It’s 2020, and the world is burning. Climate disaster is on the horizon, children are being kept in cages, and nationalism is on the rise across the globe. Violent acts of terror are being committed daily against marginalized groups. Everything is sucksauce.
Although it was a genre long before, the 90’s saw the rise of the grimdark genre. Defined by dystopias that are often violent and amoral, the genre continued to thrive into the 21st century. Game of Thrones, Dredd, District 9, and a score of indie films were fixated on the bleakness of existence. Video games saw their fair share of grimdark themes as well: from the Bioshock series to the Arkham Batman games, the night seemed to be dark and full of terrors.
In recent years, however, we’ve seen a rise in grimdark’s counterpart, hopepunk. Focused on weaponizing optimism, hopepunk is a narrative of resistance through caring, strength, and bravery. Rather than wallowing in the worst parts of the human experience, hopepunk encourages us not only to rise above, but to give others a helping hand as well. It emphases our humanity as opposed to our depravity.
Even as we all continue to fight the good fight, it’s important to remember that escapism is sometimes necessary for our mental and emotional well-being. The world won’t get any worse if you’re not staring at Twitter watching every terrifying news story in real-time. Instead, maybe give your brain a break and venture into one of these hopepunk landscapes to help fuel your empathy and your personal revolution.
One of the most beloved and popular games on this list, the indie-darling Stardew Valley has been charming players since 2016. With its emphasis on community-building and interpersonal relationships, this game paints a picture of a world that moves a little slower, but is full of kindness, acceptance, and love. Based off of the Nintendo series Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley excels in areas where its predecessor failed: primarily, in LGBTQ+ representation, diversity, and character customization.
But Stardew Valley also has a narrative of resistance: the protagonist has the choice to either support the community center or the mega-corporation JojaMart. Most players obviously have a hard time empathizing with a heartless corporation, so most opt to support Pelican Town’s independent businesses instead.
With its (relatively) new multiplayer feature, you can now invite your real-life friends onto your farm! With its beautiful pixel art, calming atmosphere, and charming music, Stardew Valley is one of my go-to dopamine fixes.
With the long-awaited new Animal Crossing title mere weeks away (as of the publication of this article), it’s impossible to not mention this staple of the Nintendo library. Its first game was released in 2001, making this series nearly two decades old. Every game has a similar playstyle: the player is the Villager, a human who moves to their new neighborhood.
Unlike Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing puts you in charge of the entire town, giving you control over landscape, buildings, and even residents. One of the most noteworthy features was the ability to visit other villager’s towns, which was first made available in Animal Crossing: Wild Worlds (2005).
With its charming dialogue and aesthetic, I am personally very excited to lose dozens of hours of my life to the newest installment.
Like Stardew Valley, Undertale was developed by a single person back in 2015. Toby Fox not only wrote and developed the game, but also composed the amazing soundtrack that accompanies it.
Undertale plays like a modern fairy tale. The player controls “the child,” who is trapped in the monster realm and must try and navigate their way back to the human world. The game emphasizes kindness over violence, but ultimately leaves the decision to the player and encourages multiple playthroughs.
With its amazing writing, characters, and story, Undertale is easily one of the best indie games of the last decade.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
If you are familiar with this title, you might be asking yourself: what is a sci-fi dystopian game doing on this list? Yes, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a world ruined by humans, where technology peaked just before crumbling back into the dark ages. So what’s it doing being included in a list of games that emphasize hope and brighter tomorrows?
What’s really important about Horizon: Zero Dawn is that the world didn’t end. Despite coming to the brink of extinction, life continued. Humanity continued. It doesn’t emphasize the world that was lost, but instead chooses to celebrate this new world, and of course, its fearless, empowered heroine, Aloy. And that is peak hopepunk.
To be honest, I probably could have included any of Tim Schafer’s games on this list. His studio, Double Fine Productions, specializes in quirky, funny games with anti-authoritarian protagonists. I chose Psychonauts for two reasons:
- The long anticipated sequel to this 2005 cult classic is coming out this year.
- I really, really like this game.
Raz, a young psychic who actually ran away from the circus, joins the Psychonauts summer camp only to discover a nefarious plot of world domination and psychic espionage.
Probably the most visually-stunning game on this list, Gris follows a young girl who wakes up in a strange and beautiful world. She collects powers that she stores in her cloak which allow her to navigate the landscape in this modern platformer.
Much like the classic indie game Journey, Gris focuses on storytelling rather than gameplay. The story can be summed up as not allowing oneself to be swallowed up by despair, and to instead rise above your sorrow and become something brighter and better than what you previously were.
Child of Light
Child of Light is like a re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, with a much more bittersweet ending. The princess Aurora wakes up in a strange kingdom that she must save. With its beautiful watercolor backgrounds and charming characters, Child of Light reads like it was written by Neil Gaiman.
Combining turn-based combat and platforming elements, it is also very fun and emphasizes team management and exploration. With its message of hope in the face of hopelessness, of the tiniest light in the darkest night, Child of Light is the pinnacle of hopepunk.