The spirit of Christmas lives on in indie games.
Christmas is a time of year that signals the chance to slow down (unless you work in retail, of course), take stock of your year, and enjoy some family time. For gamers, Christmas also presents an opportunity to play the games we’ve let fall to the wayside.
But Christmas is rarely as simple as that. Whether you are spending time with family you don’t get to see often enough, remembering the family no longer with you, or spending it alone, this time of year can be tough even for the strongest of heroes.
So, you could spend your gaming time pretending to be a cowboy or free-running across Ancient Greece, or you could do what this time of year really calls for and play a game that gets you right into those unresolved feelings. Indie games, my friends – they’ll always make you want to hug your mum.
No two games deal with this kind of emotional complexity better than 2017’s Night in the Woods and recent release Wandersong. While neither has anything much to do with Christmas, both narrative adventures follow a protagonist trying to make sense of a world that can be unkind. Night in the Wood’s protagonist Mae, and Wandersong’s ‘Lil Bard’ may have very different ways of facing their problems, but they both have profound effects on those they come across. After all, what is Christmas but a great excuse to get in some much-needed human connection?
Released in September this year, Greg Lobanov’s Wandersong follows the story of an optimistic bard faced with the end of the world. Tasked with finding the song that might just save it, the bard must sing his way to the palaces of six ancient beings and piece together the crucial overseer’s song. Full of hidden depths, laughter and best of all, nice people, Wandersong is about trying to help, even when a problem might not be fixable.
The bard’s music, although frequently seen as a trifle rather than a strength, is the element that consistently brings those around him together. Just like Christmas carols, the songs the bard finds are passed down through generations, retained through nostalgia and memory, and often connected to those that have since passed away. By singing with those around him and learning their songs, the bard does not erase their pain but instead returns to them a spark of hope. Music in Wandersong becomes a balm that starts the process of healing.
In Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods, Mae has a rather different approach to helping those around her. Finding herself meandering through the home she has outgrown, this young cat is a bit of a mess. Brash, insecure, defensive and sad, Mae is blind to her own value and the effect she has on others. But through the course of the game, the defenses Mae has built must inevitably be faced, and isn’t there just something so Christmassy about being forced to think about the things you’ve been avoiding?
Game-time in the world of Possum Springs is often spent following Mae on her listless daily routine, talking to the same individuals each day. Sure, she doesn’t fill them with hope by singing at them, but what Mae does is of equal importance; she shows up. By taking an interest in the same characters daily, the cast of this broken, jobless town opens up to Mae, revealing to her the spark that keeps them going.
As more people reveal their vulnerabilities to Mae, so too does she begin to face the emotions that are making her lash out. She hurts those that she loves, but she sticks up for them too and she always comes back. Night in the Woods beautifully portrays these complicated relationships. Seeing Mae let herself be vulnerable, reaching out, made me want to too.
While their approaches are very different, these are two games that shine a light on the importance of kindness. Despite the bard’s faltering confidence and Mae’s reckless selfishness, both games focus on dialogue and learning about the lives of others, producing a feeling of connection and wholesomeness that is perfect for this time of year. Because where would we be without those that take notice of us? The people that show up, again and again, even when they’ve got a whole world they should be saving.
Kate has been gaming since she could control a mouse. In addition to having a penchant for indie games, Kate had a World of Warcraft account when she was far too young, and has a weakness for any game with ‘RPG’ in the description.