Leftist Videogames for 2022
January 1, 2022 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I have sunk a very large number of hours into Stardew Valley. I want to play a new video game, but I have trouble finding anything that meets my technical and emotional requirements.

The games that have most strongly met my requirements in the past have been The Sims (especially 2 and 3), the MMO Glitch, and Stardew Valley.

Post contains minor spoilers for Planetbase, Factorio, and Stardew.

The Technical

I have easy access to Windows, macOS, iOS and Nintendo Switch, and I am willing to throw money at this problem.

I don't spend very much time on video games where there is very little to do. I prefer it when there's a wiki and I can make spreadsheets and achieving major game goals will take 40-60 hours. I like big complex upgrade/crafting/cooking sorts of systems and lots of space to explore. It needs to be crunchier than, like, Animal Crossing or the Android game #selfcare.

In addition, I have a hard time with first-person cameras or cameras that swing around a lot: I was physically unable to finish Portal, for example. I just tried a demo for My Time at Portia last week and the camera swung around enough to kind of bother me.

I have many friends who are really into, like, 4X games or dystopian management games, and I have experimented with those, but I find them hard to stay interested in because of...

The Emotional

Here is a quote from Terry Pratchett's Thud!

Vimes had never got on with any game more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could’ve been a republic in a dozen moves.

This, but unironically. I feel bad about playing a blood-soaked Empire. I'm not saying you shouldn't, goodness knows that in writing and live performance art I'm happy to portray actions that shouldn't be emulated in real life. I just don't like doing it in video games.

I don't even like games that only somewhat feel like capitalist hellscapes: I stopped enjoying Planetbase primarily because of a) the total lack of weekends/holidays/downtime for workers and b) the late-game thing where the player essentially has to either close their landing pads or make their base into a grim police state in order to fend off increasingly frequent attacks from outsiders. It felt like a parody of how right-wing talk radio thinks immigration and tourism to prosperous places works.

Similarly, Factorio stopped being fun in the first 20 hours. These scurrying things were here before me, and they're at least intelligent and eusocial enough to work in groups and defend their hives and their young. I don't want to craft guns so I can shoot them. Instead, I closed the game and I have no plans to reopen it, uh, ever. Even if there is a Pacifist Hippy Mode or whatever, that thing was built for people who want to pretend to exterminate indigenous lifeforms for fun. That viscerally grosses me out way, way more than simulated or real insect guts do.

A handful of friends have been talking about Cookie Run: Kingdoms, which I tried for like an hour or two last night on iOS, but this RPG has irritating amounts of monarchism and microtransactions in it and I don't think it's going to keep my attention for long.

I have done kind of a lot of Skull Cavern runs in Stardew, and I used to do Rook runs in Glitch - I really don't mind when there's combat in service to defending and helping others and improving your community. "Go fight big insects to destroy nests full of their babies and take their territory so you can have more space and make more stuff for yourself" feels like a selfish asshole game. "Go fight big insects that exhibit no eusocial behaviors, in order to collect valuables you can bring back to villagers so you can make them happier" is great, actually.
posted by All Might Be Well to Computers & Internet (49 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried Oxygen Not Included? It's got a relatively steep learning curve due to all the variables - but I found so much help from the game videos of Youtuber Grind This Game (and there are lots of others). You can set the schedules for your peeps. You can give them as many hours of downtime as you like! As long as they have enough food and oxygen and you keep the base relatively free of sickness. It's fun and cute, there's even an "easy" mode where your food and oxygen goes a LOT further. Your peeps CAN die if you're not careful (stuck in an unbreathable environment with no path back to the base), but that hasn't happened to me in ages. (Also you can go back to a saved game and change history.)

I haven't even played 50% of the content because there is SO MUCH, but it's still fun to go back and start new games, which I have been doing recently.

I am still a fan of Planetbase though all you say about it is true, especially grrr, the grim police state aspect toward the end. No matter how many &*(%$!#^&$* security guards you have.
posted by Glinn at 6:36 AM on January 1, 2022 [5 favorites]

My husband has played a lot of Surviving Mars, and while you can play it as a police state, you can also play it as a peaceful utopia (as far as I can tell looking over his shoulder, investing in mental hospitals obviates the need for law enforcement, for example). No alien life forms, lots of choices that seem to be spreadsheet-able.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:54 AM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Cattails is available on Switch and Steam and is basically "what if stardew, but you're a cat?" And the answer is: it's fun and cute and you catch mice and forage for berries bc you need to eat etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:03 AM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about infrastructure-based strategy games? You might enjoy planning rail networks in OpenTTD, there’s a lot of thought that can go into building your network to move people and materials around. Not really a feel good community mechanic as such though local councils get unhappy if you cut down too many trees.

I feel you on the loss of Glitch. Nothing else has really compared.
posted by corvine at 7:05 AM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Planet Zoo is wonderful. It's got the social welfare management aspect of the Sims, the building a home aspect of the Sims, the park management aspect of Rollercoaster Tycoon, and the resource management aspect of Cities Skylines. Plus some really robust build tools on top of that. You can play in sandbox or scenario mode. Also: animals doing stuff.

Sometimes I play it to have a serious game, and sometimes I just make one really nice habitat complex and sit back and watch my gorillas learn how to play the keyboard and get fruit from the puzzle box.
posted by phunniemee at 7:10 AM on January 1, 2022 [5 favorites]

I'm currently playing Sable. It's a sort of coming of age journey with puzzles. It's not my normal ( I lean fps) but the art was beautiful so I thought I'd give it a try. Definitely, non colonial. Worth a look.
posted by evilDoug at 7:12 AM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

+1 Oxygen Not Included. It is very deep, nuanced, but it enables you to be very clever, if you're persistent and clever enough.

