A long, long time ago, I was on an adventure to secure myself a job as a narrative designer for games. I worked really hard at this, sacrificing relationships, sleep, and maybe a little sanity. This is a theme, of course, of being creative, of putting yourself out there, of being a writer. You do it over and over and over again, trying new ways or the same old ways, to achieve the dream. The dream is still out there. We’re getting there.
When it became clear that going the traditional route to a job in gaming wasn’t going to work (“We love your writing,” they’d say, “but we can’t hire someone with no experience”), the advice of someone close to me at the time in the industry was: make your own stuff. At the time, and for many more years, I worked a 60+ hour a week job with the federal government. It was barely feasible, it felt, for me to get some words written in whatever book I was working on at the time. But to make my own game? Wild.
I tried, though. I tried a lot. I played with the Valve Source Engine and Bethesda’s GECK. I built a whole Mass Effect DLC with Inform that certainly didn’t get me hired by BioWare. I tried to figure out how to build the kind of game I wanted to play with the tools and resources I had. I ran out of time or steam. The ideas I had were too big for my skills. And honestly, I was a little heartbroken.
It’s okay when things don’t work. It’s okay when you have to go back to that proverbial drawing board and try again and again. It’s okay to believe that things will work out, that if you keep working hard and having faith, things will happen. They will, eventually. In the meantime, make stuff you like.
So a thing I made, all those years ago, is a short interactive fiction game called REDO. I built it using Twine in a few days. I sent it to that very friend who recommended I make my own stuff, and he liked it and gave me some pointers. It’s a very simple concept, a little science fiction-y. It was written by the writer I was a decade ago. I’d love it if you gave it a click through– if you get lost, just click on a highlighted word. There’s no wrong way to play. It was intended to be for a portfolio, and I’m sure it’s been used in a few job applications, but it’s mostly been sitting around, waiting for me to discover it again. So here we are, discovering it again. I hope you enjoy.
Spiritfarer (2020), by Thunder Lotus Games, is a management sim about death. And grief, and saying goodbye. And harvesting carrots and forging ingots and weaving fabric and catching comets and fishing and other things too, but it’s mostly about death. It’s about the process of moving on and what people need to be able to move on.
You play as Stella, who, along with your cat Daffodil, are chosen by Charon to guide spirits to the Everdoor, the final goodbye. To do so, you will have to steer them around on an increasingly large barge, farm and gather supplies, build them homes, satisfy fetch quests, and take care of them in their final hours. It’s relentlessly charming, filled with beautiful music, sparkly comets and lightning, effervescent minigames, and eccentric side characters.
It’s also absolutely heartbreaking.
When I first played Spiritfarer, it was the summer of 2021. My life had changed in unimaginable ways, and the last place where I thought I’d find myself was playing a game specifically about grief. Also featuring heavily at that time in my Xbox round-up: Resident Evil Revelations 1-2, Resident Evil 6. Silliness. Brainless zombie killing. Spiritfarer nevertheless became part of my daily structure, something critical to me in 2020 and 2021. It came to occupy the same spot in my day as Animal Crossing and Cozy Grove, though both of those are time-gated and a little less heavy hitting.
I replayed this game for this piece these past few weeks, and I suspected/hoped that somehow my own relationship with grief had shifted, become less sharp. I’d hoped that the edges of the way these ephemeral characters impact you would be eroded by time. I hoped that when a character asked me to take them to the Everdoor because they were sick, or tired, or spent, or simply ready, that I would have a different reaction to it.
I hoped that I wouldn’t feel as heartbroken when they tell me it’s time to go.
As you play as Stella, you encounter spirits on a variety of islands, which you can sail your increasingly large barge to. Some of these spirits need your help, and in seeking that help, they agree to board your ship. Onboard, they will have a variety of requirements, mostly starting with building them a home, upgrading that home, and then pursuing some quests that feed into their backstories and lead them on the path to moving on. All of the characters are in cute animal forms; there’s the old woman hedgehog named Alice, the art collector owl named Gustav, the elegant lynx named Astrid. You will need to feed them and talk to them and occasionally give them hugs when they let you. They will be your companions, many of them offering up minigames that let you farm resources like lightning in a bottle or bright jellies, all of which you need to complete quests.
