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Friday, December 1, 2023

Unpaid Serenade traps you in a type-a-long karaoke fever dream

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There’s a particular kind of terror that comes from stepping in front of a crowd, delirious with anxiety, tasked with speaking to strangers who believe you’re some kind of expert. Now you can live (and relive) that terror with a short drama from indie collective Sand Gardeners.

Created as part of the Ludum Dare 48 jam, Unpaid Serenade for Future Solution Group [2026 eCon Grief/Heartbreak Singalong Nightmare/Archive] is a short, free game about the pit that grows in the bottom of your stomach ahead of any kind of public performance. You’re at some kind of climate convention, listening to the host run their spiel on innovation and radical change, but all you can think of is the dread of having to take the stand yourself.

Faces become indistinct, the world blurs. You worry about how much you’ve had to drink, or how badly you need to use the bathroom. I used to force myself into giving public performances a lot, and it’s unnerving how much the anxiety of throwing yourself before strangers is captured in this shifting, dreamlike conference hall.

Then your name is called. You get up, and Unpaid Serenade becomes one of the most tragically comedic karaoke scenes ever put on screen.

Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World begins to play, and you sing along by typing the words as they appear on screen. Mess ’em up, and the vocals (your vocals) become shaky, cracking, misplacing the words in a drunken stupor. It’s a playable echo of Disco Elysium‘s barroom karaoke scene, pouring your heart into a terrible performance that the audience can only grin and bear.

There’s a quiet undercurrent of climate anxiety running through Unpaid Serenade, too—and once your public spectacle is over, you’re greeted by a quiet, rustling field. Unpaid Serenade is free to download on Itch.io. Just don’t worry too much about flubbing your lines.

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