforming story, right? First we have to get oxygen and then we have to get Pomeranians on the planet.

[LAUGHTER]

MANDI HUTCHINSON: OK. No, wait now. It’s Maltese. Let’s be clear, there is a specific card in the game and it has a Maltese on it. So yes, pets are important.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Thank you.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Wait– do the pets have little pet spacesuits on the cards or is it just–

SUZANNE SHELDON: I’m going to send the publisher a note that that needs to be a promo card, for sure.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yes.

SUZANNE SHELDON: So, yeah, Terraforming Mars, the Ares Expedition is just a really great game that lets you immerse yourself into this idea of building a new world and starting from nothing, and figuring out how you do that better than everybody else playing against you.

D PETERSCHMIDT: OK. Mandi, let’s go to you.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Well, I do like to live on the edge a little. And of course, I’m going to live on the science edge to take it in a slightly different direction in science. But this game is called My Father’s Work. And just like it sounds, you are working off of someone’s work. You’re scientists. And you’re taking a page from your father’s journal. And you have this large estate, where you’re trying to perform your devious, wah, experiments.

I say it like that because it has kind of a macabre theme to it. But these experiments are not necessarily on the up and up. But in order for you to complete the experiments you have to traverse the town, you have to be able to gain resources in order to make these experiments. And you’re really limited on time to do these experiments. So you can’t just have it and, oh, you know, I’ll just keep this hanging around for the entire game. It really forces you to try and get them done so you can work on other types of experiments in order to get more points at the end of the game.

You also have to watch your sanity.

[LAUGHTER]

It’s very important. You get too deep in those experiments and, oh, my goodness, the townspeople start coming for you. Or your sanity is not where it should be and you start getting challenges in your way that you have to overcome in order to complete these experiments. And you count up the points on your experiments and other things you’ve acquired throughout the game. And whoever has the most points wins.

And what’s great about this game, it actually has– an app is used with it. So you have a storytelling component through an application that you can use. And the person tells the story, and choices that you pick will affect how the game is played.

D PETERSCHMIDT: What kind of experiments do you have to run?

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Oh, god. So depending on the scenario you pick, sometimes you’re doing experiments on yellow fever and things like that.

MADDY MYERS: Hmm, diseases.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yeah, but you’re making it in a way that’s not good. You’re not necessarily trying to help people.

MADDY MYERS: Ah, you’re making diseases worse.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: You’re making it worse– or potentially something that’s grown from that. I know Suzanne has played this game with me as well. I don’t know if she had that one. I had that one. It was terrible. But yeah, that’s kind of the sentiment. So I know it’s not nice, but it definitely has that–

MADDY MYERS: You really have to get in the role-play zone to play as a mad scientist developing a lethal disease.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Right.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Let’s be honest. Mandi slides into that persona really frighteningly smoothly.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Whoa, whoa, love.

[LAUGHTER]

MADDY MYERS: Oh, my gosh. Meanwhile, I had so much trouble being mean in Untitled Goose. This is not the game for me.

D PETERSCHMIDT: It’s like, how can I nicely honk at you?

MADDY MYERS: Yeah. I was so worried about all the townspeople.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Oh, no, Maddy. So you’re telling me we can’t play together? This is upsetting.

MADDY MYERS: I mean, I will role play as a townsperson who’s coming to check in, OK. I will do that for you.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: I’m OK with this. It gives it some tension.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Are you OK?

MADDY MYERS: I’m just worried about your mental health process.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Right. See, that is important.

[LAUGHTER]

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great, OK, that’s My Father’s Work.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yes.

D PETERSCHMIDT: And my last pick is Subnautica. And I’m kind of cheating a little bit. This came out a few years ago. But I think our audience will really like this. If you love oceans or if you’ve ever loved submarines or anything like that, I think you’re really going to love this game. Again, some centuries into the future. You’re the sole survivor of this huge crash-landed ship. You have a little life raft, where you can make really basic things.

But you have to venture into the ocean. It’s an ocean planet– which I don’t think I mentioned. And you have to gather resources. And then you bring it back to your raft. And then maybe you can make more oxygen from that or you can make batteries. And so you eventually level up your habitat. You’re basically trying to get off the planet.