At some point, the barge feels very full. You continue upgrading, continue placing more and more buildings on top of one another in an elaborate game of management sim Tetris. There are a lot of mouths to feed. This is progress. This is purpose.
Eventually, however, they’ll start asking you for something different. It will be, eventually, their time to move on. That’s what they’re here for, after all. It’s why they got on your ship in the first place. They know you’re the Spiritfarer. There are no illusions about this.
At that point, they’re done. It’s time to move on.
I get to a place where everyone on my ship is ready to go to the Everdoor. It’s me, I’m the one who isn’t ready. They’re in pain, but my pain feels greater, more immediate. I have this huge ship now— what do I do if no one’s on it?
My only choice is to simply never bring them to the Everdoor. Then they can hang out forever, can’t they? They never get to cross over, but I’m never left alone on my ship with no one to weave silk for, no one to make corndogs for, no one to forge ingots for. There are no more requests coming, because they’re all done, ready to move on.
I’m not ready.
I GET TO A place where everyone on my ship is ready to go to the Everdoor. It’s me, I’m the one who isn’t ready. They’re in pain, but my pain feels greater, more immediate. I have this huge ship now— what do I do if no one’s on it?
If I talk to them again, they just reiterate their desire to get to the Everdoor. They explain to me how tired they are, how worn out. So I never talk to them again. We walk around together on the ship like strangers or people angry with each other. Sometimes I feed them. My list of objectives is just, BRING GUSTAV TO THE EVERDOOR, BRING BEVERLY TO THE EVERDOOR, BRING ELENA TO THE EVERDOOR.
This hit me sideways, hard, the first time I played the game. A character named Alice is losing some of her memory and a lot of her mobility. Some of her final requests involve just escorting her to the bow of the ship so that she can enjoy the fresh air. All she wants from me, in the end, is to bring her to the Everdoor.
The first time I played the game, I kept Alice around too long. Some of the characters I could take or leave. Some of them were obnoxious by design. Some are demanding and over the top, and some have theme music that worms into your ears, and not in a good ways. Alice is gentle and sweet, and she encourages me to change up my look from time to time. I didn’t want her to leave.
The game has a forcing function, which is that characters who’ve passed on leave behind Spirit Flowers, another necessary component for upgrading your ship and opening additional access to the map. At some point, you will need Alice’s Spirit Flower. It’s mercenary, I convinced myself. For progression!
But it weighs on me, the heaviness of Alice. She’s not heavy, of course. No, she’s frail and old and simply ready. It dawned on me at some point how selfish it was to keep this fictional character onboard this fictional boat– prolonging her suffering, for what? So that I wouldn’t be left alone here? It’s my job to be left alone. I’m the Spiritfarer.
I do, eventually. I bring everyone to the Everdoor. That’s what the game tells you to do. And, over time, it’s what I want to do.
It’s just me here. Until it’s my time to move on, too.
All of this isn’t really the story of Spiritfarer. Stella has her own story, which you uncover as the game progresses. I’ll let you experience that for yourself. Spiritfarer isn’t about my grief, or yours, or anyone else’s. Fundamentally it’s about Stella and the people around her and how she came to this place. The story the game lets you experience outside of that core narrative runs parallel but separate.
I absolutely adore Spiritfarer. It’s gorgeous, filled with glitter and magic and strange characters. The music is stunning (highly recommend using it for writing sessions or sleep). The management sim side of it never gets overwhelming or tedious. You can play it for hours or minutes at a go. It hits that same dopamine place in your brain every other good game in its genre does. It might even have been my game of the year in which I played it, 2021.
But what has always gotten me most about Spiritfarer is the way in which your personal experience with death and grief may shape your game play. I think many good games are impacted by what the player brings to it (see: Journey), and this is up there with my favorite of those. For me, it was about learning to let other people move on, to listen to them when they communicate about it, to hear their wishes and respect them.
In the end, it’s me, Daffodil, and a spirit named Buck. Buck is a basilisk who loves DnD-style games and will stay with you to the end. He won’t ask that you stay on the boat just for him. He’ll let you go, whenever it’s your time.
Well, here we are again. It’s been more than two years since I last published anything here, on January 1st, 2021. It was ten days after my dad unexpectedly died of a heart attack, and I went to a place I knew: writing.