Have you ever played Minecraft? It's been a while since my last go of it, but I've always found its open world exploring/building aspect to be really satisfying and mostly peaceful. You can build really clever settlement structures that take a while to achieve.
posted by ellerhodes at 7:19 AM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a lovely building game with characters with stories. It's sort of like Minecraft with more story and more scripted development. There is some defend-yourself combat, so if that's entirely off the menu then maybe not.

For that matter Minecraft itself is still great. Again there's some conflict and defending yourself unless you play in creative mode. I've always liked the feeling that the best way to defend yourself is to build a small enclave with lots of light sources, you can mostly avoid fighting things entirely. There's no "take over the world" feeling, more just "make a safe space for myself".

Subnautica is also still great. You're surrounded by scary sea monsters but there's absolutely no way to kill or conquer them, the best you can do is run away from them. It has a strong story and a conclusion that I think will meet your values.

Dyson Sphere Program is an early access game that currently would work for you. It's basically Factorio without combat. There is a plan for the developers to add a combat / external threat system but they haven'tdone it yet and they've said it will be optional. Right now it plays as a very satisfying building and automation game and it's beautiful. Early access but very playable and feels complete as-is.
posted by Nelson at 7:32 AM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm a fan of a lot of the games you've described here. I too have been seeking an alternative to Stardew Valley and the Sims, to little success.

That said I have been sinking multiple hours over the holiday period into Let's Build A Zoo, which is kind of like Planet Zoo but on a far smaller scale and not as complex. It's cute and pixelated, you can choose to have an ethically good zoo (doing conservation work, building farms, producing green energy) or an "evil" zoo (doing factory farming, kidnapping YouTube influencers and using them to feed your animals -- no really). If you want you can abstain entirely from evil and still reach the endgame/sandbox mode pretty easily. You are also encouraged to use DNA splicing to create "interesting new scientific creations" like half-pig half-lemurs. The game automatically names all the animals and you can give them trampolines to bounce around on as enrichment. You can give your employees bonuses and pay raises and make your zoo free entry if you want. There are jokes about morally bankrupt billionaires trying to reach Mars, that kind of thing.

I feel like once I exhaust the game mechanics there's not much left to just mess around with, but maybe there will be DLC in the future. It's taken up a few lazy evenings in front of the TV anyway.
posted by fight or flight at 7:55 AM on January 1, 2022

I'm having trouble coming up with something that ticks all of your boxes, but I think we like pretty similar things in games (I love a spreadsheet, a huge map to reveal, a lot of loot, and a bit of a grind) so here are a few that spring to mind:

Terraria: My most played, comfort game. Huge crafting system. Huge world to explore. Huge amounts of stuff to fill up chests with. Tons of mods available. There is combat but the baddies don't really have a back story, just a lot of pixel-y monsters. Bring a lot of stuff back and build a little village so friends will move in. Cons: You might accidentally kill a stray bunny, but I bet there's a mod out there to prevent it. Some areas look gross.

Spiritfarer: Emotionally satisfying and beautiful. It deals with sad things like death and illness and grief and other things that preclude death, but more so the process of healing. The game progression is also nice.

Astroneer: Purely exploration, base building, sciency stuff. Relaxing (until you fall down through a cavern or forget you need oxygen). Also 3D but third person, so maybe ok?

Slime Rancher: Cute and fun, but first person, so the motion might be a problem. There are some "evil" slimes but you can turn them off.

I'll also second recs above for Dragon Quest Builders 2 (I really enjoyed this despite never getting into Minecraft; it's much more goal oriented. It does have a bit of weirdly sexist dialogue.), Subnautica, Oxygen Not Included, & Planet Zoo.
posted by gennessee at 8:00 AM on January 1, 2022 [5 favorites]

Dyson sphere program is a nice take on factorio with better graphics and no enemies.

Rimworld is a nice top down survival game that has a scaling difficulty so that you get the best story possible
posted by bbqturtle at 8:25 AM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Timberborn. It's a builder, but you're playing as animals on a post-human Earth-like planet. You are mainly playing as beavers.
posted by kschang at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2022 [8 favorites]

Ooh - the whole premise of undertale is that you don't need to hurt/kill your enemies to proceed. I highly recommend it! Great story too.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:36 AM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

2nding Spiritfarer. It is often a game about trying to help people even when they don't like you or themselves very much.
posted by minsies at 8:53 AM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

This suggestion doesn't hit the deep crafty/upgrade treadmill system bullet points, but is a rarer case of its own unique genre-blend that shouldn't run afoul of the emotional anti-colonial strain:

Creeper World 4 is the current iteration of a neat little blend of RTS and Tower Defense where the "enemy" is essentially "gray goo," a replicating fluid. The battles aren't blowing up thinking social enemies in their own vehicles and whatnot, but a more puzzle-ish approach of ensuring the right logistics of a network of energy-generating and defensive structures. And the background stories are definitely not about fighting to expand the glory of whatnot, but a frankly grim little meditation on all empires falling against inevitability that is not defeated so much as pushed back and endured, and the gameplay supports that pretty well.
posted by Drastic at 9:33 AM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

It might be a little too short a game for you, but give Mutazione a try? Definitely prosocial.

3rding Spiritfarer, though for me the late-game platforming is difficult enough to be frustrating.
posted by humbug at 10:04 AM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

You may want to read reviews to see if it's going to tick your boxes, but maybe Cozy Grove? It has a lot of collections for your spreadsheet-loving soul, there is a money element but several of the characters are openly anti-capitalist (and there are no mortgages/loans, a la Animal Crossing) and technically many transactions are barters. All the other characters are dead (and you learn about their lives as you go). The only fighting-type gameplay has been during the current winter festival in which you have snowball fights with imps (they like it when you score a direct hit on them), which is pretty much the only tension in the game except for catching some particularly fast critters and finding hidden items in the increasingly cluttered landscape.