And this game is kind of amazing to play just in the sense that sometimes a critique of indie games is that they’re trying to do too much and they don’t really do any of it that well. This game somehow nails open world exploration thing, this mystery, there’s also this advanced alien life that’s there and it remains hidden and you have to learn about that. There’s the survival aspects. There’s this crafting thing. It’s got this really intriguing science component.

And it also turns eventually– like, I just ended up spending so much of my time building up my base in this kind of animal crossing. Like, everything just has to be just so. And I was like, oh, my god, I have to get this so I can get an upgraded radar scanner or whatever. But it’s so much fun.

And there’s also so many moments where you’re like about to run out of oxygen, but it’s like, oh, I just got to get this thing. Or you’re trying to stay out of view of this enormous sea monster. And you’re just like, oh, my god, my ship is almost destroyed. I have to get back to the base somehow.

Anyway. Yeah, Maddy, I heard about this through your podcast, Triple Click.

MADDY MYERS: My co-host Kirk Hamilton is a huge fan of it. It sounds a little scary for me, though, like, being underwater that long.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, there’s moments where there’s total darkness. And you hear this terrifying rumble, roar off in the distance. And you’re like, oh, my god, where did that come from?

MANDI HUTCHINSON: It sounds great.

D PETERSCHMIDT: So much fun. Yeah, that’s Subnautica. And I think it’s out on all platforms now, which is great.

MADDY MYERS: Including VR.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Oh, really? Oh, my god.

MADDY MYERS: Which I think is [INAUDIBLE] preferred.

D PETERSCHMIDT: I don’t know if I could do this in VR.

SUZANNE SHELDON: That sounds intense.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Yeah, I don’t think I could do VR.

MADDY MYERS: No way for me, but for the hard core.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. Maddy, let’s go to you.

MADDY MYERS: Sure. So my third pick is called Somerville, which, as a Bostonian, I was shocked and confused that this wasn’t about a series of adorable coffee shops just outside of Cambridge. Instead, it’s a sort of War of the Worlds-esque aftermath from an alien apocalyptic invasion. And my other two games that I’ve mentioned so far have been really text based. Both Norco and Citizen Sleeper are a lot of reading. It’s like curling up with a good book. This game, not so at all.

This is a puzzle platformer, but mostly it’s a walking simulator. Mostly, you just walk and you see a pantomime of the story and you enjoy the vibes. And the other thing I like about this just as a storytelling perspective is that you are just playing as a regular guy, trying to find his family in the midst of this absurd apocalyptic event. And he just wanders through these terrifying vistas and hops up onto things, figures out how to get through things, figures out how to find what he needs to survive.

He’s pretty hardy. He is a video game protagonist and all and can survive more of this alien invasion than I personally think I would be able to. But, nonetheless, I do enjoy an everyman at the center of a sci-fi narrative, just a regular person dealing with something that is so much larger than themselves.

And just above all, looking back on my picks for this show, I’m really thinking about how the pandemic has affected art that’s being made by indie creators. And all of these picks, the anti-capitalist messages, but also just the idea of something much bigger than you, and it being mishandled by either corporations or government institutions around you, and you are just a regular person trying to survive that, is definitely a theme in all three of these games and something that is portrayed really effectively and poignantly and movingly in Somerville, and in the other two games that I chose.

SUZANNE SHELDON: It’s a beautiful just atmospheric looking game.

MADDY MYERS: Yes, it’s gorgeous. Yeah.

D PETERSCHMIDT: I’ll have to check that one out. I haven’t heard of it. Great. So that’s Somerville, which is on Xbox and PC.

And let’s go to Suzanne for your last pick.

SUZANNE SHELDON: All right, my last pick Dune: Imperium. And I figured, D, you cheated a little on the timing. I will too.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah.

SUZANNE SHELDON: It came out a couple of years ago. But they just released what they call an expansion to it literally a month ago. So I’m sliding Dune: Imperium in for this. And as the name implies, this is a game set in the world of Dune, the Frank Herbert epic science fiction classic. And this one is actually based on the films.