It was my intention to do a lot more of it, but grief’s hooks are long and mangled and funny.
When I first started this blog, back in the mean old days of the summer of 2020, it was always more than a pandemic project. It was a way for me to give myself permission to do something I’d asked permission for for years: to write about video games. I’d tried in many ways to do it professionally, both as a narrative designer and as a games journalist, but consistently ran into the brick walls that are hiring managers and experience. It was time, I decided, to give myself permission. The goal back then, as it still is, was to share my love for games with people who also love games.
But then things happened, as they tend to. I always think it’s valuable to honor the past without wallowing in it (see: do as I say, not as I do), and so in that respect, today is about moving forward– forward into restarting, forward into refocusing.
So what does that actually mean? Here’s the deal: this blog, from today on, will encompass all of the nerd-type things I’m passionate about. Video games, always, but also cosplay, fandom, writing, creativity, and anything else I think is worth sharing. Some general areas of new content:
Video games. Gaming remains and I think always will be a huge part of my life, and I like talking about video games. Previews of upcoming content:
Going back to the Island: Revisiting my ACNH Island After a Year Plus Away
Fallout 3: A Retrospective on the Game That Made me a Gamer
The LA Noire Tour of Los Angeles
Cosplay: Though I don’t talk about it on here, a lot of my free time is spent cosplaying: making cosplay, wearing cosplay, or volunteering in cosplay. It’s a massive part of my life, and I also get to do a lot of very cool things because of it. I plan to talk about it a lot more here.
A Cosplayer’s Survival Guide to DTLA’s Fashion District
Build Posts: Works-in-Progress and other things. I post some of this on my instagram, but because of character limits, I’ll be able to do much more in depth pieces here.
Causeplay: What It Is, and Why It’s Important
Writing/Creativity/Etc.: Look for short stories and other pieces about the writer’s life. I also some fun surprises in this category, so stay tuned.
Everything Else: Who knows? But if it falls under writing, gaming, or nerddom, it may show up here.
Twitch And Other Stuff
So, the Twitch stream. One thing I started doing last September (on my birthday!) was streaming on Twitch several days a week. I had a great time, except when I didn’t, and I made Affiliate by the end of the year. The thing that cannot be overstated about Twitch is that it is work. It’s a lot of work. You get out of it what you put into it, and I found at the end of 2022 that I couldn’t put as much into it as I wanted, largely because of the demands of my day job.
Those demands have not lessened, but there’s a balance to everything. So I’m announcing now that I will be returning to streaming 1 (and sometimes 2) days a week. This isn’t 100% final, but I’m thinking Sunday nights from 7-whenever. Sundays are easily the hardest day of the week for me as the existential dread about corporate life settles in, and I know I’m not alone, so let’s hang out together and play games through it.
Games coming up (in no order):
Resident Evil Revelations 2
The plan is also to stick generally with one game until it’s finished. I went back and forth during my first go at Twitch, and it was as confusing for me as it was for you. Come for a game, stay for the whole thing this time.
Related to that, I plan to put my streams on my woefully underserved youtube channel, for those who can’t make the streams or just generally can’t be bothered to deal with Twitch.
This is a lot. I’m making a commitment to a lot here. But in doing so, I’m making a commitment to me and my future as a writer and a creator. It’s time to put my money where my mouth is and truly be the writer, gamer, and nerd I tell everyone I am.
Have an amazing day and be good to each other, and I’ll see you around here very soon.
This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
When I first started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, my world was a different place. My biggest stressors were the Very Bad Time I was having while playing Cyberpunk 2077 on my Xbox One and whether or not Walmart would fulfill my Xbox Series X order this time. This post was going to be about how I expected Cyberpunk 2077 (“Game of the year already!” I foolishly exclaimed to my boss, while explaining why I needed to take time off to play it) to be my game of the year, but that, when it came right down to it, The Last of Us Part II (Part II) really is my game of the year.
And then my world changed.
