Despite the many excellent newly released games by talented local creators, and blockbusters by big studios at the dawn of this new console era, there are times when you just need to retreat into the fuzzy blanket of nostalgic or addictive comfort gaming. These are the games our staff can't stop playing, keep returning to, or play to just take their minds off things.
Programmer & Videogames Curator, ACMI
The World Ends with You (2007)
One game I love returning to is the JRPG The World Ends with You (2007) for the Nintendo DS, which received a long-awaited sequel, Neo: The World Ends with You, this year. TWEWY takes place in a hyper-stylised version of Shibuya in Tokyo and players are tasked with playing the ‘Reaper’s Game’ or face erasure from existence. The art and character designs are beautiful and unique, led by iconic Japanese artist Tetsuya Nomura who is well known for the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. It also includes one of the best soundtracks ever included in a game, full of JPOP and JRock songs that will live in your head long after the closing credits roll. Complementing this is a gameplay mechanic unlike anything else I have played: the player controls two characters in combat, one on each screen of the dual-screen Nintendo DS. One character is controlled using stylus and touch controls, and the other using the D-Pad. This method of combat is fast, frenetic most of all very, very fun.
Untitled Goose Game (2019)
What could be better than taking some time out in a charming and quiet English country village… and then creating havoc and hilarity as a not-so-nice goose?! House House’s worldwide hit showcases everything that is great about Australian independent games. It is a completely unique concept, and suitable for players of all ages. The artwork is thoroughly charming, with the villagers inhabiting the town have distinct personalities, and the soundtrack is a beautifully adapted series of Debussy preludes. And the goose itself is just plain adorable. But the best thing about the game is just how much fun it is to play. Each of the puzzles have several solutions, and there is so much space made for creating comedic moments that the game is often just as much fun to watch as it is to play. Honk honk.
Writer and host of ACMI's Women & Non Binary Gamers Club
In the last two years, many beautiful things have been written, designed, painted, sculpted and even tweeted about missing the people we love. What has surprised me, though, is how much I missed people I don’t even know. During lockdown, it’s been hard to have a tangible sense of public life and community – I can’t stop thinking about how long it has been since I ended up in a conversation that hadn’t been scheduled through Zoom, or became comfortably lost in a crowd. Two games meditate on this feeling of alienation perfectly: Terracotta, by Olivia Haines, and There are people in the park, by Kalonica.
Terracotta is a reflective, gentle game in Haines’ signature pastel art style. Put simply, you walk around a gorgeous, doll-like environment modelled after Haines’ Melbourne suburb, listening to the ambient noises of the back alleys listening to the character’s inner monologue as she reflects on her life during the pandemic. While the 3D environment is still and quiet, there are quickly sketched 2D outlines of people and objects, which makes the absence of busy public life particularly felt. Combined with writing that is sensitive but matter-of-fact, Terracotta perfectly articulates the persistent sense of dislocation I also felt throughout 2020, in particular.
There are people in the park (2021)
There are people in the park is a similarly thoughtful, sensitive game about inhabited space. The game just offers you a walk through a park, surrounded by still figures at play or at rest. It’s a familiar tableau I might have encountered at my local park, before the playgrounds and skateparks closed, and I found it incredibly moving: here is the ambient feeling of community that I have missed.
The game feels remarkably intimate, not because you have access to the other characters’ inner lives, but specifically because you don’t need to know them in order to experience that wonderful feeling of being just one person among many others, each with their own motives and lives. In a deeply insular year, this game feels, while quiet and slow paced, expansive and celebratory: there are people in the park!
Website Coordinator, ACMI
Bioshock series (2007–13)
I’ve been replaying the Bioshock games recently to test out whether their heady themes touching on religion, race, class, industry vs science vs humanity, utopia and dystopia still hold up or don’t. Turns out they do, especially in the turbulent times we find ourselves in. I find myself frequently returning to the first installment’s crumbling, underwater Art Deco world of Rapture and it’s mad, genetically spliced-up denizens. Equally magnetic as a locale is the neoclassical US city in the clouds of Bioshock: Infinite (2013), where the satisfaction for me is wreaking havoc on a society of smug white supremacists. The poignant, twisting stories told in both games are second to none, and the mix of alternate universe musical nostalgia and steampunk tech is as intoxicating as a bottle of Arcadia Merlot.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2004)
Dragons! Mages! Beholders!… Miniature Giant Space Hamsters? In many ways the isometric RPG Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn hits on every beat of fantasy for a young reader of Tolkien, Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings, while being its own glorious, silver-scaled beast. Gothic and often humorous, BGII took you on an epic adventure across the Forgotten Realms with up to 5 NPC companions of your choice, each with rich backstories and personalities conveyed in dialogue as engaging as anything written by the authors previously mentioned. While main story is relatively linear, the ability to customise your party (ally with evil opportunists or righteous justice-bringers, or a mixture of both to comic effect) and your character’s class and attributes unlocks new quests and dialogue options, making each playthrough feel special. Directing your tiny 2D sprite characters across the beautifully drawn settings and planning out your spells and battle tactics against hordes of orcs, spiders and squid-faced horrors is a delight I’ll never tire of. Go for the eyes, Boo!
