From Heaven's Vault: the main character and her robot companion walking along the rim of a structure covered in large Ancient writing. In the background is a large statue.

Delightful Games to Play (Part 1)

Video games are a pretty huge part of my life. I endeavor to make them. I stream them, both for my monthly Future Proof Plays streams and some on my own. Gregory and I have a standing Saturday morning date to play something before the world begins its demands on our time. I also play quite a lot on my own, although admittedly more in depth than in breadth.

I’m often eager to fall in love with a game, especially a game that might land the two objectives I talk about in my Paradise Killer post. As a result, this list of kinda-sorta-okay-definitely-favorites is:

  1. Unsorted,
  2. Pretty biased towards recently-played games,
  3. Has no games I “appreciate”, but don’t actively enjoy playing, and
  4. Sometimes explicitly about the game design, but often about my own emotional reactions

Hot Blog Summer is all about hitting the damn publish button, so this is being split into (at least…) two parts so that each can stay a little meaty.

I’m going to try not to be spoilery here, but leave a comment if I fuck up.

Paradise Killer

The Paradise Killer logo: tall square brackets containing the words "Paradise Killer", with palm trees in the A's. In the background is a heart in pink and blue vaporwave-y colors.
This logo makes me smile. Image by Kaizen Game Works via their press kit.

I’ve said a lot about the themes of Paradise Killer this week, but didn’t touch much on the experience of playing.

My first playthrough of PK was in the wee hours of the night on my Switch Lite while sprawled in bed in the fall of 2020. I was wracked with anxiety about COVID, police brutality, my health, and my family. Animal Crossing had been an escape for me earlier in the year, but by the fall, I was ready to escape my terribly broken real society by stepping into a terribly broken virtual society. The decline and death of the Paradise islands are far more clearly defined than the uncertain, unending hell happening in meatspace, and that was a relief of sorts.

With my exhaustion, the surreal aspects of the game landed hard and burrowed in. There’s a dreamlike quality to my memories of my first playthrough.

I played the first 10+ hours using the ergonomically-awful Switch Lite itself, but eventually shelled out for a Pro Controller once I started having twitchy hands from tendonitis. I finished the game very awkwardly in a thumb-isolating wrist brace.

Oops.

My second playthrough is happening in Steam with a keyboard and mouse, like Goddess intended. 😅

The soundtrack is still in heavy rotation; a curated subset of the album lives in a City Pop playlist alongside Brian David Gilbert and Louie Zong’s “Breezy Slide” and some mid- to late-90s Everything But the Girl. My favorite song is undoubtedly “Leaving”, embedded here in the side bar.

Kaizen Works created something here that is very cohesive, and it holds together even in the light of day (and better anxiety management!). The weird-but-tidy clue management, the enthusiastic popups on every pickup, the voice-acted barks, the fact that the plants absolutely, definitely grow while you play

Still good. Still great.

Warframe

The Warframe logo, which is white text on a dark blue background. The lotus icon/logo above the title is multicolored in a neon way.
On Fortuna, you build status by trading debt-bonds with workers who have sold parts of their bodies to try to get ahead of their and their ancestors’ debts. This game gives a shit about workers. Image by Digital Extremes via their fansite kit.

Warframe has a weird reputation. I hear the game of telephone that has happened around this game. Games critic Dominic Tarason wrote a very good piece over at PC Gamer, “How a clever plot twist completely reshapes Warframe’s story” (big spoilers there), that mentions when and how character creation happens in the game. Trying to stay spoiler-free here, it’s later than you expect and very much a surprise.

Warframe is not the kind of game that gets talked about by the Waypoints, Giant Bombs, Nextlanders, and (wow) Jeff Gerstmanns of the world, but when they do, “character creation is later than you think” becomes “the game doesn’t get started until XX hours in” and then “the game doesn’t get good until XX hours in”.

It’s a little frustrating to hear, and quite untrue. I’ve played this game in bursts for a few years now across a couple different social circles, for about 800 hours. If I just want to throw some equipment on a powerful magic robot and play, I can do it. If I want to make the numbers get bigger with synergies and shit, I can do that, too. I generally prefer to play it with friends and fam, but sometimes I dip a toe in alone with a podcast or hockey game, especially for quests.

Digital Extremes has made a game about workers’ rights, capitalism, broken childhoods, and family that has held my interest for 800+ hours and is completely free to play. That is wild.

All of this said, I don’t have is a particularly strong emotional reaction to the content of Warframe outside of Fortuna, despite liking many things about it. The writing, themes, worldbuilding, and gameplay are great, but because the vast majority of hours in the game are running generic missions, it rarely hits me in the feels.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

A screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons. My character is sitting of a swinging bench, wearing a black cap, sunglasses, a Vegas Golden Knights jersey, and black and yellow shoes.
You best believe I did a hunt to get this Golden Knights jersey pattern.

I adore this game, even though I don’t play it often anymore. The only thing I have to say here that you don’t already know about ACNH is that no, Tom Nook does not have to issue loans and be a lender, even from a game design perspective. He is not some revolutionary hero for not charging interest, and the designers did not have to simulate that particular aspect of capitalism. One alternative, also not perfect: they could require you to just save up, like Stardew Valley does. Stop crowing over table scraps from (fictional) lenders and landlords.

Anyway, in my backlog is a Behind the Bastards-style one-off podcast episode about the crimes of Tom Nook across the entire Animal Crossing franchise (that I can get my hands or eyeballs on).

Unavowed

The art in this game is so gorgeous. Image by Wadjet Eye Games via their press kit.

Before Unavowed, I would not have considered myself much of a fan of classic “hunt for the pixel” adventure games. Swiping my mouse around in search grid in every area to find what I can interact with is tedious and rarely worth the story being told.

