A relaxing series of heartfelt and relational experiences.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing much of the world into self-isolation, being able to find affordable respite has rarely been a more pressing concern. Today we take a look at three recent indie games that deliver us relief, letting us escape to a better place and refocus on finding a connection with others.
This is our second indie roundup for 2020. If you’re still on the lookout for more Neat Indie Games, go back and check out our takes on Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard, Kine and Superliminal.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Much like video games themselves, holidays are liminal spaces, a kind of between-world that serves to separate us from our everyday existence. They can mark a line in the sand. The version of you that embarks on the holiday is often not the version of you that returns.
Early teen couple Mord and Ben join the former’s adult aunt and uncle, Cloanne and Brad, on an overnight camping trip in Wide Ocean, Big Jacket. They talk, they go on walks, they sit around the campfire, they just sort of, you know, hang out. It’s just one night--and honestly, very little actually happens over the course of the game’s 90-minute play time--but it feels somehow significant. Like, this night was a once-in-a-lifetime event. For those who were present, it mattered. Things were decided. A course was set.
As they arrive at the park, Mord sarcastically notes, "I can’t believe how far we drove just to be in the middle of some trees." But it’s those trees, that change of scenery, that allow the four people in the middle to reflect on their lives beyond the trees. They don’t take stock; you’re not wading through ponderous self-obsession. It’s not a therapy session for any of them. As Ben says, "Here is a different, smaller life."
The tone is light and the writing feels effortless. You’ll join Mord and Ben digging holes and doing cartwheels on the beach, Cloanne bird-watching, Brad wandering off to get some more firewood. In each of these vignettes, their interactions feel authentic. The tentative tenderness as Mord and Ben share their first kiss rings as true as their anxiety around a group of older teens who tease them.
Maybe it’s just my age, but Cloanne and Brad are the real stars. Spending time with the kids forces them to revisit the choice they’d made to not have children of their own. It almost boils over into an argument, yet before it does they’ve reconciled, walking in silence, but hand-in-hand, back to the campsite. That one scene has lingered with me ever since, a perfect example of the game’s mature and economical approach to story-telling.
Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is the getaway we could all use right now.
It’s Like: A sweet, coming of age walking simulator in your Animal Crossing village.
Mythic Ocean reimagines the sea as a kind of court of arbitration wherein the gods seek to determine the fate of an eternally recurring world. The current cycle of existence has ended, you see, and there are decisions to be made over which of the gods will govern the next cycle. For reasons not immediately clear, but eventually answered by the game’s end, you have the ultimate say in the matter; your choice will determine how the world is remade.
If that all sounds pretentious and somewhat highfalutin, rest assured, it’s not. Instead it’s an epic tale told on an intimate stage with a focus on empathy and compassion, rather than apocalyptic heroics. The gods in this ocean are endearingly naive, all childlike innocence and impulse, yet lacking in social niceties. Through a series of overlapping, conversation-heavy quests you’re able to help them face their fears, develop some wisdom and generally connect with others to better appreciate their place in the world. Maybe there aren’t any one-size-fits-all answers, the message seems to be, but admitting our own mistakes and forgiving the mistakes of others is a good place to start.
Exploring the seas, via blessedly straightforward first-person "swimming" movement, is pleasingly serene, particularly when wriggling through reed-filled basins and across beds of coral where everything is rendered in soothing greens and warming yellows. Even the odd moment spent probing narrow tunnels or venturing into the darker depths remain tranquil, allowing you to concentrate on tracking down the delightful cast of supporting characters to complete their sidequests.
For a game set entirely underwater, Mythic Ocean is wonderfully warm and inviting. Dive in, the water’s lovely.
It’s Like: Game of Thrones, but everyone is willing to set aside their self-interest, recognise when they’ve wronged others, and priortise the greater good.
Get Mythic Ocean on Steam.
Luna: The Shadow Dust
Sadly, I couldn’t find a third game about the ocean to round out this month’s column, so hopefully a game about the moon will manage to tide you over.
Luna: The Shadow Dust is a minimalist, puzzle-based point-and-click adventure in the vein of Machinarium or the Samorost series. Entirely wordless, its beautifully illustrated screens challenge you to solve an abstract or mechanical puzzle to unlock the next door and progress. There’s no dialogue to click through, no text descriptions to read, just a handful of hotspots on each screen, a correct order in which to interact with them, and your logical acuity to make sense of it all.
Almost all the puzzles revolve around combining the actions of the two playable characters, a young boy and his little spherical companion, between whom you can switch control at any time. The boy can use things--hit switches, pull levers, move objects, and so on--while his cuddly companion can climb things, squeeze into small gaps and, uh, cross over to the shadow world.
I found the puzzles consistently fell on just the right side of vexing, my progress pausing at each new conundrum long enough to feel satisfying to solve without feeling like I’d come to a complete standstill. Drawing on elements of magical realism, the fantastical nature of the world means there’s a bit of trial-and-error as you work out what clicking on each object does, but the limited parameters of each puzzle--restricted as they are to two characters and a handful of interactable objects--frames their solutions within reach.
The story Luna tells veers close to the melodramatic. The gorgeously hand-drawn cutscenes pull it back from that particular edge, however, their stylistic restraint imbuing a tale of cooperation and self-sacrifice with some genuinely moving moments. Melancholic indie puzzlers are a dime a dozen these days, but they’re rarely executed with such grace.
It’s Like: Samorost trying to find its way out of The Room while futilely trying to avoid inevitable tragedy.
Get Luna: The Shadow Dust on Steam.