Transport Tycoon (1994)
The charming, addictive Transport Tycoon (first published in 1994 and updated constantly since by a loyal community) sees you building an empire of trains, road vehicles, planes and boats to deliver passengers and goods to sleepy hamlets and sprawling metropolises scattered across procedurally generated maps. I know there are slicker looking transport management games out there with more complex systems (TT itself has mods to make its graphics look smoother), but seeing the tiny, pixel-y vehicles whiz around a tiled, pixel-y map from station to station is incredibly nostalgic and frankly, adorable. It’s staggering to think that I’ve been periodically returning to the same game for about 20 years. It grows slightly, like some living, breathing animal, every time I do.
Producer, School Programs, ACMI
Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
RDR2 is so much more than a gunslinger simulator – it’s a gunslinger simulator where the ability to explore, roam, and take it slow is just as appealing as the game’s shoot outs, hold-ups, and robberies. It has incredible replayability too because I can leave the storyline behind and go set up camp in some remote corner of the map in one of the game’s many biomes to hunt, fish and forage for days on end (with the odd trip into town to bathe, shave, and stock up). The incredible weather dynamics coupled with the endless number of vantage points often results in me often stopping with my horse (Clancy) to take in the view.
Stardew Valley (2016)
I was quickly taken by this farming simulator and its cute and quirky low-bit world. At a glance it appears quaint, but there’s loads to do, discover and unlock. You can make farming life as simple or as complex as you like. Me? Well, my current farm doesn’t resemble a farm in the traditional sense, in that I’ve stopped producing crops or tending to livestock en masse, and instead I grow hops in a greenhouse and produce a lot of pale ale alongside cheeses and preserves... So yes, it’s more of a brewery than a farm. Like RDR2, there’s something incredibly calming about living this little digital subsistence lifestyle. A lot less violent though obviously.
Digital Preservation Technician, ACMI
Ghost of Tsushima (2020)
Sucker Punch Production’s Ghost of Tsushima is set in the real-life Japanese island of Tsushima in the midst of a Mongol Invasion. As Jin Sakai, one of the island’s last surviving samurai, you are tasked with uniting the island and driving the invaders to the sea. Despite the war-torn setting, the island retains much of its rugged beauty, with rolling fields of pampas grass, jagged shores and mountain-top shrines. The natural beauty is complemented by equally serene distractions, like finding (and petting!) foxes, contemplating in hot springs or simply finding out what’s around the next corner. Exploration is organic as well; instead of a myriad of distracting icons populating the screen, the game opts to use subtlety. Wind will blow towards an objective, or a bird will flit by you and guide you towards something of interest. The setting’s charm and beauty makes you almost forget that you’re supposed to save it from the Mongols.
Hitman series (2000– )
The Hitman games have you playing Agent 47, an assassin contracted to kill some very awful people in some awfully creative ways. There’s a Bond-esque feel to IO Interactive’s series, as Agent 47 travels to some stunning locales to do his work. Targets can be found wandering the narrow alleyways of an Italian coastal town, schmoozing with the elite in the penthouse of a Dubai skyscraper or racing in a Miami speedway. The game makes it a joy to revisit these locations because the gameplay loop encourages it. There are various ways to approach and assassinate your targets (exploding golf balls, being smothered by a cake, misuse of a tattoo gun), and active exploration is the only way to find them. The settings are also incredibly dense, often revealing unexpected locations, conversations or characters, once you begin to scratch the surface.
