Why I Love: Games that keep playing without me

Pick any particular time of day and it’s a safe bet that I want to be playing a video game. But adulthood being what it is and responsibilities being what they are, the actual time I have in my schedule to play games isn’t nearly as plentiful as I’d like it to be, which is why I’ve become increasingly fond of games that keep playing when I’m busy doing something else. Games like Lifeline and Neko Atsume, which keep running without my input, make me feel involved and active, even when I’m working on a budget spreadsheet or trying to find a reliable repairman.

If you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably already seen pictures of Neko Atsume floating around. The goal of the game is simple: buy stuff for your garden to attract all sorts of adorable cats. You can buy toys, different kinds of food, places for them to sleep, things for them to scratch - all the stuff a kitty would love. When the cats partake of your generous bounty, they show their appreciation by paying you in fish (not my preferred currency, but hey, at least it’s not dead birds), with which you can buy newer and better toys. Golden fish, which you can either buy with micro transactions or just earn by playing, buy the best stuff that attracts the very special kitties. It’s all very simple and cute (and yes, it’s entirely in Japanese but very easy to figure out if you don’t speak that language).

What I enjoy about Neko Atsume is that it’s not something you watch constantly. You set up your garden and check in from time to time to see who’s visited and what they’ve done while they were there. The cats come and go throughout the day whether you have the game open or not, living out their kitty lives with little regard for your attentions, rather a lot like real cats. Opening up the game randomly throughout my day, I see which cats have come to the garden, and it’s like being visited by tiny, furry friends. Ah, I see Petunia stopped by and had a snuggle in the comfy cushion. And if I put out the yellow bowl of food? You can be sure Fatso is going to swing by and scarf it all down. I named the very first cat who showed up in my Neko Atsume after my real life cat who passed away last November, and every time I see that she’s stopped by, I smile. All of this activity happens when I’m not looking, and I wonder what the cats get up to when they’re not snoozing in my virtual garden. They play while I’m away, but I still feel connected to their goings-on, just the same.

In Lifeline, an astronaut who’s crash-landed on a distant moon manages to get a signal out and you’re the only person who’s in range to receive it. He sends you messages to let you know what’s going on, seeking your guidance as to how he should proceed. The game plays out very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with you making either/or selections along the way. Should Taylor investigate the crew quarters or try to find the flight deck? Should he sleep next to the reactor or try to bunk down in the remains of the ship? The writing is outstanding, drawing you into Taylor’s plight and making you care about his fate. The story has several different endings, some good, some, erm, less so, but all are entertaining and make sense given what you learn along the way.

But much like Neko Atsume, Lifeline goes on when you’re not playing it. Taylor will often turn off his comms and shove you aside, either to get some sleep or just focus on what he’s doing. He’s off trudging through a moon crater and you’re waiting for an alert on your phone to let you know that he’s ready to talk again. As I went about my day in the real world, I found myself thinking about Taylor and hoping he was ok. Trying to determine what the best plan was to keep him safe or get him rescued. I worried about his state of mind and hoped that sprained ankle wasn’t bothering him too much. Even though I wasn’t actively playing the game, it was still going on and I was still very much involved with it.

It’s not unusual to think about games when you’re stuck at work, of course; I spent plenty of time pondering how to proceed in Dragon Age: Inquisition and spent more than a few cycles thinking about managing my farm in Story of Seasons. But those games wait for me when I’m otherwise occupied. Their worlds stop until I’m ready for them to start again. Neko Atsume and Lifeline still need my input, but their game worlds keep going whether I’m poking at them or not. They’re still playing and so, by extension, I’m still playing. They’re also just involving enough to be pleasing without being so attention-needy that they’re distracting, making them the perfect kinds of game to play when you can’t really be playing anything at all.