Comfort Food Games (and Coffee. And Killing)

In the final months of 2020, I found myself keeping up with new games unlike most other times in my life. While I would love to play all new games as they’re released, I usually can’t for various reasons. One is that I am definitely the type to finish games. I don’t like bouncing between narrative games especially, so if I’m playing some big, story-driven game, I have to finish that one before I move onto the next. Another reason is that I don’t rush through games, particularly when I’m really into them. I wouldn’t call myself a completionist, but when I love a game I will find any and every excuse to extend my time with it (including getting every achievement/trophy). But between quarantine, new consoles, and just a general desire to play more video games, I really burned through some of the big, new games of 2020 these last few months, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Astro’s Playroom, Cyberpunk 2077, Star Wars: Squadrons, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, and Phasmophobia. I liked or loved all of these games, so it’s not that the deluge of glorious gaming was oppressive or taxing, but when it was all said and done, there was a part of me that yearned for the familiar or forgotten. Without realizing it, I found myself playing older games that I had either bought and forgotten, or had already played and loved. This is just a scattershot post to cover my thoughts on these games, but one of them – Resident Evil 7 – will get its own post, because my playing of that is tied into my hype for Resident Evil Village, and I have plenty of thoughts about that game.

Let’s begin with an oldie. Please, take a trip down memory lane with me. The year is 1999. I am sixteen years old and newly into my Star Wars fandom. The Phantom Menace is set to release in May and the hype among myself and others is indescribable. Alongside the movie, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is coming to the N64, and it takes advantage of the new Expansion Pak, which expands the console’s memory and allows for more detailed textures and prettier graphics. I am stoked. I play the demo at a kiosk in some store and the game looks incredible. I am amazed at how fast the pods zip through the courses. I am ready to absolutely wreck Sebulba’s shit. And then I don’t buy it. I was sixteen, after all, and I’m pretty sure I had yet to land my first job. Oh well.

Fast forward to the present, and the retitled Star Wars Racer is on sale in the PlayStation Store for something like $4. I did end up buying a copy of it for the N64 at some point, but I don’t exactly bust that old beauty out very often. So I bought it and figured I would play for a bit, the nostalgia would wane quickly, and I would push it aside and move on. The startup screen and the very hitch-y CG intro movie did little to challenge these expectations. The game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong! It was very impressive… 22 years ago. But time is rarely kind to early 3D games, and the murky and muddy textures were both nostalgically quaint and, well, bleh.

Then, however, I started playing. Immediately I was impressed by how fast and smooth the racing was. Remember when Anakin was testing his podracer and his face was all

Well that’s how I felt playing this game. I was constantly stunned with how fast I felt like I was moving, and I kept wondering if the old game was this fast or if the remastering included a speed boost. I do remember it being pretty fast back in ’99, but this fast? On an N64? After I finished the first circuit and nabbed a comfortable first place, I quit for the night, content with my experience. It was fun! Time to move on. The next night I began looking for my next game but couldn’t put Racer out of my mind. One more circuit, I told myself. As soon as it starts feeling too challenging I’ll be done. Nope. I played the whole. Damn. Game. Did it get challenging? Yes. Did I have to try a few tracks several times? Also yes. Did I want to punch Sebulba in his seballsba? Again, yes. But I did it. The speed, the tracks, the music… it just felt like the right game at the right time. And now I think the prequel trilogy is ripe for a revisit. Meesa gonna watchen it. I’m sorry for that. Why am I like this?

