There has been a trend in indie games in the past decade or so to make heartwarming games that have heartfelt narratives. In general, I approve of this trend because why not have more emotions instead of just stab, stab, stabbing everyone? It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that it’s indie devs who are cutting this pathway and not the triple A devs. Anyway, one of the first games I played that fit into this category was Gone Home by Fullbright. It was a mystery puzzle game that had the protagonist going home and finding everyone gone. You find out by picking items up and reading descriptions, then piecing together the story. It turns out that your younger sister is gay, and the story is quite heartbreaking.
Or at least it should be. I was eager to play the game because it had received universally high praise across the board. People were giddy about the representation and the story so I was eager to dive in. I was…underwhelmed to say the least. First, I have to say that my computer at the time couldn’t handle the game and would shut down after an hour or two of me playing it. The game wouldn’t save, so I’d have to start over again. And again. No matter what I did before my computer shut down, it wouldn’t save. I fully admit that probably biased me towards not enjoying the game.
However, I must also note that while I was playing it, I had the feeling of ‘is this it?’ in the back of my mind the whole time. Not that the story wasn’t compelling. Not that I wasn’t happy to have representation in games. It’s just that I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d read similar stories in YA literature. I realize it’s a different medium and it hadn’t been done before in video games, but it still fell flat to me. I was glad it existed, but it really didn’t do much for me.
A parallel of that is a game I recently called If Found by Dreamfeel. It’s about a trans teen (late teens) in rural Ireland and the travails of her daily life. It’s a short game and can be finished in an hour, and I like the mechanic of erasing things. The story is sad and familiar, but at the same time, it just….I don’t know. It felt slightly hollow for me. But I’m not a trans teen who’s feeling isolated by her gender so I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on that aspect. It’s also a game I’m glad exists, and I hope there are trans teens who play it and feel seen.
I think the thing is that I didn’t struggle with these issues as a teen (gender and sexual identity) because I had other traumas to deal with at the time. I didn’t even realize I was attracted to women until I was in college, and I didn’t do anything about it until after I graduated. As for gender, well, that’s something I’m dealing with at the moment, but it’s not something I would have even thought to question when I was a teen. I’m not saying I have to experience something to feel some way about it, but in this case, while I appreciate what both games were trying to do, I can’t ‘get’ it on a granular and personal level. Which is fine. I don’t need to get everything that way. It’s just that as a multiple minority, it’s difficult to get that at all in video games. The closest I’ve felt is the next game I’m going to mention.
Night in the Woods by Infinite Fall. I haven’t talked about this in a hot minute, but it’s my favorite game outside of the Souls series. There was a controversy surrounding one of the devs of the game, and I have my own deeply conflicted feelings about that. Putting that controversy aside, however, I fully embrace the game and I’ll tell you why. First, however, I will admit that after I finished it the first time, I liked it, but didn’t love it. Then I saw a video by Errant Signal in which he talked about the themes of the game. He made several valid points, but I was more struck by the footage he used to accompany the video. There was so much stuff I hadn’t seen in the game! And, what’s this? You can walk on the telephone wires???? Madness!
With that knowledge in mind, I went back and played the game again. Then I went back and played it a third time. It opened up in so many ways that I hadn’t expected, and it became so much deeper and richer with each consecutive playthrough. By the third playthrough, I was openly sobbing in parts, and my heart just broke again and again for Mae (the main character). Let’s face it. I was already predisposed to like her since she was a black cat who was fluent in sarcasm. Through my three playthroughs, I discovered that she had several mental health issues including a psychotic break and that she was bisexual. The last was really subtle and could be easily missed, but I was so happy they put it in. She was depressed and dropped out of college, only to return home to be depressed and aimless at home. I could relate to that. All of that. I felt so much affinity for Mae, it was eerie.
The other four games I wanted to talk about were Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games (of course), Last Day of June by Ovosonico, Firewatch by Campo Santo, and Life is Strange by DontNod Entertainment. I adored the first one, did not gel with the second, liked the third a lot, and disliked the last. I’m not going to go into details of each because this is running long as usual. What I will do instead is why I think each game either did or didn’t work for me in the global sense.
The one big difference was humor. All the games I liked had humor to cut through the earnestness of the game. Night in the Woods had a dark and pierce-the-heart kind of humor which is my kind of humor. Spiritfarer had whimsical humor such as the predatory lender being a raccoon or tanuki (that joke was even made in the game. “That raccoon or tanuki or whatever”) named Theodore. Firewatch was also dark and sarcastic. The other games didn’t have as much humor, and they came across as either Lifetime movies or in the case of If Found, a ‘It Gets Better’ PSA video. Again, I want to stress that I am glad all these games exist. This post is about what works for me personally and what doesn’t.
In addition, both Firewatch and NitW were gritty and realistic to me. The swearing. The bleakness. The ugliness of the characters. Meaning they had flaws that were very relatable. This is harder to pin down because If Found also had some of those qualities, but it didn’t connect with me on the same level. I could identify with Kasio (lead character) on some levels. The disconnect with the world at large. The ennui. The hopelessness. Even the naivete of hoping it’ll all just work out in the end. But she was too pure of spirit for me to feel entirely comfortable with. I could see her flaws, but she was written in a way that made her almost like a dreamy angel floating through life. I am not an angel. At all. On the other hand, I over-identified with Mae, and I could completely identify with Henry (Firewatch) as someone who was broken by life and was just getting by in the best curmudgeonly way possible. Even if it was self-destructive. Perhaps especially because it was self-destructive.
Then again, I did not relate to Stella at all in Spiritfarer (I’m Gwen, the deer), but I thoroughly enjoyed playing as her. I think in this case, it was because it was clearly a fable/allegory and not meant to be real life. In addition, Gwen is the first soul you meet whom you’ll be ferrying to the EverDoor, and I connected with her right away. Her abusive yet wealthy childhood. Her world-weary attitude that masked the vulnerability she felt inside. Her chain-smoking. I don’t chain-smoke, but I do smoke a few cigarettes a day, and I feel like chain-smoking these days.
In the end, I don’t really know what the thread is between the narrative games I enjoy. They have to be authentic in some way, but I don’t want to feel as if I’m watching an Afterschool Special. I will be drawn towards sarcastic, gruff, sweary women who have had just about enough of the world but who also care deeply for the people they love. One line from Gwen that really hit me hard was when she told Stella (paraphrasing), “I loved you as much as I was able to love anyone.” That rang true to me, and I felt her pain so much.
I just know by now to keep my expectations low when going into a game of this type and hoping I’ll be blown away again. Chances are unlikely, but I would welcome my next NitW or Spiritfarer.