Horror video games use to break up their chills and thrills with safe rooms, these often pleasant breaks from monster hunting or, more realistically, surviving. Because horror games seem to be focused less on that surviving, safe rooms are not as common. Lone Survivor was a game I played when I first started to use Steam. Made exclusively by developer Jasper Byrne, Lone Survivor focused on a nameless masked man tasked with getting out of his comfy bed and leaving his monster-filled apartment complex. He’ll even die in bed if he’s not motivated enough to escape. Proximity to danger is the kind of horror Lone Survivor revels in, as monsters roam literally outside the apartment front door. Safety inside means the apartment now has to work as a base, not just a safe space. The survivor’s exit from the apartment is right in front of him when he gets up, as it’s the fire exit by his bedroom window, but he needs to progress before it can be unlocked.
Lone Survivor’s gameplay rhythm is reflected in its protagonist’s mutterings, which often boil down to “cool I got this new important item, better go home and sleep”. It’s an active way for the game to remind you to save, but it shows how important he feels about his one pleasant space in his new hellish existence. Similar to how collecting bedding or sticks for the cave in the Lost in the Blue games feel like a massive boon to the standard of living, the man can find stove gas or a can opener that can help him both physically and emotionally comfort himself. I rather enjoyed how one third of the man’s apartment is locked off for the first thirty minutes of the game. It provides something minor to work on, separate from the nebulous act of escaping monsters. The game has a teleport mechanic where all the other apartment mirrors are connected to the one in the main hallway, as teleporting into a safe space sort of feels like returning to a more relaxing state of mind. When Lone Survivor gets really stressful and resources are low, I started missing the protection of apartment 206 just as much as the nameless man.
The nameless man’s pixels are undetailed enough that I thought his mask was just him grinning really big. Like some big creepy smiley face. Scariest thing in the game.
Rakuen is an RPG Maker adventure game created by Laura Shigihara. Shigihara is a singer, songwriter, and soundtrack composer who has contributed music to various games, including Melolune, Plants vs Zombies, To The Moon, and Deltarune. Rakuen is the first game created and developed by Shigihara and was released in 2017.
Rakuen follows the story of a child only known as the “boy”. Stuck in a hospital for certain reasons (and wearing a cool paper samurai helmet), his greatest joy comes from his mother’s regular visits, when she reads him his favorite book, Rakuen. The tale of Rakuen described a mystical fantasy forest under the charge of guardian Morizora, who can grant wishes. One day, the book goes missing, and after slipping away to the guarded-off and worn segments of the hospital, the boy confronts a mysterious old man named Uma, who has been stealing various items from the hospital. Uma reveals that Morizora’s forest is real and demonstrates that a magical door between worlds can allow the boy to travel there. The boy and his mother make their way through Morizora’s cave, where they find the guardian of the forest is sleeping and can only be awaken by activating runes tied to various individuals – the forest dwellers who are alternate versions of various hospital denizens. To awaken runes, the boy must learn about the problems these individuals experienced, help guide them along, and obtain their songs.
Perhaps the most maligned main Tales of game, which happens to be one of my favorites, is Tales of the Abyss. Abyss gets a ton of my praise for being the only Tales of game to have a full bad guy team that act as an evil parallel to the heroes. Similar to my desire for a Mario and Luigi Super Star Saga but with Wario and Waluigi, I feel there is untapped potential in a Tale of the Abyss: Inverse where you play as the badass God-Generals like Dist the Rose, Largo the Black Lion, and that one loli girl no one likes. Speaking of characters no one likes, Tales of the Abyss protagonist Luke fon Fabre serves as the naïve and sheltered player surrogate for the big world around him. This means every time a character gets annoyed that they have to explain an otherwise simple aspect of their world or Luke says something dumb, it goes back onto you, the player. Controlling a protagonist in a video game does not always involve playing a personality-free blank slate, but playing a character with the capacity to piss off other game character doesn’t feel great either.
RPGs with parties, or really any video game with some kind of crew or squad, run the potential risk of having protagonists whose character flaws boil down to “anything I do pisses everyone off”. I call this “dogpiling”. This can be divided up into two different camps: the protagonist is a person with predefined thoughts and interests or is the previous referenced personality-free blank slate that can only exposit player input. Video game protagonists already struggle to have a range of different archetypes, so having an outlined character who does something imperfect should be valuable, as it makes them less cookie-cutter. It can often feel like a punishment.
A great summary of the first four hours of Tales of the Abyss.
Not many logistics group hire a pocky-eating wolf girl and a pie-obsessed angel.
On and off over the years, I’ve made occasional attempts to get into a variety of gacha games, but nothing’s really stuck. Typically, I get easily frustrated with these types of games, as their difficulty plateaus and meta-imbalances, designed to leech money out of players, tends to be inscrutable for me. I also follow a lot of the criticisms marked at these games, of the smarmy “who would pay hundreds of dollars for a JPEG image of a waifu that can be taken away from you if the game shuts down?” variety. Around mid-2020, I decided to make another attempt at gacha games, starting with Tales of Crestoria and Sinoalice. I was remarkably disappointed by Sinoalice, after being personally excited for the game’s release for over a year as a massive Yoko Taro fan. The game has a great soundtrack and art direction but it’s also an absolute snooze fest to play. I’ve still been following Tales of Crestoria since launch and will openly admit I dislike playing the game. I never got the chance to play Tales of the Rays before Bamco shuttered the English release, so I’m stuck with a super boring turn-based Tales of title. I dislike the gameplay to the point of always letting the game’s barely optimal auto-battle work for me. I mostly stick with the game because of the surprisingly good story and game-original cast, particularly the murderous love interest Misella and self-aware edgelord hedonist Vicious. I also started playing Princess Connect Re: Dive (which I…like? I don’t have a strong opinion on it), and I’m eagerly awaiting the English release for Touken Ranbu.
