Hey! I know I haven't been writing here all that much over the last year, but I am going to make an attempt to do so more often. And one way of doing that is (and surely announcing this won't bite me in the rear) a new "feature" I came up with on the fly, called "Moosey's (Not So?) Hidden Gems," where I'll try to highlight games that I quite like, but probably aren't as well known as I feel like they should be. Anyway, I added in this intro paragraph literally as I was about to hit publish on this blog, so I'll just wrap this up and get to the game!
About a month ago, I played through Unsighted, which for those who don't know, is an overhead Zelda-esque game, with a story that I'd describe as “NieR Automata but made by queer people.” Which isn't just a jest, as far as I know the primary development on Unsighted was done by a pair of trans women from Brazil. Not that the Brazil part particularly matters here, I don't know enough about the country to say if there's any specific lines drawn between life there and what's in the game. There probably are.
The devs being queer though, feels absolutely central to both the thematic side of Unsighted, and the game side, as this is the odd game where the two are linked, and ideally, core to the experience.
Before going any further, I need to first say there will be spoilers, but in the customary clearly marked Spoiler Zone. And second, since I put more effort into it than it was probably worth, I shall deploy this image that I constructed last year and used all of twice:
Game play wise, Unsighted feels very inspired by the older 2D Zelda games. Lots of puzzles built around hitting switches that alter things in the environment, new tools that allow for traversing previously impassable obstacles, and even weapons that are as useful for puzzles as they are combat. All of these are things that could just as easily be inspired by 3D Zeldas (or any other number of games also inspired by Zelda), but it is a 2D game (with very good art) in that overhead perspective, after all.
It's a lot of fun. Frankly, I like playing it more than the actual 2D Zeldas I've played, because I think the combat is way more fun, and feels a lot more fluid than say, A Link to the Past on the SNES (which is a game I enjoyed despite not liking the overabundant combat, for those wondering). Rather than simply aping those old games, the combat feels more inspired by the Souls style games, what with melee attacks and dodges draining a stamina meter. Parrying plays a big role too, as it can leave enemies open to counterattacks, and vulnerable to bonus damage. There's also guns with Gears style active reloading, so really Unsighted is pulling from many different inspirations, but it all comes together, and works to make a really fun, great playing game.
If that's all Unsighted was, I think it'd still be really solid, and something I'd recommend everyone play. It isn't though, because it's also a game about managing timers, or more accurately, managing how much anxiety the timers give you.
Every character in the game, even protagonist Alma, has a ticking clock. In the game's lore, every automaton requires a substance (Meteor Dust) that gives them their sapience, and allows them to maintain their selves. Or in other words, when they run out, they become Unsighted, and turn feral, attacking anyone on sight. To compare it to other games, it's like Zombrex in the later Dead Risings, and without it they eventually turn into (robot) zombies.
Only instead of an NPC, it's everyone. Meaning that in addition to fighting/puzzle solving through the various dungeons, Unsighted is a constant search for more Meteor Dust in an attempt to keep as many people alive as possible. At least that's what my approach was when I started the game, because what are games for if not the power fantasy of being able to save people?
It doesn't take actually playing the game to guess that this fantasy is just that, a fantasy in Unsighted (at least up front, but I'll save that for theSpoiler Zone). Pretty early on, Alma finds a settlement full of automatons, who've all banded together in light of the world around them falling apart, and the ruins of the city filling with more unsighted every day. It's a peaceful little village, full of people who just want to live normal lives. One in particular just wants to find his lost dogs, and build a better arm for himself so he can pet his beloved canine companions (and feel better about his unusually designed body).
As a side note, I did rescue all the dogs (and a cat), and gave them all plenty of petting.
They all have different lengths of time remaining, some significantly longer than Alma, whereas some are on the verge of running out right at the start. Aside from the fact that Alma unsighting would (presumably) be a game over, the choice of who gets the Meteor Dust, and their remaining time left is entirely up to the player. Some have significant game play unlocks if they're given Meteor Dust enough (four) times, like being able to swap perk chips anywhere, or a particularly powerful weapon.