Unavowed reopened my mind to the genre. First, the story here is complex, has some unexpected twists and reveals, and is willing to dive into some dark-ass topics (content warnings include mind control and suicide) with empathy and a fair degree of player agency.

My stream of the first couple hours of Unavowed. Love this shit.

I think it’s apparent in my Twitch stream, but this game was a bit of a wild ride. I have a tendency to go into streams knowing very little about the game I’m going to play. That doesn’t always work out great (What Remains of Edith Finch remains one of my least pleasant gaming experiences), but in this case, it made for fun speculation and joy in the twists. I played a ton more of the game before I even got the stream archive uploaded.

Also—and I am being completely earnest—I was tickled pink at the animation every time someone in the game collapsed… and it happened a lot in this game. Based on the trailer for Wadjet Eye’s upcoming Old Skies, I’ll get to have that joy again.

Unavowed doesn’t perfect the UX for the genre, but it makes big strides. One annoyance is that some, but not all, interactables highlight when you press a key. Big yay for some! But why not all?

Wadjet Eye has developed a reputation for writing these kinds of games; I’d previously streamed The Shiva and have tried out Technobabylon. Unavowed feels like a more expertly made game all around, even if I suspect their game engine is a little long in the tooth.

Heaven’s Vault

The art consists of the main character examining text on a wall, with her robot companion in the middle ground, and large statues in the background. The "Heaven's Vault" title text is in both English and Ancient.
Aliya has a ‘tude that not even an experienced gamer can completely control. Image by Inkle Studios via their press kit.

I like language. I like linguistics and simulations of linguistics. I like exploring history. As we’ve established, I love exploring a broken society. Heaven’s Vault has all that in spades.

HV is by Inkle Studios, and is striking from the get-go with both its visual style and the questions it immediately sets up:

  • Okay, there are robots and this one gets called “it”. Are they seen as people?
  • …Is this going to be a game about whether robots are people?
  • Is this university all there is to this particular… sky island? How big are these?
  • Wow, why is my relationship with my foster mom so strained?
  • Wait, they don’t believe in history? WTF?
  • I don’t care about the missing homeboy, but he must have uncovered something big, so how do I get that?

HV has a New Game+ mode where you retain what you’ve learned of the language between plays, and each go-round introduces new and more complex vocabulary and sentences. It’s absolutely the best way to get at more detail: try different conversational paths on each play and enjoy the more complex answers.

I’m now well into my third playthrough of the game (about 80 hours).

(Well, sorta my fourth, but my first one went real sideways.)

This is a game I pull up when I want to really focus on something. It’s not a difficult game for me, but the conversational cues are time-limited, and I’m generally keeping tabs on threads I want to pull in upcoming scenes, plus threads that will need to wait until my next playthrough. I have some overarching theories about the world of the game (and have run across a spoiler or two), so all this exploration is framed by my interest in testing those.

There are two things I don’t like about this game, and the first is kinda a doozy.

First, the conversation system can drive you into a hole that wrecks a meticulous playthrough. Sometimes—but not always—what your character says is different in both content and tone than you expect, including being real fucking mean. I’m comfortable with a game that is always going to paraphrase, even if I don’t like the implementation. Mixing and matching just makes shit stressful, especially since you might have to pick quickly.

Adding another layer onto this, there’s a low-key but absolutely crucial part of the conversation system where your available options are to “Question” or “Remark”, generally—but not always—about the situation you’re in:

See that little Question/Remark indicator at the bottom? Those are also time-limited, and can reveal really good stuff. Image by Inkle Studios via their press kit.

The tone of these can go so sideways. I wiped the playthrough from my stream of the game when everything I said to my robot companion had an increasingly demeaning tone, culminating in a moment where my only available action was morally repugnant. And there’s no way to recover from that! There’s no choice to start being nice if that relationship has soured.

When I asked on Steam why it gotta be like this, one person replied that “Remember sometimes silence is the ‘best’ answer (in this case, not making the statement).” But if you want to pry for all the clues possible, then you don’t know when it’s when it’s time to STFU until the invisible relationship meter is already headed in that direction. You definitely get a better feel for it in later playthroughs, and I do think the designers are doing A Thing with this tip-toeing.

The second thing will seem big, but really isn’t: I don’t think they stick the landing on the grand reveal of the language that ties the whole game together. 😂

I know, I know. But honestly, this is a game that is only about the destination the first time you play it. After that, all of your attention is on filling out the details during the main stretch of play.

The Longing

The title image from "The Longing", including the name and the main character.
This beautiful entity is made of soot. Image by Studio Suefz via their press kit.

When I think of this game, I feel the heaviness of extreme loneliness tangled with the anticipation of exploration in my belly. I hear the drone of the music, the steady slap and crunch of bare feet on gravely cave dirt. I feel the pride of making my room feel like a home with crystals I painstakingly acquired. I feel the tension inherent in the later-game choices.

I feel the disappointment of missing my own birthday and wanting desperately to go back in time and do it right.

I made my nook a home, dammit. You can read all year in that chair.

The Longing is a game that hit me in my very real feels as someone who struggles with the costs of relationships and who recently spent a very long year without the physical presence of two of the most important people in the world to me. I lived in a home that didn’t feel like a home, with only the company of two companions who I was forced to imagine could understand my words and feelings without judging me too harshly for them.

I tear up just thinking about this game. I definitely cried during my three playthroughs of it. It’s not mechanically complex, it’s not full of deep conversation to decipher, and it’s not a game about “solving” anything. It’s just about deciding how you’re going to spend your time in this moment, and in service of what (or whom).

Part Two

Y’all, there’s more. There’s a game I’ve played 4+ days a week for the last 9 months that didn’t make this initial list! Oof. Part two is coming soon.

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