This article was featured in our 2023 April issue. Check out more articles and interviews in the full issue.
Over the past year or so, I've fallen in love with camping. I was never a particularly outdoorsy person, so I surprised even myself with how willing I was to be around bugs and mud. It feels so good stepping back from my own life, turning down the volume on all the noise, and breathing in clean air. In my day-to-day life, I often find myself lost in tasks and deadlines. I don't have the time or energy to reflect on the good in my life, and so they get overlooked and forgotten. It is only when I can go out in the woods and lose all sense of time that I can allow myself to feel gratitude and peace.
There are many slow-life games that try to capture that experience. One title I especially love is VacationReels by Arai Toshikazu. It is a contemplative fishing game made during the Unity1Week game jam 「Re」. The game opens on a gorgeous pixel-art scene of the shore at sunset, and the colors are lush and vibrant. The camera has this wide-angle effect that makes both sky and ground curve away, pulling the viewer into the scene.
To fish, click on the 釣り button, and up pop three different-colored bait icons. Rather than realistic worms or lures, they look like a star, the moon, and the sun. Choose one, then click the gauge to set your casting distance. Once you've hooked a fish, carefully haul them in without snapping your line. You can then choose to either take the fish home with you and get their points, or throw them back. Throwing back red, green, or blue fish will often reward you with more bait to keep fishing, while white or black fish will give you a small amount of points. You can keep fishing until you run out of bait. Then it's time to head home and count up all the points from your haul.
You will also pull in quite a bit of trash during your vacation. At first, this is a huge annoyance. Trash is worth only one or two points, and you can't throw it back without taking a huge penalty to your score. Sometimes, it seems like all you pull in are boots and tin cans and bent umbrellas. But maybe this is a small price for fishing along this beautiful shore. Is it too much to ask that you help keep it clean for others to enjoy? And besides, the fish you catch and throw back are only too generous with sharing their bait. Even pulling in trash starts to feel like part of the ebb and flow of the game.
The goal of the game, if there can said to be one, is to fill out your fish 図鑑 (field guide). You'll need to figure out a good distance to cast in order to land every fish. The Gabutta, a huge and aggressive blue shark, will only appear out in open waters; the Idededede, a black sea urchin, will only appear close to shore. The field guide is full of charming entries about these fantastic creatures.
The part that I liked most of all, more than the beautiful art or the cool fish, were the very rare and brief moments of narration. See, this is not just You the Player catching these fish. The unnamed protagonist originally came out here to get away from their busy schedule, but now have no recollection of their old life. They don't know where they are, or why this place seems to exist outside of time. The seasons here don't change, and they never seem to age. There is only the sea.
Eventually, the protagonist realizes that the sea is their memory, and the fish their precious recollections. Each of these fish are treasures, and the sea the most precious treasure all. The trash that was giving you so much trouble earlier is, on reflection, the sort of unsightly memory that we all need to accept, and regard with the same love we have for the most beautiful fish. It is not necessary to fill out the entire field guide in one sitting, nor is it even possible. But by playing a little bit at a time, these moments of reflection can help us get a fuller understanding of ourselves.
VacationReels is a game that I replay from time to time. It's a game that helps me remember that I don't need to go camping to feel gratitude and peace; I only need to open my mind, accept what arises, and release.
You can play VacationReels in your browser and find more of Arai Toshikazu's works on their homepage. And you can watch us play VacationReels on stream!