The point-and-click adventure game genre has come and gone and sometimes reemerges. In many aspects, the modern equivalent would be the first-person “walking sim”. These try less to craft an experience that resembles a cartoon, like Day of the Tentacle or to make something cinematic like Phantasmagoria.
A walking sim-style adventure game aims for immersion in most cases. Being in the first-person especially helps players associate more with the player character and the environment becomes subjective to them.
Smile For Me is an adventure game that seemingly mixes the best aspects of ye olde Lucasarts point-and-click games with the modern-day walking-sim adventure. Compounded with an utterly bizarre cubist art style and off-beat writing, how does this quirky odyssey fare on Nintendo Switch? Find out in this Smile For Me review!
Smile For Me
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: April 24, 2023
Smile For Me is a surreal adventure game that explores comedy and horror elements. The story centers on a group of unhappy people who are in a place known as the “habitat”; which resembles a mixture of a commune and a rehab clinic. Everyone at this wellness retreat just wishes to be happy and maybe the ominous upcoming “big event” will be what will cure everyone.
The big shot running the habitat is an enigmatic and mysterious figure known as Dr. Habit. The doc’s methods are unconventional and generally ineffective at making anyone happy. He communicates mostly via TV broadcasts where a puppet version of himself gives announcements, warnings, PSAs, and even punishments (for those who stay up past curfew).
smile for me‘s scenario revolves around the player assuming the role of a florist who has been admitted to Dr. Habit’s sanitarium for the clinically sad. The story unfurls as players talk to the colorful cast of patients, responding to their yes or no questions by nodding. This mechanic does require players to rock the right analog stick in the direction of a yes or no gesture in the first person.
Interacting with the patients will usually involve doing some favors for them or helping them out in some cheeky way. This is where the Lucasarts influences are felt; having to fiddle around with esoteric items or some mechanism to get a desired result.
There are usually multiple tasks to take on at any given moment and the game sets players loose to figure it out on their own. Do not take too long! There is a curfew in place at the habitat and staying up too long can lead to disciplinary action where gamers are subjected to “Dr. Habit’s Bed-Time Stories for Insomniacs and Bad Children”. It is worth it for the wide-awake nightmare experience.
The most notable aspect of Smile For Me is its graphics. Indie games tend to rely on unconventional art styles when faced with severe budgetary restrictions and Smile For Me makes the most of it by achieving something timeless. Gameplay is set in the first-person in an off-kilter 3D environment that can be best described as Nickelodeon’s take on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The colors are lurid and the twisted construction of the world implies that things are not meant to be taken literally, but are symbolic representations. Items are hilariously depicted as photographic flat stills. It is a very low-cost approach to visuals, but the tone of the game makes it work.
All characters are depicted as 2D assets with limited animation and are drawn in a highly abstract cartoony style. It resembles the design philosophy seen in a lot of Double Fine games like Psychonauts 2. This makes every character stand out and have a lot of personality. It is too bad they don’t have a lot of expression outside of their one frame, but the writing attempts to do the heavy lifting of characterization.
Dialogue is witty and written in a way where each character’s inflections are implied. A lot of information is conveyed with very little and some of it is due to the clever design of the characters and the overall tone of the environment they inhabit. A standout example is all dialogue from Dr. Habit, who tries to come off as friendly, but always has a vaguely threatening tone to everything he says.
Cheering people up in preparation for the “big event”, is mostly a smokescreen. There is no actual time limit on how long gamers take to make the other inhabitants happy. The day and night cycle is merely set-dressing and a means to create atmosphere. Aside from things getting creepy when staying up late, there is no punishment when staying up past curvew.
The “big event”, will never happen unless gamers will fully trigger it. Depending on how many inhabitants have been made happy and how Dr. Habit is dealt with will determine which ending is earned. There is a little moralizing involved with the ending, but no matter what, each one is bittersweet and a little anti-climactic.
Some gamers may be put off by the “good” or “happier” endings because it involves Dr. Habit’s backstory that attempts to make him seem sympathetic. There may be some people who will feel bad for him, but at the end of the day, this was a monstrous man who kidnapped 23 people, almost half of them being children. His intentions for the victims are also brutal, making it hard for me to accept anything other than the bad ending.
While trying to make these sad saps happier, users will face one of the biggest enemies in the game; the inventory system. Smile For Me takes several steps backward in the cancels of adventure game design by having a very cluttered item selection menu where each item is on an agonizingly slow rotation. This needed to be on a quick radial dial for quick access.
The nodding gimmick is not as efficient as selecting “yes” or “no” on a menu. Sometimes the nodding takes a while to register. This may not have been as bad as an issue with a mouse on a PC, but with analog sticks, it is more tedious and slow than necessary.
Most of these annoyances can be overlooked since they do make Smile For Me more, but the distracting LGBT memorable themes in what is essentially a children’s adventure game can’t be forgiven so easily. Smile For Me may be an offbeat comedy game with some psychological horror twists, but it never goes into M rated territory. It is firmly in kid’s game territory, so, weirdly, it has so much LGBT representation and symbolism.
These concepts muddy the intended target audience, especially since there is a sizable chunk of the cast are kids too. None of these elements have any payoff to the story and are suspiciously implemented as if to please a very specific group of people.
Smile For Me is an amusing but very short adventure game with some clever puzzles. The art style helps it stand out and the out-of-nowhere horror elements are a welcome twist. The queer stuff is out of place and makes the game seem like it’s more aimed at socially conscious manchildren instead of actual children.
Smile For Me was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by Serenity Forge. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Smile For Me is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.