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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Haven: Love on the Run Beyond the Stars

There are a lot of indie games that I’ve been meaning to try and just putting on the backburner; there are just so many titles out there nowadays, and stuff will slip through the cracks, but I do make an effort to circle back around to things on occasion. Such was the case with The Game Bakers’ late 2020 release Haven; I had been curious about their previous game (2016’s Furi, a boss rush game) before deciding it wasn’t for me, and after seeing a lot of praise for Haven, decided it sounded more up my alley.

But I sort of forgot about it after that, until a few weeks ago when I was itching for something new to try, and it popped up in my feed thanks to a recent update. That seemed like as good an onboarding point as any, so I gave it a shot. And after that, I was so enthralled that I basically ended up shotgunning the game in under a week.

Haven is also a weird game, because it feels simultaneously very difficult and very easy to describe. On the one hand, at its core, it’s one of the oldest story archetypes in existence: that of the star-crossed lovers, just set in a far-off sci-fi world. Yu and Kay are the main pair here, young adults from some sort of interplanetary empire known as The Apiary, fleeing their arranged marriages to live together. The game opens with them having recently settled on Source, a far-off shattered world hopefully outside of The Apirary’s purview, following a daring escape from home.

While deciding what to do next, their new home, an RV-esque spaceship Yu fixed up called the Nest, sustains heavy damage from an earthquake, stranding them in place. And so begins the game proper; you guide Yu and Kay around the fragments of Source, searching for replacement parts, foraging for food, fending off wildlife, and dodging The Apiary’s search efforts. There’s constantly stuff to do to keep this loving couple up and functioning, and it gives the game’s story an almost episodic, cliffhanger-heavy approach that is well-executed and addicting.

And that long list of things to do is a part of the reason that it’s a little harder to describe Haven’s gameplay. Almost every one of them has a different set of mechanics that correspond to them. And while none of them is especially complex on their own, and all of them are competently implemented, and they range from “non-intrusive to perform” to “actively fun”, and they’re introduced at a rate that keeps them from overwhelming the player… still, it can still feel like a lot of stuff when it’s all laid out in a description.

There’s a main air-skating mechanic for navigating the world, with Yu and Kay flying around Source on hover skates to find resources and clean up a mysterious pollutant coating the planet. This is probably the “main” mechanic, as the one that you’ll be doing the most (although it also doesn’t feel like an overwhelming percentage of the game). There’s also some crafting mechanics for making meals and medicine with the plants you find, plus you have to manage their health, hunger, sleep schedules, etc. And you’ve got a JRPG-esque battle system for handling conflicts.

To frame it with an analogy, some games have a tight core of mechanics that all feed into each other, creating a very specific, meticulously-presented gameplay loop that eschews excess, in the way that a musical group might make use of the exact notes and negative spaces and highly-polished tones to create a specific mood. Haven is the opposite of that, the band that pours its heart into every song, filling up all the space, always asks what else can be added; and maybe sometimes you wind up with an arrangement that’s a little crowded, or maybe some of those higher notes don’t quite hit right if they strain to hard. But when they’re on their game and everything clicks, wow. The big swings for the fences, the excess, it all makes sense if it can create moments like this.

In short, it’s a very maximalist approach to game design, and I think it works here at least in part because what you are doing in-game is Yu and Kay’s entire life now. These are lovers on the run, doing everything they can just to survive, and you are here with them every step of the way. It’s a game of big emotions, so that design style just fits.

But ultimately, if you asked me what “genre” Haven is mostly… I’d probably say that it’s a visual novel? The game is extremely dialogue-heavy, and in fact, The Game Bakers used inklewriter (the free software made by Heaven’s Vault devs Inkle Studios) to make large sections of the game. There’s not really major branching story options or puzzles to solve or anything here, though.

Instead, you’re mostly getting to enjoy the relationship of Yu and Kay as it plays out on this alien world. They’re an extremely fleshed out pair of characters, flawed but loveable, struggling against the stiffest of odds to fend off the forces of both nature and The Apiary, but ultimately taking solace in their love for each other. And for as loving a pair as they are, it never crosses into saccharine; it’s a very adult relationship, with its ups and downs, their serious moments and goofy ones. You get to see Kay consoling Yu when repairing the ship seems impossible, or Yu indulging Kay’s whims when they find a complex board game and try it out, or the couple recalling their courtship over homemade (shipmade?) moonshine, or the duo getting intimate to celebrate their successes.

It’s never terribly hard to see that they love each other through all their differences and conflicts, nor is it ever hard to see why they do so. It also helps that the voice actors bringing the characters to life are so good, and have such chemistry. What’s most interesting, though, is that each character has both a male and a female voice; at launch, Janine Harouni and Chris Lew Kum Hoi voiced Yu and Kay, respectively. The Game Bakers did a great job casting for their lead duo and making sure their energy came through in the performances.

What’s maybe even more interesting is how well they preserved that feeling as the game grew. A later update to the game allows players to play as a same-sex couple of either gender, which meant an entirely new set of voice actors in a very dialog-heavy game. Ryan Highly and Lexie Kendrick stepped in as the new alternate voices for Yu and Kay, and honestly, I think they killed it. I’m not sure how they managed it, but both new voices sound just as well-matched as the original duo.