Each character does have a narrative that gets completed as part of the game, and it is fairly common for people to cry over them. A lot of the stories are a little bittersweet.

There is only about 20-30 minutes of new questing gameplay per day; you can play longer but it will be strictly foraging/collecting, crafting, and decorating if you're into it. I've been playing for 260 days with only a handful of skipped days. I highly prefer playing it on my iPad and think I would find screen size really an issue on Switch or phone, so I'd suggest tablet or desktop.

My other favorite games ever are Plants vs Zombies (original), Stardew Valley, and Spiritfarer (though I agree with the others - I kind of gave up in late endgame though I understand some new DLC has come through recently with some quality of life upgrades). I am still heartbroken over Glitch.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Disco Elysium is a somewhat slow paced point and click game with strong story, dialogue, and replayability. Renegade Cut has a great video on it.

Tonight We Riot is a pixel art brawler action game where you lead workers in clashes against riot police, drones, and fire hose equipped APCs. It is not subtle in its politics.

Great characters, story, and gameplay for a chill exploratory vibe. "Taking place in a fictional American small-town, Night in the Woods discusses capitalist alienation and its failed promise to bring prosperity to workers. This theme isn’t immediately apparent, but gradually surfaces from under the game’s depiction a group of cool animal characters making jokes at parties." Link and Errant Signal review with spoilers.
posted by AlSweigart at 10:44 AM on January 1, 2022 [5 favorites]

Sneaky Sasquatch has way more depth/complexity than you'd might expect. Although there is some "official" capitalism, there are also alternative economies and enjoyable/unpunished theft. Plus, no one gets hurt (as far as I remember). It's not as intensely spreadsheet-y as something like Oxygen Not Included, though.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:17 AM on January 1, 2022

Watching this thread!

I currently sunk a couple hundred hours into Against The Storm, which is in early access on Epic.

It’s a rogue-lite city builder, so a lot like playing the first few hours of Factorio over and over. Each town takes 2 hours or less, each cycle is only 3-5 towns, and as you gain meta-resources, you unlock more buildings/perks/options that change how your towns can develop in future cycles.

I found out about it when a lets play by KatherineOfSky popped up on my YouTube (I followed her during my Factorio phase), so feel free to watch some gameplay there to see if you’d like it. There’s no combat, it’s just your villagers against the environment.
posted by itesser at 11:34 AM on January 1, 2022

I would suggest getting Spiritfarer on Switch, because some of the platforming is truly obnoxious with PC controls.

Also, a couple games that are not out yet and might not ultimately fit your criteria when they're finished, but just in case you want to keep an eye on them or wishlist them in the meantime: One Lonely Outpost will be out in beta this year (unsure of final release), and is basically Stardew Valley in Space, and Roots of Pacha will also be out this year, and is basically Stardew Valley but make it prehistoric.
posted by yasaman at 12:11 PM on January 1, 2022

I mentioned your question to friends, and they immediately said Terraria, like gennessee above. It hits the Skull Cavern run + lots of grindy crafting + building houses for friends vibe big-time. It has complex wikis and you could totally build a lot of relevant spreadsheets.

I personally love Subnautica, and am on a third playthrough; I think it hits your needs extremely well, and is beautiful and fun (and politically, there is damage your incursion unwittingly has done, but you can learn how to fix it, and make peace thereby!)--BUT, I think there's a motion sickness risk there, so approach with caution and see if you can maybe test-play it first. It has the all-directions/up-down/orientation issues of swimming/diving. It sometimes makes me a bit motion-sick, which didn't happen to me with Portal and Portal 2 (but only after a while playing, and it stops when I stop, so I just keep my play sessions moderate).
posted by theatro at 12:44 PM on January 1, 2022

I'm not sure the survival-crafters will really do it for you (Terraria, Minecraft, et al) -- there's often a lot of killing random creatures for your own benefit. The sheer number of animals you'd need to kill to get leather for the books for a max enchanting table in Minecraft is.. well it's a lot. You can cheat, or you can hope you find a villager to trade with that doesn't get wiped out by zombies, but it's tough to imagine that being, y'know, fun. If you decide to play Minecraft you'd need to decide between the original Java edition (bonus: hundreds of mods are available, can play on Windows and OSX, con: it can be a pain to get all of that working and then every version of MC breaks the old ones), or the Bedrock edition (Windows/Switch). If you wanted to try it I'd suggest Bedrock on Windows as I don't love the controls on Switch.

I did enjoy Astroneer, and REALLY enjoyed Subnautica, mentioned above, and those might work. They're both guided progression with definite The End points. So something that would occupy for awhile, but not something you'd perennially come back to, probably.

Something you might consider is Kerbal Space Program. I don't know how spreadsheet-y you'd necessarily get with it, but there can be a lot of math involved in your planning, and there's both a guided-progression mode and a freeform mode. If you're comfortable setting your own goals then you could be pretty endlessly entertained there.

Straddling the line between Glitch and Stardew -- have you looked at Final Fantasy XIV? It's free-to-play for most of the content as this point, with some limits on what you can do with a free account, but you could endlessly craft and fish and garden stuff if you want. Only difficulty is that, at least a couple of weeks ago, they were closed to new accounts because, uh, they got too popular and their servers were overloaded.
posted by curious nu at 1:02 PM on January 1, 2022

Nthing that Subnautica is really beautiful and hits most of your criteria. I would definitely try it out to see whether the camera motion bothers you - if that part is ok, I think you'd probably love this game. It's got a leftist ethos, you don't have to harm any creatures, and the crafting and building is a big part of it. I didn't make any spreadsheets but I did have a lot of map and navigation-related notes that I used.
posted by omnie at 1:28 PM on January 1, 2022

I also have severe first-person motion sickness issues (finished portal 2 but had to lie down to recover after each round) and subnautica did trigger the same issue but more mildly, maybe because you can move slowly and don't usually have walls around you. I had to keep sessions very short at first and always in a brightly lit room but played through anyway (after awhile I got used to it and didn't feel sick anymore) because it's such a fantastic game, highly recommend.

