CARTO (2020)

(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) There’s a thin line between cozy, fun puzzle games and cozy, frustrating puzzle games. Some video games look cute, swear that they’re a breezy affair, but then a few hours in you’re searching for walkthroughs and then shouting out to no one: “How the hell was I supposed to know to do that?!”

CARTO is from Taiwan developers Sunhead Games, and the central conceit is basically: “What if we had a Zelda game with no combat, and you could move and rotate the tiles that make up world maps?”

It’s a fantastic idea that they endless exploit, and it has more than a few other facets going for it: the art design is cartoonishly spectacular; it has a great score that I have accidentally fallen asleep to more than once; and the writing is an appropriate amount of whimsy and melancholy for all ages.

You play as Carto, a young girl who gets lost during a storm and is thrust onto islands where, when someone comes of age, they are forced to leave their family behind. Carto helps heal a lot of these people as she pushes forward to be reunited with her grandmother.

Like I said: whimsical, but also melancholy.

However, some of the puzzle design felt lacking to me. I rarely try to lean on walkthroughs and while I love logic and lateral thinking puzzles, I found some of the puzzles simply maddening and, when I found out the solution, I knew I would have never have solved them on my own.

(It doesn’t help that every fucking site that features walkthroughs now is just an endless array of modals, pop-ups, auto-refreshing and ads.)

That said, I do not regret my time with it, or my cheating. If you use walkthroughs when you realize you need them, it’s a very cozy and very cute experience. At first blush, you might think that it’s an adorable mobile game ported to consoles, but no — it’s far more substantive than that.


(PS2/PSP) Rhythm games never quite caught on without gimmicks. I mean, I love them, but unless you have a floor mat (DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION) or guitar (GUITAR HERO) or drums (ROCK STAR) good fucking luck selling your game. Even the progenitor of the genre — PARAPPA THE RAPPER — couldn’t sell their sequel.

That said: I’m a sucker for every weirdo rhythm game, and this is a rhythm game I absolutely cherish. It perhaps had one of the best rhythm game control schemes of all time, and it managed to craft an emotional narrative as well. Best of both worlds.

Let me rewind a bit:

GITAROO MAN is a pretty basic ‘boy meets girl, girl meets boy, the world needs saving and can only be done through music’ story, but it pulls it off through its charismatic visual design and charming soundtrack. (I even imported the OST waaaay back in the day!) It’s a game that I’d always wished would get a proper re-release or, dare I even say, a remaster? However, it seems doomed to live in the shadows.

I recently wrote about HAVEN, one of those rare games that genuinely moved me as a romantic work, but this one did as well, twenty years prior. There’s one ‘stage’ you play, when you’re just playing a lullaby and the person you’re with feels safe and tired and lays their head on your shoulder, and the ‘stage’ ends.

It’s an extremely sweet and tender moment that you actually interact with, instead of just watch.

I will note that the opening dialogue is clumsy, and the way the game leans on the ‘life bar’ is kind of creepy in a conquest way, as is the ‘OH YEAH!’ at the end. I chalk all of that up to reusing code because this was clearly not a big-budget game, but uh, yeah. Try not to think about any of that too much and enjoy the tune.

Sadly, the game is practically impossible to get ahold of now unless you’re willing to pay waaaaaay too much, so I shouldn’t even be recommending it and definitely don’t ask me if you can borrow my copy, but we can all enjoy the videos, can’t we?


(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) UNPACKING is an adorably short but impactful indie game from developers Witch Beam that is basically an isometric interior design game. All you do is age and move from place-to-place, from apartment to apartment and so on. It’s one of the few games I’ve played that, while I imagine some 20-somethings might understand, really, it’s all about proper adulthood. The kind that requires a mortgage or, at least, striving to get to a point in which a bank will allot a mortgage to you.

This is a game about aging and compromising and figuring out what works for both you and your partner, and also just enjoying the space you’ll spend the bulk of your time in.

I realize that sounds heavy, but Witch Beam lightens the load for you. You can think about all of that, or you can just mindlessly open boxes and try to find where every object should live, because that is the entire game, and it’s supremely satisfying to do so. The narrative is just the icing on the cake.

The game leans on a lot of 16-bit era tropes, from the pixelated visuals, the isometric viewpoint, as well as the soundtrack, but that works in its favor — at least for me. It comes across as simple and endearing in a soft way, although the audio and sound design? Way better than the days of the SEGA Genesis. Goddamn, I am not one for ASMR, but this is a balm for your ears.

Again, this is a very short — but very fulfilling — game. Is it for everyone? Well, no, particularly if you’re consistently seeking videogame thrills. However, it is very sweet and cozy and amazingly designed and something I think most folks would enjoy.

(If you watch the trailer, pay attention to the pig. That’s all I’ll say.)

HAVEN (2021)

(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) I’ve been seeking out cozy console gaming for some time as I’m fucking sick of mindless violence, even if it hits my lizard brain in the right places. Yes, there are a lot of cozy indie games available for PC — and when I mean cozy gaming, I mean small-stakes games that coddle you and actively try not to re-invoke any prior lived trauma — but I still don’t have a Steam Deck because holy hell they are expensive, and I don’t really do desktop Windows gaming as I like to keep my office to work-things, which means that space is off-limits for gaming. So, until I rectify that or receive my long-awaited Playdate, I’m at the mercy of the Switch and PlayStation Stores.