Let’s back up. Like a lot of people, I’d been anticipating Part II for quite some time. I didn’t know if I wanted to play a game about hate and revenge, where NPC dog owners had names and The Last of Us heroine Ellie looked like she was having a very bad time. I didn’t know if I wanted to play it, but I knew that I would. Going into the game, I knew enough about the framework of the leaks to know two critical spoilers: new character Abby is the daughter of a doctor killed by Joel in the first game in his pursuit of saving Ellie, and Joel dies at the hands of Abby in revenge. Because of this, I could brace for the early impact of Joel’s grisly death.
And boy, did I hate the game. I hated it so much that I forced my way through it over a long and painful weekend, referring to this push as “hate playing”. I took brief breaks for the bathroom and food, and I pushed past my reservations and anger at what felt like emotional exploitation. None of my observations will be novel here: many others have discussed in detail Ellie’s murder of a dog you’re later forced to play catch with as Abby, or Ellie’s murder of a pregnant woman you, as Abby, are later reminded over and over again is pregnant.
The game hinges on these oppressive moments of parallel darkness. It felt like a slow dismantling of a character I loved in service of another, whom I grew to appreciate in her own way. The back half of the game, in which you play Abby, feels richer, fuller. Its set pieces are grander, its oppressive tension is higher, and its characters are simply better (the ways in which Part II did Tommy wrong is a whole other blog post).
By the time end game came, I barreled past the final sections as Ellie, hardly bothering with enemies on my way to the next in-game checkpoint, just ready to Be Done. By the time Ellie began to attack Abby on the beach, I was as exhausted as both women were— of the game itself and of Ellie’s constant baffling decisions.
In an earlier game moment, I set my controller down to try to prevent Ellie from torturing the now-helpless Norah. The scene requires a button prompt, a physical action taken by the player on behalf of Ellie. I left the room for half an hour. I came back and had to torture Nora to progress.
So too does the endgame force you to attack Abby, to repeatedly fight her in order to end the game. Ellie gained nothing and lost everything. She seemed to have learned even less.
When I finished the game, I found my emotions about it so conflicting that, in a pandemic year with no social support, I immediately watched two full YouTube playthroughs (Jacksepticeye and TheRadBrad) of the game in their entirety. I needed to process my emotions about what had just happened— and to hear other people do the same. When people asked me my opinion, I vented: it’s gorgeous, I’d say, and the controls are crunchy, and the sound design is perfect, and the combat feels great (except for one very painful fight sequence). There’s a beautiful sound when you pick up enough of any type of supply to craft something. The music is perfect. The scene where you’re walking above Seattle as Abby fights her fear of heights? Wonderful.
But it’s terrible. And it made me feel bad, complicit in actions I’d never want to take. These aren’t roleplaying games, by the strict video game definition of the term, but they are roleplaying games in the sense that you are inhabiting this role. You are playing their story.
And it wasn’t a story I wanted to be part of.
An interlude: I played Deadly Premonition 2 immediately after finishing Part II. It’s a nightmare of dropped frame rates and glitches that outdo Cyberpunk 2077’s on such a laughable scale. I wrote notes to myself like, “To play DP2 is to constantly ask yourself, ‘Is this the stupidest thing the game is going to make me do?’ while simultaneously knowing it’s not.” It was my palette cleanser after Part II. It did not do a very good job.
My dad died on 21 December, 2020. It was unexpected and immediate.
He likely felt no pain. He never got COVID-19, and he didn’t suffer in the hospital. I didn’t have a strained relationship with him. He didn’t kill a bunch of people to save me (that I know of) and doom the world. He was the best father a girl could ask for, and he was here one day and then gone of the next. There were no goodbyes, but there was also nothing left unspoken between us. He always knew how much I loved him, and I always knew how much he loved me. He was both my dad and one of my best friends in the world.
I’m not like Ellie. I’m not like Abby. While we may be living through our own version of a zombie apocalypse, my father wasn’t ripped away from me by an enemy with a face. I have no one to blame, no antagonist to pursue halfway across the country. There’s no revenge. There’s only an impossible yawning sense of sadness. And anger. And all of the other stages people have come up with– and a few thousand more.
One of the most affecting scenes in Part II is a flashback. A young Ellie, quippy and sassy and as-yet unaffected by the events of the first game, and Joel explore a museum, overgrown with the detritus the apocalypse hath wrought. Joel and Ellie climb into a space shuttle’s reentry vehicle, and Joel presents her with a cassette for her birthday. On it is a recording of the voicetrack to a shuttle launch. Ellie basks in the beauty of her fantasy about it. Joel, next to her, looks on in adoration. It feels like a near-final moment before the truth of The Last of Us creates a seemingly unfixable rift between them.