So on top of balancing who gets to live longer from a moral stand point, it's also a big factor for the game part, because some of those unlocks can have a big impact on the game. Being able to swap perks without having to travel to a save spot allows for a lot more on the fly experimentation!
Knowing that this game was primarily made by two trans people, and myself being queer, I couldn't not think about the game and queerness. In terms of the top level narrative, Alma is trying to rescue her lost girlfriend, and other characters are in queer relationships, without there being any sort of big deal about it in game. They're just people in relationships, which is how these things should be handled in most cases these days.
Then there's the aforementioned dog lover (Tobias) whose wish to change his body because he doesn't like the one he was built with is something a lot of trans or nonbinary people (like myself) can relate to. Definitely could also be relatable to plenty of cis people out there, particularly ones who have physical disabilities (some people are missing a limb and a prosthetic would be a more literal parallel to Tobias' situation), but the queer angle is the one I thought of first.
But there's more to it than that. Unsighted is a game where, by default, no matter what you do, people are going to die. At least on a first playthrough, I don't see any reasonable way to get through the game fast enough to keep everyone okay. Especially when Alma needs the very same Meteor Dust as everyone else.
And there are so many different things this makes me think about. The AIDS crisis, which honestly I'm glad I wasn't alive for, because it sounds beyond terrifying, and traumatizing. Even those that survived lost many, if not all of their queer friends. It sounds like close to an entire generation of queer people were lost because of it. To a disease that sounds like a horrible way to go. One that not only the government (at least in the US) was not helping deal with, if anything the monsters in charge were laughing at the people affected by it.
Things still aren't great, even today in 2023. It feels like amongst “normal” people acceptance of us queers is at an all time high, but so does active hate. Every week I see new laws getting introduced, and often passed around state legislatures in the US, and I know there are other countries around the world that are even worse. It may not be a literal plague killing us (that's Covid), but in a lot of ways this is way more insidious. Queer people aren't dying in the apocalyptic numbers they were back then (thankfully), but with some out there starting to actively call for trans people being exterminated (even if they try to cover themselves by saying they just want “transgenderism” (not a thing, to be clear) wiped out), it really can feel like we've all got timers ticking down to when something truly terrible happens.
I don't know what was going through the heads of the devs while they made Unsighted, but I had a realization after writing up to this point. They had probably done interviews about the game! I was curious, so I went into “research mode,” and pretty quickly found they'd done several. So, I started reading, and was surprised when the first thing I saw them say regarding the timers was they were inspired by...
Pikmin, of all things. Yes, the GameCube launch game about a small alien recruiting little plant buddies to carry things around and repair a spaceship. I didn't take the time to go read every single thing the devs have said online, but I did at least find another interview where they did at least talk about queerness a little more.
"We don't think it's possible to capture every queer experience with a single work, and we don't attempt to do it," said Dias. "We tried to write something that reflects our own experience, which is varied in and of itself, and that indeed has a lot of sombre moments, but it's also a story about happiness, about moments big and small and even about catharsis." - Fernanda Dias, from an article on EuroGamer.
Anyway, all that's to say, I got a lot out of the game from this perspective, and no matter how much of it was or wasn't intended by its creators, I'm always glad when a game can get me thinking this much, and feeling this much. Especially when it's tied in to both the story and the game play, because that's the thing games can do that most other media can't, but I feel like it's pretty rare to see it used this effectively.
Though I cannot overstate the mental whiplash of writing all this, thinking it was a profound rumination on the queer life experience, only to see in the first interview I found that the timers were inspired by Pikmin. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and lead to just about anything, it turns out!
As one last aside, I won't spend as much time on this, but also the timers feel kind of relatable as a person with a chronic illness. Granted, not one that's life threatening in my case, but my life does sometimes just feel like I've got time ticking down to my next treatment, knowing that my life would be kind of miserable if I was going untreated. Again.
