Cha's Games of the Year 2015. RymdResa
RymdResa (literally just space travel in Swedish) is one of the smaller, less well known games to make an impression on me this year, and probably one of the most flawed. But it fits into a category I'm particularly fascinated with. That is, games using roguelike and related mechanics for less typical genres or to create different moods.
I love roguelikes, or at least am fascinated with them, but even with the broader range of roguelites and roguelike-likes, they remain heavily associated with dungeon crawls and specific kinds of tension. The third genre label I could throw in there is "procedural death labyrinth", after all. That's clear enough. I want to see other kinds of stories here.
I've wonder a lot how possible it is to make a laid back (but still challenging) rogue-ish game, and RymdResa suggests at least one method. It has a tranquil approach to permadeath, featuring gradual exploration of a huge 2D universe and poetry about the loneliness of space. It's gorgeous, sad and somewhat meditative, although not without tense moments. There's no combat, just avoiding collisions, managing fuel reserves, and navigating triggered events via dialogue trees or similar discrete menu options. Not entirely unlike events in FTL but without any weapons.
The ultimate search for a habitable planet means a lot of slow movement through empty regions, punctuated by more tense moments of danger, such as trying to escape a sun's gravity. In emptier places it's easy to lose sense of how fast you're moving, which becomes suddenly critical around planets or debris. Sudden course corrections use up fuel, but not as much as a collision does. The faster ship choices are less optimal here, versus a sluggish but durable tank or a more manoeuvrable ship that prioritises item collection. Each ship also has its own unique soundtrack, and somehow they all work as setting the scene and not becoming tedious.
It's a rare game that incentivises taking things slowly. Among the frenetic activity and spectacle of many games the slower pace is a relief. It allows for different ideas and skills. Patience instead of quick responses. Wistful sadness instead of raw trauma. RymdResa gives time to breathe and reflect, to take some time out and to be okay without constant stimulation. And there's so much strange and wonderful beauty in what is there.
The most similar game tone-wise I can point to is MirrorMoon EP, which feels more complete than RymdResa but demands even more patience for navigating vast constellations. For me MirrorMoon EP is about the big picture where RymdResa is about the small. MirrorMoon needs you to plan and puzzle out a route, and it's easy to get lost. In RymdResa, however lonely it might feel you're always anchored by a basic goal and direction thanks to a helpful drone pointing towards the next objective. Decision making is at small scales, like whether to explore an individual wreck or travel through an asteroid field. The big picture washes over me in a less defined way.
Now I've written that, it's interesting to think about MirrorMoon as an EP versus RymdResa as a poetry collection. I'm probably going to spend a lot more time thinking that though.
I know RymdResa is right up there in the "games most likely to be labelled pretentious" category, which always makes me sad. It's a lazy way to dismiss work that's emotional, intellectual or slow-paced, and gets in the way of digging into the details of where these creations are aiming and how well they hit their target. If there's a place for this somewhere that's a good thing for the games landscape, regardless of whether it's to any individual's taste.
But on personal taste I feel the need to admit one thing: I'm a supporter of bad poetry. It's valuable and worth encouraging, and it's tragic to me how often this tendency is drummed out of people thanks to everyone telling them how dreadful their writing is. Or just by the expectation of that, should anyone ever read it. I don't think RymdResa's poetry is bad – it's certainly not at the most cringeworthy level – but sometimes I have a hard time judging these things. Heartfelt is enough for me.
And I can't help myself but think about how much more heartfelt we could all use, including the painful, the uplifting, and all other flavours. I think there's a good reason Twitch latched onto Bob Ross this year. Among all the usual toxicity it was hard not to respond to earnest, simple joy, and love for each other and the world. There are times when cynicism becomes exhausted and crumbles. That's encouraging even if it can seem like the thinnest of silver linings.