March 25, 2019
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gift guide

Gift Guide: Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles

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2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty, and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses, or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system, and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally-generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.

Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated, or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action a la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.

Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialogue is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

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Gift Guide: Ideas for bullet journalers

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

Since digital product designer Ryder Carroll’s list-based method for organizing his life first went viral five years ago, bullet journaling has become a movement of its own, helping people take charge of their time with a notebook and pen.

The system’s flexibility means it can be used for many things: time management, academic note taking, mental health tracking, meal planning, project management, scrapbooking, and more. While Carroll’s own approach is minimalistic — a simple system of lists and symbols — others have turned their bullet journals (or “bujos”) into elaborate works of art, with hand-lettering, embellishments, and illustrated “trackers” for to-do lists and goals.

In his new book, The Bullet Journal Method, Carroll explains that he began developing his “cross between a planner, diary, notebook, to-do list, and sketchbook” that eventually evolved into the bullet journal to cope with attention deficit disorder. Much of bullet journaling’s effectiveness comes from writing tasks out by hand: researchers have found that handwriting activates parts of the brain that typing doesn’t, helps people retain information, and, as Carroll puts it, “allows us to form new connections that can yield unconventional solutions and insights.”

If you know someone who’d be into bullet journaling, the end of the year is a great time to help them get the ball rolling. Veteran bullet journalers, meanwhile, probably won’t mind some new pens or stationery. This list also has suggestions for people who prefer digital journaling, too.

The definitive guide to bullet journaling

Sure, there are already a lot of bullet journaling guides online, including the original tutorial on Carroll’s site, but even seasoned bullet journaling fans can still get a lot out of his new book “The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future.”

It includes the basics, but also motivation for people who are turning to bullet journals to help overcome hardships or achieve major life goals. Carroll is a thoughtful writer and his chapters on how bullet journaling can guide people to live more intentional, meaningful lives is a big step above the standard productivity book. The print edition ($17 on Amazon) is a beautifully produced hardback that makes a great gift.

The best notebooks

Many bullet journalers prefer to use notebooks with dotted grid paper that helps them keep things neat but also gives them more flexibility than lined or graph paper. Notebooks by Scribbles That Matter (shown above, about $23), a new U.K. brand, are gaining popularity among bullet journalers because their 100gsm paper allows them to be used with a wide variety of pens, markers, and even watercolors. Hardcover Moleskine ($12 on Amazon) and Leuchtturm1917 notebooks ($20 on Amazon) are often used for bullet journals because of their durability and paper quality. In fact, Leuchtturm1917 offers a bullet journal edition ($25) with a guide, three page markers, and stickers for labeling entries.

Bullet journals include “collections,” or individual sections dedicated to specific projects or goals. Since collections can become lengthy, some bullet journalers prefer to use traveler’s notebooks, which are several slim notebook inserts gathered in a flexible cover. The inserts can be swapped in and out, making the journal even more customizable. Japanese stationery company Midori makes the original and best-known version with leather covers (starter kits begin at $58 from Baum-kuchen). For non-leather ones, check out Cadeneta (starting from about $31) on Etsy.

Writing tools

A lot of bullet journalers prefer fountain pens because they perform especially well on the high-quality paper used in notebooks like Moleskines and Leuchtturm1917s. The Lamy Safari (starting from $30 at Goulet Pens, one of the most comprehensive fountain pen stores online) is a popular “starter pen” because of its ergonomic grip and wide variety of colors and finishes, while the Pilot Vanishing Point (starting from $148) has a retractable nib, making it ideal for people who like the feel of a fountain pen, but prefer the convenience of a click pen.

Pre-filled ink cartridges are available for Pilot and Lamy pens (and many other fountain pen brands), but if you really want to get fancy, give your recipient a set of three mini Pilot Iroshizuku ink bottles ($32 for a box of three), known for their unique colors, smooth ink flow, and quick drying times.

If your recipient does a lot of sketching, they will appreciate a set of eight Sakura Pigma Micron pens in different sizes ($14.50). For marathon journalers, gel pens are a good option because the ink, pigment suspended in a water-based gel, glides onto the page and can help alleviate writer’s cramp. The Uni-ball Signo UM-151 is one of the most popular versions and comes in many colors. JetPens currently has a set of 12 new colors for $34.

Highlighters help keep bullet journals organized, but if your recipient isn’t into blinding neon colors, try a set of Zebra Mildliners ($18 for a set of 15). As their name suggests, Mildliners are highlighters that come in subtle colors.


One of the biggest draws of bullet journals is how customizable the system is. If your recipient is a stationery fan, consider giving them a subscription to ZenPop’s Japanese stationery pack, starting from $30 for one month. For artists, Artsnacks is packed with four to five full-sized art supply products each month (subscriptions start from $24 each month for U.S. plans and there are international options available, too).

Photo Supplies

Many people turn their bullet journals into a personal scrapbook or use it for project planning. Fuji Instax is a simple way to add photos and its Mini 70 model (starting from $60 on Amazon) weighs just 10 ounces. For diehard smartphone photographers who still want the look of instant film, the Instax SP-3 photo printer ($150) lets them print photos on Fuji Instax mini film ($44 for a pack of three).

Other options include the HP Sprocket ($100 on, which prints photos onto HP ZINK sticker paper ($10 for a pack of 20 sheets), and the Canon Selphy CP1300, one of the most popular compact photo printers ($168 on Amazon).

Digital Journalers

Pen and paper not your recipient’s thing? Consider gifting GoodNotes ($8 on the App Store), a popular app for digital bullet journalers because it does a great job of replicating the experience of writing on paper (its handwriting search function is also very useful). The app has a marketplace of downloadable bullet journaling spreads and templates created by other users. Digital bullet journals are also a good excuse to gift a stylus: an Apple Pencil for iOS users ($99 on Apple’s site) or Adonit Droid ($25 on Adonit’s site) for Android fans.


Your bullet recipient will probably need a way to keep their notebook, pens, and other supplies together. Vitra’s Toolbox ($70 on Vitra) is a desk caddy that comes in 11 colors and is an attractive and portable alternative to clunky desk organizers. The Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bag ($11.25 on JetPens) fits an A5 size notebook and keeps stationery, coins, and other small things from getting lost in the bottom of their bag. Japanese stationery company Raymay’s Topliner ($16) is like a lightweight, grownup version of the pencil cases kids use in elementary school.

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Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

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Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots ten times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.

Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen, or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.

SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or ten of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hardcase for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin another brand is fine.

Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on, and so on lens sets but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out what model phone your friend is using.

Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said everyone is into these Peak design ones as well.

Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If on the other hand you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.

Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.

Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10 second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.

Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera in.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.

Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.

Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix. $30-$40 will go a long way.

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