Joel’s killing of Abby’s father to protect Ellie, and Abby’s revenge-murder of Joel, Ellie’s adoptive father, have a profound impact on both women. They are who they are partly because of these father figures– and there are who they are now, without them.
I played a lot that I enjoyed this year, some new and some not. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has helped keep me company during this strange time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has kept my brain occupied when I need it. Paradise Killer is weird and perfect. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is beautiful and enchanting. I even played the original Final Fantasy 7 for the first time in 2020. And there will always be Deadly Premonition 2.
But when I think about things that impacted me this year, the stories that crawled into the gaping chest wound that a protracted year of mental health challenges has caused, it’s Part II that will stay with me.
I didn’t enjoy playing it. In fact, I hated most of it– but Part II is going to stay with me for a very long time, for better or worse.
There are no spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 or any other games in this post.
A few days ago, a video game asked me to evaluate some nipples. My character’s, specifically. After a not insignificant portion of time moving toggles back and forth between different nose types or trying to choose the perfect dead eyes, here I was, being asked to choose which set of nipples I wanted. This is Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator, and it’s been causing quite the stir. The nipples made me think, as one does, about the humble character creator, the quiet workhorse of any good RPG design. Whatever your intention as you go into a game’s character creator, if you’ve spent any time at all customizing a character, you’re in it. You’re invested now.
My first personal experience with character creators came in the form of Neverwinter Nights (2002), developed by BioWare and Obsidian. I was raised on a heavy diet of point-and-click adventure Mac games with clearly defined protagonists like Guybrush Threepwood or April from The Longest Journey. These weren’t roleplaying games, and the story I was playing through was theirs, not mine. Like every good DnD-style game, you chose your race, character class, attributes and abilities, and then some basic character customization. Back in 2002, this was novel to me, and I spent hours choosing which head and tattoo color to put on my batch of polygons.
Character creators have come a really long way in the last 20 years. You can create alien and mythical races, specify ear size, and choose the inner and outer rings of a character’s iris. Saint’s Row IV even lets you be Nolan North. And a character creator is about so much more than simply choosing an aesthetic.
A good character creator helps you build your ideal avatar, whatever that may look like, so that you can send them out into the game world, to experience it, to impact it and be impacted by it.
There are some games where you spend a lot of time seeing your character. BioWare games, for one, feature your character so heavily that I’ve occasionally spent 20 minutes customizing my character, only to redo it all when I actually see her in gameplay. Nobody can stand 60 hours of a game looking at a nightmare. (I once created a character in Dragon Age: Inquisition with the “lip gloss” feature turned all the way up. It took so long to create her that I stuck with it, but on a sunny day, she’d blind everyone with her lips. I had a constant lens flare.)
This level of investment in a character’s face, a character who, for better or worse, comes to represent you throughout a game’s run time, can backfire. Take, for instance, 2012’s Mass Effect 3, the third in a trilogy of space opera games that began in 2005. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you take the form of Commander Shepard, a badass space soldier you’ll be seeing a lot of through Mass Effect’s cumulative 100-hour game time. Mass Effect 2, and subsequently Mass Effect 3, let you import your character and their major choices from game to game. But there was a problem with ME3: if you imported your ME1 character to ME2, there was an issue with the face codes, meaning that your ME3 Shepard wasn’t going to look like your ME2 or ME1 Shep.
As someone who had played through both the first two games in order to have my canonically perfect run to import into ME3, imagine my dismay when my dream Shepard didn’t– and couldn’t– look like the one I’d just devoted 60 hours to. It was an immersion-breaking issue that led to creative problem solving.
At least default FemShep is a badass. She took me all the way through ME3, and I loved her, but I couldn’t avoid the feeling that she wasn’t the same Shepard I’d taken on all of those adventures that had come before.
When Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, it also had a problem. It had many, but one in particular seemed to rattle the cages of even the most dedicated Mass Effect player (of which I consider myself one): the character creator. BioWare, who not too long before Andromeda had released a pretty great creator along with Dragon Age: Inquisition, took a few steps backwards. The biggest complaint? You couldn’t deviate much from a handful of preset faces, making true customization impossible. It bothered people so much that BioWare dropped a patch a couple of months after the game released, which significantly changed the creator and included an on-ship facial reconstruction station in case you really couldn’t stand your Ryder build.
But I’m the person who took four days off from work to play Mass Effect 3, and an unattractive character wasn’t going to prevent me from my space romances and pre-order pink tracksuit. A lot of us had already finished the game by the time this patch rolled out, and no, I wasn’t going to go back to Andromeda until the memory of it had long faded and I thought I might be up for it again. So I made Sara, featured above, of indeterminate ethnic background, a mop of shockingly (and clearly fake) blonde hair, and roots for days. And we were in it together, for all of that game, for better or for worse.
I stared at those roots a lot. Sara, I thought. If there’s a space bar on the Nexus, surely there’s a hair salon?
I haven’t seen much of V in Cyberpunk 2077. In spite of the extensive character creator, she’s hardly there, buried behind a first-person view. I know she’s there. I’m conscious, even, that she has a face, the way it feels once you learn Lisa is programmed to always be behind you in PT. Sometimes I’ll stop and make her look in a mirror, just so I can remember what I did to her face. Her eyes are soulless, and her pink and blue ombré hair in delicate finger curls felt right for a Corpo but less so for what (who?) she’s becoming. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of her when I am forced to go third person to try to drive a vehicle rather than sprinting through Night City. Whenever I access my inventory, I can see her there, too. When I change her clothes, I even get to see the nipples I chose. I don’t know why I got to choose them.
But I did. And this V, whatever she’s worth, whoever she is, is mine.
What’s your favorite character creator, or your favorite character you’ve ever made? Or just say hi!
So here’s the real talk: I started this blog over a month ago, after weeks of work on things like a brand, theme, and logo. I was excited for this opportunity I’d created for myself to write about one of my favorite things in the world: video games. I made a commitment to myself that I would post meaningful content at least once a week, I’d get to know other bloggers, I’d read what other people were writing about games, and I would be an active part of this blogging community. I wrote a list of at least a dozen topics for upcoming blog posts. I played all of Deadly Premonition 2 and loved it, keeping handwritten notes on a journal next to me (a sample: “To play DP2 is to say to oneself, ‘I hope this is the most annoying thing the game makes me do’ … while knowing it won’t be.”) I made plans to write a video game-themed short story. I had stuff I was going to do.
And then, and then, and then.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) came out on the Nintendo Switch on March 20, 2020. If you have managed to avoid the internet so far in 2020, ACNH is the latest social/life simulation game in the Animal Crossing series developed and published by Nintendo. You take on the role of a human who travels to a deserted island to set up a life for yourself, accompanied by tanuki pit boss Tom Nook and his two sons, Timmy and Tommy. You establish buildings, populate a museum with artifacts and animals, go fishing, dive for sea creatures, terraform, decorate, make friends, lose friends, all within real time.
Nothing about this sounded appealing to me. My favorite games are things like Portal, BioShock, Mass Effect, Witcher. I like to shoot at things, resolve conflicts, cure genophages (spoiler alert?), and encounter time paradoxes. I like to mow down Nazis and see narrative resolution. I usually find crafting too fiddly, grinding too fussy, and if I don’t get to see a rewarding cut scene after selecting my romance partner of choice, I get a little pouty. I need achievement and awards in video games.
As the United States went into stages of lockdown (my personal lockdown beginning in early March, thanks to a proactive employer), so too did my understanding of routine and rhythm. As Ashly Burch tweeted all the way back in May, “doing half the work takes three times the effort.” My understanding of what it was to be personally productive went out the window, and I struggled to even wake up at what felt like a “normal” time for me.
In those early days, it felt like maybe this pandemic would be over by summer. It was okay to not be normal. It was okay not to adjust to new routines.
Some time in early April, I succumbed to the hype— seeing so many beautifully decorated homes and adorable animal friends on other people’s social media accounts– and downloaded ACNH for my Switch. I had never played an Animal Crossing game, my last Nintendo system being the original Gameboy, and I had no idea what to expect. None of my friends were playing it, so I had no other islands to visit, nothing to do but grind away on my little island, in hopes of iron to complete an early-stage task. And boy did it take me forever to grind enough iron.
