Comfort Games

how I feel RN

Hello there, best keep your distance, for I am ill. Not just ‘bit of a sniffle/put a bigger pullover on, you great ninny’ ill, but ‘noxious substances violently erupting from everywhere’ ill. My daughter started going to nursery about three months ago, and has been bringing back a delightful cocktail of viruses and bacteria ever since – it’s been a relentless assault on my immune system, and while I’m oddly proud of how long it stood against this microbial siege, it has now collapsed in gruesome style.

It’s OK, I don’t want your pity. Unless it’s a special magical form of pity that renders me instantly able to eat again. I want to talk about games.

Games as placebo, games as distraction, games as Florence Nightingale. The games I turn to, now and in the past, in my hour of sicky need.

I can’t currently look at a screen for too long, unless I want to risk wiping down that screen with disinfectant a short while later, but even so, the inclination to nursemaid myself with pixels is overwhelming. And for short bursts, living in my imagination really has taken me away from whatever my stupid bloody body was up to.

With apologies for this, but the easiest way to game while languishing in my increasingly malodorous bed was a thin, slate-shaped device from a fruit-themed electronics monolith (other tablets are available; personally I hate the company but like the device).

If it’s any consolation, the games I play on it fall exclusively into one of two categories: games I’ve already played on PC, or games I so much wish were on PC that I will inevitably have googled ‘game name+ PC’ within ten minutes of playing it. Right now, occupying the former are XCOM and FTL, both of which have been comfort games on PC and The Other Thing for several years now, and the latter are 80 Days and Dream Quest.

Let’s talk about XCOM and FTL, all of us pretending that I spent yesterday playing them on a lovely big PC. XCOM’s an odd game for me. On the one hand it’s probably my most-played game of the last decade (in the previous decade, that would have been WoW, but since bailing on that and MMOs generally it’s rare that I stick to one game for long). On the other hand, I’ve seen every single thing that it possibly has to offer several times over, I have zero interest in reaching the perfunctory endgame ever again, and the thought of facing the satellite rush yet again is not a happy one.

And yet, once I’m in there, my mind immediately settles into a sort of mental armchair of anticipation. It’s mid-game XCOM that I most enjoy, the point where I’ve got some veterans on the team, the mix of enemies I face presents a steely tactical challenge, and I know some great toys are on the horizon. Early and late game I could do without.

This is true also of the otherwise great Enemy Within expansion (recently released on the iThing, which is primarily why I started playing it again), although that does mix things up early-ish on too. Once the game’s a few hours in, I know I’m going somewhere. I have my long-term plans for soldiers I start to feel attached to, I have a determination to reach plasma weapons quicker than ever before, but most of all I have the sure and rewarding sense whenever a mission starts that “I know what I’m doing here. I’ve got this.

For a game that can be such a fatal meatgrinder, XCOM sure is good at making me feel like a boss. (For the record, I play Classic/Iron Man difficulty). That’s why it’s a comfort game. Despite all the death and failure, I always feel like I’m achieving something, which is very much what my mind wants at a time when my body is falling apart.

FTL’s the opposite (and also for the record, I struggle with the lack of mouse controls on the mobile version; I’ve actually got my iThing jailbroken and sometimes use a bluetooth mouse with it, though it’s still not quite the real deal). I will never feel that I am good at FTL, I will never be able to accurately anticipate what’s on the horizon (other than an extremely high chance of failure), and I will never cease to be delighted by what gear I stumble across or horrified by what random event or bungled battle costs me half my crew, hull, fuel or everything.

I’ve said this before somewhere, but I really do feel that FTL is a timeless game. I can imagine coming back to it decades hence and it still having the same dread power.

Then there’s 80 Days and Dream Quest. 80 Days you’ve probably heard a lot about already – a sort of choose your own adventure based on a steampunkish reinterpretation of Phileas Fogg, and boasting some of the most enjoyable words you ever did see in a videogame.

By having a time/distance dilemma with a clear and exciting objective – cross the globe in 80 days – it also brings far more focus to the oft-nebulous/making it up as it goes along choose your own adventure genre. Despite familiar foundations it’s a true original, I highly recommend it, and it couldn’t be better comfort gaming for the ailing. You get to wrap yourself in a world, you’re not overly taxed by it on any physical level, and its wonderful words lend it a certain guilt-assuaging sense that you’re also reading a novel. Truth be told, I don’t actually need 80 Days to come out on PC, because its structure and interface fits its current fruity platform and attendant tactility so very well. It’s just annoying to not really get to write about it in this place.

