Eastshade: gaming, grief, and lockdown

Mild spoilers for Eastshade within.

One of the few joys of lockdown has been the chance to discover new games and play them for hours on end without interuption. I notched up 10 consecutive hours in Heaven’s Vault one Saturday back in May because it was so entralling, I just couldn’t bring myself to stop. And the light evenings back then meant I could still go for my permitted walk of the day afterwards. How fabulous!

For the past few weeks people have been feeling on edge, knowing lockdown restrictions could become harsher any at moment with little to no warning. For many, this uncertainty and lack of clarity has been some of the hardest aspects of the pandemic to deal with.

Now full lockdowns are happening again in parts of the UK – and it looks like next week the rest of us will join them. It will be harder this time with colder, wetter weather taking away our chance to enjoy time outside coupled with long, dark evenings.

Life has been reduced to trying to similtanously savour and grieve the things you know will soon be taken away from you again. Every weekend I go for what could be my last meal at a restuarant for a while. Or see a friend in a park for what could be the last time for a while. It’s hard to fully enjoy these activities though, because we just don’t know.

Over the past month I also had a grief milestone looming over me. On Sunday, the sad and grief-stricken day arrived where I had lived longer without my mum than with her. As always with grief-milstones, the build-up was very emotional and intense (and always worse than the actual day itself for some reason!). I felt quietly heartbroken and I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with who understood or knew what that day meant to me.

And then I stumbled upon Eastshade. What a beautiful, moving, life-affirming game! It gave me everything I didn’t realise I needed.

A screenshot showing a beautiful, green landscape with some mountains in the distance, and a hot air balloon rising into the sky.

It is very carefully and thoughtfully designed. At the start of the game, you travel to a small island populated with talking, walking animal folk. Your reason for visiting is that your mother really loved this place. You want to find and paint 4 beautiful views on the island that she told you about. She died an unspecified amount of time ago. This is OK though because the grief is quietly there but it’s not so raw it’s unbearable. You have gentle challenges to move the game along but nothing is urgent, nothing bad will happen to you and nothing can hurt you. You can find and complete other quests along the way but they are also small and gentle, like helping someone to find something. Or discovering the source of the music in the woodlands at night.

Exploring is the heart of the game. All the quests are designed to get you look around and discover something more and you are always rewarded for this. Every flower, beach, woodland trail, and sunset is just magnificent. It is so beautifully crafted. For example, the light changes depending on the time of the day. So I often found my way back to the beach, river, or tower top just to appreciate it during a different moment.

The sound design was also exquisite and again, I often found myself visiting places just to hear a particular piece of music, or the waves, or the sound of paddling my raft on the lake.

Another clever bit of design was the way that areas of the island opened up for exploration. At first you are in a small village, then the surrounding area, then the town etc. etc. You always had enough to explore and still feel free to do whatever you wanted without getting lost or feeling too overwhelmed. Just as one area might start to get a bit boring, another opened up. As you began to tire of walking around, you earned enough money to buy a bike or a pulley wheel. Then you could have fun whizzing around on wheels or zooming down ziplines to previously inaccessible areas.

When you return home at the end of game, you see the pictures you painted on the island and the letters you received from new friends made.

A screenshot from a cave on the beach, looking out to the sky, the sea, and a cliff face. A stone column divides the view of the sky into two.


Everything I’ve just described matches the criteria for boosting mental well-being, doesn’t it? It feels like the game was deliberately designed with this in mind.

  • Exploring your surroundings
  • Appreciating nature
  • Discovering new and exciting things
  • Helping others, and being helped in return
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Making new friends
  • Going somewhere new
  • Doing things to remember the people we love

We can’t do a lot of these things in real life right now, so I feel so blessed to have discovered this game at a time where I could benefit from it the most. Thanks to Eastshade, I can do these things virtually instead. I have a wonderful and safe place to return to any time I like.

That’s all great but why are you talking about it here, in your blog on bisexuality?

Good question! Well, one of the quests is to get two erm, female bearfolk, together. They have feelings for each other, but aren’t sure if the other feels the same. Your task is to invite one of them to a picnic so the other can tell them how they feel. So sweet! And I didn’t know it was coming so it was such a pleasant surprise.

This quest really made me smile. It was simple, joyful, LGBTQ+ inclusion in a really nice and meaningful way. The quest was treated exactly the same as any other in the game. That’s all I’ve ever wanted in the media I consume really, to be represented and treated just like everyone else.

Thank you for giving that to me, Eastshade. I love you.

