You know you're in for a good time when someone uses Itch.io's custom noun field to change "game" to "dissociated mess."
EPISTLE 3 is an… interpretation of Marc Laidlaw's blog post from last month, which contained a possible synopsis for Valve's now cancelled Half-Life 3. This is blasphemy, but in some ways this game feels better than the actual Half-Life 3 we could have gotten, in a universe where Valve didn't ascend to a higher plane of existence to become a monopolistic rentier. It's brutally funny, for one thing.
The designer, Heather Robertson, admittedly has never finished a Half-Life game. The game of telephone aspect of it makes this funnier because it hits on knowing satire of the thing without demonstrating actual knowledge of the thing. All you need to know is that Half-Life 3's plot had some twists and turns—Dr. Breen's mind was uploaded into a giant grub?—and that Gordon Freeman is a man who shoots things.
Everything in this game is a cuboid jutting out of the ground; you identify things (or characters) by their reaction upon being shot by your gun, which is a cuboid jutting out of your field of view. Just the fact that a random object in the corner of the screen immediately reads as "gun" is itself perfect commentary on the era of video games that Half-Life 2 represents. The cuboid solid primitive, a mainstay of Unity prototypes and jam games, should be retired now. It has found its ultimate purpose in this game.
There's an inherent slapstick to Half-Life 2; Gordon Freeman is this mute Jacques Tati of video games whose only interactions with the world involve hitting things with a crowbar, firing his gun, and solving seesaw-based physics puzzles. EPISTLE 3 brings that silliness out by making sure all your NPC interactions happen to NPCs that you have just shot, because flailing around shooting things is all you can do. "You can only shoot things" is a joke that's been done before, but here it takes on a new dimension because shooting things is also how you identify everything, how you find out what this or that mute white cuboid is meant to represent.
Built as it is on the outline given in Laidlaw's blog post, the game hits plot and aesthetic details that are both revealing and hilarious. Shooting the ground brings up a mention of "that sneering trickster, the G-Man"; he's ever-present here, too. The eerie, megalithic spaces in this game work as a proto-parody of exactly the Viktor Antonov aesthetic we would expect Half-Life 3 to be full of. There's even a brief glimpse of something distinctly Xen-like. It's not a tribute to Half-Life, the series, but it feels like a tribute to Half-life, the slow-burning joke at our expense.
(Full disclosure: Laura Michet, the organizer of the jam, is a personal friend of the writer).