Aside from revisiting such an old gem, I was also in the mood to tie up loose ends, so I finished my playthrough of The Last of Us Part II, finally. [Some light spoilers ahead, particularly in images] While I could certainly spend an entire post breaking the game down, as many have, I’ll just focus on a few things that stood out to me. Overall, I really liked the game. I didn’t love the ending and I think they were a little heavy-handed with some elements of the story, but there is so much that works well in this game. I think it’s easy to zoom out and critique the broad strokes of the narrative, but this game’s greatest strengths are revealed when you zoom in, literally and figuratively. I was in constant awe of some of the smallest of details. In most games, when you pick up an item there is a generic swiping or grabbing animation. In this game, there are specific animations for every item. The upgrade currency in this game comes in the form of pills, and sometimes you will find both a pill bottle and individual, loose pills. If you mash the action button to grab all of them quickly, the items don’t just disappear from the world and appear in your inventory with a cursory swipe. Your character will wrap one hand around the bottle, and as they reach back to slip it into their pack, their other hand will be pinching one individual pill with their fingers. They’ll then drop that into a pocket while the other hand, now free, pinches the last pill and does the same. And you can either stand still and do this, which is one animation, or begin to walk away, and your character will look natural as they tuck the items into their pack and trot away. This is just one very specific example, but the game is filled with little details like this. Every melee weapon slots onto your pack in a different way. Every firearm has unique, detailed reload and upgrade animations. The game was so thorough in its attention to detail that I found myself shocked when I’d catch some missed little thing that I would never have questioned with another game. The best example of this is when you upgrade a firearm. You clear the weapon before working on it, which means you eject the round that’s in the chamber, which pops out and flies off screen. Where does it go? Your character never grabs it and loads it back in the magazine or weapon, and with ammo so incredibly scarce in the game I found myself flinching every time a precious piece of ammo popped out of my gun.

The small interactions between characters and moment-to-moment story beats were some of the best I’ve seen in games. Naughty Dog is known for these kinds of interactions, but this game really outdid their previous work, in my opinion. The banter between characters sounds natural and not forced, yet it always reveals something new about the story or the characters. Writing casual dialog that somehow seems unnecessary but is secretly vital to character and plot development is rare and impressive. Among my favorite of these sequences is Ellie and Dina’s trip to the synagogue, Abby and Owen’s first trip to the aquarium, and Ellie and Joel’s trip to the museum. The last one is easily at the top of my list, and not just because of the overt references to Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies of all time. Thematically, the idea of visiting a natural history museum in a post-apocalypse is always fun and thought-provoking. We take museums for granted today, because we have years of compulsory school and the internet that readily remind of us where we and other creatures have been in the long history of our world. When that goes away, however, what do we have? Word-of-mouth stories about dinosaurs and trips to the moon? Rumors about seals that have spots? Beyond themes, there were just so many small moments that were cute on their own, but also complicated the relationship between Joel and Ellie. This scene more than any other breaks my heart when I think about where it fits in the dynamic between these two characters. I would 100% take an entire game filled with scenes like this.

As I said, I spent a lot of time with this game and the narrative is very rich, but those are some of my impressions. I do think they missed an opportunity for a more satisfying resolution, and I agree with the sentiment that, despite the subtlety of the interpersonal interactions, they were decidedly less subtle with some of the major themes involving violence and revenge, but overall I found a lot to like and appreciate about this game.

Speaking of interpersonal interactions (Segue King 2021 babayyyy), I also played through the charming Coffee Talk recently. I remember hearing about this retro-looking indie game a year ago, when it was released, but I quickly forgot about it. The curse of the quaint indie game, sadly. I just happened to see it while scrolling through sale titles on the PlayStation Store, though, and it seemed like such a perfect game for this wintry time of year. Serving coffee and other hot drinks and listening to strangers share the details of their lives? Yes, please.

While I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of dialog choices and inability to form relationships with the characters that come into your shop, I did find the game relaxing and engaging. The drink making mechanics are simple, the stakes are rarely ever high, and I enjoyed the slight challenge of figuring out what kind of drink my patrons were asking for. The Seattle setting seems like a no-brainer for a game about a coffee shop, but I also think the choice to have the shop only be open at night and the constant rainy weather were perfect. They created a mood and ambiance that truly made me want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee and just chat or read a book. Like a tasty, warm beverage, this game was a comfort and joy to play.

