Immersive sims are tricky games to get right. The spaces need to have incredibly tight design so they feel fun to explore, and lots of ways to get around them. And one of the best games of the year just happens to be one that does that expertly. Hang on, Deathloop? What are you talking about? No, no, the real best immersive sim this year is co-open by lowpolis, obviously!
The concept of co-open is simple: you play as a kid on their first solo grocery trip. Your grandmother drops you off, gives you a phone number, and then the supermarket is your oyster. Oh, and everyone is an anthropomorphic bird, and a majority of the characters are LGBTQIA+ in some shape or form. The environments pop, with bright bold colours, and each micro-location feels incredibly defined. All of the character models are 2D, stylised in a way that makes them look like acrylic stands.
It’s not quite right to say it’s a full immersive sim. It's more inspired by the genre, as the developers themselves say. But that doesn’t matter much to me. Vorogda Community Store (the name of the shop) is one of the best realised spaces in a game this year. Even though it isn't a huge space, it feels like one. Because you play as a child, your field of view is quite low to the ground; everything mostly seems bigger than you, and so everywhere feels like a mountain to conquer. There’s secrets to be found galore, an alien visitor to befriend, and balls to return to friends. Of course, there’s some shopping to be done too.
More than anything though, the thing that makes the game so special is it’s quaintness. It’s quite simply your regular supermarket, inhabited by all the locals of the town you live in. They all feel like real people (birds?) particularly because the game is unabashedly queer. Characters have their pronouns displayed next to their names, with some characters even having neopronouns. Most mainstream games don’t include things like that, and so even though it shouldn’t, it made co-open feel that much more special.
There are no grand tasks to attend to at any point. Yes there are some mysteries to solve, but only the kind a kid would find any interest in. And yet each mini story arc was just as compelling as the next because of how charming everyone is. The game is obviously a stylised imagining of real life, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real life. There’s an underground cave you can explore covered in snow, with some teens snow skating, to which you might think, "hang on, that definitely isn’t real." Except it is! It’s those weird little things that contribute to the charm and the realness of it all.
Sure, co-open might not be the most replayable game of the year. It’s more about the little stories you can unpack at your own pace, and there aren’t any complicated mechanics at any point. It’s just, there hasn’t been a game released this year that’s so… lovely? If any game could be described as cosying up under a warm blanket, hot chocolate in hand, with the TV on showing your favourite movie. And there’s honestly no better compliment than that.