Red Trees

Red Trees by Caramel
https://caramel.itch.io/redtrees

Red Trees is a free nonviolent adventure story game made with RPG Maker in a style that emulates the Game Boy Color. It’s about a small village that might be haunted by ghosts in the woods, and it’s adorable.

The game is divided into three sections: the village’s residential area, its business center to the north, and the forest to the south. In order to progress from one area to another, you embark on an extended trading quest. For example, someone asks you to find their cat. To convince the cat to follow you, you need to feed it fish. In order to procure a fish, you need to give a can of worms to the person fishing at the local pond. The trading sequence isn’t strictly linear, but it’s not so complicated that you’d get lost or frustrated.

Red Trees isn’t a horror game by any means, but it gives me strong Omori vibes. (Although, having made that comparison, I should say that Red Trees was originally released in 2016, four years before Omori.) The music is relaxing, the character portraits are super cute, and the writing is wholesome with a touch of light humor reminiscent of Tumblr circa 2015. I especially love the menu screen’s character log, which collects short profiles of everyone you’ve met. The item portraits and descriptions are lovely as well.

Red Trees takes about an hour to complete, but this is mainly because of the game’s spatial layout. Your character can’t run, and the town is so spacious that it takes time to walk from place to place. This never becomes frustrating, but you may want to download the game so you can save your progress, step away, and come back later. Red Trees is extremely charming, and the experience of playing it is much more enjoyable if you take your time instead of rushing to finish it.

If you’re going to download Red Trees, you have the option of paying $2 to get an extra file folder of illustrations and a PDF booklet with annotated concept and development art. I highly recommend this extra material, but I’d also recommend not checking it out until you finish the game, as it spoils the ending. In fact, the bonus content functions almost like a separate postgame story, and it’s just as sweet and adorable as the game itself.

Capacity

Capacity by Renee Blair
https://heptad.itch.io/capacity

Capacity is a Game Boy style RPG Maker story game that uses generic pixel graphics and original character illustrations to tell a short fantasy-themed story about a bad relationship. The game describes this as “a toxic relationship,” but I don’t think it’s that complicated; it’s just a teenage girl who is hung up on a boy who clearly isn’t that into her. She doesn’t know how to let him go, so she embarks on a quest that she hopes will fix the relationship.

Capacity is extremely pretty and features a number of clever design elements. The monster art is great, and the final boss is a demon after my own heart. The game is driven by its narrative, and there’s no actual fighting. It takes about ten minutes to play, it’s totally free, and you can play it right in your browser window.

Capacity’s message is a bit heavy-handed and occasionally inappropriate to the situation. The game’s text drops mentions to “a cycle of abuse” and “generational trauma,” but really, it’s just a girl who’s hung up on a boy who isn’t that into her. Presumably because they’re both in their early teens. This isn’t to say that the boy isn’t a jerk and a coward, or that the protagonist isn’t a bit unhinged for pursuing him despite the clear “I don’t want to be involved with you” signals he’s broadcasting at every turn, but this is normal behavior for teenagers who are still figuring out how relationships work. It doesn’t make anyone a “toxic” person, especially not if they’re just a kid. We’ve all been there.

Putting the heavy-handed elements of Capacity’s story and writing aside, the game is really fun to play. In order to “save” your shitty “boyfriend” from his “curse,” you walk through a fantasy castle and interact with monsters, all of whom give you some variation of “he’s just not that into you.” At the top of the castle, the smoking hot Demon Lord tells you that a relationship doesn’t have to be like this, and that you deserve so much better. The fact that you refuse to listen to him proves that you still have some growing to do, and this is reflected in the game’s twist ending.

Capacity’s entire narrative structure emphasizes the point that sometimes your “demons” are right, and that you need to listen to what they’re trying to tell you about the situation that’s triggering your anxiety. It took me years to figure this out, and it’s a powerful message.

Spiritfarer

I caught the flu last week. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days. It was intense.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, Spiritfarer is the perfect game. The art and music are soothing and gentle, and the gameplay is simultaneously relaxing and addictive. It took me somewhere between 35 and 40 hours to get close to 100% completion, and I didn’t notice the passage of time at all while I was playing.

Spiritfarer describes itself as a “cozy management game about dying,” which is as good of a description as any. As Stella, the newly appointed Spiritfarer, it’s your job to ferry spirits to the great beyond on a giant boat. The twelve spirits you encounter take the forms of anthropomorphic animals, and each has a distinct personality and set of preferences. These spirits will need to spend time on your boat before they’re ready to move on, and you’re tasked with building each of them a small house and then keeping them fed and happy while they travel with you. You pick up cooking ingredients and building resources by visiting various points on the map, which you’ll gradually explore as you complete requests and meet new spirits. While sailing between locations on your boat, you can grow crops, care for livestock, cook food, and craft various materials.

