oxenfree & night in the woods

games for aftermaths

I took a big trip at the start of 2019, which required close to 60 hours of time spent on planes over the course of two weeks.

I was excited but a little nervous about this trip, about the time and the distance involved. I was nervous I would get bored, or cranky, or sick, or somehow behave badly in front of the people I was going with, whom it was important to me to be my best self around.

I’ve tended to do most of my traveling — most of my big decision-making, really — alone. I’m used to eating when I’m hungry and napping when I’m tired and talking out loud to nobody for whole days, until I’ve recharged enough to resume human interaction. I’m used to planning, to making long lists and knowing exactly where I’ll be at the beginning and end of each day. It’s not a way of living I’d necessarily recommend, but it’s the best way I know to circumvent my anxiety, to cauterize myself against catastrophizing every unexpected thing that comes my way.

For this trip, though, I couldn’t really plan. Instead, I bought a lot of embarrassing things for the plane (including a “foot hammock” that I’ve still never actually used, which is good because my boyfriend said he would not sit next to me if I did) and updated a couple of overdue vaccines (love ‘em!). I also downloaded a pair of games — Oxenfree and Night in the Woods — to which I credit my sanity during those 60-odd hours of flying.

The games have a lot in common. Both are relatively short and highly narrative, where you don’t really “play” so much as read a ton of (very well-written) dialogue and make occasional choices on how to interact; they’re almost like participatory novels or movies. They’re both about heightened periods of time, with you as the protagonist at a kind of crossroads, emerging from a dark period and deciding who you want to be and where to go next. They’re also both SPOOKY.

I played Oxenfree on my phone. It suits the format well, and also cost $5 instead of I think $20 on Switch. (I had just paid for a big vacation; I was in no place to splurge.)

You are Alex, a girl who’s about to graduate from high school and whose older brother has recently died. You’re visiting a nearby island with a group that includes your new stepbrother, your best friend, his crush, and your dead brother’s girlfriend. The situation is…..obviously fraught!

As the story unfolds and it becomes clear that All Is Not As It Seems on this island, you play largely by choosing who to talk to and how to proceed. Arguably, the biggest choice you make throughout is how to conduct yourself. You can be withholding, telling everyone you’re fine when you’re not and ignoring the kind gestures of your new stepbrother; you can be combative and sarcastic, snapping back at anyone who reaches out; you can be open and honest, to the point of making all the others deeply uncomfortable. The way the text appears onscreen contributes to this sense of urgency and immediacy — each time there’s a chance for you to respond to someone, your options appear floating above your head, and if you don’t choose quickly enough, they often vanish entirely.

Oxenfree is an object lesson in how to manage and metabolize grief, and it’s also a pretty gnarly ghost story. It’s not scary enough to deter even the wussiest gamers (hi!) but there are certainly moments worth playing with the lights on, or at least with seven travel companions in the airplane seats beside you.

Night in the Woods, which I played on Switch and did shell out the $20 for, is less noticeably emotional and eerie, but packs a deceptive punch on both fronts. Here, you are Mae, a cat (never explained; your best friends include an alligator and a bear) who’s just dropped out of college and returned to her hometown. She sleeps in her parents’ attic, wanders aimlessly through town, and dreams uneasy nightmares on a flat and frustrating loop. There is a spot of murder and a lot of an addicting mini-game that’s basically a knock-off of Guitar Hero.

No matter how you choose to play the game, Mae is kind of a dick. She’s petulant and moody, and even though you’re also presented with dialogue options as in Oxenfree, there are plenty of occasions where everything you can possibly say is mean or cowardly or ignorant, and there’s no way to just say nothing. It so perfectly mimics the sensation of being drunk, of being angry, of being scared of what’s coming next so you lash out with claws bared. Oxenfree, for its part, captures how it feels to weigh each interaction, calculating to find what will protect you, or bolster you, or just get everyone to leave you alone.

These games, above all, are about coping when something goes all wrong, and picking up the pieces after the fact. The characters couldn’t prevent what’s already happened to them; all they (you) can do now is figure out how to navigate from there, and allow the people (alligators) around them to help.

Lately, for maybe the first time since I’ve been cognizant, I haven’t wondered about how to be or where I should go next, and it’s not because I know. I had a very hard 2018 on many fronts, and spent a lot of my allotted worrying-about-the-future man-hours on shorter time frames than usual — what would the following week hold, or even the following day, and how could I be sure I’d get through it? I didn’t have the room to plan out the broader contours of my life, to think about how a choice might echo over the course of months or years.

Now that I’m on the other side (I think! who knows!!) of those particular difficulties, my future-scope still feels stuck. I’m still largely focused on days and weeks, ferreting out what brings me happiness now, how I can feel useful or satisfied today rather than planning for what’s to come. A not-insignificant part of me worries about this — does it mean I’ve become unambitious? Short-sighted? For all that I’ve always hated my anxiety, it’s also been a powerful and familiar guide. I feel a little like my map has lost a good deal of its markings. It’s not so bad, really; the question is how to adjust, and even that feels muted.