A screen shot of a waterfall, lined by trees either side. Trees with green leaves on the left, and a deep shade of pink on the right. Again, the sun and moon are visible in the sky.

Game Review: Gone Home

Recently my beloved laptop of 8 years reached that point where it technically still worked but in reality was just not very practical. It took about 10 minutes to start up, 5 to open a program, and crashed if I tried to watch a video. Then the plug started sparking so it was definitely time to go shopping.

The new laptop is bringing me a lot of joy. I can download and play games on Steam again. One of the first things I tried was Gone Home, a Fullbright production released in 2013. I know, I know my finger is hardly on the pulse here. If you game this will be old news for you. And you may have read a dozen blogs on this already anyway. But just in case you’ve never heard of this before, I heartily recommend it because it is a BEAUTIFUL experience with a romance between two teenage girls as a main plot point and a HAPPY ENDING.

This is not a drill.

I repeat, IT HAS A HAPPY ENDING!

You play Katie, an American who returns home after spending a year abroad in Europe only to find none of her family is home. What has happened? Why is everyone missing? By walking through the rooms and looking at everything inside you can begin to work it out. And it’s not what you would expect…

It’s a short game, playable in 2-4 hours depending on how long you take to explore. But the more time you take to open every cupboard and drawer, read every scrap of paper, and examine every object, the more you’ll understand the characters and their lives. And that is all there is to it really. You don’t meet any other characters in the game. There’s no running or shooting. Nothing will jump out and try to hurt you. You’re just looking at stuff.

I feel that if I tell you any more about the plot it would spoil it for you. The main joy for me was not knowing a single thing about it going in and watching it all unfold and surprise me. But I can tell you what other things I loved about it.

The house has so much soul. You really feel like you get to know all the family members by the end. It really captures how people live. For example, you can tell who uses a room most by whose belongings dominate the space. Or where each character feels their happiest. The game doesn’t patronise you. Sometimes you have to put together the information you’ve learned from multiple rooms to figure out what’s happened. Sometimes you only realise something on your second or third walk round, or by trading theories with a friend because you’ve both noticed different things.

I don’t even know where else to start. The graphic design is beautiful. As is the music. The Easter Eggs are very funny. It’s set in the mid 90s so invokes a lot of nostalgia for those who remember that era. You can pop tapes into cassette players and listen to music as you explore the house and see which episodes of The X-Files people have recorded off TV. There were at least two LGBT women/game designers on the creative team that I know of which is awesome.

Gone Home oozes cool. Katie’s younger sister Sam makes feminist zines and listens to riot grrrl music. And I love how interactive everything is. Yes, there is not much point in collecting all of Sam’s pin badges that she’s strewn around the house, but it is fun to see what’s on them, and how many you can find and return to the desk in her room.

Anyway…all this is besides the point really, which is that it has a wonderfully written, detailed teenage romance between Sam and a girl called Lonnie whom she meets at school. Sam has been writing you a diary whilst you’ve been away. Discovering certain things in the house will trigger an entry to be read out by actress Sarah Grayson. There’s 23 in all. So as well as learning about Sam through the environment the story unfolds in her own words too. You hear her ups and downs in life. How she falls in love for the first time. How she discovers her sexuality.

Our memories, relationships, and experiences in life are connected by objects. What I loved was that by the time I reached the end of the game I could say, ‘oh they wrote this together’ or ‘Lonnie bought that for Sam back in May’. Their relationship felt so real and vivid to me. Like I could call them up and invite them out for pizza. The ending was so beautiful I listened to the final diary entry 3 times in a row and cried. (Happy tears.)

And if you want more there is, of course, a whole load of fan art to be found on the Internet.

image

The picture shows a photograph of Lonnie that you find in the house. She’s got blonde hair, and is wearing her dark green army cadet uniform.

The major drawback for me was the intentionally creepy aspect of the game design. It’s amazing how unsettling dark rooms, thunder & lightning, and creaky doors can be. But it made me feel very anxious when I didn’t need to be. And it took my mind down Horror Highway (i.e. wondering if I’m going to find someone’s dead body) when simply walking along Mystery Lane would have been fine.

You can download the game via Steam, or if you just want to listen to Sam’s journals they can be found over on YouTube but of course you won’t get the full picture from those alone.

One last note, I left the game feeling very positive. You can see that each of the characters (except Katie) have gone through bad patches in life. Yet there are clues that they have also worked hard to overcome them and that happier days will come. In a world where our futures are portrayed so negatively (bis cheat, murder, die, don’t exist at all, or leave so that others continue the story) this was a wonderful feeling to end on.