I posit that video games are a Colossal Bummer. Help me be wrong?


#1

My usual tastes trend towards “unrelentingly grim,” but some days that’s just not the healthiest aesthetic to immerse myself in. I’ve been on a mission for the past week to find some genuinely positive games, and I’m coming up much shorter than I (probably naively) expected. Searching for Steam tags was instructive. Nothing for “positive,” but how about “post-apocalyptic”? We don’t have “upbeat,” but surely “beat 'em up” or “shoot 'em up” will serve your needs?

Even games with a cute or goofy tone can be upsetting if you scratch the surface: the only verb a player has in Saints Row is murder; Octodad is a distillation of impostor syndrome anxieties; Slime Rancher is about conducting genetic testing on an enslaved species for profit – the list goes on. You could accuse me of going out of my way to find a bad angle, and OK, fair! But when I look through my Steam library, almost every title leads to a meditation on the inexorable march of entropy or mankind’s inherent cruelty.

The only true counter example I can think of is Dream Daddy, and while I appreciate that game there’s frankly not a lot to latch onto in terms of occupying my mind. Can y’all think of anything I’m missing here?


#2

I think it’s probably possible to find a bad angle on pretty much any game (like how Mario Odyssey has you taking over the minds of thinking, feeling beings and bending them temporarily to your will), but there are some that immediately come to mind:

Not just because I’ve sunk 35 hours into it over the past five days, but Stardew Valley. Just… Stardew Valley. I was never a huge Harvest Moon fan but I decided to try it after hearing so much praise and holy crap it sucked me in. There’s still some sad moments, but on the whole most of the game’s quests and objectives involve helping people get things that they want or need, and it’s ended up being a much deeper experience than I expected it to be.

On a different bent, maybe Sonic Mania? It’s unrelentingly bright and colorful and peppy (until maybe the last level), and instead of killing things you’re freeing woodland animals from robot suits (which is just, you know, the usual Sonic thing). That game helped me through a rough patch earlier this year so maybe it would work?

Potentially weird suggestion, but have you played Undertale? That game is very grim under certain conditions, but my True Pacifist run is honestly the most uplifting experience I’ve ever had in a video game. Might not be quite what you’re looking for though.

Oh I almost forgot—THOMAS WAS ALONE. Thomas Was Alone is so good. And it gets really sad but it also gets really happy, and by the end it was also one of the most uplifting games I’ve ever played. Short too.

That’s what immediately comes to mind. Overabundance of platformers, but that’s a lot of what I play.


#3

american truck simulator is just about how cool it is to be on the open road delivering cargo from point a to point b and the only bummers in that game are if the radio you’re listening to bugs out or the dj says something dumb but that’s not on the game i think.


#4

If you decided that all games are bummers then I don’t know how our tips could help you. I would say SimCity, but if you play poorly you inflict poverty on your citizens and if you play well you will likely contribute to the exploitation of nature and other rampant expansions of humanity.


#5

Stardew Valley is absolutely a charming game that does have some troubled characters, but is only hopeless if you align yourself with the megacorp.
Ribbit King on the Gamecube and PS2 was a really delightful goofy golf game involving frogs. Your character would hit a seesaw with a mallet to pop a frog on the other end up in the air toward a pond. Sports games in general are abstract enough that I think it’s hard to get a bummer take out of them, particularly the cartoony ones like Mario.
Chulip is a PS2 game about trying to befriend people and sealing the friendship with a kiss. This increases your capacity for love (the game’s leveling system) until your character is emotionally able to attempt being in a relationship with the girl of his literal dreams.
Chibi-Robo on Gamecube is about a cleaning robot who is purchased by an unhappy family and decides to go about solving everyone in the house’s problems in almost exclusively non-violent ways.
Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Heartbreak on the GBA is based on the Hamtaro anime, and features you playing as a hamster who goes around repairing strained relationships. Again, this is almost exclusively non-violent and violence is reserved for playfully knocking into other hamsters. Other Hamtaro games center around collecting colorful objects, competing in Olympics minigames, and recruiting hamster friends to come to your clubhouse.
I still have a soft spot for the Playstation games Rugrats: Search for Reptar and Rugrats: Studio Tour which, like the eponymous show, has really low stakes that are made to feel high by virtue of the characters being babies. That one might not be as much fun without the heavy nostalgia I feel for it, however.