Came to recommend oxygen not included but I was beaten to the punch. It's also a really great game that I've sunk many hours into. Lots of complexity, the workers are adorable little characters and you never need to kill anything if you don't want to.
posted by randomnity at 2:07 PM on January 1, 2022

Another vote here for Night in the Woods. You won't find 60 hours of gameplay but it's pretty fantastic and will fulfill your Emotional Requirements.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 2:12 PM on January 1, 2022

You dismiss 4X games in your question, but have you ever tried Civilization? You can build your civilization as a pacifistic socialist paradise and never need to attack anyone ever. You’ll have to defend yourself against the depredations of barbarians in the early game, but you can play in such a way as to ally in a mutually beneficial way with any other civilization you encounter. (Some will be aggressive, but you can appease them to prevent war.)

You can complete a game without once firing a shot in anger, instead building yourself up as a beloved tourist destination, a scientific powerhouse, or as the home of the world’s most widespread religion. You can choose your government type and customize it with policies that don’t exploit your citizenry. Civ VI has an expansion I haven’t played that introduces mechanics for anthropogenic climate change, which is probably satisfying to stave off.

I played a recent game as America and wound up allied or in excellent terms with every other civilization except one, and that one was on the other side of the world so it never attacked me. I wound up winning a science victory just before I would have won a culture victory. It was fun!
posted by ejs at 2:14 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Rune Factory 4 has everything you want, being a more action-oriented sibling to Story of Seasons (the main inspiration for Stardew Valley). It has farming, a weirdly deep crafting/cooking system, and the plot is basically trying to improve your town and make friends with everyone. And canonically any monster you defeat is simply being returned to the "Forest of Beginning" which is where they actually live.

Also seconding Night in the Woods, which was one of the best games I played last year.
posted by simmering octagon at 2:18 PM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Check out Graveyard Keeper, see if it fits your requirements.
posted by stormyteal at 3:19 PM on January 1, 2022

I don't know that it will necessarily provide the depth you're looking for, but I really enjoyed Chicory: A Colorful Tale. The mechanics of it are basically those of a digital coloring book, but the story and writing is very good and the puzzles are clever, and it is definitely a game with a progressive bent. It's not super long, probably around 10-15 hours depending on how completionist you want to be, and it doesn't require any sort of artistic skill.
posted by Aleyn at 3:32 PM on January 1, 2022

Popping in to suggest Sky, Children of the Light, available for iPhone and iPad [my personal favorite way to play], Android, and Nintendo Switch. Very prosocial. Involves lots of flying around exploring open world maps and helping other players with daily quests and finding spirits and ancestors. Very international in terms of who you'll meet in-game. Beautiful - absolutely gorgeous - graphics and music.
posted by acridrabbit at 4:27 PM on January 1, 2022

to directly answer your question, i would recommend the semi-standard host of pure puzzlers (myst, rhem, physicus et. al., zachtronics). but by the sounds of it, most story games as written probably won't satisfy your constraints -- perhaps undertale and inscryption? that said, those games write their subversion directly into the plots, which you then follow linearly. though i did love them, i found that aspect to be somewhat facile.

let's get something out of the way: at their most fundamental, a game is defined as a set of rules, one of which must be a win condition. by this definition all games are then unjust, because some player (in the case of most one-player video games, you) must win. if you reject the power structure of winning at the cost of others losing (read: NPCs), you unfortunately write off nearly every game. if you don't like this construction, you could always try speedrunning -- the ultimate endeavor of telling the game developers to go screw themselves.

to extend the chess metaphor, the game can easily be viewed as problematic because there is some injustice in the taking of territory and power. but one can alternately view pawn promotion as revolution, and the weakness of the king piece as a commentary on the fragility of power structures when challenged directly. (don't do this at a tournament though as you'll run out of time on the clock)

unfortunately undertale is spoiled upthread so i won't couch the comment: most players discover that there is a pacifist route to undertale by first going the "conventional" RPG route and killing an NPC. several of my friends didn't even realize that there was another way until the game explicitly called them out for their violent actions. there is a vast world of plotlines like this, but frequently they elude the initial take. if you take nothing else from this rambling response, take this: just because a game doesn't appear to conform to your ideals, doesn't mean that it won't surprise you. many game developers create games as a form of social commentary, and many times i've found their commentaries to be woven throughout the game in ways that genuinely surprised me. marathon, while being mechanically a run-and-gun game, has a remarkably rich plot. rejecting it out of hand for being a doom-adjacent dungeon blaster denies the depth of the writing. marathon, notably, pits you up against aliens who are ostensibly evil -- morally justifying the use of violent force in resisting them. but as the story unfolds, you find out that you are merely a pawn being used by several warring factions, and your previously-justifiable actions become... well, i digress. amusingly, the game also doesn't require violence, merely that you get from point A to point B. this is of course a pacifist speedrun challenge, as you have to get to point B alive.