And so to Dream Quest, sadly and far more unfairly iOS only for now too. Oh, Dream Quest, ugliest of all the games.

The game whose hand-drawn, zero-budget art is so lousy that anyone I show it to thinks I’m taking the piss. It looks dreadful. It looks like a mock-up made in MS Paint by a 12 year old and stuck optimistically onto Steam Greenlight. It is my game of the year.

Elevator pitch – it’s Hearthstone made into a singleplayer game, with a roguelike structure. You dungeoneer, with all the loot-finding, levelling up and monster-bashing that entails, but each fight is a collectible card game. Importantly, you shape your deck entirely within the game, both by acquiring, upgrading or discarding cards as you attempt a dungeon run, and by unlocking new cards, characters and abilities if you manage to achieve certain things.

Even if you don’t manage to achieve certain things, you accrue a few points into a universal pool every time you play, and with enough of these absolutely any card, character or ability in the game can be unlocked. It’s a wonderful approach – if there’s anything I genuinely can’t do, or simply run out of patience for, a few runs should be enough to get me its reward anyway. That’s why it’s a comfort game: nothing in it is cut off to me.

It is also a supremely well-balanced and clever card battler. The way a run escalates from doling out minute amounts of damage into huge, long chains of combination attacks, buffs and debuffs, cards which spawn new cards which spawn new cards which spawn new cards which spawn a huge mega-attack because you spawned so many cards can be breathtaking. Dream Quest is just so very well thought-through, and while it’s a shame all that precision and invention came at the awkward expense of its appearance, I infinitely prefer it this way around than the other.

So please, please let Dream Quest come out on PC. It would fit, it would find an audience, my fingers would hurt a whole lot less from using a mouse than prodding and swiping at a hard screen, and hell, it wouldn’t take long for people to mod new, less distressing art into it. Also I would have an excuse to take it from the top, with no cards and characters unlocked, and have it become my comfort game all over again.

Sickly sermon ends. I’m going to bed. Hope you’re healthier than I am. While I try recover, please share your comfort games below.

This article was first published as part of the RPS Supporter Program.

39 Comments

  1. DrollRemark says:

    If we’re talking mobile games, then Ascension and Star Realms refuse to leave my phone. Much like the article mentions with XCOM, I’ve got the routines down pat with those games now, and it’s enjoyable just to slip back into them whenever I need to. The mechanics of building decks in both those games is just so satisfying that it actually leaves winning the game as an anti-climax. You want to keep playing, toying with your broken opponents as you see how good your hands can get.

  2. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    An iPad *shakes head despairingly. Takes the old hat, scarf and coat from the stand by the door and walks out into the blizzard; pausing for just a second to look over his shoulder forlornly*

    *the door closes, the icy wind abates, the fire continues to burn in the hearth; but everything has changed.*

    (do get well soon tho buddy ^^)

  3. technoir says:

    Argh. I can’t afford to even dream about purchacing an Apple device now or in the foreseeable future, so 80 Days has been at the top of my list for games in desperate need of a PC version for a while now. And now you’re saying I have to add Dream Quest there as well (right between Versu and 868-HACK, I’d imagine).

    Speaking of comfort games, the header image kinda draws me to think of Doom as one. Load a familiar .wad, skip to a favourite level with a cheat code and enjoy the tried-and-true progression from pistols and imps to rocket launchers and cyberdemons in one bite-sized experience. Let your concious mind shut down and dance through the level purely on reflex.

    I hope you get well soon.

    • Atrak says:

      80 Days is out on Android now as well, and to be honest it just wouldn’t feel the same on a PC/Mac. It really is perfectly suited to something you can hold in your hand, sit on a couch or snuggle up in bed and just wile away the hours.

      • MistaJah says:

        But there are Windows tablets hey.

      • ignatiusjreilly says:

        I signed in especially (and was compelled to leave my first ever comment) to say that I bought 80 Days today and absolutely LOVED it. Best written game I have played in ages. I would say it’s as well written as Sunless Sea, but with a better sense of purpose and urgency. It’s so, so good!!

