Calendars are an arbitrary measure of time, but I think we can all agree that leaving 2020 behind is something of a blessing, right? So this month, let’s talk about games that center around renewal as a theme.
What games do you feel really capture the feeling of renewal? How do they accomplish that?
Melissa Brinks: I thought a lot about this question and wasn’t sure how to answer it—there are games that I think may feature renewal but in a less intended way, or that may touch on it but where it isn’t the focus. I’m going to cheat and pick two because they’re both short: SOLARPUNKIFICATION and A Bewitching Revolution. Both games are brief indie experiences about transforming spaces that echo either the trajectory or reality of our real world (a city patrolled by water-confiscating police in SOLARPUNKIFICATION, a corporate and police-controlled city in A Bewitching Revolution) not through typical video game violence, but through planting gardens and magic.
Both games still imply violence (the police presence is a real threat), but resistance is building things, inspiring people, opening community kitchens. These worlds are transformed through subversion and deliberate actions like housing the homeless or planting vegetables on rooftops. They feel markedly different from your typical video game for exactly this reason—nobody tells you what to do, nobody gives you gold for completing a quest. You just see a thing that needs fixing, you fix it with what skills you have, and that makes the world better for everyone.
Elvie Mae Parian: I think there are a lot of titles that tap into processing the feelings of healing and even something that can be outright therapeutic, but Spiritfarer perfectly captures the theme of renewal as a game that entirely revolves around death and how to come to terms with it. You play a character whose main purpose is to help spirits finish off any loose ends they have left before they completely move on: in a sense, you are “helping” others die. And saying that comes with a lot of morbidity, but it’s a game that focuses on providing comfort through a difficult process. It’s one thing to also be able to learn how to process death from an outside perspective, but Spiritfarer puts agency in that process in the hands of the spirits going through death themselves, and when they want to fully move on is on their own terms. It takes the fleeting moments before death as a transitional period to revisit the previous aspects of your life and bring closure before entering the next cycle.
Arrog is a very short point-and-click game that translates this concept similarly through Peruvian mythology and themes, in which you navigate the strange, surreal imagery within a person’s final dreams before their body is completely laid to rest. The finality of this person’s death essentially taps back into this idea that with the necessity of death comes life.
Zainabb Hull: I love both of these concepts of renewal, and I’m excited that these games are thoughtfully exploring death, community building, and mutual aid. Honestly, I’ve been struggling to think of games that evoke a sense of renewal for me, but this makes me think about titles that encourage nurturing and rebuilding. It’s mostly a clicker game but I find Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden very soothing as a sort of gardening simulator. You grow, tend to, and harvest organs with various witchy uses. Organs grow on their own over time, or you can directly nurture them by clicking repeatedly to speed up the process. The organ plants continue to replenish regardless. The fact that you’re growing human organs creates a somewhat macabre sense of perpetual recycling, a reminder that life and death are cyclical. Just as our real bodies rot in death, feeding back into the environment, the organs in Forget Me Not are used by living characters who will eventually also become organs to be reused.
A very literal game about renewal would be House Flipper which tasks players with renovating houses to sell on. I haven’t played the game myself but I’ve watched several Let’s Plays, all of which focus much more on the process of renovation rather than the selling and level-progressing aspects of the game. You can unlock upgrades as you progress through the game but initially the player must clean, sweep, paint, and hammer slowly and methodically in order to fix up each house. This mechanic really ties in with this idea of renewal as something that’s linked to healing and repair, and which requires concentrated nurture and work.
How can games tap into a sense of renewal mechanically?
Melissa: This is the tricky part, I think. Renewal, to me, is a theme that’s often at odds with the language of video games in particular because so much of player input is destruction and violence. That can be subverted, especially in games that use farming or talking or similar methods of engagement, but the overwhelming majority of games rely on violence, which, to me, feels at odds with renewal as a theme. That said, I think it’s a really interesting premise for roguelikes in particular, as they use new takes on the same thing as a core design feature! I’m not super familiar with the genre other than Hades, but I think there is almost something there since the game is about the dogged pursuit of something different. Each run is “new” in the sense that it’s procedurally generated, but there’s more to it than that—Zagreus’ mission in escaping from the House of Hades isn’t just about his own desire, but also changing the landscape of the Underworld itself. I’m not finished with it yet, so I can’t really say whether this has any play in the story (though I suspect it does, considering who his mother is), but despite the game being combat-driven, the repetition, determination, and clear changes in the people and places Zagreus comes across are both emblematic of being a roguelite and, depending on how things develop, channeling an interesting sense of renewal.