Of course, I know I’ll be back there, in that space of uncertainty, in that pit of depression or mourning, in those sharp feverish moments of only being able to say the wrong thing. And while I don’t think games like these can save us from such inevitabilities (although they are, for what it’s worth, the first ones I’ve ever played that have made me want to write a game of my own), I think they can make us consider them at arm’s length, or at least as much length as you can scrape up in a basic economy airline seat.

The trip was perfect. It was because it wasn’t — some plans swerved sideways, some nerves were frayed, some naps went untaken. But the joy and the beauty drastically outweighed those moments. They felt like proof positive that I could go with the flow, that I could survive 16 hours in a middle seat, that I could find ways to recharge even among a large, loving group of people. It reoriented, however slightly, the story I tell about myself.

Oxenfree and Night in the Woods pair well with: A recent graduation, a recent breakup, a recent loss. Also: the new National album, but not like, concurrently, because you should definitely play both games with sound.

What I’m crafting right now: A ton of very simple hats, for a book I’m working on about how to knit a very simple hat.


a game I beat before I knew how to play

I didn’t know much about Undertale before I started playing. I knew it was a wildly beloved indie game; I knew that it was supposed to be some kind of twist on a traditional RPG. But every review I read before buying it said to go in as blind as possible, and even though I like to be armed with information in literally every aspect of my life, I went along with them. (Passing that recommendation lightly on to you: Undertale is at its most interesting when you’re confronted with choices whose consequences you don’t know.)

It starts in a destabilizing way. You, a lost child of indeterminate gender, are given a tutorial on how to play by a talking flower; this would be fairly par for the course (games are weird!) except immediately afterward, the flower turns evil and attacks you. It’s the first sign that things in this world are likely not what they seem — a sign I should have taken to heart over the course of my first playthrough.

You’re rescued by a woman-slash-queen-slash-maybe-goat? named Loriel. She fusses over you, guides you through the ruins where you’ve found yourself, indicates that she’s going to bake you a pie. She’s funny and nice. She clearly wants nothing more than for you to be safe.

This protectiveness comes to a head once you’ve made it through the game’s initial set of puzzles and battles and find yourself at Loriel’s house. When you try to leave, she blocks you. She doesn’t want you to go out into the underground, she says; you, a human who found yourself there by mistake, will inevitably be killed in this world of monsters. She’s so insistent you stay that she attacks you herself.

And so, like all my years of gaming have taught me to do, I killed her. I felt vaguely bad about it (the writing is really, really sharp) but I figured that I had to. It was what the game was pushing me to do, I thought, and so it didn’t even occur to me that I was making a choice at all. It wasn’t until right before the end of the game, three or four hours later, that I realized with a horrible crunch that I had chosen, and that I had chosen again and again, and that in many ways I had chosen wrong.

It turns out that there is a way to play Undertale where you don’t have to harm anyone. Not Toriel, not the mutant frogs or the sentient airplanes that spring out of the ground and attack you, not even the traditional-seeming bosses that prevent you from passing by. Every creature can be spared, whether you accomplish that by talking to them or bullying them or hugging them. (You can even flirt with a few.) You could fight them all the same way, a series of straightforward hits until their life force runs out, but each one is spared differently, and it’s up to you, through a series of at times fatal attempts, to figure out how best to care for them, should you take that route.

But during my first run, I hadn’t realized any of this. Worse, I had ignored the signals pointing me in that direction; Toriel tells you from the start that it’s possible to show monsters mercy, and there are options on the battle menu to flee from or spare creatures, but using them was too tricky. I was too impatient; I figured the end would be the same no matter how I played, and so I took the route I knew, to hack and slash my way through. I thought I was justified when I amassed EXP and my LV increased; I was gaining, I was improving, so that had to mean I was correct.

In my real life I care a lot about leveling up. I don’t know if it’s why I love games to begin with or what a couple decades of playing them has imbued me with, but I think constantly, childishly, about arriving at a place where I feel solid, and where I won’t have to worry about losing anything. I don’t know, in these fantasies, quite what the whole looks like, but I know it consists of money, of time, of a partner, of creative fulfillment, of a home. I will have worked hard enough and been special enough and made the right choices to merit this arrival, and that’s why none of it can ever be taken away from me.

This is…..very dumb! I have many of those things already, and I’m so lucky to; I already know that they can’t transform me, that they can’t replace my anxiety or my fear. I already know that they can go away, or change, or that I could be the one to go away or change.

But isn’t it a comforting thought? Wouldn’t it be so great if it were all a game, and if we could, one day, complete it?

Undertale refuses to allow this kind of thinking. As you near the end, about to battle the king whose defeat, you’re told, will finally allow you to return home, you’re confronted by a monster you’ve met before. He explains the real meaning of the stats you’ve built up: “What's EXP? It's an acronym. It stands for ‘execution points.’ A way of quantifying the pain you have inflicted on others. When you kill someone, your EXP increases.”  Similarly, “When you have enough EXP, your LOVE increases. LOVE, too, is an acronym. It stands for ‘Level of Violence.’ A way of measuring someone's capacity to hurt. The more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”

At first I felt angry; I felt tricked. I’d followed all the rules! I’d done everything flawlessly! Why was I being punished, rather than rewarded? How was any of this my fault?