along this line, factorio is indeed a commentary on rampant capitalist industrialism -- but there is no requirement to kill anything. the win condition is simply to launch a rocket -- how you do so is entirely up to you. you can do this peacefully and with minimal environmental impact -- in fact that playstyle almost guaranteeably meets your constraints because you have to plan factory emissions against forest absorption (spreadsheeting) and work around nests in order to peacefully gather resources (40-60 hours' of effort). it is not a special mode, it is a personally-motivated playstyle supported by the standard game. i would argue that it is exactly the challenge you seek: while it would be quicker to go the selfish route by reigning death and destruction upon the planet, it is not necessarily better, nor is it mandated. both approaches have the same outcome: you launch the rocket. how you get there is up to you. rejecting the game out of hand because the pacifist approach takes more time reads as... performative. i urge you to play the game again, because this challenge is part of the commentary. also because building factories is fun.

never forget, monopoly was first and foremost created as a criticism of economic privilege.
posted by =d.b= at 7:08 PM on January 1, 2022 [7 favorites]

Another point in favor of Oxygen Not Included - as I read through all these answers and try to decide whether to try them - is that while there are loads of different critters, you don’t need to cage them or skin them or eat them (which I would not be happy doing). You CAN do those things, but plant options are available for the different resources each critter could provide.
posted by Glinn at 11:10 PM on January 1, 2022

You might try MergeDragons on iPad. I played it ALL THE TIME for over a year. It has land to explore, hundreds of items to collect and improve, an economy, hacks to increase your resources, and gorgeous graphics. Off game, you will use wikis, subreddits, spreadsheets, resource management, time management, organization skills, decision-making, grinding, and time. There is no combat. All the creatures seem happy to help you reach the common goals. Biggest Con is that there are too many ways that spending real money will help you advance faster, but a lot of the research is finding methods to grind enough to reach your goals without cash. Once you achieve the the ultimate goal, many people stay for the new levels and the holiday specials, but I didn't. Instead I downloaded their sister game Merge Magic. It is the exact same game with a different skin. I played that for another 6 months and got to the level where the only thing left was grinding, so I finally quit.

After those I played Klondike Adventures, also Dragonscape Adventure. Both of these are exploration games with a farming/town-building element that helps you earn resources for your exploration. I really enjoy them both but it got to be too much waiting for enough energy to make progress exploring. So much easier to throw money at it and let me explore. In fact, the reason I played both at the same time was so I could play one while the other recharged. NOTE - Klondike is set in the wilderness to be tamed. There isn't any combat, and the indigenous peoples that we meet seem fine for me to cut down all their natural beauty, but it sure feels squicky to act as the Great White Hope. The company has a similar game called Atlantis Adventures that I haven't played but maybe it deals with that better.

Anyway, still looking for my next game, I decided to get a Switch and I bought StarDew Valley. Lo and behold it's the same game as Klondike and Dragonscape. But the graphics are terrible and I have to tap right right right right right down down down down dammit up up left to get anything, rather than just touching it like I did on the iPad. So I haven't gotten into it and didn't give it enough of a chance.
posted by CathyG at 12:23 AM on January 2, 2022

You might like Euro Truck Simulator (or American Truck Simulator), where the gameplay is driving a truck and listening to the radio-- it's relaxing. Cloudpunk involves making deliveries in a cyberpunk world, and the politics are pretty leftist. Untitled Goose Game is a blast. 80 Days is a mostly narrative spin on Jules Verne, in an alternative world where every culture is steampunk.

I am still hooked on Minecraft... as a note, you never have to kill animals; e.g. you can get leather by exploring (various structures have bookshelves) or by trading with piglins.
posted by zompist at 7:16 AM on January 2, 2022

Guild Wars 2

Plot: Chosen One saves the world from attacking dragon-gods, hurray! Shoot, taking out top predators has caused an ecological crisis, and the mad scientists can't fix it! We have to address this as a planet-wide community. Oh dang, the dragons are joining in the politicking! They want us to do what for them?

I love how the developers both leaned into and poked gentle fun at typical video game Chosen Hero plots. There's a sense of good humor throughout the game.

* Lots of options to control camera movement, rotation speed, how it reacts to zooming in/out, etc. These work well IME.
* Lots of complex crafting projects, including endgame gear (legendaries).
* The game world is huge (2 expansions, 3rd coming soon), and the wiki is excellent.
* The player character really is written as wanting to do the right thing. We defend villagers, resettle refugees, try to be a good friend, help rehabilitate a villain sentenced to community service, support scientific research & a plague-stricken area (a pre-Covid release), etc.
* The community is very welcoming, and the game rewards helping others.
* There's no gear treadmill. People come and go without needing to grind for new gear.
* Politically different races, none presented as inherently better. The independent city faction had an in-game election where players voted on the NPCs. It didn't make a mechanical difference, but was a fun flavor event.

It's pretty good value for the money. No sub, original game is free-to-play, all expacs are bundled for the price of the original game. There's microtransactions for fancy outfits or convenience, but it's not obtrusive or pay-to-win IMO. For example, players can buy fancy weapon skins but get actual weapons via playing the game, and can get the fancy skins via playing the game if they're willing to take longer.

If you decide to try it out, I'm happy to share my in-game name and show you around!
posted by Ahniya at 8:32 PM on January 2, 2022

Gris satisfies ~95% of your requirements - no spreadsheets needed, and it's probably <40 hours, but it's a beautiful and unique game.
posted by rjacobs at 8:36 PM on January 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have very similar interests and annoyances when it comes to games, so I very much empathise. I enjoy games with depth, emergent stories, worlds and characters that evolve. Things I can really sink my teeth into. I also dislike being made to do evil things, so being able to pursue so-called "weird goals" like being a pacifist is always a bonus.

