Just go with the flow
When I visited Château de Versailles for the first time in 2015, I walked out to the gardens and gazed upon the acres of painstakingly manicured history perfected over hundreds of years and was so overcome by their beauty that I wept. I could not properly articulate my feelings about witnessing such celestial splendor, but every fiber of my being knew that what lay before me was the very definition of magnificence. Although a word escapes me to best describe that emotion, it’s one that I can instantly recognize despite my relative unfamiliarity with it; today, to an appropriately scaled (down) degree reserved specifically for video games, I felt the same way I did in those curated gardens that I did playing Haven.
Developed and published by The Game Bakers (Furi) with music by DANGER, Haven is a mixture of action-adventure and kinetic novel with a hint of turn-based RPG elements that, for me, felt like the first real new game of the 2020s. Don’t get me wrong, other games this year have been amazing in their own right, but Haven is that fresh step into a new decade that I’d been waiting for. This is not a game that can be truly picked apart by its components, nor must its minute details be ignored: Haven is best analyzed as the sum of all its parts simultaneously while noticing the nuanced changes as the player’s relationship with the game evolves over time.
Yu and Kay’s world is beyond foreign to you or me. They live in a society called the Apiary, a collection of planets with names like Top, Down, and Beauty, their spaceships powered by a fuel source called Flow which is generated by planetary cores. Err, lived, rather — the star cross’d lovers, destined to marry other people chosen by the Matchmaker, left everything behind and fled to a far-flung planet outside the Apiary’s purveyance: Source. It is here, on these floating islets, away from the prying eyes of Yu’s mothers and the couple’s arranged mates, that Yu and Kay will henceforth thrive off the land while basking in each other’s company. And it is here, on Source, that Yu and Kay uncover a mystery that deepens their connection more than they could have ever dreamed. Yes, it is here, this Haven, that Yu and Kay will call home for the rest of their lives.
Living on Source isn’t like camping out — while their spaceship, called Nest, has all the creature comforts they could want, there are legitimate creatures inhabiting the floating islets of Source. For the most part, they’re ambivalent to Yu and Kay’s presence… unless the rust has infected them, turning them hostile to their human visitors. Only by clearing the rust from each islet can the pair restore peace to their new home, but for how long? Perhaps scientists Kay can study the properties of this mysterious rust while engineer Yu restores the Nest to its former glory. Time is of the essence, however, as the Council is searching for the pair that dared disobey the Matchmaker’s orders — a code of marital conduct that ensures genetic stability in their community set 100,000 years ago to rid their people of “the Mark.” How far will the Council go to subdue these unlawful intergalactic lovers? How long will Kay and Yu last among the floating islets of a decaying world?
As many of us have come to know over the course of this pandemic, living in close quarters with only one other person can put a certain strain on any relationship, but Yu and Kay seem to be cut from a different cloth. In sync with each other in their words, actions, and bodies, Yu and Kay breeze from islet to islet, the grass tickling their toes as they hover inches off the ground, searching for crafting materials, scouring for ship parts, and ridding the environments of rust. Time moves differently on Source; who knows how many days have passed as Yu and Kay toil under an alien sun? All they know, as they hold hands and whisper sweet nothings to each other while pondering the greater meanings in life, is that they are aligned by their common desire for each other and the freedom this life off the grid brings. Their conversations have maturity, humor, and depth to them, one positing philosophical questions while the other answers in turn, the two left silently considering the other’s view under a completely new sky. Slowly, conversation after conversation, the islets become theirs.
It is difficult not to romance Haven because it is, at its core, a romantic game — certainly in Yu and Kay’s relationship, but also between player and game itself. I have never listened to a game like I have listened to Haven, nor have I felt so listened to; in too many games, I expect to play the way I feel most comfortable with, and many games acquiesce by allowing multiple playstyles. Then there are other games which blunt force mastery by way of skill-locking players out of areas. Haven’s nuanced approach might have been missed if it wasn’t for the continuous impeccability of its timing; for example, there was a short tutorial explaining a mechanic I initially struggled with that I figured I’d work around. After 30 minutes or so of not improving, Yu stopped Kay and chastised him for his poor performance and used this as a teachable moment to improve his skills, thereby improving my own.
Although every component in Haven is immensely important, it would have all fallen apart if not for the library’s worth of dialog and the voice actors’ comfortable, realistic delivery. It is difficult to think of Yu and Kay as mere video game characters, as, after the 14 or so hours I’ve poured into Haven so far, I’ve learned far too much about them for them to be imagined beings. It’s not just about their backstory or the world they live in, but how they think, feel, and work their issues out. Details about the world they escaped from are teased out, used mostly as a lens they filter their opinions and choices through. As they communicate with each other, it occasionally occurs to you that this conversation isn’t for them, it’s for you, the player; so real are their jokes, gripes, disagreements, flirts, and banter that you quite frequently forget your role. Are you Yu? Kay? A fly on the wall? A player in the real world? It’s hard to say at times, as all points of view feel as fully fleshed out as they would be in our own universe.
While the conversations and glorious game design please the cerebral, the aesthetics simultaneously energize and soothe the senses. The soundtrack again conveys nuanced information — while all the songs tend to run into each other to make a player feel a certain way, it won’t be something one immediately registers. Far too many times I’d be feeling on cloud nine as I soared through the sky, only to move into the next area and instantly feel different, only to later realize the music changed to indicate a specific enemy was near. It’s the delay in recognition that surprised me the most, as the change was different enough to alter my emotions but similar enough that my brain didn’t sense anything until I took a look at what I was feeling. In the same way you can enter into a bad situation and get a gut feeling that something isn’t right, I entered unmarked areas with danger lurking nearby, my gut — not my eyes or ears — telling me something was off before my brain stopping to assess the danger.
I could probably write a dissertation on everything Haven does right, but the truth is, Haven is something you must feel. Your relationship with Haven will change over time, the nuances left on you only realized long after the controller has been put away. Haven is the game every game developer wishes they could make and every gamer wishes they could play for the first time every time. It cannot be overstated how beautiful Haven is in every sense of the word. Please don’t just play Haven — feel Haven.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PS5, XBox Series X, PC (reviewed); Publisher: The Game Bakers; Developer: The Game Bakers; Players: 1-2; Released: December 3, 2020; MSRP $24.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Haven provided by the publisher.