Ollie: Whenever Christmas nears, I feel the urge to play They Are Billions. Partly because I first played it in December two years ago, just as the house was starting to smell of pine and mulled wine and all the other -ines. But I think it’s also because, despite everything, despite the subject matter, despite the moody music, and the fact that every moment threatens your demise at the hand of a pasty churning mass of several thousand undead – despite all of that, there’s something about the game that’s just so warm, so comforting. It’s like sitting in front of a fireplace. A groaning, salivating, masticating zombie fireplace.
It’s strange that I can feel so comforted by a game that generally imbues such a constant sense of threat and dread into the player. Venture out in any direction from where you begin, and within seconds you’ll encounter literally hundreds of zombies lying dormant until they catch a whiff of succulent life nearby. It’s no simple matter to survive even the first 20 days out of 100, because a single zombie quietly slipping through the cracks in your ramshackle defences may very quickly spell the end for your entire colony. And that’s not to mention the enormous swarms of infected that come charging at you every so often, invariably running right towards the weakest part of your defences.
In a word, They Are Billions is hard. Brutal, even. But in late December 2017, after maybe a dozen failed colonies, I finally managed to defeat the seemingly endless final wave of undead and survive the full 100 days. And after that point, I never lost another game. No matter how high I crank up the difficulty. It seems I’ve cracked it, found the ideal formula for building an economy and defences so strong that the infected are barely able to even make a dent in the colony’s walls. And despite that, I’ve never grown bored with the game. It’s always different, and it’s always a challenge. I may have cracked the game, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean I now find the game easy, or unengaging. It’s that I can now play it when I want to relax. And that’s something I really value about it.
Of course, this is all in reference to the survival mode which has been out on Steam Early Access for the past two years, rather than the campaign which was released (along with the game itself) five months back. I haven’t yet been able to play through the campaign of They Are Billions, but perhaps this Christmas I’ll finally have the time. I can think of few things so relaxing as sitting back one cold winter’s afternoon, a steaming mug of gluehwein by my side, and attempting to protect my colonies from the billions of ravishing, slavering undead approaching from all sides.
Alice Bee: So, your grandad is sick, and you travel to the island where he lives to see, and take care of, him. Except he lives on an island that was struck by a meteor decades before, and now everyone born there is some kind of mutant. Not the X-Men kind, the kind that is just a non-human looking person. Not a lot happens in Mutazione in a game-y way (I mean, you save an ecosystem I guess). Mutazione is meant to be a soap opera, so while they’re mutants that look like cats or big lizards, their drama is very familiar. Grief! Loss! Pregnancy! Your job is to listen and be a part of it. And to grow things.
Mutazione has lots of areas where you can grow gardens. Different plants create different emotions, which affect the inhabitants of the little mutant island, and to progress you have to make a garden that fulfils the right feeling. A sad crop of lilies or happy whistling grasses. You can, if you want, just sit in the gardens and listen to the noises they make. I would really like Mutazione to have a infinite garden mode where the game is just you live on Mutazione and grow plants, forever.
A few months ago I got a desk plant (called James Plant; gendered only so I can refer to James Plant as “my son” and thus unnerve the HR manager the plant is named after, which may actually be an HR issue). James Plant has genuinely been a massive bolster to me. On days when I don’t feel like getting up, I am moved to go into the office and check that James Plant has clean leaves and doesn’t need watering. James Plant has recently grown a new spray of young, bright green leaves, and I want to check how tall it is each day. I have secret plans to repot James Plant (the first time I have repotted anything!) and to grow new plants from leaf cuttings. I genuinely cannot recommend getting a hardy houseplant enough. Mutazione was right! It was right!
Alice0: Hello! Welcome! You are now in the middle of a harmful situation! Numerous volatile situations, even! What’s the plan, champ?
You can’t fix someone’s relationship on the brink of collapse, cure someone’s loneliness, or undo the harm of colonial plundering. It’s not your place to come up with answers to everything. But you can be present, you can be earnest and honest, and you can support people if they want you to. Sometimes silence is enough. Mutazione is perhaps the only game with dialogue options where I often chose not to press matters further, where I didn’t want to wring everyone for all their stories and secrets. I wanted to know because I liked them but I couldn’t demand it. I didn’t fear rejection, I feared that these gentle people would tell me secrets they weren’t ready to share because they didn’t want to make me feel hurt. I worried a lot about everyone while playing. But you can be present, you can be earnest and honest, and you can stop deciding what’s best for other people.
What a treat to explore this island day-by-day, checking in on people, planting gardens, quietly fretting, and growing friendships. Being introduced to a new pal’s secret swimming spot is the most intimate moment I have experienced in a video game.
Disclosure: Some pals of mine worked on this, including former RPS contributor Hannah Nicklin.
Graham: Claire, the bird protagonist of A Short Hike, is on vacation on a rural island. So far she’s spent most of her time lounging around her cabin, but today is the day she’s finally going outside – albeit reluctantly. She’s expecting a phone call and so is heading to Hawk’s Peak in search of phone signal.
Claire isn’t expecting to get much from her experience climbing a mountain, and neither was I. A Short Hike looks cute in screenshots, but I thought it would be pleasant and slight. A game to jog through and forget about. Instead, it turned out to be the most delightful game I played all year.
That starts with its movement. Aside from running and jumping, Claire can grapple her way up sheer cliffs and flap her wings to maintain altitude when drifting downwards, the duration of both determined by the number of feathers you’ve found while exploring. It’s simple enough, but it makes traversal feel like a Zelda game. You’re constantly poking around, looking for resources to extend your reach, finding shortcuts, and judging whether you’re strong enough to make that climb to the next area. There is satisfaction to be found in reaching the next place.
These movement systems would be nothing if the world itself wasn’t so delightful. The island is rendered with Nintendo 64-style polygons and jagged lines, but it’s teeming with detail. Flowers sway in the breeze, wind swooshes overhead, butterflies flutter around bushes, a sparkling ocean laps along the shore. Even when you stop your climb, A Short Hike’s world keeps breathing. There’s variety, too: climb far enough up the mountain and you’ll reach snow, which brings its own challenges and beauty.
Then there’s the people you meet on your journey. They’re all anthropomorphic animals, and talking to each one is a delight. There’s a yelling squirrel on the beach who can help teach you to climb, a rabbit running laps to practice for a race, a salty bird who is selling feathers to pay off his student loans. The game understands that the fastest way to make a character lovable is to show them earnestly trying, regardless of what it is they’re trying to do. That’s why I love the Muppets, the characters in Miyazaki movies, and now the forest creatures of A Short Hike.
Most of those characters have optional quests. These are small and wholesome in the best ways. For example, that sprinting rabbit has lost her lucky headband and asks you to help her find it, and there’s a frog on the beach who wants a smaller spade for building sandcastles. Everyone is trying but that doesn’t mean their ambitions are grandiose.
A Short Hike is short, but it turned out to be anything but slight. It’s dense, even. There are chests to find, a watering can which can turn flowers into springy jump pads, a shovel with which to dig up secrets, a fishing rod for fishing, secret shortcuts to create through the mountain… You’ll end the game’s two hours with an inventory filled with tools, and probably a handful of secrets still to find if you want to spend more time exploring.
I did want to keep exploring, and once I’d found everything there was to find, I kept playing just to hang out for longer in its world. Just as Claire found more than she expected on her mountain climb, I found more in A Short Hike. It’s a spiritually refreshing videogame – and how many of those are there?