My computer is too old for the newer stuff, but here's some things that have occupied me (as in: over 1000 hrs each) over the last decade or so:

Rimworld - sells itself as a "story generator"; very wide open colony sim with much more depth and range than the graphics might suggest. It's a lot like The Sims, except you can commit all kinds of horrible warcrimes (and the community seems to delight in that) but it's entirely possible to play a humane and ethical colony that treats its prisoners well. I haven't played the add-ons but they add even more flavour. Start on low difficulty though. It's brutal. (This leftist made an autonomous egalitarian commune more than once).

CK2/Stellaris - I feel similarly about 4X, and find EU4 basically unplayable now, but I have sunk enormous amounts of time into both Crusader Kings 2 (medieval RPG) and Stellaris (space opera) over the years. Both are rich with storytelling potential that goes beyond the usual 4X "conquer everything". Both have steep learning curves, but mistakes are rarely a game over, and you have to play Ironman Mode (no savescumming) for the full experience. There's nothing quite like an event firing that you totally didn't see coming. These are heavy on the DLC, it's Paradox after all, but don't feel like you have to own it all to enjoy the game. (Hard to be a leftist in 1000CE, but I have created multiple merchant republics and one matriarchal pope-smashing mega-tribe).

Skyrim with Inigo as a follower - This is a weird one, but the follower mod "Inigo" is a labour of love and really adds a lot to the experience. He's intelligently written and funny as hell, and will inject your Skyrim story with camaraderie and love. And spider squishing. (Lefty connection: he might have a dark past, but he is gloriously inclusive and an outspoken anti-racist).

OpenTTD/OpenRTC2/Cities Skylines - Probably my most enjoyed sim games. Haven't played them in a while but each is great at scratching the creative itch if I'm in that kind of mood. (I find building cities to be a bit of an anti-nature vibe sometimes, but I can't deny the healing power of creating functioning systems that work when faced with such a dysfunctional real world).

Honourable mentions:

Banished (use the colonial charter mod for more depth, another soothing commune builder/famine simulator)
Kerbal Space Program (endless possibilities to explore and learn in the name of science)
Minecraft (another creative joy that is as timeless as it is time-consuming)
The Long Dark (beautiful and brutal game, really atmospheric)
posted by Acey at 12:23 PM on January 3, 2022

Here's a list of games that were mentioned more than once: Oxygen Not Included, Spiritfarer, Subnautica, Terraria, Night in the Woods, Planet Zoo, Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Dyson Sphere Program, Rimworld.
posted by Nelson at 4:57 PM on January 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

I just finished Sable and it was fantastic! It is a beautiful exploratory platforming/climbing/gliding game and it is quite pretty with a good soundtrack. You play as a young woman undergoing her rite of passage, a wandering period around the world before she decides where to go in her life. The only questions the game has you ask during gameplay are, "How do I get up there?" and "Wow that's pretty and mysterious, what does it mean, where does it lead?" There is no combat, hit points, or damage. It is very chill. All of the people in it are kind, although there is one quest where you're solving a nonviolent crime, so there are a couple suspicious characters. It's rather like if you took Breath of the Wild and removed all the enemies and antagonism. The people and places make me think of Ursula Le Guin.

Another game I just finished is Cloudpunk (and its full-length DLC City of Ghosts). In this you play a taxi driver in a futuristic megacity, finding yourself in the middle of a lot of different people's lives and a few emotionally complex situations. It's very beautiful and has a great soundtrack. The writing is marvelous and the voice acting is also quite good. It is definitely a dystopia and a noir and a satire, but it is full of heart and does not linger in boring "gritty" grimdark. It's rather like playing the first five minutes of Blade Runner. There are plenty of scenes with dramatic tension, but for the most part it's quite chill. The lead character is a treasure, and manages to be very thoughtful and kind, despite her cynicism. There is no combat or danger of 'losing'- although I genuinely felt my favorite characters were in danger at the time. This one also has plenty of lefty credentials but, it's hard to describe. It's in the lead character, everyone's dialogues with her, and the variety of characters, and how the setting is a criticism of many things.
posted by panhopticon at 9:57 PM on January 3, 2022

Response by poster: I'm not sure how successfully I have expressed what I want and where I'm coming from, so I'm going to expand a bunch more stuff. Apologies in advance for the blogpost-y text walls in this comment, my next comment will be more concise and useful.

Executive Summary

A bunch of these recs seem to be leftist in the sense of the musical Cabaret or the Murderbot books, and that's cool, but I was kind of thinking more Sesame Street? I don't feel like you have to show competent fascists on-screen to reject fascist perspectives, and I'd rather you didn't.

Put another way, the Emotional Requirement here might read: if I wanted to explore a world that felt hostile or fragile or horrifying, I could read nonfiction. I'm looking for games that mostly let the player grow plants, be kind to children, sing to butterflies, pet chickens, and/or otherwise actively benefit living things in their vicinity.

Far More Backstory Than Any Of You Probably Wanted To Read

I have been playing video games and assorted other kinds of interactive media for more than twenty years, starting with things like Pokemon and Civilization as a kid. A whole lot of things that I tolerated in videogames before about late 2016 I simply do not tolerate any more. I will go back to Stardew and pet chickens instead, or, like, take a nap.

let's get something out of the way: at their most fundamental, a game is defined as a set of rules, one of which must be a win condition. by this definition all games are then unjust, because some player (in the case of most one-player video games, you) must win. if you reject the power structure of winning at the cost of others losing (read: NPCs), you unfortunately write off nearly every game.

That is not how I use the word "game," and that does not describe any of the three positive examples I mentioned in the original post. I have spent a fair amount of time talking, reading, and writing about what kinds of interactive media work for me and work for other people. Generally speaking, I use "game" as synonymous with "interactive media" for simplicity's sake, even though most of the works that I find interesting are not "games" in the academic sense.

