Emoji summary: 🐈🌟🧙‍♀️

I always want to push through illness: get dressed, do daytime things, go places, and trick my body into a better state. But I can’t push through long COVID, and when I’ve tried I’ve made myself worse. The fatigue I am feeling is haloing out from wherever the sickness is inside of me like somebody’s knocked a sleeping potion over and it’s spilling all over me, all day; or like a constant wave of thick honey is glueing my body to the bed or the couch. I’ve been so sad about it all but a small part of the sadness is tipping over into something funny or ridiculous. Because I’ve gone from hyperactive two job self-employment madness to this - untethered and free, too tired to be stressed about anything, too slow to be busy at all. And whilst I’m pressed down under the slowness, the heavy energy is making every day feel like it is made of dreams.

What games do you play in a silly twilight mood like this? It’s been quite hard to choose.

But I remembered a trailer I watched a while back… there was a character walking through the light colours of a simple town and there were cats teetering around her on their hind legs. Some were wearing suits and ties. Before the trailer ended, I remembered how another cat was blown up like a giant beach ball and the player was balancing on its belly as it rolled around - a strange circus performance right there in the middle of the forest. That. I want what that is doing. Casual surrealism feels appropriate right now. So I scrolled back through my YouTube history until I found it: Calico by Peachy Keen Games, released in December 2020. Available on all platforms, I played it this week on my Switch over the course of a few evenings. I’m sad to say that it was over too soon even though I was in absolutely no rush to finish it; I wanted the game-dream to last as long as it took for me to get better and wake up. But let’s rewind and I will tell you what it was like to play and why I wanted it all to continue.

Right off the bat, we’re given a character creator that is simple and fantastical, allowing the player to cycle through any colour for any feature on their body - a body that can be made fat or skinny or whatever you’re wanting on a given day. The character creator can be accessed at any point in play by pressing down on the d-pad too. I decided my skin was candy floss pink and my eyes were full of glitter, and off I went to Heart Village. The story begins by explaining that you have recently inherited your auntie’s cat café. It’s been empty for a while and the mayor Kiva, a cute witch, is asking if you might want to bring it back to life. The other characters in town - who are the most diverse lineup I’ve ever seen in a game, I have to say - really miss visiting the café but there’s a bit of work to do before they might want to come through the door. First off, you’re going to need some cats. You also need food in stock and somewhere for people to sit. So, a series of straightforward fetch quests teaches you everything you need to know. If your kid is under the thumb of Tom Nook, they’re beyond old enough to play this and they might enjoy the island-to-island getaway.

So, you need animal attractions? Pick them up. Go ahead, pick up these rogue animals with your bare hands. Everything on the island is friendly and the wildlife is not limited to cats. Please now take a second to imagine my character deadlifting a horse because it happened on multiple occasions. Internet game drama shouldn’t be centred on whether Abby’s muscles in The Last of Us Part II are unrealistic when my café entrepreneur is holding a polar bear above her head and shaking it in the air for fun. You can send anything you pick up back to your café, which is chaotic. My place was full of pigeons wearing tiny hats, a red panda, a mountain goat and yes, to be fair, quite a few cats as well. If an animal is big enough, you can ride it; if it isn’t, you can use a potion to make it rideable-sizable. You can also plop animals on your head as well in that kind of close human-animal relationship I would die for, like the guy on tiktok who goes skiing with a cat on his shoulder. Anyway, if you pick up recipes, you can make snacks; make snacks for the counter and visitors will pop in to eat and drop you off some money. You can use that money on anything you desire: chairs, tables, flowers, rugs, fancy cat towers. If it’s burning a hole in your pocket, you can go to Maribel’s shop a few seconds away in town and buy a load of clothes as well. I spent most of the game in blue dungarees and a cowboy hat: an upgrade from the 2 or 3 day old gudetama t-shirt and pyjamas bottoms costume I was stuck in IRL - I knowww, but blame the honey sleeping curse, not me, I have long covid. Cooooovviiiidd.

I’m glad I remembered the game’s name. I’m glad I played it. Calico is like a soft crossover between Animal Crossing and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with elements of Alice in Wonderland and even a bit of Nintendogs for the memories. It’s all that but zapped down with a magic laser beam into a thin slice of sponge cake with bright icing on the outside. The animal interactions, the clean, happy art, the theme song, the writing - everything was weightless and smiling. No major story or character development to digest. No danger, no health bar either. Even if you jump off the top of a tall hill, you land on all fours which doesn’t make any sense but… dying at the end of that jump would make less sense given the unstated magical aesthetic and the mood. There are parts that bug out a little bit especially when you’re moving at top speed (sometimes when I was racing on the back of my Australian Shepherd, a box of colours would flash in the top left which might be a health hazard for some). And less buggy and more just unfinished, animals would get stuck at impossible angles or float even before I’d given them my floating potion. NPCs wouldn’t turn to look at me when we spoke if I approached them from behind or the side. There were way too many spaces where items could have been on sale but weren’t, and text options repeated two or three times instead of giving us a choice in what we wanted to say. But… I’m not going to lie, these slightly less polished moments didn’t change how I felt about playing, not even a little bit. The occasional trip-up was strangely in keeping with Calico as this light, slippy game where everything is a means to experience more whimsy.

I’m the brain smooth, head empty meme at the moment. I’ve lost so much strength in my arms and legs that I’m also Betty Spaghetty. And so you can imagine how, in this state, when I watched the little curvy in-game Gab head back to tell the owl club I did them a favour, please now cough up, the single text option repeated three times across the screen that read ‘I did the thing’ only made me laugh. Floppy, sweet, silly, just very short-lived. I wish it had the legs to last longer but I won’t hold it against the studio either, I have no idea what their situation is and I’m too me right now to google. There could be some activities thrown in for daily check-ins and rewards, some life simulation for the one million animals I stuffed into that café, or even a DLC for a boat trip to some new terrain. I think what I got was fair but I wanted more game than I got. Oh, a photo mode as well please. A girl can dream, and I do - all day long, and when I sleep as well.

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a tiny girl in dungarees stands on a massive oven hob holding a bag designed like a calico cat

a girl with dungarees and a cowboy hat stands in front of her cafe, and behind her a brown horse is floating at a strange angle

a shot of the game’s map which is shaped like a star with different climates at its corners and a heart shaped maze at the centre

the dungaree avatar stands in a field of flat flower shapes holding a horse above her head

the girl is stood at the edge of a cliff at night looking at a lighthouse in the distance which is shooting out a bright red neon beam across the sky, and the girl also has a calico cat draped across her head

a shot inside the cafe where different characters are sat at tables, and there are tonnes of animals including cats and birds pottering about the place

Gabrielle’s character is blonde now and standing at the edge of a fenced off pen full of rabbits in different colours

Gabrielle’s avatar not only has a cat on its head, but she is also riding a big white cat that has been made big with a magic potion. And then she is heading up a path blocked by an even bigger cat, like the size of a bus