It’s kind of interesting how close they are to the original performances, while still being distinct, something the game designers also managed with the new character designs. These “new” versions are still fundamentally the same people, just different genders, and it’s neat to see how that gets expressed. Honestly, props all around for this effort, it sounds almost like redoing the game from the start again, and it’s a lot of work to put into a post-launch update.*

*It’s also interesting to note that, while I was editing this piece, the devs announced new DLC (including a new playable character) for their previous game, Furi, a full six years after its release.

Anyway, getting to experience all of these interactions, the fun writing and the performances that bring it to life, is something you unlock by… basically just “doing things”. Any time you explore a new islet of the planet, or find a new item for The Nest, or cook a new meal, or find a new story beat, or really do anything, there’s usually some interaction between Yu and Kay to mark the occasion. You might learn more about Source, or find out more about Yu and Kay’s history, or maybe just see them have a funny reaction to something. Whatever it is, it’s generally just a delight to see them interact,* so you end up scouring every stop to find as much as you can and flesh out the story just a little bit more. It also helps because most of these interactions give experience points, and leveling up the characters helps with some things like battles… but the level cap is pretty low, so there’s way more exp than you need. The real draw is just to discover more and spend more time with the characters.

*One of the more interesting notes on this: there’s an alternate version of the credits where Yu and Kay will read off the names of the crew and explain each of their roles, which is great because it’s an informative primer on game development, and it adds a little extra banter between the characters for when you finish the game and want just a little bit more time with them.

And speaking of that discovery, it’s not just the “finding of new dialogue” that’s fun; generally traversing Source is a whole adventure. That main movement mechanic I mentioned, the hover skates, are really fun once you get the hang of it. Being able to zoom around is an exhilarating experience, and once you get the hang of turns, drifting, and stuff like that, you can keep your momentum up, which makes the experience even better.

It also helps that Source is just a generally great world to explore. Maybe it’s my general soft spot for alien landscapes with colorful, vibrant designs and striking landforms, but I still think Source is a visual treat to roam around and take in. It’s hard not to be romantic about space while Yu and Kay are sitting outside under the stars, chatting and taking in full scope of the universe after a dramatic sunset.

The world’s design really drives home the dual scope of the challenges the couple faces, alternating between these sweeping, desolate islets filled only with wildlife, and the areas with impressive ruins of past colonies reminding them of the life that they left behind and its desperate attempts to catch up to them.* And it makes for a nice contrast with The Nest, which really brings out the cozy hominess of your base of operations. There’s never an overwhelming to-do list there, but there’s always a few things you can take care of or check on, and you really come to feel the connection Yu and Kay have to their new home.

*If I have any major criticisms of the game, it’s probably that the Switch version has pretty noticeable loading screens when you move from one islet to another. It’s not debilitating, and it’s usually pretty easy to minimize the impact of these breaks during the standard flow of gameplay, thanks to helpful maps and late-game fast-travel options to help you cross a lot of ground at once, but it is still a little frustrating in-the-moment. I’ve heard that the situation is less frustrating on other systems, though.

And if I’m talking about the world the game builds, I would be remiss not to mention the soundscape. The game’s soundtrack was provided by French electronic musician Danger, and he did a fantastic job of it. I wasn’t familiar with his work prior to playing it, but going back and listening to some of his previous music, I 1000% understand why The Game Bakers chose to work with him. He has this sound that feels like it belongs in some futuristic alien world, and he can nail the undercurrent of anxious tension that the scenario needs. But he also does a great job of scoring the less tense, more intimate scenes, like around The Nest. And more importantly, he just has a good sense for musical hooks; I never got tired of any track, no matter how much time I spent in an area hearing it on loop. And since finishing the game, I’ve found the soundtrack is generally just a good one to play in the day-to-day while I go about things (which… is kind of how it’s used in-game, so I guess it makes sense).

And the soundtrack is a big part of how I was hooked so quickly, too. Before you even reach the title screen, you get to experience a beautiful, watercolor-style animation of Yu and Kay set to the album’s leadoff track, “4:42 Still Free”, and it’s just so perfect. Like, maybe it’s not a replacement for a demo or something, but I still felt like the moment I first saw this intro, I already knew I would love this game. Something about the wailing synths and driving beats over abstract colors and shapes whizzing by, the two leads reaching out to each other as they fly past… It’s all just the perfect mood-setter for the game as a whole, matching its all-out, emotional style, and it was always a treat to sit through it whenever I started the game up. The full version of that song is my favorite one on the entire soundtrack, and it still gives me chills listening to it again.

There’s just so much about Haven that I love. Maybe no one system goes super deep, but I think they all work well at what they’re going for, and I think that variety is ultimately a plus. But more importantly, the story, writing, sounds, and visuals are all just top-notch, especially if you’re looking for any type of love story. It’s all just a master class in emotional storytelling, and I’ll be anxiously awaiting whatever The Game Bakers do next.

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