Computers have no hearts. That’s why algorithms suck. Open a random product page on Steam, and the store will try to recommend you other games that look similar at a superficial level. Liked this JRPG? Here, take a dozen other games featuring anime girls. Algorithms focus on genres and tags and technical specifications, but can’t understand how games make us feel. They can’t understand the difference between a sad and a heartwarming JRPG.
Algorithms are also tied to individual sites, oblivious to all the other stuff human beings produce: novels, music, comics, TV shows. The way creators from different fields share influences and inspire each other. So let a human algorithm recommend you the good stuff, for once.
Here is a list of games and other media that will make you feel small and lonely. Works about abandoned places, forgotten places, places that are not meant for you. Places that are too silent, too vast and too splendid for tiny human minds.
Check the list of the works NaissanceE creators cited as inspirations to see why this list exists. Look at this kaleidoscope of stuff.
Anyway, NaissanceE is a game about Lucy, who is lost. The how, what and where don’t matter. What counts is pushing forwards, exploring empty corridors and trying to escape the snake-like creature who wants us gone.
Despite some finicky platforming sections, what stuck with me while playing was the terrific sense of scale. NaissanceE is a game that shows you a vast, abandoned megastructure, filling your screen with an implicit promise: “we’ll get there.” And after hours of stairs, corridors and platforms, the game lets you look at the way you came from and realize how far you’ve come.
Also check out: There’s an undeniable similarity between the brutalist architecture of Naissancee and the gray walls of Fugue in Void. But whereas Naissancee is interested in exploring a physical space, Fugue in Void is a dazzling series of vignettes to watch and barely touch. There’s an area of sacrality in those cathedrals of concrete, but the gods lingering there are not yours.
The empty spaces of Kairo feel friendlier than others on the list, and not only because of the colored walls: this place is not abandoned, but simply sleeping. And you can restore it to life, completing simple puzzles to wake up the ancient machinery and slowly understand their purpose. There’s even a gentle hint system, in case you get stuck. Oh, and the ending. I think it’s one of the most gentle, beautiful endings I’ve ever seen in a game. I never thought I’d have to write the phrase “heartwarming brutalism” in my career, and yet we are.
Also check out: FRACT OSC is another colorful game about reactivating ancient machines. It’s more playful than Kairo, and lets you use music to solve puzzles and bring the place to life.
It’s dead. It wakes up. It’s somewhere strange. “It” is a clunky knight armed with a sword and a shield. It will need to swing them to push forward, because this strange place is filled with shiny shapes who are not your friends.
This is a place with a story no one wants you to remember; you can tell it from the way everyone keeps pushing you away. The combat is clunky. Moving is slow. And yet, it doesn’t feel annoying. Moving through history while being dead is like floating in water.
Also check out: Yume Nikki is a classic 2D game about exploring the dreams of a girl. The dark, looping maps make you feel tiny and lost. And like in 0_AbyssalSomewhere, the few enemies don’t attack you, but simply push you away (or wake you up), as if shooing you away from a place you’re not meant to visit.
A virtual space to explore by moving around and looking everywhere, shifting your perspective until grainy forms align and the static becomes a mesh of shapes and cubes and walls, revealing ghostly architecture you can traverse. It will make your eyes hurt, while simultaneously making you beg for more. It’s just a short demo for now, a prototype as cracked as the world it represents. It will probably never get finished. Part of me hopes it never will.
Also check out: EGO. What is it? I don’t know. Will it be good? I have no idea.
The machines have gone rogue. They will never stop. They will keep building with no aim and no reason, spreading concrete wings over Earth to cover the entire solar system in the bare splendor of an infinite megastructure. Humans will be swatted like roaches, and everything will be plastic and metal and smooth doll faces over technological abominations.
Enter Killy, a small person with a big gun looking for a way to stop the machines. It’s a bare excuse for a plot; a pretext to send Killy on a journey full of terrible wonders. He shoots robots. Meets survivors. He traverses rooms as big as the space between Earth and Moon.
The first volumes may look a bit rough, but keep going. The art gets prettier, the spaces get bigger, and you will soon understand why so many creators cite it as a seminal inspiration.
Also check out: the Netflix anime adaptation, though it’s more action-oriented and less gloomy. If you prefer paper to screens, Biomega and Abara are two other manga by the same author with the same look and atmosphere.
Two girls explore together a post-apocalyptic landscape. Their wanderings are not driven by a desire for adventure, but by the simple need to get food and water. And so, they carry on. They wash clothes, read books, bicker, smile. They find solace in each other’s presence, because there’s nothing else here. Don’t get swayed by the cutesy appearance: the world of Girls’ Last Tour is the most depressing of the list. There are few survivors, no attempts at rebuilding, and even the machines are spent and devoid of will to live. This is a world that is already dead, and our girls know it. They are just trying to have fun while they’re still, miraculously, alive.
If manga bores you, consider the anime adaptation, which features dabbing and doesn’t adapt the bleakest chapters of the manga, so you can pretend the cute apocalypse girls will be okay.
Also check out: Angel’s Egg, a visual ambient piece about a girl living in a semi-abandoned city. Melancholic, abstruse, too slow, and definitely ahead of its time. Yoshitaka Amano, of Final Fantasy fame, also worked on the character design.
Bonus track: House of Leaves
House of Leaves is a book about a book about a movie about a house. A house that is, at first, three quarters of an inch longer on the inside than on the outside. An impossibility that only gets bigger, sprouting a seemingly endless labyrinth of ashen corridors and empty rooms. I’m not sure I’d recommend this novel to anyone. Reading it was a slog; trying to understand what I had just read was even worse. And yet, I find difficult to not think about it.