Mutazione

On its Steam page, Mutazione bills itself as “a mutant soap opera where small-town gossip meets the supernatural.” This is wonderfully catchy, but this atmospheric story game is much more chill and relaxed than its tagline would suggest.

Mutazione is about a normal teenage girl named Kai who takes a ferry out to an island to visit her sick grandfather. Her mother, who left the island with her own mother when she was still a child, is busy with Kai’s baby brother and sends Kai in her place. When Kai arrives on the island after a short prologue, the player realizes that it’s a special place. The island is littered with the overgrown ruins of highways and office buildings, and many its flora and fauna – including its human inhabitants – have undergone dramatic mutations.

Playing as Kai, your goal is to interact with the islanders and their environment in order to care for Kai’s grandfather, whose health turns out to be connected to the health of the island’s ecosystem. Mutazione is divided into seven days, with each day being further divided into different times (such as morning, afternoon, and so on). Every character on the island offers a new conversation during each time division, which can perhaps be thought of, in gaming terms, as “stages.” The game is clear about which conversation will end a stage and move time forward, and the player is free either to explore as they wish or move straight from one objective to another. To my knowledge, nothing in the game is hidden or missable, and the player’s dialogue choices don’t seem to affect the outcome of the main story.

The landscape of the island is divided into a series of small areas, each of which is a static screen that scrolls as the player moves through it. Some of these areas are more central than others, and some are only unlocked later in the week, but the island isn’t that big. There are only about seven or eight areas that most players will visit with any regularity, so it’s not prohibitively time-consuming to go from screen to screen to check in with the island inhabitants.

Mutazione also incorporates a gardening minigame that isn’t so much a “game” as it is a natural element of the story. To simplify, there are seven small gardens on the island, and every garden is associated with a “mood” such as “harmony” or “wanderlust.” Every day Kai learns a new song that will help foster the growth of plants associated with a given mood. You can run around the island and collect plant seeds, but it’s not necessary to go out of your way to do so. The gardening elements are all very relaxed, and the player can put as much effort or as little effort into this minigame as they want.

The “soap opera” story elements involve the love stories of two adult women on the island. Although these two stories do indeed feature dramatic elements, they’re both actually quite mature and understated, as well as appropriate to the setting of a small community. Kai, who has a crush on a girl on her swim team back home, is mercifully free from being romanced or having to romance anyone, and she’s mostly a passive observer and casual confidant. Mutazione isn’t aggressively wholesome, as people’s emotions and reactions are genuine and relatable, but there are no dramatic slap fights or screaming matches. Thankfully, neither women nor men are nasty to each other, and everything is very friendly and chill.

Unfolding alongside these small stories is the larger story of what happened to the island, as well as what the older generation of people on the island were doing there before the incident that caused the biological mutations. Many of the details of this background narrative are never fully explained, and honestly, that’s okay – we get the details that matter and enough pieces of the puzzle to fill in the rest for ourselves.

All of the people on the island have interesting personalities even if they don’t have a full story arc, and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know a few characters whom I don’t often encounter in video games. I was especially intrigued in Yoké, an older man who runs the island archive. He’s been in a wheelchair all of his life, which is handled with a welcome degree of realism, and he’s also beginning to lose his sight. The ways in which Yoké processes the indignities of aging are handled with just as much nuance and sensitivity as the game’s two love stories, and the sense of community is just as integral. In addition, given the racial and ethnic diversity on the island, as well as the mutations of the inhabitants, the game contains a few subtle but pointed conversations about tradition and transmission from a perspective in which whiteness has been refreshingly decentered.

Despite Mutazione’s exploration of themes such as difference, aging, and legacy, Kai is still a teenager who is largely uninterested in such things, which prevents any of the conversations in the game from becoming getting too heavy or academic. The fact that Kai is a teenager with a concomitant lack of perspective is sometimes frustrating, especially in her occasional solipsism and lack of concern for aspects of the island that turn out to be dangerous. Regardless, she’s friendly and open-minded in a way that perhaps an adult character wouldn’t be, and she functions well as a point-of-view character in both lighthearted and more serious scenarios.

