You look like you’re made of meat!
One particular facet of video games that has always fascinated me is games where you attempt to make someone happy. I don’t just mean rescuing the princess at the end of a campaign of violence, I’m talking specifically about games where the crux is to solve people’s problems to complete the game. Since the dawn of video games, combat has been central. If it wasn’t conflict, it was the competition of sports. Not a whole lot has changed since then, but gradually, games where you’re not shooting or kicking stuff have crept in.
There’s games like Moon: Remix RPG, Chulip, Chibi-Robo. Facets of the spread-love-not-violence philosophy even crept into games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Yakuza; games where you assist people by saving their cows from alien abduction and helping them come to terms with their kinks. Sure, violence is still front and center with those games, but at least you don’t spend all your time being a murderous jerk.
One game that belongs to this mindset flew directly into my radar while I was browsing through Steam sales, and that is Smile For Me. With a tantalizing art style and the promise of lots of joy spreading, I was willing to dive into something I had never previously even heard of. And I don’t regret it.
At its core, Smile For Me is a first-person adventure game. Boiling it down, you talk to people for hints and objects, then rub those objects on other objects and people until something good happens.
You play as the Flower Kid, an anonymous avatar who has committed themselves to The Habitat, an asylum run by the teeth-obsessed Dr. Habit to house the perpetually miserable. While on the surface, Dr. Habit talks about making people smile, the impression you’re given off the hop is that they’re not all that committed to the goal and would rather everyone stay in the doldrums until they can unleash their “Big Event.”
It’s a title that feels like a joyful coat of bright paint splattered over a blood-soaked doorway to a dark realm. Days are started with short video cutscenes that basically tell you to mind your own business, or else. A lot of the narrative is revealed by a puppet version of Dr. Habit, which reminds me a lot of puppet Homestar, but I don’t think the creators are old enough to have seen that connection. It’s this bizarre, twisted feeling of discomfort overtop promises of safety.
Smile For Me was produced by the minds of Day Lane and Yugo Limbo; two people whose names make me jealous. Despite being on opposite ends of the U.S., they joined forces remotely to breathe life into this weird baby over the course of thirteen months. You can’t really tell they weren’t in the same room. There’s an amazing cohesiveness on display; not a loose thread to be found.
The Habitat isn’t a very big world, consisting of a handful of interconnected rooms, but the space is well utilized and its coziness makes the immense amount of backtracking easily tolerated. It’s packed with weird characters, some of which only make themselves known after you pass certain thresholds. They all have their reason for being in the Habitat, usually it’s due to some longing that they wear on their sleeve. Sometimes it’s relatable, like the frustrated artists who can’t capture their subjects quite right. Other times, it’s just weird, like the guy who won’t be happy until he smells like pickles. Well, I suppose I can relate to that a bit more than I’m willing to admit.
The characters themselves are something special. The game’s backstory indicates that the inhabitants are from the same town, so they have all the gossip on each other. According to the developers, the characters were crafted with a quirk-first approach, after which they’d be sorted with their puzzles designed and their tidbits fleshed out.
This is reflected in the game’s art style. While the world is somewhat mundane, mostly showing personality through its odd, cartoonish angles and colors, the characters are anything but. They’re depicted as paper-thin cutouts that outwardly express their emotions. While they immediately reminded me of the figment drawings from Psychonauts, artist Yugo only discovered that game after work began, though Scott C.’s simple art style provided fertile soil to grow their own skills while development progressed. Other influences — such as Heinz Edelmann, Masaaki Yuasa, and ‘60s cartoons — can be seen informing Smile For Me’s offputtingly colorful style.
Smile For Me doesn’t strictly mimic any particular style or styles, but there’s a lot there that feels familiar at times. The dialogue has a stilted quality that apparently was initially inspired by the weird NPC flavor text found in EarthBound. The duo also found insight from Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, both in terms of the dialogue and expressiveness of the character poses.
The result is a tight little package. Though it is heavily an adventure game, there weren’t any portions where I was left running in circles trying to find the next solution. There are certainly some out-there resolutions, but they can be solved with perceptiveness and experimentation without having to get on some strange wavelength. You won’t be using a monkey on a pipe valve, for example, though you may get a bit stumped when it comes to finding a butt to take a picture of.
If you do find yourself stuck, you can check an item once a day with a fortune teller to get a hint on its use. That’s right, the game functions on a day/night cycle, but the characters don’t really move about. They’re not on a schedule. The mechanic seems to exist merely as a way to rejigger the environment without you looking and give your mattress a chance to do some creepy flirting.
There are blemishes, though. Everything you need to interact with the world is kept in a little wheel, but your pockets get so packed at a point, that even pulling out your hand to pick something up can be annoying. It’s also difficult to imagine some of the inhabitants having lives outside the Habitat. They’re quirky and entertaining, but they’re not always as deep and fleshed out as they could be.
Of course, this is all contained within a rather strict five-ish hour game. There are a few alternate routes to take, and if you’re as prone to sudden explosions of violent anger as I am, you might find yourself with the bad ending, but even then, it’s a short, tight treat that delights through its entire runtime.
I feel the world could use more games like Smile for Me. As much as I love blowing things up and aiming at heads, I also enjoy figuring people out. I’ll always maintain that the best parts of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Deadly Premonition were when you just ran people’s errands. Maybe I’m strange in that way, but there are people out there who feel that same way, and thankfully, someone is providing for us empathetic types. Because sometimes, leaving the world in a better state than you found it means more than just making sure all the bad guys are dead.