More Than Just Fishing: A Roundtable About Sidequests

More Than Just Fishing: A Roundtable About Sidequests

I’ve written pretty thoroughly about how I am a particular type of gamer. I prefer games that are story and relationship focused, and that don’t require a lot of level grinding or random quests. This includes my tabletop play style—apologies to my DM/wife who is sitting on a bunch of Kingmaker sidequests that our party has ignored! Because of my pickiness, I don’t play a lot of games, but lately I’ve been feeling like this framework of “pickiness” is unfair. Am I a gamer aberration? What makes me different from all of you? Why the heck do y’all enjoy repetitive level grinding?! (more…)

Roundtable: What Even Is a Wholesome Game?

Roundtable: What Even Is a Wholesome Game?

PAX West was, as always, a wild convention. Given the state of the pandemic and my busy schedule, I wasn’t sure I’d be going, and didn’t bother to look at the panel list with more than a cursory glance. I saw “A Case for Cozy: Why we (really) need wholesome games!” on the list but didn’t investigate further because, frankly, the conversation around wholesome games—what they’re worth, who they’re for—gets rapidly exhausting, and I felt that it was likely going to be a list of the same old recommendations without a whole lot of insight.

Naturally, that meant my friend dragged me along to get my hot takes. (more…)

September Roundtable: Changing Seasons

September Roundtable: Changing Seasons

I can’t speak for the whole of Sidequest, but when I feel the first day of crisp autumn air or see the first morning with a dusting of frost, something changes in me. The transitory seasons are where it’s at, in my opinion, and while games may not have mastered the art of pumpkin-flavored everything or the itchiness of spring allergies, they nonetheless have done a pretty good job of exploring the beauty of seasonal changes. This month, we’re talking about gaming seasons—the literal and the figurative.

What game do you find has the best seasons? Bonus points if you don’t say Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing.

Zainabb Hull: So maybe it’s cheating a little because it’s frequently compared to Animal Crossing, but I logged onto Cozy Grove at the start of September to find all of the leaves going gold and the wildlife starting to change, and it made me really happy. That shift from summer to autumn was always my favourite as a kid, but thanks to climate change, we don’t really have seasons in London anymore so I particularly appreciate the reliable season changes in games like Cozy Grove or Stardew Valley.

At the moment, though, my favourite game for this is Red Dead Redemption 2. I don’t think it technically has seasons, but it does have beautiful weather changes and distinct geographical regions that come with their own microclimates. It’s not the same as seeing one landscape change throughout the year, but it gives me the same sense of moving through time and nature that seasons used to provide when I was younger.

Melissa Brinks: Cozy Grove is distinct from Animal Crossing—I award you full bonus points!

Maybe it’s because I’d been editing our playthrough of The Quiet Year when writing these questions, but that has to be my answer. I think in this game you only feel the seasons in the typical way if you invoke the details yourself, but thematically, the seasonal shifts really clicked for me. We started with hope and promise in spring, but that doesn’t mean we were without threats. As time passed, those threats compounded, abundances and scarcities waxed and waned, and we could really feel the impending doom of winter and the havoc it could wreak on us once it arrived. While we may not have seen the color schemes or had the opportunity to pick different crops, I feel like The Quiet Year really excelled at the thematic connections between the seasons and what was happening narratively.

Cress: I’m always a sucker for Harvest Moon and games like it *wink* for all the joys of simulating an idyllic life. For me, though, I remember Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. Besides the usual fun you’d expect from our classic adventure/puzzle solving franchise, the mechanic of changing the seasons was added in using the rod of seasons. Do you need to travel across a lake? Switch to winter and freeze it! The path is blocked by boulders? Autumn will change them to mushrooms!? It was such a joy to test out the power in different locations to reveal paths or hidden secrets.

Do you find yourself drawn to certain games or types of games as the seasons change?

Zainabb: I’ve noticed that I really enjoy playing long, open-world games in the autumn and winter, when I’m able to bundle up under loads of blankets and it’s darker for longer in the mornings. There’s nothing more comforting on a cold weekend than bringing in the sunrise with whatever RPG I’m currently taking my time with. My seasonal affective disorder hits again once the weather starts to change in the spring, and by summer I’m functioning significantly less in the humidity and the heat. For that half of the year, I prefer to tackle shorter indie games in my backlog where I can feel like I’m making progress more quickly and obviously than with an RPG. I’ll also turn to some tried-and-tested flare games for self-care and distraction on the bad days.

Melissa: I will forever associate Red Dead Redemption 2 with being extremely sweaty in summer heat. Part of that is because it took me ages to beat it, but another is that I feel like I have more time for games in the summer, when the days run long. Long games like that are more enjoyable for me when I play them for an hour or more at a time, so I associate them with summer. The same is true for The Sims—the moment the average temperature hits 75+ (that’s hot for this Washington state resident), all I want to do is put on a lo-fi beats playlist and while away the hours watching my digital people go about their lives.

