Praise be for Game Pass and Kickstarter. In their own ways, they have given a financial safety-net to games like The Good Life. This is a game that would have been shot down in a flurry of board room bullets. A detective mystery where you can turn back and forth into cats and dogs? A game from master-deviant SWERY of Deadly Premonition fame, but set in rural scones-and-clotted-cream England? We’re not convinced that it would have passed anyone’s greenlight.
We’re conflicted about The Good Life ourselves. On one hand, it’s a boiling hot mess. We’re not convinced we know what SWERY was trying to achieve: which of the dozens of minigames and game systems, all working against each other, was he most interested in? The Good Life feels like a living brainstorm. It’s got all the hallmarks of an auteur without an editor.
But on the other hand, it’s a fascinating hot mess. In amongst the post-it notes there are some wacky ones, never fully realised but interesting nonetheless. And somehow, perhaps by accident, the world that’s been created here feels oddly authentic. From over in Japan, SWERY has managed to create a highly exaggerated but entirely believable little English village, and we’re not entirely sure how that happened. We can’t recall many better in modern media, let alone gaming.
The question ‘What is The Good Life?’ is a hard one to answer because of the sheer ‘muchness’ of it. But mostly it’s a network of fetch quests set in a reasonably large open world. You play Naomi Hayward, a New York journalist who has arrived in England on the faintest of leads: that there are some supernatural goings-on in the quaint village of Rainy Woods, self-professed ‘Happiest Town in the World’, and they may be worth covering.
You’re welcomed by Elizabeth Dickens, who promises that things get interesting at night in Rainy Woods, and takes you to a ramshackle little cottage where you’re going to stay. You get set up and then wander back into the village where, lo and behold, everybody turns into cats and dogs at certain phases of the moon. But things don’t stop there, as you gain the same ability. And in the effort to write your story, things escalate to the point where someone gets murdered.
This is about as normal as it gets. This is SWERY after all, and he clearly has a dream journal somewhere filled with topics tangentially related to the British Isles that he wanted to cover. The story swerves through them all, not necessarily with an overarching story to tell, but with a magpie-like love for English folktales and mythology. It’s a bit of a narrative collage.
This all takes place in a reasonably expansive map, with the village at the centre and various lakes, fields and farms spoking out from it. You move about on foot (or four feet, as you gain the ability to be a cat or dog) in third-person, until you unlock some better transportation methods.
The Good Life doesn’t fully resolve its traversal problems, though: even when you’re riding about on sheep (yes, sheep), the map is still a slog to get through. Part of the problem is the love for fetch quests and all the friction they bring with them: you will be going back and forth to areas on the fringes of the map, just because the story has determined that you need to inform someone in the village. But there are other problems too, as stamina bars throttle your ability to move at speed, and the map doesn’t adequately warn you about hulking great stone walls that stop you from getting to important locations. Honestly, getting around Rainy Woods is a delicious mix of boring and frustrating.
And oh, the fetch questing. The Good Life absolutely loves to make fourth-wall breaking jokes about just how ridiculous the fetching is, but then sodding does it anyway, over and over, until you find yourself landsick from the constant toing-and-froing. Perhaps SWERY is chuckling to himself somewhere, marvelling in the irony that a dog sim has you fetching all the time. Yes, we get it, you swine.
We’ve never come across a game structure like The Good Life’s. It feels like a game-long tutorial. As you move through the game, it will waft something new and glittery under your nose. Look, you can make dresses; you can cook; you can mark areas with your scent; you can follow the scent of other people; you can fight things; you can photograph stuff and then post it on ‘Flamingo’, a social media network to get ‘Emokes’ and cash. These will all feature in quests and sub-quests, acting like test-drives. And then you move on through the story and leave them behind.
The problem, as you could probably anticipate from the last paragraph, is why? Why would you get off the main quest conveyor belt and submerge yourself in a deep and content-filled cooking system? You can, after all, just wander into a pub and buy the food yourself. You’ve often got enough cash. Why make new clothes, when you need to span the whole game map to get the materials (you can’t just buy a dress off the rack, oh no), when the benefit is largely cosmetic, or offers you personal benefits that you can get from eating a good pie? These complex, intricate systems pass you by as you canter past on a sheep, and you often never look back. At least, we didn’t.
Some of the systems might snag you enough that you pay at least a modicum of attention. We quite liked the photography system, where hashtags appear each week, giving you just enough information about what social media wants you to photograph. You’ll be on the hunt for people with big hats or big moustaches, or you’ll be hunting for a particular critter. Ultimately, it doesn’t mean much, as is the case with many of these frilly game ideas, but it at least made the journeys from location to location more interesting.
We started The Good Life surprised by how conventional it felt. It reminded us, bizarrely, of Animal Doctor and some of the other open-world vocational sims that you often get from Germany: things like Farming Simulator, Fire Station Simulator and the rest. You’ve got a job to do and you’ve got a small open world to do it in. You’re managing bars like stamina, health and tiredness as you’re completing small, trivial tasks, and you’re slowly accumulating wealth as you do it. And all of it takes place in an extremely sketchy, poorly realised 3D environment, where you soon learn to accept the visual bugs and weird clipping issues.
But what pulled us through to the end – just about, we should add, as this was numbingly boring and hopelessly frustrating in places – was the promise of some SWERY madness, packaged up as a gift at the end of each quest. Which very often happened. There are characters that we couldn’t possibly hope to explain to you: they feel like satire but we’re not sure what exactly they’re referencing, like they’re an injoke we missed. Things happen that are ripped from completely different genres, wandering in from Fallout 3 and Transformers: The Last Knight of all things. And what makes it all so winning, so fantastic, is that the characters are as bemused as you are. It’s like SWERY made a game based on some relaxed takes on logic, and the translation team have come in afterwards to try to make sense of it. Their bemusement is right there, on the page.
And Rainy Woods – what a delightful little place. Detailed as it is, with all of its many systems that you will never play around in, it actually gets so much right. Wandering down sloping hills with potted geraniums and cobbled paths, then ducking into a musty pub with its cornish pasties and drunk in the corner: texturally, it feels spot on. It may not be high fidelity or hold up to much graphical scrutiny, but I just felt at home being in its world. It never quite felt like someone from another country had tried to distil England down to some phone boxes, royal guards and a red double decker.
We could prattle on for many, many hours about The Good Life, but at some point we have to stop. There is so much ‘muchness’ to The Good Life, like a Suffolk-set version of Shenmue or Yakuza, and much of it feels like red herrings: we could review all of the peripheral things you can do, but ultimately the minigames, status bars and weirdo tasks don’t matter. You can just leave them be.
With the minigames put to the side, what is left in The Good Life is a tedious life-sim in a rustic village, cluttered with fetch quests and slow, laborious travel. It’s slightly too much like real life in that way. But it wouldn’t be SWERY if there weren’t moments, just as you felt the pad loosen from your grip and your eyes drooping, where he popped up and shouted “LOBSTAH!” in your ear for no particular reason. And that’s it, off you go: you’re whisked on a subplot that the X-Files would have tossed out for being too ludicrous.
If you’re in the mood for making sense of a mess of a game, with little moments that might – might – make it worth it, then this is The Good Life.
Buy The Good Life from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S