Glitch emphatically lacked win conditions, for example. There were quests and goals and stuff, but it was what some game studies professors call a "toy" because you go around doing stuff and making changes without ever really "winning" or "losing."

By this standard, the Sims series are the most well-known "toy" video games. Personally, I feel like there's a continuum from stuff that is completable, in the way that Sudoku or jigsaw puzzles are completable, to stuff that is very explicitly winnable or losable, like Among Us.

Among Us is a fantastically well-implemented and accessible multiplayer roleplaying/deception game in the academic sense of the term, it's fun in small doses, and it is wildly unlike the kind of thing I am looking for in this Ask.

I am aware it is possible to find taking simulated unethical actions enjoyable, and also to find fulfillment in sad/scary/etc. game experiences.

At this time, I am willing to play evil, authoritarian characters in interactive narrative with multiple players. That is, if you need someone to cast as Fire Lord Ozai in your larp/ttrpg/experimental Discord rp/similar thing I'm probably willing to do simulated tyranny in those contexts. For me, the emotional impact of those interactions is a little bit like dangling a feather toy on a cord for a cat - I'm providing enrichment for other real people, I'm probably chewing some scenery, I'm making the game more exciting for your Aangs and your Zukos and so forth, you know, good times.

In approximately 2019, playing a morally gray character in single-player games felt a little like wiggling a cat toy while the cat was asleep in a different room - weird and sort of pointless, honestly. Now, it's more like picking up a cat toy and remembering that I don't have a cat anymore, I might never get to have a cat again, and public health officials have advised no longer adopting or playing with any cats anytime in the past few years because cat shelters are now plague vectors. So that's great! Things are going just, super well, over here.

Obviously, I don't think this is a particularly virtuous or healthy way to respond to media, but it does seem to be the response I am having.

Unfortunately, There Has Been Research

I am Terminally Online and do things like glance at Wikipedia pages and Steam reviews for games I might want to play. Also, I've seen liveblogs/streams/discussions of a lot of video games by other people, there are games I'm willing to watch but can't or won't play myself.

On that note, I suspect that Oxygen Not Included and Night in the Woods take place in worlds that feel fundamentally too bleak for me, though I might be wrong.

I don't want to grimly confront authoritarianism so much as I want there to not be on-screen cops or genocides (e.g. Stardew, Glitch) or for the occasional cop to be an ineffectual joke, as in the earlier Sims games and Pokemon Gold.

The parts of video games that I find rewarding generally consist of building, improving, and helping. Some kinds of combat are tolerable, but they are not typically motivators.
posted by All Might Be Well at 7:20 AM on January 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A Mostly Unordered List Of Reasons Why I Have Not Sunk One Thousand Hours Into Games, Followed by the Games They Describe

I know some of my stumbling blocks will be selling points for some of you, also, I figure I may as well add stuff I've tried/played that I didn't mention in the first post. In these lists, italicized games are ones I've actually played for more than ten minutes, either before this thread or because of it.

Police State/Genocide/Horrific Cruelty Route Exists But It's Optional:

Civilization, Crusader Kings 2, Factorio, Planetbase, Stellaris, Surviving Mars, Undertale

Games About Fighting the Power, Which Necessitate Having The Power On-Screen And Being Primarily Fighting:

Tonight We Riot

Press X To Doubt How Welcoming This World Is:

Against The Storm, The Long Dark, Oxygen Not Included, Night in the Woods

Grim And/Or Heartbreaking Games:

Cozy Grove, Creeper World 4, Spiritfarer

World Worsening Simulators, i.e. Player Mainly Runs Around Destroying Stuff And Decreasing Biodiversity, Few To No Pettable Animals/Growable Plants/Huggable NPCs/etc:

Cattails, Mindustry, Minecraft, Terraria, Skyrim

Camera Too Wobbly To Do This For More Than Half An Hour And Then I Will Have To Have a Lie Down, Alas:

My Time at Portia, Portal, Portal 2, Slime Rancher, Subnautica

Biphobia, Sexual Harassment, As A Queer Person Who Has Written Some Romance And Sexuality Mechanics Into Games, I Must Say, YIKES:


Features Steam Full-Screen Mature Content and Realistic Gore Warning:

Graveyard Keeper

Like The Book Only You Can Save Mankind, But More Xenophobic And Zero-Sum And An FPS:

The Marathon Series

Microtransactions Forever And Ever:

Dragonscape Adventure, MergeDragons, Merge Magic

Microtransactions And Monarchism, Two Flavors That Go Together:

Cookie Run: Kingdoms

Microtransactions, Now With A White Savior Narrative:

Klondike Adventures

Games Designed to be Played a Little Bit Every Real-World Day, Not Binged:

Animal Crossing, #selfcare, Cozy Grove again, all the Microtransactions games again

Games I Have Liked And Finished That Didn't Take A Very Long Time:

Eufloria (a little on the bleak side for 2022), most of the Love Conquers All games (some are tragic, some are NSFW), Plants vs Zombies, some of the Pokemon series, the original SimTower, Untitled Goose Game, World of Goo

I Have Played All Of These For Many, Many Hours Already:

Zoombinis, Sims 2, Sims 3, Sims 4, Glitch (no longer playable :( ), Stardew Valley

Further Investigation Needed:

OpenTTD, Planet Zoo, Sable, Dyson Sphere Program, Let's Build A Zoo, Astroneer, Timberborn, Mutazione, Sneaky Sasquatch, Kerbal Space Program, Final Fantasy XIV, Rune Factory 4, Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Sky: Children of the Light, 80 Days, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Cloudpunk

Further Investigation Needed, Coming Soon and/or Early Access:

One Lonely Outpost, Roots of Pacha, Haunted Chocolatier, Ooblets

I will probably continue reading about and trying out new things next weekend. If or when I actually get deeply into one or more new games, I will mark them Best Answer, for now, I welcome additional suggestions/ideas.
posted by All Might Be Well at 7:27 AM on January 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

Some cozier games I haven’t seen mentioned:

Littlewood: available on Switch. Not as deep as Stardew Valley but a very similar idea, and more to do than Animal Crossing.

