The Strange Allure of the Pacific Northwest

Why do so many smaller games center on the region?

When you picture the Pacific Northwest — the area that consists of the northwestern corner of the United States and the southwestern part of Canada — there are likely a collection of postcard images that spring to mind. It could be an endless forest of firs, dramatic lakes and jagged mountain ranges, or the small rural communities nestled away in the middle of nowhere. 

It’s these images that have become a common feature in indie games over the last decade, acting as the setting for everything from slice of life indie melodramas to grand mystery adventures. But what draws creatives to this region? And what do developers actually gain from setting their stories there? We contacted a number of indie developers to hear their thoughts on this growing trend and what the area represents to them.

A walk in the woods

To begin with, it’s probably best to acknowledge the elephant in the room — or the fish in the percolator — that is the TV show Twin Peaks. Set in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington, which was filmed largely in the former timber town of North Bend, the series set the template for how most indie games tend to approach the setting: putting a focus on the region’s haunting beauty while also populating it with offbeat, eccentric characters and enticing mysteries to become absorbed in.

Resort fishing lake

Resort, the sophomore effort from the German Studio Backwoods Entertainment, is no exception to this rule, drawing inspiration from the cult show for both its setting and atmosphere. 

In the game, you play as the reporter Laura Tanner who arrives from the big city to the small town of Laburnum Creek to interview its inhabitants. They are refusing to leave, despite a comet being expected to hit the town with potentially catastrophic results. Over the course of a few days in the town, you’ll interact with locals and explore a nearby resort, getting to know the different characters in order to unravel the mystery behind their strange behavior.

According to Marcus Bäumer, the co-founder of Backwoods-Entertainment, the idea behind setting Resort in a Pacific Northwestern environment wasn’t just an effort to emulate a popular TV show. Instead, it was to provide something distant to a lot of what their players experience in the everyday. The Pacific Northwest, in particular, offered the developers the perfect correlation between populated urban areas and more natural environments, and already had associations with the mystery genre, as well as the tendency to equate spirituality and healing with the natural environment.

He says, “We actually thought about setting this in Scandinavia or the Pacific Northwest, because these are the only areas that have a very similar look and a similar feeling. Just away from dense populations in general.”

Resort driving

It’s important to note, this isn’t the first game that they’ve made that has borrowed inspiration from the region. Their previous game, a point-and-click adventure called Unforeseen Incidents also took influence from the Pacific Northwest for its backgrounds that featured rugged mountain ranges and mysterious woods. 

“These are really rural areas in comparison to what we are from,” states Bäumer. “But…coming up with stories and ideas for me personally is way easier when I’m out in nature than when I’m sitting at my desk. When I’m sitting at my desk I can write, I can work, but I need to get away from that from time to time. I need to take my bike and drive in nature or take a hike or something and then think about our ideas and then form our ideas.”

Signals in the static

The co-creator of Jenny LeClue, the Florida-based Joe Russ also acknowledges the significance of Twin Peaks and David Lynch on influencing his work. Arthurton, the location where the lead character Jenny LeClue lives, is a quiet and picturesque town, not too dissimilar to the town of Twin Peaks, and draws inspiration from the Pacific Northwest for its look and feel. In particular, he highlights one trip he took with his mother to Victoria, British Columbia as being influential on the game’s look.

Jenny LeClue nothing happens

“I think that was definitely influential in a deep way…” explains Russ. “We went to the Butchart Gardens there, which are super beautiful and I was definitely thinking of those regions when we were channelling our game…and this town that is forever in fall weather.” 

Arthurton in the game is a hodgepodge of natural colours, from green and brown trees to yellowing leaves that litter the lawns. It is a place where, on the surface, nothing much ever happens, but that hides a dark secret just out of view. This contrast is primarily what the game is about, with the protagonist Jenny being dissatisfied with her mundane life and desperate to find something of interest lurking behind this relaxing facade. Inevitably, she does, first being alerted to something off kilter by a popular motif found within many of these games: the idea of hidden signals.  

Russ states, “Certainly, numbers stations at least were or if not still are a real thing, so certainly that’s coming out of that. That idea that there [are] these mysterious broadcasts, that can certainly [be of] military and governmental origin, but you could just have someone who is just a weird ham radio operator who is doing their own strange thing and you’ll never really know the source of that or what it means. But I think that fits into that ‘the mysteries of the Northwest’. [Or that feeling of] walking into the woods and you may never be seen again.”

A coastal adventure

The supernatural adventure game Oxenfree also plays into a similar idea of the Pacific Northwest, as a place of both great beauty and of great danger. According to Sean Krankel, the co-founder of Night School Studio, the story for the game emerged from his trips to the Oregon Coast, and from the startling juxtaposition between its picturesque landscapes and the ruins of old radar stations that now litter the coast.

oxenfree station

“I was on a hike with my wife and came across a moss-covered radar station from WWII,” says Krankel. “It was so surreal to me to see this leftover bunker-looking thing in what was now a suburban trail, so I decided to start to dig into the history of the US during the war. Turns out there were a series of incidents with Japanese subs directly off the coast, and that was the initial spark for the game’s backstory.” 