On Steam, there are tags for “cute,” “relaxing,” “funny,” “family friendly,” as examples of tags that might be fruitful in your quest (they won’t account for your Slime Rancher and Octo-Dad critiques, though). I do hope you find games that don’t bum you out.


#6

I should have known that anime was the answer. Thanks for the recs!


#7

Depression is a hell of a thing!


#8

Well, you aren’t wrong. Particularly on Steam. You’d probably find more on itch.io, or alt games sites.

But for funsies I’ll take a peak at my Steam library…
One sec, gotta count some letters here…
AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome is just about being awesome.
Antichamber is about challenging assumptions, which could kinda go either way.
Don’t Starve is about sustainable living.
Gone Home is about empathy, and understanding others by how they tell their own stories, and what they leave behind.
Mount your friends, while played competitively, is about working together to reach a goal none of you could reach alone.
Viscera Cleanup Detail, while full of gore, is about picking up the pieces and restoring normalcy after traumatic events.
Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy is about overcoming obstacles and not giving up.

As a percentage of total games? Yes, abysmal.

I think a lot of that just stems from the medium. Paintings can just be beautiful. Your interaction with them is limited to looking. Appreciate beauty. Games are different though. They ask you to, and in return, you expect to be asked, to do something. Solve something. Fix something. Explore something, be it a place or an idea.

Games are interactive fiction. Or media. I don’t think I own a non-fiction game, but I’ll remain broad. You’d be fairly hard pressed to find fiction without conflict. You already included the example of Dream Daddy, which is in rarified company. These are uncommon because interest, intrigue, development, exploration of ideas, challenging ideas, etc. all almost require conflict of some kind. As you said, “there’s trankly not a lot to latch onto in terms of occupying my mind.”

It can be internal conflict, external. It can be violent, or diplomatic, or challenging an idea that the author wishes to challenge, which means it’ll be painted in a bad light, or just be a very problematic idea painted in a fair light.

In games, fairly early, the verbs we used were cursor related for the most part. Point and click on something, or later, turn the screen until something is in the middle, then click. (Look at or point at the problem to fix it.) We found violence quickly because it’s the easiest and simplest answer. When you start with computers incapable of much in terms of complex sound, with low resolutions, simple interactions took hold.

“What’s the problem for our space-ship?” “Asteroids.” “How do you solve that problem?” “Blow them up.”

“What’s the problem for our plumber?” “I need to get to the flag at the end.” “What’s the problem?” “An obstacle course, and I guess the flag is a princess?” “How do you solve that problem?” “Jump over or onto obstacles.”

It’s just… pretty simple goal setting, the addition of complication, leading, often, to violence being made very normal. Then the next generation comes around, iterated on those ideas. To give credit where it’s due though, Tetris is the best selling game of all time, and Candy Crush, it’s great, great, great, etc. etc. iterative grandchild is/was/will probably remain the biggest mobile game.


#9

I do love Stardew. I’ve done everything in the game but I think it’d be rad to start a new file and focus on making a good cute farm rather than worry about maximizing productivity.

I’ll check out Thomas Was Alone – thanks!


#10

There’s positive stuff around there, but I doubt you’ll find it the more convential corners of Steam.

For example Proteus is a nice game about taking a walk and contemplating life.
Fugl lets you be any bird you want. You can even be a bear and still be a bird. It’s really nice and relaxing.
Botanicula is an incredibly joyful sort of point and click adventure.
To the Moon and its Sequel tell really nice stories about how people deal and come to terms with failures in their lifes.
Dropsy the Clown is a game about helping people and just being nice to everyone.
Panoramical lets you create colourful soundscapes.
And that’s completely ignoring all those smaller games that I also trying to do things differently

I’m not really interested in disproving your point really. It’s just that I believe that a lot of the time this perception comes down to the way we talk about games, and what type of games are domintating the discussion in general.


#11

Kerbal Space Program maybe? I mean, you’re bound to blow up something in that game, but its entire focus is about exploring and overcoming the obstacles that come with it.

I’d also second the SCS brand of truck simulations. You can play that with a gamepad and it’s one of the most chill games out there. Cities: Skylines (The vanilla version at least) I’d also recommend since a lot of that game is about making a space for people that’s great to live in.

