Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.
A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.
Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.
That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)
On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.
Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.
Beautiful Dreamer tells the story of an insomniac character up late in their apartment. Their world is not quite ours, though, as we realize little by little. There’s an ancient subterranean shrine in the lot next door, rising gradually from the ground and dislodging the buildings above. There’s a library of unreal literature, and moths who eat books and excrete new stories made of the remains. The story is fantastical, and — like the author’s previous story Magical Makeover — contains some lovely images and turns of phrase. There’s a whole marvelous paragraph on a fey birthday cake, and a good deal of curious and funny dialogue.
As the above screenshot might suggest, the game also contains a CYOA-within-a-Twine, a gamebook whose pages you can explore by working through the page numbers. Ingeniously, it allows you to play the gamebook properly or to cheat, peeking at page numbers you haven’t been invited to visit to find easter eggs.
Most of all, it is a story about finding comfort in unexpected places and ways — from beings you wouldn’t have expected, from stories and from dreams, from your own store of courage. And while I’m not entirely sure how some pieces of it fit together (I might need to replay for that), I enjoyed the journey very much.
Witches and Wardrobes is a game by Anna Anthropy about getting dressed and getting yourself together enough to go outside. The process of grooming and selecting your clothing is fraught — you’re not quite happy with any of your options, and you are frequently self-critical. These passages echo some of the things Anna has said elsewhere about the challenges of presenting herself in public as a trans woman; many are easy to relate to even without that specific background.
The end then flips around the meaning of the whole situation in quite a satisfying way. It’s not a long play, but it made me smile.
(Disclosure/disclaimer/etc.: I support Ryan Veeder’s Patreon and beta-tested this game.)
Winter Storm Draco (play online) is tagged as an interactive documentary. It opens with a framing passage where you rattle away at your keyboard (typing whatever you like) and the game spits out text about this Winter Storm. Then it drops you into the storm setting.
A curious thing about Veeder’s games is the way they seldom take place on only one plane of reality. Sometimes that’s because the narrative voice keeps talking to you about the fact that you’re playing the game, chattily responding to your parser errors and the less clever of your puzzle solutions. Sometimes it’s because he’s using framing devices, like the flashback in Dial C for Cupcakes. Sometimes it’s because, as in Island of Doctor Wooby or Nautilisia, the metaphorical and the literal coexist and you can sort of interact with both at the same time.
In this case, the jokes extend even to the game’s packaging: if you look at its IFDB page, there’s a big blank space where the cover art ought to be. This isn’t because image handling is broken. It’s because the cover art for Winter Storm Draco is a total whiteout. [Edited to add: this isn’t quite true, apparently. It just looks like a total whiteout.]
The result is a sense that the game isn’t taking itself at all seriously — and indeed a lot of the fun of Veeder’s sense is the playfulness of the narrative voice. His Patreon even carries the subtitle “interactive fiction to distract you from your problems”. Get your silly escapism here!
But alongside the jokes and fantasy, there’s often a sense of understated purpose about his work. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower feels like a somewhat dark depiction of the IF-playing mindset, for instance. Winter Storm Draco, on the other hand, goes through snow and dark and night and comes out again on the other side. I found it quite comforting.
There is an awful lot of snow and ice described in the game, so if you sit down to play this thing, I suggest setting yourself up with some hot apple cider or maybe a nice mug of cocoa first.
If you need something even more cuddly — or on point — than these, see also Games of Comfort and Consolation from last year, Anna Anthropy’s single-player RPG A Wish for Something Better, or possibly Carolyn VanEseltine’s Practice Mode.