Solo: Islands of the Heart

Solo: Islands of the Heart is, in the words of the developers, “A contemplative puzzler set on a gorgeous and surreal archipelago” wherein the player “Reflect[s] on love’s place in [their] life with a personal and introspective branching narrative.” This sounds like peak me: I love puzzles, surreal landscapes, love, and introspection! To top it off, the game offers some flexibility regarding gender representation; you’re not automatically forced into a binary heteronormative default. I snatched it up pretty quickly after learning about it (and confirming that it at least attempted to be queer-friendly) and completed a run after a few days of casual pick-up-and-put-down play. While I’m not sure that it was quite what I’d hoped it would be, it made enough of an impression on me that I feel the need to write about it. Be warned, there may be some things that resemble spoilers ahead, but the game is very much dependent upon what you put into it, so I’m not even sure spoiling is… a thing.

The basics…

The basic gist of the game is that you hop around from island to island trying to activate totems. There are two pieces to each; you activate a small one, which shines a light at a large one which you can then talk to. Talking to the large totems asks you a question related to love, after which a new island opens up. There are some other minor puzzles along the way, like helping smitten dogs reach one another or watering gardens; these are all optional and don’t move anything forward in the game. Puzzles involve moving five different types of boxes around, generally so you can move upward to a place you can’t reach, or float via parachute to a far away bit of land. They are, for the most part, pretty simple and somewhat flexible in terms of solving. They can be frustrating in terms of guiding just how high up or far out you need to be to land on that island – suddenly you’re in the water again swimming back to your pile of boxes.

In my experience, there was a considerable disconnect between the ‘do a box puzzle’ and the ‘talk about your love life’ elements. I suspect that part of the idea here is to allow the introspective side of your brain some time to relax by running the lateral thinking bits instead. And, as a whole, I didn’t really mind that disconnect – but it stacked up with other things. I mentioned that it was fairly easy to misjudge just how high or far out you’d need to coax the boxes, lest you plunge into the sea. This happened to me quite a lot, often multiple times on the same puzzle in later stages. Swimming is slow, and faster swimming is achieved by hitting a certain rhythm with the swim button. This decision, too, I can easily justify as an exercise in mindfulness instead of impatiently button-mashing. But these things compound – things start feeling like busy work keeping you at bay while the totems think of something to ask.

Regarding the questions…

The questions the totems ask are not trivial, they run a fairly wide gamut and certainly lend themselves to introspection. Early on, one basically asked if I was polyamorous which… is honestly a very important sort of acknowledgement in a game like this. You’re asked how important things like sex and shared values are; you’re asked if you would abandon your family for a lover. You’re also asked questions that relate more directly to the path you choose at the beginning – that is, are you in love, have you loved and lost, or have you never loved at all. It’s easy, when answering this at the beginning of the game, to fall into the trap of your character being you. And, to be fair, I think that it would be a waste of energy to not align your choices in the game with your personal life and feelings. But, it’s important to keep a bit of distance, as the game will occasionally contradict your answers or dive into things that quite possibly aren’t at all applicable to your situation.

For example, having chosen in earnest the ‘in love once, but not now’ option, I was asked a lot of questions as to why I thought the relationship failed. One was about time, did I think time played a role. After answering ‘no’, the next question basically opened with ‘okay, but time basically had to play into it’, directly contradicting my honest response. This was the first moment where I got annoyed and began to realize I needed to distance myself from the little tiny on-screen version of me that I was shaping. Some of the responses were, to me, absurd to the point of throwing me right out of the game’s depth, such as “You can’t fully hate what you don’t fully love”. But again, the key was to answer honestly while consciously separating myself from my avatar.

About those gender options…

I’d be remiss to not touch on the matter of gender. You can independently choose one of three body styles for your character, and one of three ‘genders’. While the game refers to it as gender and gives you the option of male, female, and non-binary, what it actually means is pronouns. To be clear, I’m glad that they put an effort into making this game inclusive, I’m glad that you can use they/them pronouns. But that’s not gender, and there’s no reason not to call it what it is. Both you and your partner1 get the three options; you can change yours at any time. It’s a root-level option in the pause menu, right with ‘Back to the main menu’ and ‘Settings’. This is absolutely the right way to handle a thing, and should be seen as an example for all developers to follow. Your partner is static upon initial choosing, which… is honestly a little weird, given the player’s flexibility. I would like to see this reconsidered.

In closing…

I’m glad that I played this game. I’d have to be very cautious in recommending it, however: it’s very short, it’s not great as a puzzle game, and the disconnects mentioned (between puzzle and introspection, between player and avatar) are a little tricky to reckon with. I doubt there’s much in the way of replay value – even writing this, I’d like to go through the beginning again to pull some direct quotations but at the same time… I really don’t want to. I might play through a different path if I find myself in love again, but even that feels like a toss-up. Still, there aren’t a lot of games doing this sort of emotional introspective adventure, and I think there’s a lot of value in it. And even though the matter of gender may be a bit flawed, enough of an attempt was made such that the game feels fairly inclusive (or, at least, not intentionally exclusive).

The death of Miitomo

Well, damn. Come May 9, Nintendo is shuttering Miitomo. I don’t know that it was ever terribly popular – it was Nintendo’s earliest venture onto mobile, but it wasn’t really a game. There were some game-like elements, primarily throwing your body into a pachinko machine to win clothes, but ultimately it was a dollhouse. A game of dress-up.