In terms of its graphics, Mutazione is unique and gorgeous. The character designs are distinctive, the environments are lush and evocative, the mutant animals are brilliantly fantastic, and the mutant plants are creative yet feasible. The game also contains its own herbiary that’s accessible from the main menu. It’s completely optional, but it’s really fun to flip through. I’m not an expert on plants, but I know just enough to be able to understand that there are some cool references to the real-world scientific field of botany in both the main game and the herbiary.

The Mutazione OST, which you can find on Bandcamp, is one of the best things I’ve discovered in This Wild Year of Our Lord 2020. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it’s an extended LoFi Beats to Chill To playlist mixed with a few Riot Grrrl style anthems. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the wordless punk songs, but the rest of the OST is lovely, both as an accompaniment to the game and as a nice background for writing or studying. My favorite tracks are the three “What’s on the Menu” pieces, which are super ambient and relaxing.

The closest comparisons to Mutazione are probably Oxenfree and Night in the Woods, but Mutazione is much more secure in its identity as a story game. It doesn’t require any platforming, puzzle solving, or reflex-based minigames, and it tackles real and interesting topics and themes without forcing the player to sit through extended scenes of teenagers being awkward and unpleasant to one another. Mutazione does have a few creepy moments, and some of the revelations Kai uncovers about the island are genuinely upsetting. These darker elements add stakes and momentum to the story, and the ending of the game is incredibly satisfying.

You can probably finish Mutazione in about two to three hours if you just want to get through the main storyline, but I spent about ten hours with the game over the course of three weeks, playing a bit at a time and making sure to check in with everyone to get all of their stories. That being said, because of the gradual building of narrative momentum, I got hooked at the end and eventually reached a point where I couldn’t put the game down until I saw how everything turned out. I played Mutazione on PlayStation 4 on a big HD television, where it was absolutely gorgeous, but I’d gladly play it again on the small screen of a Nintendo Switch if it were ever released on that platform.

As much as I’m currently enjoying Age of Calamity, I found that Mutazione scratched a specific itch left by Breath of the Wild, specifically regarding gentle exploration and patchwork storytelling that proceeds at a pace set by the player, with careful attention to the environment rewarded by strange seeds. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen more people talking about how amazing Mutazione is, because the game is engrossing and beautiful and original, not to mention a refreshingly accessible vehicle for an incredible story.

By the way, the writer and narrative designer for Mutazione, Hannah Nicklin, has a piece on Gamasutra about how her creative philosophy is expressed in some of the decisions she made regarding this game, and it’s a really fun read.

A Short Hike

A Short Hike was released for Nintendo Switch about three weeks ago, and my only regret is that I waited so long to download it.

You play as an anthropomorphic bird named Claire who’s spending the weekend on holiday visiting her Aunt May in Hawk Peak Provincial Park, and your goal is to climb to the top of the mountain so that you can get reception on your phone. Since you’re a bird, you can jump down and glide whenever and wherever you feel the need. You can also fly for short periods of time, and you can collect Golden Feather upgrades to extend your flying time. There’s no combat, no danger, and no puzzles to solve. Although you’re free to go anywhere you like, the main climbing trail is clearly marked. If you get lost, you can just jump down and glide to an earlier point on the trail. It’s all very relaxing, and the soundtrack is adaptive, meaning that the music changes depending on the altitude and weather.

Because the game is so overtly referential, I don’t think it’s lazy to call it a cross between Animal Crossing and Night in the Woods. Some of the (completely optional) mechanics, such as fishing and digging up X marks on the ground, are pure Animal Crossing, as are the character designs. The dialogue never gets grim or dark, but it’s a little weirder and less performatively wholesome than Animal Crossing. The writing is unobtrusive but clever, and Claire has a lot in common with Mae from Night in the Woods.

Meanwhile, the exploration elements are very Legend of Zelda, and the game looks a lot like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, from the cell shading to the head-to-body proportions to the 3D modeling of the landscape. There’s an option to increase the frame rate and make the graphics less pixelated, but the Nintendo DS style visual atmosphere is lovely even if you don’t harbor any particular nostalgia for that era of gaming.

If you go straight up and down the mountain, the game takes maybe half an hour to play, but you can easily spend another half hour going off on side trails and having conversations with the various people you meet during your climb. I imagine that you could spend even more time with the game if you wanted to find every Golden Feather and record every species of fish in your journal, but the game’s menu screen isn’t set up in a way that makes you feel compelled to do so.

