There is a genre of game that isn’t so much meant for playing as it is for “tinkering around with for a little while, regularly.” Commute games. Games for waiting in the lobbies of doctors’ offices or for fidgeting with on long car trips.
Last year’s Animal Crossing was one of these, and one I know was a bit of a pandemic savior for many, as it gave us all a little something to do in the mornings besides read the invariably-terrifying headlines and ponder, you know, the seemingly inevitable degeneration of the world into a blazing mess as we bear witness to the unholy convergence of the accelerationism of the desperate and the indifference of the powerful into…well. This. Screaming a little inside every day. Y’know.
Here’s the elevator pitch: You are a Spirit Scout, a member of a community-service group for kids that will look suspiciously like the Scouts we all know with the serial numbers filed off. Your avatar is a bright-eyed young thing with a sash just itching to be filled with merit badges by providing assistance and comfort to the spirits of this world.
Unfortunately for you, you’re stranded on the island of Cozy Grove, which has something of the vibe of a state park and its accompanying small rural town if both had been broken up into jigsaw pieces and scattered about in Limbo. (Not the video game, Limbo as in “a kind of ever-shifting purgatory.”) The only points of true stability here are your campsite (where Flamey, your trusty…familiar? Demon pal? hangs out) and the homes of the spirit folk (mainly bears) you’re assisting in working through their afterlife issues; everything else is constantly shifting.
Each bear (like Patrice the mail-bear above) has their own set of quests for you to do, and their own story to tell, revealed in chunks as you complete said quests. In and around that, you will fish and tend gardens and catch bugs and dig up treasures and do all the other classic things one does in games like this. (At least there is not an exorbitant mortgage to pay off, so there’s that.)
The game is structured so as to reward frequent play in small increments: Complete enough quests and you will be advised in no uncertain terms that you’re done with anything major for the day.
You’re still free to putter about making money or catching fish or decorating or whatnot, but otherwise you’re good to head out and go make of the rest of your day what you will. Tomorrow there will be a few more story bits to complete, and thus the cycle shall continue.
Aesthetically, the game’s certainly appealing – the creepy-cute visuals are accompanied by an extremely chill soundtrack heavy on summer-camp-flavored instrumentation, mainly guitar/banjo-adjacent. The same creepy-cute quality extends through the narrative as well; nearly all of the game’s little plotlines so far have wavered between bleakness and adorability, and the regular emails from your scoutmaster acknowledge what ought to be a rather dire situation (a single child stranded on a remote island) with a remarkably blase cheeriness. There has not, thus far, been any indication that I am likely to be rescued. (It’s certainly possible that your Scout is in fact Dead All Along as well, but I suppose we’ll find out.)
…So how do I feel about it?
I wouldn’t class it as one of my favorite games of all time, or even of 2021 so far: this is a type of game I’ve seen a lot, and other than its black humor it’s not bringing much to the table in the way of novelty. However, as a commute game, it’s solid enough; the little stories are entertaining, the art and writing are amusing, and I appreciate that the experience is deliberately self-limiting to just an hour or so before one is encouraged to come back later.
It definitely beats watching the news while I have that second cup of coffee before work.