Moving Out (2020)
This cooperative multiplayer game by Sydney developer SMG Studios has you and three of your friends play as house movers in the town of Packmore. Your job is simple: get everything from each level into a moving truck before time runs out (and without breaking too much stuff). However, not everything fits neatly through the doors, nor can you move everything by yourself. Oh, and there are floors of ice, rakes and even the occasional ghost to deal with. This mix of cooperation and complication is where the chaos begins. Games often start with best laid plans that quickly and hilariously fall apart. Our attempts to move an L-shaped couch out a door and down an icy walkway probably had our neighbours wondering where the increasingly loud shrieks of “pivot… PIVOT!” were coming from.
Visitor Experience Guide, ACMI
Fallout 4 (2015)
The freedom and spontaneity of open world games has always drawn me in, but specifically the nuclear wasteland of the Fallout series has become my favourite one to return to. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were my introduction to being the Vault Dweller, but Fallout 4 has become my go-to comfort game since its release. I’ve revisited this game over and over and it never fails to take my mind off things…but don’t ask me if I’ve finished the main storyline or DLC! The melancholy and humour of tuning into the Diamond City radio station has helped me through some rough times, all while exploring vaults with my NPC companion Dogmeat and having strange, wild encounters.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is similarly comforting to Fallout 4, but in a completely different way. This game is as stress-free as you want it to be. You have the cutest villagers to befriend (Broccolo, I love you), and so much creative control over how you want to build your island. It really is a little vacation away from the day to day.
Frog Detective series (2018– )
My recent lockdown discovery has been the Frog Detective games. You play as the smartest detective ever (Frog) and investigate mysterious cases, all while meeting other fun animal characters. The Haunted Island (2018) and The Case of the Invisible Wizard (2019) are both short and sweet, but the world is so enjoyable to spend time in and is less overwhelming than more expansive games. Stay tuned for another mystery coming from Australian developer Grace Bruxner later this year.
The Orange Box (2007)
When I first bought Valve’s The Orange Box around ten years ago, I had very little idea of what I was getting myself into. But over 2,000 hours of game time later, the three titles in this compilation have all become very special to me, and I almost immediately found myself returning to them after lockdown first hit last year.
In the dystopian first person shooter Half-Life 2, and its two short sequels, you play as a physicist leading the resistance against a repressive police state. Replaying the game gave me immense comfort through both the familiarity of its linear narrative and the variety of its gameplay, even eventually finding solace in the once unplayably terrifying Ravenholm chapter.
More than just an ingenious puzzle game, Portal leaves you entranced by its unnerving sterile environment and dark humour. After countless playthroughs of its brisk runtime, I wound up with the same strange feeling of consolation in its cold, mysterious environment.
The concept of playing a multiplayer-only game was initially daunting to me, but once my friends coaxed me into trying Team Fortress 2, I was completely enraptured. The brainchild of Australian Quake-modders Robin Walker and John Cook, TF2’s unique throwback art style and prevalent sense of humour hit a sweet spot for me – the incredibly well-designed class-based gameplay was just the cherry on top. Like many, I’ve found it difficult to shake the addiction to TF2, logging thousands (yes, thousands) of hours in the battlements of maps like Harvest and Badlands.
Visitor Experience Guide/Education and Public Programs Facilitator, ACMI
At first glance, it’s a simple top-down shooting game… but is it? Developed by Finnish Studio 10tons Entertainment and published by Reflexive Entertainment in 2003, Crimsonland is an oldie but goodie. You’re placed in the middle of a bloody field with enemy creatures creeping towards you from all directions. Each kill will give you experience points and allow you to level up with special perks at the end of each level. Before you know it, the worries and anxieties that fill your mind are gone as you sprint across the fields of blood in a bubble shield, shooting poison bullets, and many other fiery weapons.
Don’t Starve (2013)
Don’t be fooled by the cute aesthetics of the world of Don’t Starve. Just keep asking the important questions, “Am I hungry?” “Am I healthy?” “Am I sane?”, in order to survive. Released in 2013 by Klei Entertainment, the world of Don’t Starve is a dark and dreary parallel world where your daily survival is threatened by surreal and supernatural enemies that are constantly trying to devour you whole (literally). The expansive map, the 4 deadly seasons, the variety of character traits and gameplay makes Don’t Starve something that you can never quite ‘finish’ or ‘figure out’.
Fruit Ninja (2010)
Do you remember when we were all fruit hating ninjas? Fruit Ninja was brought to us by Australian video game developer Halfbrick in 2010, in the infancy of mobile gaming. It landed on all our iPods and iPhones, introducing us to the legendary fruit slicing mechanism, which needs no further explanation. The simple concept of swipe left and right on their screens appealed to the casual gamers and became the perfect game to briefly procrastinate to in between classes.