I’ve read a few reviews that criticized A Short Hike for being too, well, short, but I don’t think that’s a problem. I am no stranger to the task of collecting all 900 forest sprite poos or evolving all 900+ species of battle monsters or getting all of my fantasy fighters to Level 99, but I also love being surprised and delighted by short, self-contained, and immensely satisfying small-studio games.

I’m not sure how I feel about Nintendo asking $20 for this game, which is a bit expensive for its category, but honestly that seems like a reasonable price to pay for the experience of a solid hour of uninterrupted joy.

Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.

Night in the Woods, Part Two

I started playing Night in the Woods again recently, and I have a lot of feelings about the game. When I get interested in something, my first instinct is to read what other people have written about it. Although I knew it was a mistake, I made a bad decision and clicked on the Polygon review.

This specific line jumped out at me:

Mae also does some platforming in her sleep, and these dream sequences in particular are dull, especially late in the game when the story starts to pick up momentum.

First of all, this game is not a platformer, and evaluating a story-driven exploration game as a platformer because the main character can jump is not useful or interesting.

Second, the dream sequences are amazing. One of my favorite conceits in gaming is a piece of music that has more instruments added as the player makes progress (like the Hateno Village theme in Breath of the Wild), and every single one of the dream sequences handles this conceit perfectly. The songs themselves are weird and fun and creepy – my favorite is Astral Alley.

The fact that a professional game reviewer could look at Night in the Woods and criticize its “platforming” as “dull” boggles my mind to such an extent that I feel like a Lovecraft narrator who can’t describe what he’s seeing and resorts to frenzied and nonsensical muttering.

Here’s another bit of the review that caused me physical pain:

[Mae] is often selfish, cruel, self-absorbed and destructive in ways that may be believable and relatable but rarely ever pleasant. Mae is somewhat redeemed by a childlike joy in simple pleasures, a streak of loyalty to her friends and some late-game realizations about her own failings, but only somewhat.

Mae is a good protagonist because she’s flawed, and she’s a good person because she’s genuinely trying to be sensitive and understanding for the sake of her friends and family. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and the same can be said of the way most of the other characters in the game treat her. Some people lose their tempers with Mae when she accidentally says something stupid, and some people are mean to her for no reason, but she’s good-natured about it and doesn’t get into fights or try to hurt people to get back at them. She goes out of her way to speak to everyone without prejudice, and she’s extremely generous with her time. She’s good-natured and, yes, she’s loyal and cares about other people, even when she’s hurt. This is why people want to be friends with her.

The fact that an adult man would look at this twenty-year-old female character and say that he doesn’t like her because she’s not performing enough emotional labor is really scary to me, to be honest.

It’s also troubling that Polygon wanted someone to review a story game about a twenty-year-old queer woman and couldn’t find anyone except an older man with children. They didn’t know any women? Any queer people? Not even any younger people? This writer openly admits that he didn’t want to review this game. Could the editors at Polygon really not find anyone in even a slightly different demographic? Perhaps someone who had been following the development blog attached to the game’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign?

I wouldn’t usually include the name of the reviewer in a critical response like this, but I think it would be weird not to mention that this review was written by Justin McElroy. I know a lot of people love The Adventure Zone, but I have to admit that I’ve never understood the charm of the McElroy brothers. The fact this writer is something of a celebrity in queer-identified youth cultures is even more troubling in light of his attitude regarding Mae’s mental illness.

In that regard, this part of the review is genuinely frightening:

After a scene where Mae belittles her parents for working for years so they could afford to send her to the college that she had just bailed on, I found it pretty difficult to re-engage with her. But I’m also a parent and feel a lot further from Mae’s side of the kitchen table than I used to. It’s a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character, and it’s an effective way of highlighting the virtues of the supporting cast.

Before anything, it’s important to point out that Night in the Woods is a dialogue-driven game. Except for a handful of very specific instances, the player is always given a choice of what Mae can say and how she can respond to the direction the conversation is taking.

For an adult man who identifies as a parent to choose the dialogue option that belittles Mae’s parents and then blame his own choice on the personality of a twenty-something female character in a video game is hypocritical and unfair.

