3 games for $3: Pet the Pup at the Party, Kids, Helionaut

Crew Bittner/Staff
Developers: (left to right) "Pet the Pup at the Party," Will Herring; "Kids," Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach; "Helionaut," Sokpop Collective

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Pet the Pup at the Party

Don’t let the cute aesthetics or the basic goal of petting dogs fool you: Pet the Pup at the Party is an introvert’s horror game. The music is upbeat and perky, the characters are cartoonish and myriad, yet every person and every room looks the same. The house feels infinitely large. Partygoers are constantly staring at the player while they run around in a frenzy from door to door, trying to find a moment of solace in the pets of the party.

The dogs of Pet the Pup at the Party are like service animals. They are brief respites from the anxiety and claustrophobia of a party in which the conversation is grunting and jumping. An impossible geometry dominates the house, where windows stare into walls, and the player is forced to listen to the music if they want to hear the barks of the game’s titular pups.

The fear of the game is one of the on-screen timer reaching zero. Another failure, another dog left unfound. As a result, the game is a frenzied search of that impossible house, as the player desperately weaves between people to find a terrier eating out of a bowl in the kitchen.

And yet, nobody forced the player to play the game, in the same sense that people don’t normally force each other to go to parties. In fact, the player isn’t even forced to find the dogs. But, like many of the actions humans take, the game is still played and the dogs are still petted. Not out of necessity, but out of a larger sense of duty, even if that duty is a nightmare to fulfill.

Kids

A faceless horde stands before an individual. Crowds float in water, singing to each other. Dozens of people fling themselves into a pit that goes deeper than one can imagine. This is the world of Kids, and it is a provocative one.

What makes Kids so compelling is the game’s scenes and their relationships with one another. The player is an external force, rather than a character, and manipulates these figures in a variety of ways: picking them up, moving them around and forcing them to scapegoat one another. Kids is branded as a game about crowds, but it is still inherently controlled by an individual, which is part of the mystery that pushes the vague narrative of the game along. 

Kids presents itself as an interactive animation, but it’s really a simple puzzle game. That simplicity is part of the game’s charm, and the artistic style serves the game’s overall themes. The clapping, running and falling that the characters in the game do are animated in a smooth, subtle way. The blank black-and-white landscape is a canvas upon which the game can come to life, and the soundscape is either barren or teeming with dozens of minute sound effects.

Morbidity runs amok in this world filled with lemmings, but it is not without its share of hope. The way in which one views Kids has the potential to be the way in which one views society as a whole, even if that view is boiled down only to the simplest terms. It can be an inspirational message about people coming together or a dark condemnation of conformity and groupthink. What is impressive about Kids is that it seeks to say so much while having to say very little at all.

Helionaut

The galaxy is vast and empty. Planets, against the sheer size of space, are miniature baubles hanging in the cosmos. In Helionaut, the small scale of the pockets of the universe isn’t a crushing cosmic dread. Rather, it’s the setup for delightful exploration and vibrant, Lilliputian landscapes.

Helionaut is an adorable combination of No Man’s Sky, “The Little Prince” and Super Mario Galaxy. In control of a small, simply illustrated astronaut, the player explores planets to gather materials to explore more planets. On its face, this is a boring proposition, but Helionaut does an excellent job at engagement and relaxation. 

What Helionaut fundamentally understands is the concept of the gameplay loop. It doesn’t force anything onto the player: There are no overbearing mission heads-up displays, and waypoints are suggestions rather than orders. Instead, the game presents players with a vast, cartoonish galaxy: The comical dots and squiggles that paint the sky are each a separate microscopic adventure, another planet or asteroid belt teeming with resources.

While open world exploration games can feel exhausting with the sheer amount of content they offer, the planets in Helionaut are plenty but calming. The game never feels like a chore. The small scale of every planet means that the longest a player will spend on one is five minutes, allowing ample opportunities for breaks and pauses.

The pleasant world of Helionaut is perfectly optimized for a quick break from worldly duties. It is sweet without ever being saccharine, and expansive without having to feel as empty as the cosmos actually is.

All three games are available for purchase on itch.io. 

Crew Bittner covers video games. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.