In the fall and winter, when it’s football season and I graciously allow my husband to use the TV, I like curling up with my Switch and returning to old favorites—Hades, Battle Chef Brigade, and Stardew Valley being some of my most frequent choices.

A screenshot of Arthur Morgan standing and looking over the creek below Beaver Hollow.

Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Studios, Rockstar Games, 2018

Cress: It’s getting closer to Halloween! So, I always think this time I’ll play through a true survival horror game, but I end up getting too scared. During winter, I get this idea of playing a handheld game, wrapped in a quilt with cocoa nearby. Now that I have a Switch Lite, I should do so.

Lately I’m getting the urge to dive into old PS2 RPGs. I’d like to dig out my old PS3 to start going through the years of backlog. A friend lent me Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts 2 since I recently finished Koudelka. Maybe I can make my cozy gaming vision a reality this year.

Many recent games, especially free-to-play ones like Fortnite, feature a different kind of “season.” Have you ever played through one of these seasons? What do you think about this model?

Zainabb: I’m pretty sure I’ve only played one season-based game, the free-to-play version of Fall Guys. I, uh, don’t think its first season has ended yet, although I couldn’t be certain because it took me ages to understand what a game season is (my partner played Fortnite for several months after the pandemic started so I became familiar through osmosis). I’m not a fan of the model, although I’m glad that at least Fall Guys and, from what I could tell, Fortnite seem to still be perfectly playable with only cosmetic items requiring purchase. Nonetheless, the structure is deliberately designed to be addictive and, given that it’s mostly children playing these games, that feels super icky and inappropriate, especially since some argue that loot boxes in games like these are essentially a form of unregulated gambling.

Melissa: I have to be honest: I have no idea what a game season is. I vaguely remember it being a thing when I played Overwatch, but I feel like I greeted each season with surprise! Like, “Oh? A new season? OK, time to play competitive for three rounds, then get angry and bounce!” I was never aware of when the season changed or what it really meant from a gameplay perspective other than that I had to redo ranked matches.

Cress: This reminds me that I should try to get Sam in Death Stranding a little Santa hat.

When I played Fire Emblem Heroes I aimed for the seasonal gacha pulls. During these times there’d be special themed versions of popular heroes and new maps with a little side story. I paid a little more than I’d like to disclose for Halloween versions, especially for Niles.

Which game is guaranteed to cure (or at least ease) your seasonal depression?

Zainabb: I talk about it all the time, but it’s true—ever since I got it, Cozy Grove has been my number one gaming companion when depressed (both the regular and seasonal kinds), sick, flaring up, whenever. If my bodymind ain’t working properly, it’s Cozy Grove time.

But I want to give an honourable mention to Kentucky Route Zero, which is perhaps a strange pick for easing depression, but it’s just how I feel, okay? I love the soundtrack, the visuals, the sucker punch to my emotions. Sometimes you just need the misery you feel deep within your soul to be recognised by the games you play, you know?

Melissa: I’m lucky enough to not experience seasonal depression symptoms (just the regular ol’ minor kind for me!), but I will say that our long, rainy winters here in the PNW can get me down from time to time, especially when I look outside and wish I had flowers or vegetables or literally anything other than dead brown plants growing in my garden. For that, I have Stardew Valley! Gardening in a game may not be as satisfying as gardening in real life, but planting, picking, and selling my goods scratches the part of my brain that loves to see things growing.


August Roundtable: Back to School

August Roundtable: Back to School

Welcome to August, Sidequest readers! We’re winding down the summer by thinking about school and being a student, because some of us (Melissa) would go to school forever if that was a practical life choice. We’ve talked about edutainment before here in this roundtable series, so this month, we’ll be talking more specifically about school, studying, and so on. Sharpen your pencils and open your notebooks, if those are things students still do and not artifacts of an analog age!

I know quite a few of us enjoy games set in high school, such as Monsterhearts or Persona. What’s the appeal of games like that?

Melissa Brinks: High school sucked and I don’t want to go back there. But at the same time, there’s something really fun about the idea of high school. Everything is the most important thing that has ever happened to you (and probably to anybody) as a teenager, and it can be really fun to indulge that feeling. It’s also fun to occasionally shed our adult concerns and focus on things like intense emotional experiences and how we construct ourselves without those pressures.

Cress: I guess it can be the idea of redoing that time as an adult. I definitely have chosen different ways of going about a game like Persona when I was in my late teens vs. now. Although I honestly don’t know how those kids manage to go to school, study, then fight in a dungeon for all hours of the night!!