Elvie: Hades is definitely a great example of tapping into the concept of renewal mechanically that is supposed to yield positive results and progress. On the other hand, my ideas of where games have succeeded in using renewal mechanically come with a little more negative baggage. For instance, I think a lot about more subversive and meta-breaking visual novels that recognize, if not outright call out, the player’s agency and role to challenge or change the events from one playthrough to another. Every time you start a new game and pursue a different path, there can be a sense of renewal compared to your previous playing experience, but there can also just as easily be the weight of guilt. It may beg questions like: Could I have prevented a character’s death if I never did x action? Should I decide to never meet this other character in order to prevent y from happening? Etcetera. There are these moral questions that come up that feel very karmic even after just one playthrough.
Undertale is not a visual novel, but the game can take such a dramatic turn depending on how you play it, in addition to the fact that the game itself acknowledges this. It is very possible to have a completely peaceful, pacifist playthrough of Undertale without engaging in any sort of combat. On the polar opposite end, you can choose to take part in completely being aggressive and violent with every enemy (and ally) you meet. To participate in the latter experience prompts you with many questions at its end, and to reconsider your actions and play the game again—albeit differently—as if a higher power is speaking directly to you and begging you to tap into your conscience for your own good.
Zainabb: I also find it interesting to think about the ways in which games often use renewal in the context of dying and violence. Games like Hades are obvious picks here, with games like Hotline Miami and Limbo allowing you to continuously restart and try again—either to kill a bunch of people or to avoid your own death—with no consequence. In these two instances, renewal becomes less about a process; you’re not necessarily encouraged to contemplate death but to forge on ahead, with your inevitable renewal something you can take for granted.
In contrast, some tabletop games engage with the theme of renewal with more depth, tapping into that sense of work and mindful nurture as key to achieving ‘renewal’. The Quiet Year does this by using playing cards to represent the seasons within a year, with players establishing problems and projects they need to address before the year is out, in order to rebuild a post-apocalyptic community. Dice represent the number of weeks needed to complete a project, such as building a well, planting a communal garden, or making a ritual sacrifice. Regardless of the kind of community being rebuilt, the game insists on the necessity of time, effort, and attention in the long term project of cooperative renewal.
How can games about renewal avoid becoming repetitive or stale? What games do you think succeed or fail at this?
Melissa: I think, as with all kinds of games, variety and a clear trajectory are the key. Without having played a farming simulator, it’s easy to imagine that they’d get boring very quickly. But as our collective invested hours in games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing (which is not a farming simulator but which is close enough for me) show, that’s not the case. Stardew Valley has rotating seasons, crops, and random events that add just enough spice to make the days feel different from one another, while Animal Crossing has random items, events, and seasons. Both games have clear trajectories for success, whether self-defined or tied to the game’s story, that let you feel a sense of progress even as you work through a series of fairly repetitive tasks.
I don’t know that I’d say either of those games are really about renewal, but even in the two games I mentioned above—SOLARPUNKIFICATION and A Bewitching Revolution—performing the same actions doesn’t get repetitive because you get different results. The world changes as you act in it, giving those actions some meaning beyond “it’s fun to press buttons.” If the world is visibly different after I’ve clicked on something, that’s enough for me as a player to feel rewarded—though, naturally, more changes or compounding changes will feel better.
Elvie: I agree that even titles like open-ended simulator games need to have some metrics and benchmarks to incentivize the playing experience. But I think in that regard it does make it hard, whether or not some of those titles do capture what “renewal” is, unless they do follow or acknowledge the flow of time, which is what Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing have been aforementioned as observing. Games like Minecraft and Terraria are fun, but the default experience of playing them with their vast open-endedness do not make them games about renewal when there are no strict blueprints to define what that is, even thematically.
I do not like Jonathan Blow, but I genuinely think Braid is a title worth discussing in that it tried to tackle the themes of renewal but fell very short. Braid wanted to make a bigger statement when it came to the unreliable narrator and to be wary of taking things at face value. It has time-traveling aspects in which you can “rewind” gameplay even after you die to approach what just happened differently, similar to the mechanic in the Prince of Persia series. So ultimately, there are elements of renewal within the game itself, but I don’t think it succeeds in wholly being a game about renewal. I think elements of transformation or change are crucial to defining the theme, and I don’t think Braid demonstrated any of those things. The game also has extended text to it beyond its main plot that undermines its initial message into something that pivots into the concept and imagery of destruction.
Zainabb: I agree, I think that a sense of things changing and being a part of a living and dynamic world is really important to avoid repetitive gameplay feeling tedious. Tabletop games like The Quiet Year incorporate this through communal storytelling—every game plays out differently depending on what narrative the players want to explore. Adding elements of randomness through dice rolls and card draws also helps to keep things fresh with each move. Even clicker games like Forget Me Not provide a sense of progression through story events, new sidequests, and unlockable features, like new types of organs to grow and harvest. This also feels like a process of renewal, like with real gardening. You invest your time and energy into tiny, repetitive actions and you’re rewarded with a cycle of growth and progression.
Read the rest of Sidequest’s roundtables.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.