  4. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I like to play point & click adventures for this. For example, the last time I was ill enough that I couldn’t leave the bed for longer than an hour, I played through Machinarium. I got stuck very often, because my brain wasn’t really in full working condition (and that game has some really weird puzzles), but I just used a walkthrough.

    What I like about adventures when I’m ill is that they don’t require any reflexes or dexterity, and that I am only stuck as long as I want to be stuck.

    Currently, I would play The Longest Journey, since I’ve been playing that on and off recently.

  5. Jams O'Donnell says:

    I can barely play “make a cup of tea” when I’m ill, let alone actually make a computer man move in a useful way. And the thought of having XCOM be a game for when you’re ill, where a momentary lapse in judgement means Major SniperPants dies for-e-ver, just gives me the jibblies.

  6. Zallgrin says:

    I enjoy playing Journey when sick, because it’s soothing, easy and does not require any mental power. Also, it’s become kind of a ritual. It’s nice that at least my virtual avatar submerged in a warm, soft desert while your body suffers from pain and nausea.

    • lowprices says:

      I know what you mean. I suffer from semi-frequent insomnia, and in these momentz, Proteus on the Vita has become something of a digital lullaby for me. It’s pretty, sounds nice, and doesn’t require much direct interaction, so if I fall asleep while it’s on there’s no real problem.

  7. Wowbagger says:

    I didn’t know Xcom was on the dreaded apple based apparatus, is it also on the androids?

  8. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    If/when FTL was released on android tablets I probably wouldn’t leave my bed again.
    Or at least for a while.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I could’ve sworn FTL was meant to get a ‘droid version…

  9. jezcentral says:

    Frozen Synapse is another one-hander game. Even a sick brain like yours should be able to handle a game chopped up into pieces 5 seconds long.

  10. melnificent says:

    Plague inc. Because if I’m feeling ill I’m taking the planet down with me.

  11. Jalan says:

    You feel like a disembodied bloodied head?

    I had a real response ready and everything until I hovered over that image and read the text. Shit, talk about distractions.

  12. Snargelfargen says:

    X-Com has been good to me on sick days, although I have a bad habit of restarting every time I go back to the game, so I’ve only finished it twice, despite having played over 100 hours of it.

    If I have a fever then the Final Fantasy series are my go-to games. The music and bizarre set dressing does a great job of transporting me to another world, while the funky levelling systems and forgiving combat is perfect for my zombie-like state.

    People who play the games to break them/complete 100% might disagree, but my only experiences with the series are in a chicken soup and benadryl induced fog, and that’s how I like it. The plots even make sense, most of the time!

  13. Wulfram says:

    I’m feeling to ill and dumb to play games. That’s why I’m posting in comments.

    My comfort games are generally whatever random arcadey driving game I’ve got at the moment.

  14. schlusenbach says:

    When I’m ill I turn to Puzzle Quest 2 or Bejeweled. Minimal movement and minimal thought process needed, great for forgetting everything else.

  15. Cockie says:

    You need to jailbreak an iThing to be able to use a mouse? :/

  16. AyeBraine says:

    Long War. I had 300-400 hours in XCOM when I met it, I have 800 now (I play in bursts, so I’m not a constant XCOM fanatic; but I get the urge to try out new builds and features in a new version).

    Long War solves all the problems you brought up: with it, every inch of the game is peppered with tough choices, great toys, steely (carbide steely) tough tactical situations, and meaningful management. What’s great though, it’s not a different game – like a sex novelty shop, it’s specifically tailored to spruce up an experienced XCOM player’s life, playing with familiar minutia, adding new color in places that became droll, and tweaking small things that only a veteran gamer can spot.

    • mlaskus says:

      Eh, Long War is a problematic beast. It definitely introduces plenty of variety and tough choices, the early game is a blast but… it only exacerbates the problems XCOM has in the endgame. If you survive the first few months, the progress slows down to a crawl. Getting enough Elerium to end the game is a bitch, in my current game I’m at over 200 encountered UFOs and I’m sick of it.

  17. Gonefornow says:

    A campaign of OpenXcom (Ironman), OpenTTD and/or Master of Orion 1 is a surefire cure-all.

  18. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Not a mobile game, so I should just go away BUT, Transport Tycoon Deluxe. That shit will just hoover your time up.

