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.