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Many Games Have Romance, but Few Do It as Exquisitely as Haven

Haven shows how far superb character writing can carry a game with minimal plot.

My favorite moment in Haven is incredibly short and unremarkable. It’s an interaction between Yu and Kay, the game’s dual protagonists. It’s not a main narrative beat; it can randomly happen multiple times as you traverse the game’s gorgeous vistas. As Kay collects cooking ingredients, he comments on how the batch of seeds he just picked seems rotten.

“You’re rotten,” instantly quips Yu.

Kay is taken aback, bewildered as to why she says this. She quickly apologizes, saying it was just a reflex. It’s such a tiny but organic moment, reminding me of all the times I’ve teased the people I most love. I’ll do it without thinking. It has little purpose besides being an expression of affection that usually, but not always, lands correctly. Sometimes it creates laughs. Other times, it can be off-putting or even hurt someone you love.

Haven is filled with natural interactions like this: conversations that don’t drive its plot forward or have a particularly important reason for existing. As a result, it’s a sublime blueprint for dialogue crafting and characterization. It’s also a testament to how vital it is to have well-written characters. It’s much harder to convince someone to keep playing a narrative-heavy game if there’s an elaborate plot but no captivating richness to its cast. Haven knows this as intimately as the relationship between its two playable characters. That’s why it has some of my favorite writing out of any game this year (and that’s saying something).

Developed and published by The Game Bakers, Haven is about two lovers escaping to the lost planet of Source in an effort to be together. You play as Kay and Yu as they settle into this unknown world, explore its many islets, fix your ship, and build a cozy home. Eventually, the duo must fight those who come to tear them apart and decide what they’re willing to give up for love. While there are some climactic moments, Haven is not a plot-heavy game; it doesn’t try to be. It’s happy to let you linger in its quiet, combat-free moments.

That doesn’t mean Haven isn’t interesting, or that it doesn’t do new things. In comparison to many video game romances, which begin from before they’re formed so that it’s easier to become attached to a couple once they get together, Haven takes risks. I have no problem with the former approach! I’m the living embodiment of “Does it have romance? No? Then I don’t want it.” But there’s so much to appreciate about the trust the story places in the player by beginning at a much later relationship stage.

The developers avoid gamifying Kay and Yu’s closeness entirely. Here, there are no sex scenes you unlock by doing special missions or giving enough gifts. Sex happens without cinematic fanfare or requiring an achievement. Just like every other real couple, Yu and Kay have heated discussions and relax as they drink tea, silently basking in each other’s presence. They annoy each other when they repeat something too many times. They encourage each other, playfully share secrets, and keep some things to themselves, too. They might just be the most realistically written couple in video games. I deeply hope they are used as a model for how to write and present authentic romances in the medium.

Haven trusts you’ll understand, and likely love, Yu and Kay as you learn about them by piecing together the context of their lives and watching their present-day interactions. And god, are those interactions an utter joy to watch, even when they’re not happy ones. They’re effortlessly sweet, funny, and eye-roll-inducing when Kay is the one making jokes. They’re emotionally genuine. It is wonderful to observe these two and the life they built — to be a witness to all their minuscule and grandiose expressions of love.

While the writing is fantastic, though, the incredibly talented Janine Harouni (Yu) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi (Kay) give each line the gravitas or levity it precisely needs. There are a few mechanical errors in the script — a missing period or grammar mistake here, a slight difference between the written and spoken dialogue there — but the writing itself is generally marvelous.

You can play Haven either solo mode or in co-op mode. While I played the entire game alone, I did test co-op after finishing it. It feels like a wonderful game to play with a significant other or even a friend. If you’re playing in co-op mode, you need to settle on the same choice, which can make for some interesting chats. There’s usually a choice that sparks either Kay or Yu’s confidence, but from what I could tell, this is inconsequential to the overall outcome of the story. I still liked making up games within the game — like randomly picking dialogue options until my friend and I landed on the same one.