And just like in Dune, this is a board game in which you are playing cards to represent the different factions on the desert planet. And whether you are representing the desert dwellers or– and of course, I’m forgetting all of the different character names and all of the different elements to it– no matter what you’re–

MADDY MYERS: Zendaya, Timothee Chalamet. How could you forget these names from the Duniverse?

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Exactly.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Maddy, we have never hung out before, but you totally get me. Like, the fact that you knew that, you understand me. The Harkonnens, things like that, right?

MADDY MYERS: You’re welcome.

SUZANNE SHELDON: So you’re playing these different characters and you’re fighting for control of this planet and you want to be the champion. So whether you’re building up a really strong secret faction in your deck of cards or whether you’re going out into this area on the board to fight it out– but it’s just a very, very good board game in general.

But then you put this Dune setting and, once you get into it, if you’ve watched the movie or read the books, you feel the vibes as you’re trying to come up with synergies and make alliances and make choices about where you’re going to grow your power in the game. All of a sudden you realize, wait a minute– this kind of feels like Dune. I feel like I’m in that world in this weird card and board game, even though I’m looking at Timothee Chalamet on a card.

[LAUGHTER]

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Exactly.

SUZANNE SHELDON: So Dune: Imperium is an excellent, excellent board game just in general. Then you put the wonderful Dune theming over it, and it’s a really fun game to play. And with the new expansion that just came out– I just got that– and it adds so much more to the game and it’s just a great time. So I had to pick Dune: Imperium in there.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Great. Thanks. And Mandi, close us out. What is your last pick?

MANDI HUTCHINSON: See, now I feel like I have to end strong. And it is a game that released very recently, actually. And it’s called Twilight Inscription. And Twilight Inscription is a science fiction-based game. And it’s kind of like an adjacent cousin to the much larger game Twilight Imperium. And in this, you have the Lazax Empire. And in this game it’s been burnt down to ash. It’s been rejected. Their subjects want nothing to do with it.

And now there there’s some conflict and things arising from that. And over the dark years, people are trying to recover their strength to get back to a better place. And now people see an opportunity to reclaim what was lost, to redefine this galactic civilization. So in the game, you have several boards to work off of. And this is a game where you are going to be rolling some dice for results and you’re going to have these special markers that are going to help you mark things on your board to keep track of the different things you’re trying to do.

So there are some conflicts. So you have war, where you can go to war with other players. Now, it’s not super intense. It’s a matter of, hey, I can make this ship based on the role that I just had. And then assessing the results afterward, to see, did I beat you? Did I beat you? And then getting a bonus because of that. Or opening planets. And reaching certain planets will give you more points or other cards that can give you points.

I know I’m missing a couple of boards– there are two more boards here– Suzanne, help me out. There’s the–

SUZANNE SHELDON: Oh, you know, there’s like voting–

MANDI HUTCHINSON: That’s it, the voting.

SUZANNE SHELDON: –and negotiation and resource collection. Ultimately, Twilight Inscription is the most epic, overwhelming science fiction-themed game of Yahtzee you will ever play.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: It 100% is. And I got to tell you, we’ve had fun with it. Suzanne has been very good at it.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Dun-dun-dah!

MANDI HUTCHINSON: But no, really. But this is one in the board game world where everybody has heard of this. And it’s something that people want to immerse themselves in, with this whole galaxy or world that’s been created. So Twilight Inscription, for me, I thought was very enjoyable. And you just want to be part of that world. And this is kind of a lighter way to do it without being so overwhelmed by potentially the original game.

D PETERSCHMIDT: Cool. Great. I think we’re going to have to end it there. But thanks, everyone, for taking the time today and sharing these wonderful games.

SUZANNE SHELDON: Thank you.

MADDY MYERS: Of course.

MANDI HUTCHINSON: Thank you for having us.

D PETERSCHMIDT: That was Maddy Myers, deputy editor of games at Polygon; and Mandi Hutchinson and Suzanne Sheldon of Salt and Sass Games. And you can check out a full list of the games we talked about today at sciencefriday.com/bestgames.

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Meet the Producer

About D Peterschmidt

D Peterschmidt is an audio/digital producer and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts, including Science Diction and Undiscovered. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

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