I didn’t get to do a lot of stuff in high school, nor were there a bunch of clubs. So it’s fun to see my character engage in all of those things. Still don’t know where they get the energy though, geez…

Zainabb Hull: I neither went to high school nor like schools, full stop, so I find it fascinating to consider why I often enjoy games set at schools. I think there’s a huge element of fantasy for me—you don’t usually need to consider the systems of oppression that schools are designed to create and uphold, you don’t need to revisit your actual childhood, and look, there’s a reason why British secondary schools aren’t the vibes for most school-set games (so you can romanticise a grand teenage adventure with clubs and emotions, instead of just wanting to burn down the grey, linoleum-clad halls of your youth).

Why do you think so many games are set in high school as opposed to college?

Melissa: I haven’t played either of the games in the last question, but I have played Monster Prom and Ladykiller in a Bind, both of which are romance-based games set in high school or immediately post-high-school settings. The school connection in both games feels like it’s more for forced proximity, cliques, and shitty young person behavior than anything else—and because both games deal heavily with romance and sex, both are very clear about the characters being 18 or older. Ladykiller, much like We Know the Devil, is in part about deception and the forming of identities, which I think tracks really well with high school (ish) settings. All of these things could work in a college setting, but I think there’s other expectations for college narratives—they’re often about widening your social circle rather than exploring its limitations, there’s more of an expectation that you’re solidifying rather than finding yourself, that kind of thing.

Of course, that’s not set in stone. I think you could have Monster University (aside from the fact that Disney got there first), the characters of We Know the Devil as camp counselors rather than camp attendees, and the cruise of Ladykiller could be a cruise for a specific department or something. But setting it in or just after high school sort of taps into our memories of what that time in our life was like, whether to deepen our connection (something We Know the Devil excels at) or to make the experience more interesting (Ladykiller‘s dabbling in hedonism and taboo is probably not all that common an experience).

Cress: Partly I think it’s to hit that demographic, and partly I feel it’s a bit of laziness. Setting things in college would require writing more adult-oriented experiences and thinking about tackling problems as an adult. If it’s high school, kids live at home, maybe do part-time gigs and still haven’t figured out what they’ll do (not saying all kids, these games definitely don’t tend to explore working-class situations well). But in college, the person may have their own living space, have to find options for work, and be set in certain goals. I think you can still do the whole “figuring yourself out” in college for a game and I’d love that!

Who knows, maybe some of the developers feel college hits too close to home and want to romanticize their teenage years.

Zainabb: I agree with Cress that partly I think high school places limits on characters and the story in a way that university doesn’t. Sure, at uni you’re still attending classes, and maybe you live on a campus or a small university town somewhere, but there’s no mandatory attendance, and now you’re suddenly figuring life out on your own. School settings can be useful for exploring specific themes because they—and their characters—are bound in a way that others aren’t. I also think that Melissa’s right in saying that people use high school settings to tap into feelings of nostalgia or heightened emotions. I am not someone who relates to coming-of-age or YA narratives basically ever, so those aren’t reasons I play games set in schools, but I’d expect games creators to feel that way!

Some games require a lot of learning about their world, essentially asking you to study before you can play them effectively. How do you feel about this as a player or as a GM? Do you enjoy the studying part?

Melissa: I’m a person who learns by doing and by watching. That will never stop me from buying sourcebooks, though! I often GM, so it’s practical for me to own sourcebooks and study them, but I also just like having them and flipping through them. I could probably play (not GM) games without them, but even when I’m not GMing, I like to have at least a bit of a handle on mechanics. Maybe it’s the critic in me, but I like to see how a game works so I can either play it to its finest or break it for fun.

When it comes to video games with a bunch of codex entries… I’m sorry, I can’t do it. If the information is delivered in an interesting format, such as letters, I’m all for it. If I literally have to read encyclopedia entries to get a handle on the lore, I simply won’t do it. My eyes glaze over if I read too many unfamiliar words—not in another earth language, but in fantasy- or space-speak, a la Mass Effect or Dragon Age. I will try my best, but I likely won’t succeed. Control‘s redacted documents are more my speed.

Cress: It depends, but for the most part, I do. The little tests in Persona were fun! I would get a bonus to my stats for doing well! I like how games can be good tools for applying knowledge. Pokémon starts you off learning about types, and that has gotten more complex over the years while still building on previous entries. In Elden Ring, the game really doesn’t hold your hand and expects you to remember plot points or NPC objectives. FromSoftware games tend to reward you for being curious. Some hidden paths or quests can only happen if you’ve bothered to read certain item descriptions and use them appropriately. Though sometimes I need to cheat, haha!

Zainabb: I’m the opposite to Melissa—I love poring over codex entries in video games. I don’t want to have to do a bunch of reading at the start of a game or all at once, though. I want to be shown why I should care about the world first (because the game’s interesting or what I’ve seen of the world so far is captivating) and I much prefer tutorials over reading to get to grips with mechanics. I appreciate the way that the codex entries in Dragon Age or Mass Effect are spread out and provided in manageable chunks, while I don’t bother with the books from Elder Scrolls.