But, as I said, I did go into the game thinking the social mechanics would be a bit more… well, existent. As much as I like visual novels/narrative experiences, I always find myself wanting to be a part of the story that’s unfolding. I was hoping to form my own relationships with these characters, and when I saw how colorful and varied the cast was, I immediately thought there would be dating sim aspects to the story. Sadly, there are not, which is a real bummer because the game seems so perfect for it. When the latte art mechanic was introduced, I thought (not knowing there were no romance elements yet) it would be so fun if one of the ways you could flirt or reveal your feelings for a crush was by making a heart in the foam (if the game set it up as not unsolicited and creepy, of course). I am always curious about who people would romance in games, so if that also sounds like you, I think I probably would have gone for Aqua. Lua would probably also be a contender, but I feel comfortable saying Aqua is my… cup of tea. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night. Anyway, while I did find the game a fun, soothing distraction for what continues to be a historically messed up timeline, I do have my fingers crossed for a sequel with more options for interactivity and immersive storytelling. And smooches.

Lastly, my friends and I have gotten back into Minecraft in the last week or so, and in a big way. We are obsessed. Just today I tweeted that I have been having creeper-related dreams almost every night this past week. On the one hand, it’s annoying and frustrating, but I can definitely see the humor in it. And it makes sense. Creepers are the perfect embodiment of anxiety. You work so hard to build something and spend time thinking carefully about how to execute your plans. You spend hours mining, collecting the necessary materials, laying block by block, tweaking the details as needed. Then, out of nowhere, boom. Your blocky dreams are shattered. After the first time, you can never rest easy. Every time you let your guard down, there he is. His little green face tilted toward you, wanting with every ounce of his hissy being to explode and take your beautiful creations with him to what I imagine is a very pixelated hell. Fucking assholes.

Those dipshits aside, we’ve been having a blast (why did I do that to myself? I could have used any other word to describe our shared experience, but no. I went with blast. *shivers in creeper-related stress disorder). Other than the semester I played the game with my students, I’ve never played with this many people before (there are six of us so far), so it’s very rewarding knowing that I can at one moment contribute something to the collective group, and at another go off and work on something on my own that someone else might run across and think is neat. Just yesterday I crossed over Russell’s impressive bridge that connects our mainland with the lands to the East, Amy recently showed me her massive hole (yes, I think she knew what she was doing when she referred to it as such), Tab and Tirzah have cultivated an expansive farm, and I have been sailing to distant lands to both leave markers for exploration and, as a bonus, import wolves (which our lands are sadly lacking). We’ve been very chill and loose about it, and there are no expectations or ultimatums. We help out, we do our own thing, we are basically just having fun. It’s such a welcome change of pace in light of the big, AAA gauntlet I put myself through (willingly and with much fun to be had, of course) in the fall and early winter.

It’s also been so long since I last played that I am frequently both delighted and horrified at some of the changes they’ve made in the many updates to the game. Llamas? Cute! There are water zombies now? Ugh. Cats!? Dolphins!? Yessss. Aggressive merpeople and deadly undercurrents? Get out of my face. But I will take all of the bats and pandas and polar bears, thanks. We may get tired of the game eventually, but I love what we’re doing in the world so far. Check out Amy and Russell’s giant in-home aquarium:

And Tab and Tirzah’s elaborate farmhouse:

For my house, I was somewhat inspired by the massive mansion/castle in the Resident Evil: Maiden demo, and also by the many iterations of Dracula’s castle in the Castlevania games. I’m not exactly the most creative and skilled designer, but I like how my house has turned out so far. The façade is a little bland:

But I’m very happy with the interior. I built my house into the side of the mountain in our town, so I keep digging further into the mountain to create secret rooms and a full-sized Satanic house of worship, including a pastor’s office with a hidden door that leads to a portal to Hell.

I also have a dungeon where I keep zombies, skeletons, spiders, and creepers, a forbidden cauldron room, a dedicated Nether portal chamber, and a couple of other secrets.

I don’t imagine these pictures are all that riveting to most, but there is something I really love about sharing Minecraft creations. Maybe it has something to do with the impermanent nature of games like this. When the servers are shut down, these worlds will go away forever. But in my small way, I can document the exploits of my friends and me. Maybe, if we continue to play for a long time, I’ll do so again in the future. For now, though, I have some diamonds to mine. If you’ll excuse me.

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