Like with Journey, Animal Crossing is what you make of it, but in an entirely different way. It requires nothing of you. There are rewards in the form of Nook Miles, which enable you to buy goods or travel to other deserted islands, and they’re for things like talking to several of your villager friends, fishing, or catching some bugs. Your island and home can look however you want, from Hogwarts to a trash heap. Because the game is played in real time, each day you log in, you emerge from your house, ready to tackle the day. After establishing some key buildings, a lovely dog named Isabelle tells the morning news, which is frequently none, and you set about whatever tasks you’ve established for yourself that day.
Whatever tasks you’ve established for yourself.There’s no narrative, no canon. There’s no fail state. If you don’t farm your fossils every day, you simply don’t farm your fossils every day. Buildings don’t fall into disrepair, and friendships can be mended if you ignore someone for a while (once you get over some passive aggressiveness). The ability to “time travel” by changing the time on your Switch also means that you can cavort across dimensions in search of friends or goods. I frequently did this, feeling too antsy to wait for sharks in July. I sailed into the future like the Doctor, vowing not to talk to any of my villagers in case they would detect I was from the past. “Just here for the fish,” I told myself.
The latest entry in the genre is Ooblets, which is currently in beta on Xbox One and PC. Ooblets, developed by a two-person team under the name Glumberland, takes the adorableness of the life simulator and pumps it to 11. It’s a combination of Harvest Moon and Pokémon, part farming sim and part adorable creature dance battle. Like ACNH, you establish an avatar and set sail for a distant land, finding one instead that is very inhabited by strange dancing people with twee names for everything (instead of hot dogs, they’re hop dobs) and little dancing creatures called oobs. You collect your oob followers by challenging them to dance battles, playing dance moves from character-specific decks of cards. Each conquered oob will give you a seed, which you then plant and nourish, birthing a new little oob to dance to its hearts content. Everything is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and every task is fundamentally some kind of gather or friendship mission, or a combination of the two. You can get coffee in the coffee shop, hang out in various clubhouses that you unlock, get a haircut, buy new clothes, and decorate your house.
There is nothing difficult or stressful about Ooblets (though the beta hints that there’s something sinister beneath the surface). It’s just about these small, achievable goals. And dance battles.
Over the weekend, as though I didn’t have enough commitments to existing animals and patches of land, I picked up Stardew Valley. Stardew, like Animal Crossing, never interested me. Planting crops and caring for them? Milking cows and feeding chickens? Yikes. Hours of grinding in order to build chicken coops? Mining for hours for stone? Why would I do this, I always thought, when I could be romancing aliens, stealth-killing clickers, or raiding ancient tombs?
I don’t know how many hours I’ve already sunk into Stardew Valley and my little farm. I have come to a place in 2020 where I find it rewarding to wake up at 6am in-game, head out to look at my crops, swing around my barn and coop and say hello to my cows and chickens and goats, and then set about my day. I go down to the beach every morning to gaze at Elliott with his beautiful hair and hope to hear a tidbit about how his writing is going. I check in on Shane in the bar to see how his mental health is. I chase after Sebastian with a frozen tear, and I grow flowers in order to pass them out to everyone in town when they’ve bloomed. There’s a lot more to Stardew— hidden secrets, combat, wizards, skull keys, and strangers issuing quests. But for me, every in-game day, my pink-hair avatar named Veronica wakes up on her farm called Neptune, and I set a goal for her.
Today is mining, or today is foraging.
Today is building a big barn, or today is cooking a lot of food.
Today is friendship day, or today is restoring part of the community center.
When thatgamecompany’s Journey came out on PS3 in 2012, it was immediately heralded as one of the best games of the year, lauded for its beautiful graphics, stunning music, and moving gameplay. It has a staggering Metacritic score of 92 and was nominated for all of (and won most of) the awards the following awards season: five BAFTA wins, a Grammy nomination for Austin Wintory’s score, and six wins at the Game Developers Choice Awards, including Best Audio, Best Game Design, Best Visual Arts, Best Downloadable Game, the Innovation Award, and Game of the Year.