I mentioned earlier that Unsighted is as much about managing anxiety as it is the literal timers. That's because in the early goings, it was giving me genuine anxiety both while I was actively playing, and when I wasn't. In the midst of it, I was silently cursing myself any time I got caught up on a bit of platforming, because, “people are dying and I'm stuck on a jumping puzzle!!” While I wasn't playing, I kept worrying about how I was going to manage keeping as many people alive as possible. At first I wanted to save everyone, but that quickly felt impossible, which then meant figuring out how to prioritize who to keep alive.
That was not something I wanted to be responsible for, even in a video game, and when that line of thinking went to, “I should prioritize the people with the good game play bonuses,” I started to feel genuinely bad. Bad that the first people I'd have to abandon was the old granny who ran the cog farm, as her timer was the lowest, and because (especially early on) I didn't use the consumable cogs or value them enough to think they were worth my expending the Meteor Dust. Bad enough that I did something that I kind of now regret...
I turned on the option that pauses all the timers.
Yes, negating everything I'd written about, and just turning it into a normal action adventure game.
In terms of reducing the stress I felt, it was the right decision in the moment. Like, I almost wish that rather than timers that are constantly ticking down (outside of stuff like fishing minigames), time only moved forward after specific story events. Like finishing each dungeon would move time forward a set amount, and the Meteor Dust could still be a resource to keep people alive. Something more akin to Persona that would still limit the amount of time, but also would let me flub up jumping puzzles without immediately getting upset with myself. Instead every second counts, even those spent missing jumps and plopping into the water!!
But that's not the game they made. Now, since the option to turn the timers off is in the game, I don't think there's anything wrong with turning it on. And I could have turned the timers back on, and maybe I should have after a point, but I played through without them. Which, after finishing the game, and getting the “secret ending” (something that I did look up how to find a few items for, but I'd already found the initial items, and didn't realize it was a “secret ending” I was working toward), I did kind of wish I'd played the whole game with the timers.
Partly because I imagine the intent with the timers is that it's a lot harder to get everyone's bonus for giving them four Meteor Dusts. Being able to play without needing to save Meteor Dusts for Alma, I was able to get the ones I really wanted early in the game, which felt like I was getting overpowered, at a point. Not that there wasn't still some challenge to be had, but I did find myself not using that special sword with all the elemental damages because it felt too powerful that early on.
To give the other reason I wish I'd left the timers on, I would need to spoil that “secret ending,” so be forewarned, the Spoiler Zone is ahead!
Begin Spoiler Zone.
The short version is that Alma finds a way to travel back in time, to the beginning of the game, but while keeping all the items she's found, and all the progress made toward defeating bosses/clearing dungeons. Or in other words, the only thing it changes is that it resets all the timers, andbrings everyone back. Knowing now that I could have gotten the intended experience of losing so many people, but found a way to beat the fates and save everyone, I do wish I'd had that experience.
At the end of the day, the end result is the same. I got the happy ending where Alma attacks and dethrones god, and everyone lives. Alma and Raquel drive off together, hopefully to a sequel of some sort. Listen, it's a great game, and I'd like to play another one!
End Spoiler Zone.
That was a short spoiler zone, but I still think worth keeping hidden for those who haven't played Unsighted. Which, I think more people should! Anxiety or not (and I know my experience won't reflect everyone's, we all have our own issues that we deal with (to varying degrees of success)), I think it's a great game. Combat's a lot of fun (parries!), the puzzles are really clever, and even the platforming feels good. The music's really nice too!
Plus, who wouldn't want to play a game with cute dogs to pet (who also follow Alma around and fight enemies (don't worry, I don't think the dogs can die, or even take damage?)). There's even a song in the soundtrack with dogs barking in it. What more could you ask for?
Unsighted gets a very strong recommendation from me. Go play a great game, and support a couple of queer indie devs while you're at it!