12th of February, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to a new regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few weeks. This time: visual brilliance, chess, and the pleasures of rocks.
Omori, PC, Mac
The best time to play Omori, in my opinion, is during the middle of the night; it might be troublesome for my sleep schedule, but it's perfect for a game which is part childhood fantasy and part waking nightmare.
The artstyle, which mixes pixel and hand-drawn art perfectly, helps build this atmosphere by invoking the surreal to create a mixture of wonder and fear; one moment I'm fighting a cute rabbit in a turn-based battle, the next I'm being stalked by hands no-one else can see.
There's a slow, crawling, sense of dread running throughout Omori and, the more I play, the more wary I become of completing the simplest of actions, like answering a door or looking in a mirror. Something is wrong, something is infecting the bright magical world I explore, but I don't know what it is. Yet.
Before playing Omori, it's important to know that the game contains depictions of depression, anxiety, suicide and has bright flashing imagery.
Chess Ultra, PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Thanks to The Queen's Gambit, chess is now cool - and along with many others I've been swept up in the mania and decided to try chess for myself. Aside from purchasing a rather beautiful 80s Soviet chess set (which no, I will not stop talking about), I also wanted a more portable version of the game, one which would actually teach me how to play. So I picked up Chess Ultra on Switch: a glamorous, all-in-one chess game that offers useful courses for beginners, puzzles, and a range of online multiplayer and AI options.
It's a useful tool for learning the basics and refining your tactics, but I particularly love Chess Ultra's gaudy and extravagant settings. One location takes you to a wintry Scottish hunting lodge, another, an opulent LA apartment that wouldn't be out of place on Selling Sunset. Chess Ultra really conveys the physicality of a chess board in a way few computer chess games do: each board is pockmarked and textured, with items strewn around to encourage you to spin the camera. I've spent a lot of time just rotating the boards, and zooming in to admire pieces in the digital firelight. It's made me realise that moving around a board to examine the problem from a different angle can be enormously useful in getting your brain to make connections - helping you understand how the pieces move, or imagine how your opponent might view the situation. And beyond all that... it just looks quite nice.
Valheim is the big new thing on Steam and Twitch. It's a Viking survival game, by which I mean you're a Viking trying to survive rather than someone trying to survive the Vikings. You craft, you cook, you give boars a hard time. Each day a bit further, a bit bigger, a bit peltier.
Already I love the feel of Valheim: it's rather blocky to look at and a tiny download, all things considered, but there is beauty to its rough landscapes, a real sense of nature in the undulating earth and the fuzzy moon rising over shining water. More than anything, though, I love the rocks I just found.
And it seems like this is something only survival games really allow for. Call it serendipity, although that isn't quite right. I mean the pleasure in finding something that's just lying around. In other games you earn loot by killing things, and you do in Valheim too. But you also just find stuff. It makes you feel, not powerful or skilled, but lucky.
Actually maybe it makes you feel a bit skilled too. The skill here, the knowledge, is not in finding the rocks but knowing that this is stone, and you can build stuff with stone. I can make an axe, and a hammer, and from there I can really get to chopping down trees rather than simply punching them, and I can build a workbench and a bed and the various converging aspects of a house. And I can build a fire pit and actually cook some of this boar stuff I have on me now. It was starting to get a bit smelly, I suspect.
You need to sleep and keep warm and eat in Valheim. But back at the start of it you need to understand that a stone is a very useful thing to have with you.
If you feel like you need someone to talk to, the Samaritans are there to help. They can be called, for free, on 116 123 in the UK and Ireland, or emailed on email@example.com/ie. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.