Taking a step back, have you ever played any of the Harvest Moon or Story of Seasons games that Stardew is largely based on? Pet all the cows and give your sweetheart an apple. (Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town is the best Switch-available one I’ve tried.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:23 AM on January 4, 2022

I've been playing Timberborn quite a bit since this thread reminded me that I wanted to try it out. Play it on easy mode if you want the world to be more welcoming than not. (It's still a decent challenge on easy mode.) Otherwise I think it ticks all your boxes - everything is a renewable resource except the scrap metal from human ruins. You're playing in a bleakish setting but the focus is on greening the world, planting forests, planting crops. You need to cut down trees for wood but smart play means replanting everything, and keeping enough adult trees around to harvest pine resin / maple sap / chestnuts.

If it sounds like a good time to you to plant maple trees and wheat so that you can turn your wheat into flour and then turn your flour and maple sap into maple pastries, and make your beavers happy because they have maple pastries to eat, it's worth checking out. (My favorite thing is watching the beavers play in the lido, but I haven't started gathering scrap metal so I can build the carousel yet.)
posted by Jeanne at 9:41 AM on January 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am once again very strongly recommending Planet Zoo. In the time it took you to write why you don't like all those other games you could have selected some very nice enrichment toys for your elephants, made an underwater exercise run for your pygmy hippos, and researched a better quality warming light for your gila monsters.
posted by phunniemee at 10:26 AM on January 4, 2022 [3 favorites]

Okay, after getting a lot more sample data and why they miss your mark, I think I got the idea of what you want.

1) A world that's not actively trying to kill you, nor grimdark

2) Your efforts go into IMPROVING the world

3) More of a software toy (a la "The Sims") than a true simulator or RPG with "win" conditions, or just puzzles.

4) Play as leader, but not Monarchy or despot, more utopia than dystopia

So this seems to be steering more into a "builder" type game. Bridge Constructor, Timberborn, Kerbal Space Program, etc, but more of a "regional scale", where you lead, but not make nasty decisions.

With that in mind, I'll throw out a couple more games, why I think they may fit you, and you tell me how far I miss the mark. :D

* Rise of Industry -- resource tycoon type game, where you start a business near several towns, and as your business grows, you also grow the storage and distribution network among the towns. You can also own supply chains up and down the industry, from farms to processing plants to even more processing plants to factories. Technically this is more capitalist than socialist, but there are no real abuse unless you count all the logging as abuse of nature.

* Little Big Workshop -- similar to Rise of Industry, but more of a single small business with workers. You cannot mistreat workers in this game. If you overwork them without break or coffee they fall asleep on the floor and if you fire them you lose all their seniority and have to retrain them from scratch. Instead, you need an employee lounge with coffee and sofa and other relaxing stuff. Otherwise, it's steady chain of tools and stations to allow your workshop to work from simple wood stuff to complicated stuff to metal stuff, plastic, stuff, and combinations thereof. This is not "regional", but it seems to fit the "socialist agenda".

* Stable Orbit -- manage the first commercial space station... expand carefully, but rapidly, by adding labs to your station and do research projects for Terran corporations, but you also need to manage energy, heat, food, and water needs of both the station and your astronauts. Can you keep your station solvent, and livable? Slightly darker than the other two, but your astronauts will jump into the escape capsule and go home if you don't keep the station livable, then you go bankrupt. :D

* Mini-Metro and its cousin, Mini Motorways -- build a transportation network serving the different points of the city. Different points generate different types of passengers going to different types of destinations. How far can you go? Improves the world, in a sense.

* SimplePlanes and SimpleRockets -- same idea, albeit building rockets and planes that you can fly, think simpler than KSP, but still complex enough to not be a total pushover push-X-to-win game. :) More toy like, but not leading anything (no meta-story)
posted by kschang at 6:41 AM on January 5, 2022

Outlanders (via Apple Arcade) is my recommendation.
posted by dngrangl at 6:00 PM on January 5, 2022

It's months late, but just in case you ever come back to look at this, check out Airborne Kingdom. You are a flying city. You fly around, collect resources (trees grow back, coal does not, people do not like being around charcoal burners), keep your city balanced (too tilted and people get upset and decide to leave) and go do favors for the earthbound cities in order to create a grand alliance and gain the attention of the benevolent forunners.

There's some mild environmental exploitation, but it turned into balancing both the needs of the charcoal burners to create the coal to keep the city aloft and literally balancing the city so that too much lift was never generated in once place. It's actually rather relaxing to play and seeing your flying city make its way around is incredibly satisfying.

And another vote for Timberborn. Play it on easy if you want to focus more on the beavers having fun with the lido and mud baths than making sure that the water doesn't run our during the droughts.
posted by Hactar at 10:23 PM on February 28, 2022

If you didn't know, there's a great fan made Stardew expansion (sve), along with the 1.5 addition, it has added a lot more to the game! New npcs, dungeons, fish, crops, things to discover, etc. It's nice!

And yeah, Dyson sphere is just like Factorio but no pollution or enemies, and it's across multiple planets. Pretty cool.

Also it's older and console but in Pikmin you befriend Pikmin and help clean up trash. It's a lot of killing local wildlife, but also that's to defend your Pikmin and it's a very happy upbeat vibe.
posted by bbqturtle at 5:00 AM on March 5, 2022

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