In Oxenfree, players guide a group of teenagers who travel to the fictional Edwards Island for a weekend party. While on the island, they accidentally uncover the story of the USS Kanaloa, a submarine that sank in a case of friendly fire off the coast of Edwards Island in the 1940s, after intercepting strange signals with their handheld radio. Similar to Jenny LeClue, Oxenfree taps into the region’s potential for danger, with their discovery putting the group at risk. The Pacific coastline is still home to a number of these radar sites today, including the likes of Cape Arago and Cape Meares. Now unused, these locations remain a strange and unsettling presence for visitors to the region, serving as a remarkable contrast to the local environment.

The American dream

Boreal Tenebrae, a game from the indie developer Daniel Beaulieu, goes slightly further with things. It uses the idea of strange signals to explore working class frustrations in rural communities. In Boreal Tenebrae, players will guide a number of characters through a series of short vignettes all set within a quiet town that is gradually becoming overrun with a strange static.

Boreal Tenebrae Something Wrong

For Beaulieu, the game represented a chance to explore the topic of urbanization, as well as the concept of existential dread, and the failed promise of the American Dream. He drew particularly on his own experiences growing up in a small community, where his family’s life was uprooted after the local pulp mill was closed, forcing them to relocate elsewhere. 

“It was their economic linchpin, so its closure marked a defining moment in the community,” says Beaulieu. “Jobs became scarce, opportunities began to drain away, it felt like the entire town changed overnight. Everyone was scared, contemplating the future of their community. What had worked in the past, for generations, was now in flux and the town was at a crossroads.”

In the game, this is represented in both the fate of the local lumber mill, which is beginning to unionize against the wishes of its owner, and the blind panic that ensues among the residents once the static becomes too overwhelming and horrifying to ignore. The game critiques those in these positions of power throughout, portraying them as self-serving and malignant forces within the community. 

Boreal Tenebrae Mondays

Beaulieu, now based in British Columbia, feels like this extends beyond the Pacific Northwest, arguing, “I think this particular type of existential dread, that is at the core of a lot of indie projects right now, is a reflection of the current psychosphere we are collectively occupying. The disillusion with the ‘American dream’ and the realization that those images we were shown of white fences and endless suburbia was all a fabrication. Exploring the different aspects of that facade and what lies ‘behind’ it is something I think is on the forefront of a lot of our minds right now.” 

Signed, sealed, delivered

Contrast and conflict have been key to many of the projects we’ve already discussed. Whether it be the imminent threat of a meteor strike, a secret conspiracy, or a forgotten tragedy, the Pacific Northwest is often defined in games by the idea of opposition. Which is what makes Lake from Gamious somewhat of an outlier. Unlike these other games, it shirks supernatural drama and existential threats for interpersonal relationships and a more relaxed overall pace and rhythm.Lake carrying mail

You play as Meredith Weiss, a woman in her mid-40s, who returns home to her small town in Oregon to deliver mail for her father — who is the local mail carrier. The game takes place over the course of two weeks, with the time limit representing the time before Meredith will have to pack up her things and return to her successful job in the city. Players spend their time delivering mail and getting to know the local residents, following different sidequests based on what paths they take in their day-to-day.

“She comes back after fifteen or twenty years or so of being away from home,” explains Dylan Nagel, game director at Gamious. “In that sense, just like the player, she has to adjust or readjust in her case to the very quiet life and the very slow pace of her hometown.”

Despite being from the Netherlands, Nagel’s fascination with the region was present from childhood, ever since he watched Transformers as a kid, which chose Oregon as the site where the Autobots and Decepticons landed. Later on, he was even able to live and work in the region, something that only strengthened his resolve to make a game about its gorgeous natural setting and more relaxed pace of life.

Lake motel

Asked whether there was ever the intention to lean into some of the darker implications, Nagel responds: “We’ve talked about that a lot…it makes sense to have a murder or at least suggest that the environment, maybe at night or maybe overall, is quite a bit more looming or more tense than we currently have it be. It was a point of contention, but ultimately myself and our creative director felt that there’s quite a few entertainment titles out there already that showcase that particular version of the Pacific Northwest quite well.”

Though it may be tempting to dismiss the region’s popularity within games as simply a fad, it goes beyond just providing an interesting backdrop for players to explore. Exploiting the region’s cultural history and associations, the aforementioned games use the Pacific Northwest to tackle an assortment of themes. That includes everything from existentialism to urbanism to spiritualism. Regardless of whether you want to traipse through a spooky wood, explore the windswept ruins of WW2 radar station, or just deliver mail, the region has become synonymous with indie adventures, both big and small.