Coming up with things to discuss on this site, without dusting off the old chestnuts of RPGs, point-and-clicks, and late 90’s and early 2000’s FPS, is not easy. You write what you know. But as of last year, I have been really getting into resource management games (the internet seems to call these open world survival action-adventures, but that is too long), including Astroneer, Subnautica, and TheSurvivalists. Granted, calling them resource management games make them sound like factory simulators like Satisfactory, and the perfectly named Factorio. Whatever they are called, these games do provide distinct single and multiplayer experiences.
These types of resource management games, while similar on paper to farming sims, such as Harvest Moons, Stardew Valley, or Gleaner Heights, tend to share a different thematic start. Instead of inheriting a farm from a dead or dying relative, the player crash lands on a planet, a deserted island, or a deserted island planet. The Lost in Blue series (or Survival Kids for the five people on this planet who somehow own and played possibly the rarest GBC game) feel like the progenitor of this type of game. Lost In Blue follows different teenagers who find themselves trying to survive on a desolate tropical island. Food and water need to be consumed to keep the player alive, usually in the form of fresh coconuts and river water. Good news was that as early DS games, Lost in Blue were not as long as the RPG-length sagas the average resource management game requires. Bad news was that as early DS games, Lost in Blue was controlled mostly through the stylus (a pain for those who wanted to do extra combat damage in Magical Starsign). Gameplay focused on constantly tracking vitals and building up a home base that lessens the strain of said vitals start here. But these teens cannot stay on the island forever, they will need to step out of their comfy cave and somehow leave the island. Finally leaving the base continues in later resource management games as a common end goal.
Wouldn’t it be wild if punching alligators was just incorrectly calculated as being the most effective way to hurt them in Lost In Blue? Like how the butterfly net in some Zelda games works on bosses.
Developed by Gabe Lane and Yugo Limbo, the two people behind publisher LimboLane, Smile For Me is a 2019 point-and-click adventure game. After visiting Dr. Habit’s GeoCities website inviting unhappy people to their facility, called The Habitat, the Flower Kid is woken up by a puppet show hosted by Dr. Habit. Dr. Habit explains that the Habitat is for sad and lonely people to learn how to be happy again, but as the game goes on, it seems its only a happiness created by Dr. Habit . Flower Kid is going to have to help the other twenty-two patients at The Habitat find their own happiness and escape Dr. Habit’s big plan.
What sets Smile For Me apart from other point-and-clicks is that all player interaction is in first person. While most of the traditional puzzles often found in these kinds of games are still present, such as finding a key item for a person or using a tool to progress, direct player interaction is different. All of Smile For Me is set in one large sky-box, where you walk around a 3D world with everyone else being a stuck-in-place 2D avatar. It’s similar to interacting with characters in the overworld segments of the Danganronpa games. Flower Kid has to nod yes and shake no to directly communicate with the other patients. Point-and-clicks are traditionally sprite-based 2D games, where each location is blocked off by a screen transition. Smile For Me restricts areas with locks and chains, but the entire game is in one location. Flower Kid is forced to engage with the other patients at Dr. Habit’s pace. They get tired at the end of the day and if they don’t return to their talking cowboy bed, Dr. Habit will get mad and Flower Kid loses half of the next day to sleep in.
Many of the video segments are just Dr. Habit narrating over analogue footage of flowers or other wildlife.
Video games like to use cards for just about everything. The GameCube seemed to love them for RPGS like the Lost Kingdoms and Baten Kaitos games, where cards were used for combat. Slay the Spire uses it as part of its rogue-like game play. App games like Hearthstone, Ascension, or Magic: The Gathering Arena utilize each respective card game with a focus on online competitive play. But I want some story and characters to get invested in with my card games. Where is the Netrunner game about a cyberpunk future where everyone puts on their goggles and styles their mohawks to play Netrunner at a run-down bar or at a table in front of a ramen shop? Where is the Final Fantasy 8 spin-off where a nameless street urchin plays to become the Triple Triad champion of the world? Where have all the Trading Card Game adventure games gone?
Monster Rancher Battle Card Game GB was a Game Boy Color game about collecting cards representing the dozens of memorable Monster Rancher creatures in a world in which you fight to defeat…something. Joking aside, I never got farther than five minutes into this one as a kid. The Pokemon TCG game for the Game Boy Color was this charming world where everyone on Trading Card Game Island (that’s its real name) only cared about one thing, a kid’s card game. Like regular Pokemon, TCG Island has a resident Professor, this time it’s Dr. Mason (Oyama). People like me who cite Bulbapedia verbatim know that Dr. Mason is based on Pokemon TCG co-creator, Kouichi Ooyama, and compared to Professor Oak, Dr. Mason is flush with funding. Professor Oak has maybe two assistants, whereas Dr. Mason has fifteen, spread across two large rooms. TCG Island clearly cares more about its research of pieces of card board with images of Pokemon on them more than Kanto cares about actual Pokemon.
I think I read somewhere that the island is in the shape of Mew, but don’t quote me out of class on this.
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.