The relationship between fantastical settings and video games seems inextricable and for good reason: the medium allows players to live out fantasies that were once merely imaginary. From mystical fantasy landscapes inspired by Dungeons and Dragons to star systems teeming with alien life, there is certainly no shortage of games that transport players to distant locales — but what about those that stick closer to home?
For a number of reasons, game designers have also been crafting experiences that employ decidedly more familiar environments. Square Enix’s surprise masterpiece Life is Strange takes place in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, where the player explores a variety of suburban locations. While Maxine Caulfield’s superpowers — the ability to rewind time and see the future — are far from mundane, the surroundings themselves are purposefully drab and ordinary. Without the distraction posed by a fantastical setting, players focus on the human elements buttressing the gameplay and an emotional connection is formed.
With a retail release of Life Is Strange coming soon, we thought now would be a great time to spotlight ten classic games that explore mundane settings and offer new perspectives on seemingly unremarkable backdrops.
In Gone Home, you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old college student who returns to her family’s house in Arbor Hill, Oregon after a yearlong trip abroad. The empty house feels freshly dismayed, open drawers and illuminated lights suggesting some recent emergency. From the first thing you read — a note from your sister begging you not to search for answers — Gone Home asserts itself as masterpiece of misdirection and subtlety. It plays directly on player expectations by fostering a potent sense of dread, intensified by its convincingly unremarkable setting.
Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons
In the Harvest Moon series, which was recently rebranded as Story of Seasons, players must restore and maintain a dilapidated family farm. Players can socialize with people in the town, plan their seasonal crops, and even court a husband or wife. The game presents itself as a series of tasks; success relies on patient tenacity, the moments of humdrum only punctuated by the occasional festival or natural disaster. As pastoral meditations on the virtues of simplicity and ritual, the Harvest Moon games are irresistible.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable presents its flavorless office setting as a thematic foil for its quantum mechanics, and video game trope defying gameplay. Players assume the role of Stanley, an office drone tasked with monitoring data. When his computer monitor goes blank, Stanley begins to explore the building and learns that he is all alone. The game offers a number of endings based on seemingly unimportant decisions the player makes throughout the game, such as choosing the door on the left instead of the door on the right.
Octodad illuminates the absurdities inherent to every day life by showcasing the difficulties that human beings can have fulfilling even the most mundane tasks, from attending a wedding to shopping at the grocery store. It does this by putting the player in the shoes of Octodad, a clumsy anthropomorphized Octopus trying his best to be a good husband and father. Navigating the world as Octodad is both a joy and a pain — it’s almost impossible to get anywhere without knocking a few things over, but the strangeness of it all is undeniably entertaining in its own right. I guess that’s how life is.
In Mister Mosquito, also known as Ka, players control a common mosquito living in the Yamada household. To survive, players must suck the blood from family members going about their daily lives, doing everything they can to avoid being noticed and squished. As players come to familiarize themselves with the Yamada family’s routines and idiosyncrasies, the game offers an interesting perspective on domestic life, and more shockingly, empathy for the strange plight of the mosquito.
One might think that spending hours fine tuning your locomotive before a transcontinental journey on the rails might be a bit of a chore, but if the Railworks community is any indication, that isn’t case at all. Requiring incredible attention to detail, the sim provides would-be railroad engineers — or Railfans, as they call themselves — the opportunity to tackle a wide variety of the globe’s most famous routes, from the East Coast Main Line in the UK to Cajon Pass in the USA.
In Animal Crossing, players move to a small remote town to start a new life. Like a virtual zen garden, Nintendo’s slice of life simulator makes a ritual out of playing the game itself. By tying the in-game clock to the actual time, players must incorporate the game into their schedule if they want to see everything the game has to offer. The game rewards frequent play and players must maintain relationships with neighbors, pay off their mortgage, rid the town of weeds and more if they want to stay in the town’s good graces.
Rockstar’s Bully uses an unassuming environment — a boarding school — to tell a convincing story about the human drive for power and recognition. In the game, players control Jimmy Hopkins, a young boy who learns that his new school, Bullworth Academy, is teeming with bullies. Players must rise through the social ranks at the school by defeating rabble-rousers and helping schoolmates. Additionally, players must excel at a notoriously mundane activity: class.
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