If you have never played Journey, and I strongly recommend that you do, you begin as a nameless creature on a beautiful sand dune. In the distance is a towering mountain– your only objective in the game. The core mechanics involve jumping and float/flying thanks to a magical scarf that grows longer as you collect shiny baubles in the environment. The game is entirely linear and completely without dialogue. If you have network access enabled, you can run into other players in the environment who look identical to you, save whatever the progression of their scarf is. You interact with each other through chirps, and you can go through the game together or completely alone.
Then came late May 2013. I had been interviewing for a dream job with a now-closed game studio, even going so far as to bail on a burgeoning romance to prioritize my writing tests. “Well, anything for a dream job, right?” was the last text he sent me. It felt like mine to lose— in spite of my lack of experience— and a friend took me out for congratulatory drinks the Friday after my final Skype interview. Sounds like you nailed it, he told me over sazeracs.
The next week, I had a business trip to LA for a job that was slowly but very surely draining me of my creative spark. Landing at LAX, I turned my phone back on. I had two emails in succession: the first, from the lead writer for the game company with the title, “Following up.” Excited, I read that one first, not even letting my eyes scroll beneath it. “I’m so sorry that they sent you a form rejection,” the email said. “I didn’t want them to do that.” Beneath it was the form rejection. My coworker emerged from the plane to find me sobbing at LAX. I kept sobbing. At the luggage carousel, he joked, “Can you stop? People are going to think I just broke up with you.”
I spent a week in LA and flew home, defeated and trying to move on. On June 14th, The Last of Us came out. My specific memories around playing TLOU that first time are distant now, but I remember its impossible and unyielding darkness, how hard it was to slog through emotionally. It was a game I knew I would finish, its narrative pulling me along, but there were days where it was too hard to wade into Joel and Ellie’s world. All the while, Journey’s icon beckoned to me from my PS3 home screen.
It was a Saturday morning in June of 2013 when I started Journey again for my third or fourth time. I remember it clearly: firing it up around 10am and finishing it, somewhere around 1230, tears streaming down my cheeks.
And what I brought to Journey was the story I had been missing back in 2012. I brought my own story. This is not to suggest that Journey doesn’t have its own story— but overlaid with my own, this became a profound experience.
Then came 2020: a pandemic, a social crisis in the United States, and endless isolation. Connection has become rare, itself a game turned to maximum difficulty. I struggle, like so many of us do, with this sense of new normal and how to define it, how to find meaning inside of it.
In July 2020, after months of not seeing another human being beyond Zoom parties and Webex meetings, I played Journey again, with my network access enabled, this time on PS4. When I originally played Journey all the way through that first time, the game was about my personal journey, and I turned off my internet in order to have it be mine and mine alone. It was about what felt like tremendous adversity and obstacles, and the hope that those obstacles could be overcome– by me, and by me alone.
This time was different. I had forgotten about the online play element when I started this playthrough, but I also didn’t think about it. This game is 8 years old, and there’s so much content now, endless Crossings of the Animals and Nites of the Fort. What were even the odds that I would run into someone else?
I ran into a few of them along the way. One in particular chattered away happily (I imagine) at me, maybe grateful like I was to see another person, even in this game world. We were companions through the descent into the depths, hiding from monsters together. We were in this adventure as a pair.
And then we got separated. I surfed down sparkling sand, away from a monster, and barreled into a wall of light– but my partner was gone. I turned back to look for them, even making my way back to see if they were just taking a break. I’d take a break with them, I decided.
I couldn’t find them. I set my controller down and made lunch. I came back, hoping they would have returned and be waiting for me, but I was completely alone. So I carried on without them, until I ran into them again— only it wasn’t them. This time the avatar’s scarf was much shorter. This was a totally different person.
We went on a little ways together until they dropped behind, backtracking. I waited for them, chirping a little, until it was time for me to move on. I hope they found someone else in the sands of Journey. I finished my game alone but no less elated— and comforted by— these tiny moments of human connection the game gave me.
So in the sense that sometimes games are about who we are, and not about what they are, what I brought this time was my need to find other people, to have companionship, to have a partner. Journey was no less affecting or beautiful in July 2020 than it was in June 2013, and in many ways its themes about connection and adversity resonate more than ever. I have to believe that we’re going to be okay. We’ve just got to keep going on a journey.