Each spirit gives you an Obol as payment for their passage, and a spirit flower will bloom in their house after they move on. You use these tokens to upgrade your boat and expand your range of abilities, which grow include gliding and double jumping. This system of resource-based expansion allows you to open more of the game at your own pace while simultaneously limiting the number of tasks you need to worry about at any given time.

Spiritfarer has an excellent balance of exploration and crafting, as well as optional bits of Metroidvania-lite platforming. There’s no combat. Most of the challenge comes from effective in-game time management, although there are no time limits or negative consequences for just futzing around. Player movement is limited by a few artificial barriers at the beginning, but the world of Spiritfarer is relatively open, and there’s always a lot going on. The spirits’ requests nudge you in the direction of exploring new areas of the map organically, so you’ll never be at a loss for what to do next. Thankfully, your menu screen contains a list of requests and sidequests for your convenience.

The introduction to Spiritfarer’s story is a bit silly – you are a small child! here’s a giant boat! go out and ferry the dead! – but it becomes much more compelling as you progress. It might seem odd that a cute game about sailing around with talking animals has a “Teen” rating, but some of the spirits are carrying a lot of baggage. Their stories aren’t melodramas with happy endings, but instead involve real and complicated misbehavior, delusions, and regrets. To give an example, one of the souls is suffering from dementia. She’s kind and curious when she’s lucid, but she’s incredibly mean during her foggy periods, and she gradually gets worse instead of better.

There’s no graphic depiction of sex or violence, but some of the stories are surprisingly dark and specific. The first spirit you meet, Gwen, eventually admits that she struggled with suicidal ideation throughout her youth, and the compulsion to end her life returned with a vengeance as she was dying from lung cancer in her early forties. Gwen didn’t commit suicide, but she wasn’t able to survive cancer, and her blithely ironic attitude can’t quite conceal how bitter she is about having her life cut short.

Stella’s own story isn’t revealed until later in the game, but the way the spirits are connected to her is touching and beautiful. Spiritfarer celebrates the joy of being alive, but it’s ultimately about the sweetness and gentleness of death. Thankfully, it has a solid sense of humor, and also you can raise sheep.

Spiritfarer is a perfectly designed to be fun and engaging without being frustrating. I also appreciate that it wraps up in a satisfying thirty to forty hours. It’s exactly the sort of game I might recommend to adults who aren’t into gaming but are interested in how the medium can tell a complex story in an interesting and unique way.

Spiritfarer is also the perfect game to play if you find yourself stuck in bed with a prolonged illness. Even though I would happily recommend the game to anyone, it’s worth saving for when you need it.

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk is a visual novel about an all-night coffee shop in Seattle. You play as the barista, and your job is to connect your customers to one another while improving their moods by serving warm drinks. Although the game tackles serious issues softened through the lens of fantasy, its tone is relatively lighthearted and gentle, and the pixel graphics are cute and cozy.  

The game has three screens: your view of the shop from behind the counter as you chat with your customers, an ingredient selection screen for the drinks you make, and your cellphone, which contains an incomplete list of recipes, a music playlist, and an in-game social media app. The story takes place over fourteen nights, and there’s only one ending. There are no dialog choices, but some of your customers will open up to you more (and allow you greater access to their social media profiles) if you serve them drinks to match their moods. In other words, there isn’t much gameplay. Aside from brewing different types of coffee and tea, the player is mainly along for the ride.

Every review I’ve read of Coffee Talk complains about the drink brewing system, and rightly so. It’s counterintuitive and needlessly complicated. Each drink has a base – coffee, tea, green tea, chocolate, or milk – and you can add two additional ingredients, such as mint or cinnamon. The order in which you add the ingredients matters, meaning that tea with lemon and honey is a different recipe than tea with honey and lemon. On top of that, each drink has several different meters measuring qualities such as “sweet” or “cool,” and there’s no way to predict what combination of ingredients will result in the requested combination of qualities. Your customers will sometimes tell you how to brew a drink, but you mostly have to complete the recipe app on your phone yourself.

I can’t imagine that there’s any way to get everyone’s drink orders correct without either using a walkthrough or exploiting the save feature as you employ trial and error to go through a list of possible permutations. Thankfully, it doesn’t really matter, and most players will probably do just fine by paying attention to the dialog.

The main draw of Coffee Talk is its setting, a fantasy AU version of Seattle. The year is 2020, and everything is more or less the same except that fantasy races are real – elves, orcs, vampires, fish people, you name it. As far as I can tell, there’s no magic aside from the general characteristics associated with various fantasy races, meaning that elves have long lifespans, werewolves transform once a month, and so on. Each night at the coffee shop is prefaced by the front page of that day’s newspaper, and the fantasy world’s concerns seem to mirror those of our own: Orcs demand an end to workplace discrimination, the U.S. and Atlantis negotiate immigration reforms, Seattle plans to host this year’s Coachella music festival.  

