but this place is just right.
Since I was a child, my mother has said that when she retires she will get around to playing Pokémon Puzzle, a video game for the Nintendo 64 that came out in the year 2000. I have never understood why. At first, that was because I was a kid, and I didn’t understand that leisure time is finite. But I still don’t understand my mother’s wish, now for the opposite reason: How can anybody have just one thing that they really want to get around to but won’t manage to until they’re retired
Nowadays I have a loose coalition of lists, things that I swear I’ll read or watch or play someday, collected on sticky notes and Trello lists and in promises to friends. And the biggest of these lists is the “to play” collection I’ve curated on the indie video game service itch.io.
Itch.io is like a video game storefront — it’s a website that hosts and sells computer games, which is a kind of clinical way of putting it. Created in 2013, it now hosts more than 200,000 video games of all kinds, as well as game-adjacent ideas like single-player and pen-and-paper RPGs (which you can purchase and print), original soundtracks, and interactive EPs, and tarot decks. Many of them are free, based on a “pay what you want” model with no minimum cost, or very cheap.
Scrolling itch.io isn’t the same as browsing other video game stores like Steam or Epic, whose business relies on selling games made by big, brand-name developers. The indie games within are typically endeavours, small and personal and filled with creative new ideas. To put it bluntly, they’re just more interesting.
Which is why, as of this writing, my itch.io wish list of games that I hope to play has 185 items in it. This collection includes the “poetic” videogame Mooncharmer, the bounty hunter saga blue drifter, and the delightful-looking Frog Detective 2. By the time of publication this list will surely be bigger, because though these games are much less time-consuming than a 60 hour slog produced by a giant corporation, I have a full-time job and compelling new releases pile up quicker than I could ever play through them.
But actually crossing out items on the list is no longer why I keep it. Collecting and curating these games has become its own hobby. It might have begun with a fantasy of a daydream — one day I will have multiple hours of leisure time per day that I can dedicate to working through this list — but admitting that probably isn’t true doesn’t stop it from being fun. I didn’t invent window-shopping (that would be the Victorians, probably), but I feel I’ve found an internet equivalent of its joys.
While there are a lot of potential windows on the internet, itch.io is the one that keeps my forehead pressed closest to the glass. I might have a mess of a “watch later” list on YouTube and dusty stacks of books I haven’t read, but I don’t often find myself trawling for videos or heeding the (admittedly present) temptation to go into every bookstore I see. I do, however, find myself visiting the itch.io homepage almost every day.
There are some practical factors here. Itch.io isn’t as diluted with things that have no interest to me as YouTube is, plus its algorithm seems to be better at surfacing what I actually want instead of Jordan Peterson videos or chillhop radio stations. And I don’t have to spend money to squirrel away these digital gems, unlike books. (Though I try to make up for the fact that this doesn’t monetarily reward the developers who have made the games or the website itself by tipping when I do actually play something.)
But really, it’s the creativity and variety that matters, and this is where the window shopping metaphor falls apart a bit. Opening itch.io is perhaps more like walking into a community art gallery than a store. Anyone is invited to showcase their work, opening up the floor for a more diverse group of developers, and the proliferation of free games takes away the idea that this is a purely transactional space. You’re welcome to just explore for the sake of exploring.
Yes, I would have more time to actually experience these things if I spent less on gathering them up in great armfuls. But the more time I spend on itch.io, the more I realize that’s not the point. I do want to play these games. But I also want to allow myself the space to retreat into the virtual aisles, take joy in amassing a dragon’s cache, and daydream.