It’s also important to provide the specific context. What has happened is that Mae’s mom, who is stressed out about money but doesn’t want to talk about it, tries to be “helpful” about her daughter’s illness in an unhelpful way. Mae interprets her mother’s genuine but off-the-mark concern as condescending, and she makes a shitty comment about how she doesn’t want advice from someone who stayed in town and never went to college. Mae’s mom snaps and says she worked hard so that Mae could go to the college that Mae has dropped out for reasons that, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, she’s either not willing or not yet ready to explain.

Mae knows this, of course, and Mae’s mother knows she knows this. They both realize they’ve gone too far. Again, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, Mae can either apologize or be a brat and walk away. Regardless, Mae and her mother offer each other more meaningful apologies later, and Mae’s father provides a different perspective on the situation when Mae mentions that she wants to start looking for a job. Essentially, he tells her that it’s the responsibility of parents to care for their child; and that, as parents, he and Mae’s mother take that responsibility seriously.

What the player learns toward the end of the game is that Mae was suffering from severe depression, which was co-morbid with executive function disorder (which refers to the state of knowing what you need to do and wanting to do it but being unable to get started) and extreme dissociative episodes. This specific diagnosis is never provided, but I’ve seen it often enough to know what it is. The way college is structured is not healthy for people who are prone to mental illness, which the game has established is true of Mae. It’s not that there’s anything “wrong” with Mae as a person, but being forced to live in a dorm while taking large general education classes that she wasn’t interested in triggered a crisis with a condition that she had previously been able to manage.

Mae was failing all of her classes, sleeping for most of the day, and thinking about death while feeling that she was slipping in and out of reality. No one helped her – which is normal in American universities – so she came home. Mae’s parents are sympathetic, and Mae is, for the most part, grateful.

Mae is in a difficult situation, but she made the right choice.

What exactly did Justin McElroy expect Mae to do? Stay at school until she successfully killed herself? So that she wouldn’t cause trouble for her parents?

A major theme of Night in the Woods is its critique of this specific attitude, namely, that it is the individual who is to blame for the failings of a large and impersonal system. It’s terrifying to me that Justin McElroy could play this game from start to finish and write about it as a staff reviewer for a major gaming news outlet and completely misread this theme, saying instead that it’s “a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character.” What I’m afraid of is the fact that this is the sort of person who’s driving the culture – an older straight man who doesn’t see any problem with condemning a young queer woman for making difficult but healthy choices about her own life.

Night in the Woods, Part One

One of the things I find interesting about Night in the Woods is the relationship Mae has with her parents after she drops out of college and moves back home. There are a few moments of tension, but they’re resolved in a satisfying way; and, on the whole, Mae’s parents are kind and supportive.

I’m not sure how much I want to write about this, but my own situation with my parents and family was so dysfunctional and abusive that I had a lot of trouble understanding the relationship between Mae and her parents as “normal.” I kept waiting for Mae’s parents to show their real faces, but that twist never happened; both of them were kind and supportive for the entire game. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but most of my adult years have been an ongoing process of re-evaluating what “normal” relationships look like. Partially for this reason, I think Night in the Woods is incredible in the way it portrays an extraordinary range of relationships between different people. Even though none of the characters is a perfect model of what a person “should” be, the game contains a number of useful examples for what healthy interactions between different people can look like.

To put this into perspective, here’s an excerpt from a wholesome Tumblr post about good parenting:

And then one day the abusive father was angry at the mom, and tried to take it out on my friend, my friend got a call filled with insults and threats. It was scary and my friend got upset, I tried to comfort them but I really didn’t have good words to say. They later called their mom, and this is what the mother said:

“You are a perfect person, if anyone is talking to you like this, you can walk away.”

I remember just feeling complete awe hearing this, told from a mom, to a child. It even cheered me up. Those are the words we should have been getting from our parents. This is the correct attitude.

Night in the Woods has a cast of characters who are flawed but try to have this sort of “correct attitude” regarding the trouble in their lives. The overall atmosphere of the game is quite dark, but each of the characters shines like a small light. It’s useful to be able to identify signs of abuse, of course, but it’s also important to have access to models for healthy relationships, no matter how old you are or where you are in your life.