Amidst this mess of gacha game attempts and questionable usage of free time, I also got into Arknights around the end of 2020. I didn’t really start “seriously” playing the game until January of this year, but the game managed to subsume the better part of my free time, for good reason.
Whoever designed the UI deserves a raise, honestly.
Edutainment games are a staple of childhood, now turned into interesting relics of early PC software. There exist two camps for edutainment: narrative-driven adventure games that are extensively point-n-clicks for kids, games like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt, and capital E games like Math Blasters, and that one where a rabbit teaches phonics (no, not that one, no, the other one). As an adult, revisiting series like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt (“don’t you forget Pajama Sam” you say with a clenched fist) was great because, like revisiting an episode of The Simpsons you only watched as a kid, I got more of the references. For instance, there is a movie theater that shows fish themed film parodies in Freddie Fish 2, where as an adult I recognized Flash Gordon and Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. It was an actually rewarding use of my time. But these were games I played over and over again because I personally had them, unlike the phantom nightmare The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary.
My entire experience with this game involved watching someone else play it badly after school, so for years, I could not remember its name. I have a similar failed memory with an arcade fighting game that I played once at a long-since closed CiCi’s Pizza. I want to say it was Fighting Vipers, but I’m not sure. Developed by now-gone developer MECC, known for classroom staple Number Munchers, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is a trip.
I’m just imagining a child skipping the text and ending up playing the game on d. feecult by mistake.
In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.
Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.
Humor in video games often feels hit or miss. Like most fiction, humor shows up at least occasionally in all kinds of games. For example, the Uncharted games try and fail at humor by thinking that having each of their characters quip back and forth (or even to themselves) is funny and endearing. Possibly worse is when you have games, like the otherwise enjoyable Guacamelee!, where a lot of its humor was using super dated (even at the time) internet reaction memes. There are parody games, but parody can only go so far. Honestly, outside of Okage: Shadow King and its humor centered on how goofy a lot of JRPGs plots are, the only other true comedy game I can think of is the visual novel Pizza Game.
Developed mostly by writer and programmer Plasterbrain, with help by her brother JelloApocalypse who designed the characters and directed the voice acting, Pizza Game is described by Plasterbrain as “a shit-post game, but a fully sustainable shit-post game”. Basically, what if someone made a full-length nonsensical otome visual novel, with none of the nonsense of games like the hour-long KFC dating sim? Pizza Game prides itself on its intentionally misspelled sentences and its parade of pretty unpleasant smoochable men. From the top, there is passive aggressive coffee shop owner with a dark past named Chris, rude tech billionaire who is almost definitely a serial killer named Mr. Arimnaes, an ironic and twisted skater named Warped Lamp, a bland but otherwise harmless pizza shop owner named Keenarnor, and whatever the hell Sensei is.
When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?
The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.
OG Pikmin is a weird game. This almost twenty-year-old game series, about tiny freight drivers turned tiny explorers like Captain Olimar, who use whistles to control colorful plant aliens, is a pretty clever premise for a real-time strategy game. On the surface, Pikmin’s focus on traversing through a monster-filled alternate version of Earth while solving puzzles with pikmin offers a distinct playing experience not easily replicated in other games. Yet, I have struggled with Pikmin, particularly OG Pikmin and Pikmin 2. Both games walk right alongside a sandtrap with “greatness” at the bottom, but just never truly fall in.
I started with Pikmin 2 as a kid, soI’ll also use it as my starting point here . Exploration, especially at the start of each of Pikmin 2’s spring, summer, fall, and winter themed areas, feels great. OG Pikmin kept the world more like a secluded forest compared to Pikmin 2’s random person’s backyard or post-apocalyptic civilization. Similar to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards planet Shiver Star, a planet that looks like an Earth destroyed by a new ice age. The areas are filled with large plant pots, hollow logs, and even some tiled showers. The game’s starting area is even a snow-covered street with man-hole covers. These dioramas, often impressively vibrant with clear waters and pretty flowers, are fun to look at despite being somewhat limited by the GameCube’s texture rendering. The environmental storytelling in Pikmin 2 hints at an unseen but bigger world outside of Olimar and partner Louie’s.
The Longing, developed by German animation and video game developers Studio Seufz, centers on a rock king’s last-ditch effort to stay in control. The king does so by reserving the last of his energy to create a tiny Shade creature (who will be simply addressed as Shade from now on) to wake him up in 400 days once his power has been restored. Shade is not given much instruction beyond some reminders about how they shouldn’t wonder to far from their underground palace, so Shade must find something to preoccupy the wait. Or better yet, preoccupy the longing.
Looking like a cute combination of a Heartless from Kingdom Hearts and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, but drawn by Edward Gorey, Shade’s average day follows the same few patterns. They can explore an area to look for either an escape from their role as a living alarm clock or locate items to make their living space cozier. These items range from classical literature to read, paper to draw dark but occasionally deeply metaphorical pictures, and enormous decorative crystals. This early exploration lasts for about an hour or so before Shade comes up against a few key obstacles, like a stalactite that won’t fall for a week or moss that hasn’t grown yet. Shade also walks slowly. Like super slowly. And so, The Longing reveals itself as an idle game.