Some of the Double Fine stuff like Costume Quest or Stacking might be worth checking out. I haven’t played Style Savvy, but I’ve heard very good things about it. Oh, and LocoRoco 1 & 2 are super great.


#12

One thing that almost never gets mentioned in enthusiast gaming circles is how positive and upbeat sports games are. Like, they are probably the biggest genre in gaming by sales, they typically emphasize nonviolent actions, and they focus on something that makes a lot of people happy and satisfied. But of course they’re never discussed because it’s not “hardcore” to simply celebrate competition that isn’t killing your opponent.


#13

ABZU! It’s super short but it’s beautiful and joyous and beyond relaxing. I still boot it up when I need to decompress and just hang out with some lovingly rendered marine life.


#14

Psyched to be a dang bird! Dropsy also looks nightmarish and happy at the same time, so it’s somehow hitting everything I need.


#15

I’d second Style Savvy, I picked up the latest one after seeing Gita Jackson says some nice things about it on Kotaku and it’s really good. I’ve always liked trying to put together a cool outfit in stuff like the Sims or RPG / Souls games and it’s nice to play something primarily about that.

I also really like that it’s primarily a game about supporting people. I’m only a few hours in but so far it doesn’t really seem like my character really has a primary story arc, you are just running a boutique trying to get to know your regular customers and help them with their fashion problems. A lot of the regulars seem to have their own story arcs but your role in that story is always as a supportive friend who can also put together a rad outfit for their band or for a business meeting or whatever. There is something really nice about the whole game being about helping people in a low key but meaningful way.

I also really like @Navster’s point about sports games. I realize it’s a pretty fantastical take on the sport, but I always loved the SSX games and those are mostly about the joy of motion and expressing yourself through ridiculous tricks.


#16

Undertale can be incredibly positive, provided that you’re willing to put in the work of not killing anyone. It has a cute art style, fun characters and a generally upbeat tone. It can also get really dark, but only if you go out of your way to do that.


#17

That may not be a good example due to the character subplots related to infidelity and a veteran suffering from PTSD, not to mention a morality binary where you can help a capitalist megacorp destroy a community for your own personal gain. There’s at least one failing marriage in there, pus emotionally distant parents as well.

If I had to toss some stuff out, I guess I’d suggest Kirby, the most beginner friendly and adorable plat-okay I couldn’t even type that with a straight face, what with the very real possibility that the series lore includes a dead Earth ruled by robots and a eldrich god that cries blood.


#18

#19

Hey. I’m here to make the case that Thumper–the paragon of rhythm violence–is a happy game.

The space beetle is blissfully single-minded in pursuit of victory, unencumbered by the petty foibles of their fellow insects (I’m making the admittedly unfounded assumption that this beetle is one of many, and not just a flashy player stand-in). Injury is inevitable, death not uncommon, but triumph is only ever sweetened by the taste of defeat, and would certainly ring hollow with its absence.

I do fundamentally accept that the Final Boss is evil, which is clearly debatable, but look, sometimes a screeching hell monster needs to be put down. So while the merits of our little beetle’s efforts are ultimately subjective, I offer that there’s nothing more noble than the total destruction of a world-ending deity.

Less distractingly, there’s no moral complexity beyond the central conceit; you are exactly what you are, and the essence of your opposition never changes. There’s something beautifully refreshing about that in this age of awesome games with sore thumbs.

Listen, if a metal beetle careening down a terrifying lane of otherworldly geometry stresses you the fuck out, I totally get it. For me? Heart rate elevated and a quickened pulse is exciting as all hell, and with what my buddy on-screen is going through, I aim to reciprocate. Really, in the end, and entirely throughout, each and every second I spent with this game was joyous. And kinda life-affirming?

Okay, so maybe this doesn’t exactly dispute your point, what with violence being right there in my opening line, and maybe I just wanted to write some trash about Thumper, a video game I think is incredible. I’m running really low on sleep, so I’ll blame that and be on my way.


#20

That is very true (and in any case it seems like OP has already played a ton of Stardew Valley). Though I think the captialist megacorp path is telegraphed enough that it’s easy enough to avoid. And in terms of overall tone, I do still think it provides a good counterpoint to OP’s “unrelentingly grim” characterization. Those character arcs are sad, but they’re not written in a way that’s necessarily grim or cruel, more just… realistic? Or maybe I just have a weird read on things.