Exploration is a meditative experience. You glide around cleaning up rust (it makes sense in-game), engaging with enemies, and traversing across beautifully-colored, if not always unique, environments. While I can see how this might be boring for some, I enjoyed the relaxing simplicity — especially amidst the chaos of the real world. While I didn’t clear every single area of rust, I cleaned most. The sound that played when I cleared a pool of the corruptive goo was satisfying, too. Almost addicting. The game’s vibrant color palette is stunning enough to make seeing a fully clean island a reward in and of itself.

And like everything else in Haven, there’s a narrative function to this more minimal style of navigation. Instead of filling the world with ineffective distractions, the developers focus on characterization to ensure nothing is more compelling than Yu and Kay’s constant banter on the field. You’ll quickly realize that exploration in Haven is filled with pleasant narrative surprises.

At one point, I fell off a flow thread and landed in a body of water. Yu proceeded to coyly empty her bladder to Kay’s obliviousness. My curiosity in going to the edge of a map was rewarded with discovering a secret optional area that had some of my favorite scenes. I almost finished the game missing an entire area that had no objectives — but exploring this area gave me two new abilities. Each of which resulted in more heartwarming dialogue and hilarious moments, like a creature stealing Kay’s pants while he was getting dressed.

Haven’s battle system is minimal, as well. You have two attacks to wither down enemies until you can safely pacify them. Later on, you can craft balms to cure yourself mid-battle, increase your speed, or use stronger versions of the same attacks. You have an option for either Yu or Kay to act as a shield for the other. If one goes down, the other can pick them back up.

It’s simple, but there’s a bit of nuance to be found, too. You can perform individual attacks or do a more powerful duo version. Though this requires you to time it correctly. The window to do so greatly reduces if either Kay or Yu have fallen several times or are hungry, and therefore have less energy. Often, I would strategize and plan ahead. As one would knock an enemy down, the other would be halfway through charging up pacify.

It’s not an overly engaging system, but it’s also not one that ever feels distracting or that it gets in the way of what matters. Haven is open about this, too: you get the most experience not through combat, but by letting Yu and Kay have intimate moments by cooking, eating together, and chatting.

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I love Haven’s usual nonviolence. It complements its meditative exploration. If it was a standard RPG in which you repeatedly slew the same kinds of enemies, I’d find the contrast between the peaceful atmosphere and the combat jarring. Instead, it just feels like you’re restoring an ecosystem full of specific critters to its proper state. “Combat” is really just about reducing the corruption and letting former foes go free. It’s a display of love.

And love seeps into every aspect of Haven. It’s not just its core; it’s the game in its entirety. There is humble but undeniable confidence here. So many love stories in video games are relegated to subplots. Likely because there’s a fear romance isn’t compelling enough on its own. Haven doesn’t bother with distractions that less confident writing might have tried to shove in but not fully committed to, like developing secondary characters who ultimately don’t matter or reaching for a grander story. It knows its focus and dedicates itself wholly to it. Haven starts with two lovers who have abandoned everything to be together, and who are grappling with what this means to them as both a couple and as individuals — and it largely remains like this until the end.

And in no way did Haven ever feel boring throughout the 20 hours I played (it’s an estimated 10-12 hours long, but I took extra time to find everything and listen to another banger of a soundtrack collected by The Game Bakers). Yu and Kay were too endearing and exquisitely written for me to not feel constantly moved in a specific direction. They are each other’s compass — and they were mine. I went out of my way to see the tritest pieces of dialogue because there was always something to be found — a funny example of how different these two are, an argument or discussion that exposes their vulnerabilities, an understanding of how deeply they love each other.

As I took care of them so that they could take care of each other, I fell into a familiar routine. But I didn’t become tired of it. And that’s probably what a love like theirs is, right? A comforting routine that makes you feel at peace; that always gives you something to look forward to, even if it’s something as simple as the gift of spending another day in the orbit of the people you love.

Haven was one of my most anticipated games of the year. It might’ve made me feel pangs of deep yearning for a cute partner under quarantine, sure, but I didn’t mind. Yu and Kay are genuinely too adorable for my lonely self to have been bitter about them. Haven certainly didn’t disappoint, especially since it has some of my favorite writing in games this year. I firmly believe the strength of its writing is enough to carry you through any qualms, like the luminescent flow threads that decorate the ground and stretch toward the horizon.

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Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.

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