Quickly, though, my ire curdled into shame. I’d ignored the vague, needling feeling that what I’d been doing wasn’t quite right in my hurry to get to the end. I didn’t like the version of myself the game so plainly presented.

To be apathetic or unthinking, Undertale seems to argue, to do what you’ve always done without questioning why, is to do harm. To be so focused on the conclusion that you miss the details — talking at length to even the most bizarre monsters, reading library books and diaries, taking in the haunting music — is to not really have played the game at all.

So once I won (or lost, hard to say) I started over. Undertale is built this way; there are some players who have completed runs hundreds of times, never having quite the same experience twice. Instead of fighting, this time I figured out how to spare everyone. I had conversations. I went on dates! I’ve taken many more hours to reach the end, even though I know how to solve all the puzzles now.

The whole run has been tinged with some nostalgia and some melancholy; I can’t talk to anyone without remembering how recently I’d seen them as nothing but my enemy, how easy it had been to strike them down and keep barreling forward. It’s almost like they remember too; the game file stays the same, with certain numbers and names popping up throughout. It knows you’ve been there before. The echoes aren’t erased.

Now I am stuck right before the end. I can’t defeat the king. I have to — there’s no option to spare him, at least not at the beginning of the fight — but I’m so weak that he destroys me every time. When I was tearing through my first run, racking up experience and weapons, it only took a single try, and I felt the usual brief glory that comes from beating any game before it’s eclipsed by reality. But being good, it turns out, is far less easy than being selfish.

Still, I know I’ll win, for real this time. I’ll get to the end of the battle, somehow, and hopefully I’ll be able to show him some mercy, and then I’ll find out what happens next.

Undertale pairs well with: The Good Place, for reasons of morality, personal choice, better to go in knowing nothing.

What I’m crafting right now: A low-back peach shirt that began life as a cardigan before I realized I literally never wear cardigans so I just knitted both panels together and kept on going in the round. Hopefully it’ll usher in spring a little faster.

welcome to button mash

an occasional newsletter about video games (and sometimes crafting)

I’m not a very adventurous gamer. For the last twenty or so years I’ve return to the same classic franchises — Pokémon, Zelda, The Sims — again and again, opting to replay my favorites rather than venturing into new territory. I found comfort in those replays, like visiting a town where I’d spent a lot of time as a child, and I’ve measured my own growth using them as a yardstick.

In the last year or so, though, I’ve found myself drawn to plenty of new games. (New for me, mostly, since I’m always like four years late to all pop culture.) I put in a cool 70 hours on Stardew Valley before it came out for the Switch and I decided to start my pleasant, hypnotically boring farm adventure over from the beginning; I spent plane rides hunched over moving phone games like Florence and Oxenfree. I got a little drunk watching Into the Spider-Verse and marched up to Target to buy the last copy of Spider-Man for PS4 that they had, and have mostly spent my time swinging through New York City and trying to find the buildings where I used to work IRL. In all, I’ve probably started or finished about a dozen new games lately, a dramatic step up from my usual two or three.

I don’t really have a compelling reason for this shift. Buying a Switch helped, of course, as does its insanely ever-expanding catalog. Reading Kotaku and Polygon more regularly, and listening to this delightful podcast called Into the Aether, stoked my hunger for newness as well. There is, of course, the reason anyone claims they’re doing anything lately, which is that the world is as chaotic and draining as it’s ever been and we’re all in search of an escape. I’m sure this is true for me as well — how could it not be? — but I think my desire is more solipsistic. I’m getting older. I’ve lived in this city for a long time. I like staying home more than I used to, and when I’m there, I like burrowing into an activity, whether it’s reading or knitting or (way less than I should be) writing, and playing games has sprung up in that vein. They’ve always been a part of my life; now it’s just that I’m consciously choosing them.

The games I like have a few things in common: they’ve got a strong emotional component, about loneliness or failure or figuring out who you are; their music is beautiful; they are earnest even when they veer into jokey or self-referential territory. They vary in length and scope tremendously, and now that I, nearing 30 and finally achieving my 8-year-old fantasies, own a Switch, a 3DS, a PS4, and an iPhone with a lot of space for impulse downloads, they span all sorts of platforms.

And there are plenty of games I have no interest in whatsoever. I don’t tend to like anything scary or particularly bloody. I don’t like guns, I don’t like maddening puzzles, and I don’t like anything that’s so loud or goofy as to be exhausting. I am very easily frustrated (Hollow Knight has caused me more anguish recently than subway delays and allergies combined) and impatient (no text will ever scroll fast enough for me) but I’m trying to work through those, to get more comfortable with a little discomfort.

What I’m looking for in my games is a place. A warm one, a safe one, to go when I’m sad or sick or bored, when I’m looking for a little hideout from the world. Where even if it’s hard or takes a long time, I’ll be able to get across to the other side, to feel like I’ve accomplished something even if it’s not “real.” Because the feelings games leave me with are real, the same way the things I make are, and I want to articulate them more fully and regularly now that I’ve picked up the controller again.

Graphic by Aude White

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