The eleven characters who visit the coffee shop come from all walks of life. One of my favorites is the werewolf war veteran Gala, who works in medical administration. He seems to have a complicated past, but this is nowhere near as important as the mundane conversations he has with other characters, often contributing a sense of perspective to their problems. It’s refreshing that none of the characters care about the details of what it’s like to be a werewolf but are much more interested in what it means to work in medical admin. Gala is friends with a supermodel vampire named Hyde, who is characterized not as a “supermodel” or “vampire,” but rather someone who means well but is brutally honest – and perhaps romantically interested in Gala.

The setting of Coffee Talk has a lot of narrative potential, but I feel the worldbuilding is somewhat shallow. In addition, the lighthearted tone of the writing doesn’t match the complications of the issues under discussion. To give an example, one of the coffee shop’s patrons is an eighteen-year-old aspiring pop star whose manager seems to be setting her up to be sexually assaulted at a Coachella afterparty. Thankfully, the character is able to avoid this situation by not attending the party. How simple is that! When you’re confronted with sexual menace, you can just… walk away! It’s not like careers in the entertainment industry are based on the connections formed at these parties or anything.

Although this isn’t anywhere near as heavy as some of the other character arcs, I felt personally attacked by Freya, a green-haired human woman who works as a staff writer at a local Seattle newspaper. Freya receives a chance opportunity to submit a novel to a head editor at her newspaper’s parent company, with the caveat that she has to complete a draft in two weeks. Which she is 100% able to do, because she believes in herself. Writing a presentation-ready draft of a novel in two weeks is all about self-confidence, right? And of course her novel is accepted for publication, and it becomes a best seller right away, and all of this happens in less than a year. Because that’s all it takes to publish the first novel you’ve ever written: believing in yourself – and a lot of caffeine!!

Obviously I’m being ironic. Writing and publishing a novel in a few short months is just as much of a fantasy as the story arc of a game developer who solves the issue of crunch culture by… just taking a weekend vacation! Putting aside the work cultures of people in creative industries, I’m frustrated by the suggestion that a pleasant conversation all it takes to solve heavier problems ranging from systemic racism to needlessly high barriers to legal immigration, and that if your own life isn’t working out then you just aren’t drinking enough fancy coffee.

It should go without saying that this is nothing more than my personal response to the game. My frustration with Coffee Talk is my frustration with YA fiction in general, by which I mean that I find it difficult to become emotionally invested in characters who face genuine challenges but aren’t allowed to say “fuck.” Still, I understand that not everything has to be realistic and gritty, and that there’s value in seeing a happy ending for a character whose experience mirrors your own.   

On the whole, Coffee Talk is enjoyable and well-written, and it’s a nice lo-fi game to chill to. It takes about three to four hours to finish, and it has a fun postgame secret ending that adds a bit of replay value. A sequel is planned for release later this year, and I’m looking forward to reading more interactive stories set in this universe.

Reminiscence in the Night

Reminiscence in the Night is a short point-and-click story game that takes place in the two-room apartment of someone with serious depression. It has multiple endings, and it takes about half an hour to play.

At the beginning of the game, your character wakes up in their apartment with no memories, and they can’t (or won’t) go outside. Their only clues to their identity are their mother, who calls on the phone, and their childhood friend Sofia, whom they can video chat with on their computer. Unfortunately, their mother is suffering from a memory disorder, and things are a bit awkward with Sofia.

The controls are simple and easy, but there isn’t much to interact with. The endings aren’t broadcast, and the dialog choices seem arbitrary. Unless you use a walkthrough, you’re probably not getting out of the apartment.

The game’s soft pastel graphics are cute, but its themes are very dark, and there are mild elements of horror. It’s difficult to understand exactly what happens if you get the bad ending, but either a ghost that lives in your mirror attacks and destroys you, or the ghost is metaphorical and you commit suicide.

The good endings are a bit more interesting, but you can only unlock them through an exact series of specific choices. If you happen to choose the “wrong” response to Sofia during your first conversation – which is, again, not broadcast at all – you’re almost certainly going to get the bad ending.

I’m not sure how well this arbitrariness works as a narrative device; but, if you’re willing to accept Reminiscence in the Night as a horror game with a dark ending, it’s an entertaining way to spend half an hour. It’s going for $3 on the Nintendo Switch store, and I’d say it’s worth it.

I’m intrigued by Team SolEtude, the studio that developed Reminiscence in the Night. They’ve got about half a dozen free games up on Itchio, and I’m definitely interested in playing more of their work.

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.