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‘Finding Paradise’: A touching, brilliantly-designed indie game

(Courtesy of Freebird Games)
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Finding Paradise
Developed by: Freebird Games
Published by: Freebird Games
Available on: PC, Mac

For much of their history video games have inspired conversations about emotions such as loneliness, regret, or the nagging sense of time wasted. (This is not a judgment against games, simply an observation — who hasn’t heard a story about a “World of Warcraft” shut-in?) Usually, these discussions occur in the form of stories about why some people seek solace in games. They also speak to the potential indirect effects that can arise from dwelling in virtual worlds for too long. Seldom, however, are such emotions addressed head-on in games save for a cutscene that might show a character going through a rough patch. Notable outliers include games like “Dear Esther,” “Night in the Woods,” and “Lydia,” which deal with themes of alienation. Other exceptions include the games of Kan Gao. Gao’s work explores how some people deal with loneliness or disappointment. They are also among the more life-affirming titles out there.

Gao is one of the auteurs of the gaming industry, juggling the responsibilities of writer, director and composer. He wears his love of 16-bit Japanese-style role playing games on his sleeve as can be seen from the beautiful pixel art in his games. To this retro aesthetic Gao adds a potent mixture of humor and sentiment. Gao’s 2011 game “To the Moon,” introduced players to Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, two doctors who explore the consciousness of dying patients while burnishing their repartee. As employees of Sigmund Corps, the doctors work to grant their patients a final wish, something that can only be experienced during their last moments — when their lives flash before them — but that appears real nonetheless.

To perform their jobs the doctors use proprietary technology to access their patients’ key memories to retrieve mementos or memory markers from important moments in their lives. The doctors use these to reconstruct a path for their machine to follow the memories. Then, with a bit of technological voodoo, they create an artificial memory that causes a ripple effect throughout the patient’s chain of memories to fulfill his wish. “To the Moon,” which told the story of a man’s wish to find peace among the stars, was the first game I played that elicited a near teary-eyed response when I finished it. (In fact, there is a YouTube clip of popular streamers misting up.)

Since “To the Moon’s” release there have been two mini-episodes about interpersonal incidents that occur over one day during the holidays at Sigmund Corps. An action performed by Dr. Watts during one of these mini-episodes has consequences that appear in Gao’s newest game “Finding Paradise.” This recently released full-fledged sequel was preceded by “A Bird Story” (2014) a short, vibrant tale about a lonely boy who befriends an injured bird. The boy, Colin, grows into the patient whose last wish is at the center of “Finding Paradise.”

Colin’s final wish is for the doctors to grant him a more fulfilling life while changing as few of his memories as possible. Like many, he has an inarticulate ache for something more. Soon after the doctors begin exploring Colin’s memories, they are surprised to find that they jump from one of Colin’s most recent memories to a memory of him as a child. Normally the accumulation of mementos causes them to proceed steadily backward from old age to childhood. The explanation for why they jump from the patient’s mature years to his younger years and vice versa — in “the pattern of a decaying orbit” — is part of a mystery involving the unique way that Colin coped with problems — by retreating into his imagination.

As the doctors close in on the crux of Colin’s compensatory/defense mechanism they watch memories of poignant scenes from Colin’s life. From his childhood years, they discover his regret over his lack of artistic talent; from his time as a newlywed, they see his embarrassment over spilling a drink on his wife during their honeymoon; and from his later years, they notice his longing for grandchildren. These episodes are interspersed with incidents of a more emotionally ambiguous nature such as Colin’s first professional flight as an airline pilot where he had to put up with his supervisor’s highhandedness or watching his wife’s final musical performance at their local community theater.

“Finding Paradise” is constructed around simple point-and-click game mechanics though there are a couple of lighthearted segments that turn the game into an innocuous shooter or otherwise reference other video game tropes. (There really are a lot of funny moments.) Although I’ve read some reviewers grouse that the game’s story and overall emotional payoff are not on par with “To the Moon,” I found “Finding Paradise” all the more endearing for its restraint leading up to a big reveal. At one point the doctors wonder why they don’t encounter any memories from their client’s photo album — a repository of happy incidents — but this game makes the point that the more ordinary moments are truly what define us. I found it all wonderfully low key.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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