Entertainment, in all forms and across all media, is often a tool for escape. Some wish to lose themselves in a setting, others as a passive bystander in a plot, still others seeing pieces of themselves in fictional characters. A dollhouse experience is largely concentrated on this third aspect – expressing yourself, consequence-free, as this blank canvas of a person. While certainly a valid means of escape for anyone, this seems especially valuable to trans folks and people questioning their gender identity. The answers and comments on in-game questions revealed a staggering number of trans Miitomo users. I don’t really know of another game of dress-up that will serve as a viable replacement to Miitomo, and this is heartbreaking.

The May 9 date will put Miitomo’s lifespan at just over two years. Unfortunately, the app is entirely dependent upon the service, and assets users have acquired will not be retained locally, etc. While it seems plausible that local copies could be downloaded so that users could still fire up the app and change into any number of outfits they had previously purchased1, this will not be the case2. This is not a matter of ‘no more updates’, this is ‘no more app’. And that’s… a fairly short lifespan, even for a niche non-game. This absolute dependence on hosted assets makes me wonder about some of Nintendo’s other mobile forays. When Super Mario Run stops being worth the upkeep, will there be no more updates, or will the game cease to function altogether? Nintendo is in a weird spot where a lot of their casual gaming market has been overtaken by mobile. Obviously they want to get in on that and reclaim some market, but they just haven’t proven that they quite ‘get it’ yet. Or perhaps rendering a game entirely ephemeral is meant to prove to us the value of a cartridge. I… doubt it.

On January 24, Nintendo stopped selling in-game coins and tickets3 for real-world money. Daily bonuses, which used to be a handful of coins or a single ticket, are now 2,000 coins and 5 tickets every day. That’s a lot of in-game purchasing power for the next few months, and I’m glad that Nintendo is saying ‘here, just go nuts and have fun while it lasts’. Better than making this announcement on May 1, and operating as usual (including in-app purchases) until then.

I am truly sad about this; Miitomo has been oddly important to me. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the answers to the public in-game question running until May 9, ‘What was your favorite outfit in Miitomo? Show it off when you answer!’ Users are elaborately staging Miifotos with dead-looking Miis stamped ‘DELETED’, Miis crying on their knees, demonic-looking Miis labeled ‘Nintendo’ standing over innocent-looking Miis labeled ‘Miitomo’ with table knives sticking out of them. Ouch. We have #savemiitomo, #longlivemiitomo, #justice4miitomo (bit extreme, that) hashtags popping up. Suffice it to say, there is a frustrated community. I’ll be the first to admit that it never would have had the prominence of a Super Mario Bros. or Animal Crossing game, but Miitomo has been very meaningful to a lot of people.

As Queen, I keep dying

This post might contain spoilers for the games Reigns and/or Reigns: Her Majesty.

Reigns was a game that really kind of blew my mind when it came out. I guess the idea was to sort of frame a narrative around Tinder-esque interactions, which I didn’t really grasp (Tinder seems like the polar opposite of how I wish to find a mate). To me it was just this story, played over a whole bunch of games (some of which you had to fail), each game potentially affecting future games, and all handled via this incredibly simple decision tree mechanic. For the most part, you have two decisions at any given time (swipe left or right, that’s the Tinder-y bit). It was an oddly engaging game.

Now, in Reigns, you played as a king. So if they were to make a sequel, it would only be fitting that you would play as a queen. This is Reigns: Her Majesty. I don’t really make a habit of reviewing mobile games1 on this blog, but Her Majesty is fucking phenomenal. I don’t know if Leigh Alexander was involved in the first game, but she definitely has a writing credit on this one, and it shows. Reigns was clever, but Her Majesty is ridiculously tight, smart, and progressive.

Part of my draw to the game is likely bias — you play as a woman, a woman who I deeply respect wrote the thing, and the entire game just oozes with femininity and feminism. This has always been a sticking point for me, I will become far more invested in a game where I can play as a woman vs. one where I’m stuck as a man. That’s not necessarily a knock on any given game (or unwarranted praise on any other given game), it’s just my bias. But, trying to look past that bias, this Queen’s world undeniably gives Her Majesty far more depth than its predecessor.

If you never played the first game, it’s worth briefly describing what swiping left or right accomplishes. For any given scenario, swiping either direction may raise or lower one or more of your piety, popular favor, might, or financial2 stats. If any given stat maxes out or reaches zero, you die. This is the same in Her Majesty, but there’s a much bigger struggle (at least, how I’ve played it) with the church. Part of this is that a major aspect of the plot involves astrology and the occult, and diving into that essentially requires you to defy the church. Part of it is that you’re constantly given the opportunity to flirt with all the other women in the game and I mean, how could you not!? Oh, and occasionally the Cardinal asks you to conceal your pendulous melons (or something), which… no, I dress how I want.

And this is why I think the feminine aspect really gives the game depth. Personally, I find it hard to play in a way that defies my feminist sensibilities (and, in fact, a random owl occasionally pops up to tell you how feminist you are or situate you in various fandoms3), but this is often detrimental to my score – you are, after all, ‘just’ the Queen, and in a sense must maintain your place. But beyond my personal hangups, this still adds a great depth to the game. Choices aren’t as clear-cut, and your level of control isn’t always what it seems. Layer the whole astrological woman magic icing on top, and it’s an even more impossibly complex swipe-left-or-right game than Reigns.

This complexity and my desire to be an empowered Queen means that I have been losing very quickly, very often. Which might be grating in a lesser game, but somehow losing Her Majesty usually feels pretty damned virtuous.