I downloaded HAVEN on a whim, shortly after having upgraded my PS+ account to Sony’s version of the Xbox Game Pass. I expected very little but a light experience, as it looked like JOURNEY meets ENTWINED (which may or may not be currently available?).

I didn’t expect HAVEN to be so romantic.

Historically videogames have not prioritized romance and — even when they have — it’s often offered as something secondary. (Unpopular opinion, but while that has changed quite a bit recently with games like DREAM DADDY and BOYFRIEND DUNGEON and even THE LAST OF US: LEFT BEHIND, more often than not games still focus on gunplay instead of folks navigating love.)

HAVEN puts romance forward, first and foremost, and it’s amazingly handled. Out of the gate, you know these two love each other. (Yes, you can queer the romance — thanks to a recent-ish update — although it does default otherwise. I’ll give you two guesses as to which I picked, and the first doesn’t count.)

Let me rewind a bit:

HAVEN features a couple, Yu (by default the woman in the relationship) and Kay (by default the man in the relationship), who have escaped a planet that features a ‘Matchmaker’ that forces coupling based on an algorithm. The two of them fall in love apart from the ones they’re assigned and they finagle a way off the planet on a rickety spaceship not meant for the sort of travel they’re embarking on, and they crash on a slightly unforgiving planet, having to use their skills to combat the creatures that inhabit the planet while also salvaging parts for their ship.

It’s hands-down the best depiction of a young relationship I’ve encountered in a videogame. It’s messy, it’s physical, but also endearing and earnest and honest. They cook together. They sleep together. They get high together. Yu sprawls over the bed, her arm laying across Kay halfway through the night. There’s even a bit where they try to change bedroom sides because of — well, moisture — and it ends terribly, but if you’ve been there, you’ve been there! They lounge around with their guard let down, mouths agape as they feel their own exhaustion. They change into comfy clothes when they’re in their ’Nest’ (the spaceship they’re trying to repair). They occasionally quip horny remarks to each other, but it never feels pornographic, it feels sweet, which — again — is rare for a videogame, but isn’t rare for real-life.

Also, both protagonists are super-smart and accommodate each other in ways the other cannot. It’s a literal coupling of minds, and I can’t get enough of it. Just watch how they nuzzle each other!

Hell, even the idle animations! Yu will passionately throw herself against Kay, and they both will heal that way. Occasionally there’ll be a chaste kiss. When they ‘flow’ across bridges (they have anti-gravity boots that allow them to float around the planet) they often hold hands. It is adorable, and I just glow and want nothing bad to happen to them.

This is one of the few games that realizes: you don’t have to put your protagonists through hell simply for narrative escalation. Is there conflict? Yes. Are there goals to be met? Yes. Do Yu and Kay occasionally bicker? Yes (depending on the dialogue choices you make). However, it’s a loving, non-toxic relationship, and goddamn, we need more of that in gaming. If anything, it reminds me of the simple tranquility of ICO, even just due to occasional downtime. (In fact, if you wait long enough in a certain spot, both Kay and Yu will sit down and a bird will nest in Kay’s hair. It’s so cute.)

I’ll note that Polygon underscores the use of HAVEN’s loading screens, and I cannot deny that they are fabulous. They do a great job of unfurling them as you progress through the game, and they also become quite tastefully tantalizing.

Also: watch for the tactility. Kay & Yu are physical in a very comfortable way that also looks natural, which is odd for a video game, and something worth applauding. You can practically feel the drool from Yu’s mouth as she’s asleep. It may sound simple, but it’s an astounding accomplishment.

I don’t have enough superlatives for this game. While it has issues — especially with exploring, an impenetrable interface and a cumbersome fast-navigation system — I grinned and glowed 90% of the time while playing it. I just want more of this, all of this, all about intertwining. So many games suck at this, at character-forward romances with action-centric design but HAVEN absolutely nails it; it’s a gorgeous experience in every which way.

Also, the opening title sequence is amazingly opulent and kinetic with explosions of color and unfurling of watercolor emotions and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t watched it more than a few times:

I’d also like to suggest the soundtrack video via DANGER, which is like DAFT PUNK meets HEALTH. It’s absolutely delightful while also being incredibly soft.

Goddamn, I just love to see them coupled together out in a field, nothing to bother them, just letting the sun soak in. If you’ve never done this with a loved one? Make a point to do so, even if someone calls the cops on you. (I’m not not saying that happened to me.)

(Also, I love how the seasons progress and times change in the OST as they stay stationary. So idyllic, at least until the last moment right before the very end which, oddly reminds me of the cult-favorite rhythm game GITAROO MAN, one of the few other games to nail peaceful, romantic tranquility.)

I’m astounded that this game didn’t initially launch with the feature to have a queer couple, as it feels so natural, especially considering that one of the primary themes of the game is indoctrination. This is a game that needed all sorts of different people and voices, and they managed to eventually find a way.

Lastly, check out the dev blog entry via Sony’s Playstation blog, as it has a wealth of information and insight.

I cannot recommend this game enough. I feel like I’ve been overly enthusiastic about the recent works I’ve been imbibing and — yeah, I’m prone to gushing — but this is the real deal. I’m not sure it’ll have the influence of LIFE IS STRANGE, but it deserves it.

“Love stories always end badly.” “Ours doesn’t!” “No, not ours, but ours isn’t a story: it’s even better. It’s real life.”

Original trailer:

“Until the last moment?” “Until the last moment.”