  19. elilupe says:

    My games would be primarily Skate 3, Trials Evolution, or Rockband 3. Console-y, I know, but it helps when I just want to relax to play games on my console. It frees my computer up if I want to do anything in between play sessions. I can finish a song on rockband and go straight to my email or something, which for some reason relaxes me.
    But about the games, I can play those three games forever. I think its the way they all emphasize short bursts of activity, or in Skate 3’s case, aimless, relaxing skatey fun.

  20. Laurentius says:

    Master of Magic.

  21. Spacewalk says:

    My comfort game this year is Broforce and it’s probably going to be next year’s too. It does the job perfectly.

  22. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Last time I was really ill, I had ordered Planescape: Torment. It arrived while I was ill. I had been waiting for it to be reissued for years and then I was too sick to play it for days. I had also ordered Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, and I couldn’t get out of bed to put that on the CD player either.

    Bad times, man. Bad times.

  23. scottyjx says:

    If you haven’t tried it out, Alec, go give Hoplite a go (on the iThinger.) It’s good for many hours of good times.

    Someone’s mentioning of Dream Quest in the comments of another article got me to immediately download it. Really splendid. Still haven’t seen the third floor. Was very pleasantly surprised that the warrior was a woman. And I find the visuals charming! But then, I’m only kinda good at drawing, and so feel a solidarity with anyone around my skill level.

  24. Richard Conway says:

    My comfort game would have to be Poker Night 2 with a controller.

    Sitting in my bed (My bed is uncomfortably close to my monitor) with controller in hand, playing poker with some people (And a couple robots. And a dog) talk to each other. And the music is incredible.

    Damn I love that game.

  25. Contrafibularity says:

    You’d probably be feeling much better if you weren’t using an ipad. If you hate the company, don’t pay them to commit atrocities. If you oppose said criminal organisation’s foul ways, which includes but is not limited to sweatshop slavery, gross criminal negligence, mass exploitation, child labour/slavery, mass pollution, mass brainwashing, murder, bribery, and so on and so forth, then why on earth are you paying them? Why would anyone in their right mind be complicit to such heinous crimes by the most insipid repeat offender in the history of mankind?

    I like your articles very much Mr. Meer, but this I won’t shut up about, not even if you’re very ill. Apple is fucking evil. There exists no excuse for supporting them. You know this already, of course. So please ditch that evil device, for your own sake and for the poor souls that manufacture them, not to mention your readers (not that you owe us anything, obviously, this here is just some friendly advice and a reminder of what you have paid for). Apple only exists because people are stupid and corrupt enough to support them, and other people are too cowardly to point that out enough times to enough people.

    And get well soon.

    See also: Panorama: Apple’s Broken Promises

    All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

    China Labor Watch

  26. Paul.Power says:

    I don’t know if I have any comfort games, but there are a few Let’s Plays I enjoy re-watching if I’m feeling a bit run-down. Probably my favourite to re-watch is Kirby’s Epic Yarn by Medibot (who you might recognise as the voice of Jeffrey the Skeleton from Roundabout) and MyNameIsKaz. Both the game and the players are as whimsical as all hell, and it’s amazing.

  27. Kala says:

    Before I saw the pictures I thought you meant the original XCom (or UFO) and was about to be all – he’s using that as a comfort game…? Really? As (despite it being beloved) the frustration the game engenders is…not very compatible with feeling ill, for me. Especially not the kind of illness where you might be feeling feverish or delirious ;p
    (that said, I think I probably have settled into it in a sleeping bag and a box of tissues before. wait. that sounds like porn. I mean for my nose. that sounds like porn for my nose. gah).
    I can see the modern one as more of a comfort game though, given even on a harder setting it’s not quite as…punitive? (in the ‘this is completely unfair and unjustified’ kind of way) The rookies aren’t quite as hopeless (stop shooting eachother, you fools!) and you have lovely, lovely character customization!
    Tbh, for comfort while ill I’m probably more likely to read a book or watch a film than game (My Neighbour Totoro is the go to when sick or sad) but I guess something like Civ (or old Colonization) where I can just be clicking through stuff and it be a distraction without necessarily being too demanding.

  28. babbler says:

    I think of Civilization as a comfort game for me but the last time I played it I had a terrible earache and was using it to get my mind off the pain; I eardrum would later rupture. Now every time I play the game I’m reminded of it and I find it hard to play the game.

  29. nerkbot says:

    A PC/Mac version of Dream Quest just got released yesterday through the Humble store.
    A Christmas miracle!