Post-graduation, I let the seasons change without fanfare. But usually, I’d notice that in summer, a puff of warm wind smells sweet and sunny, like coconut-infused lotion (unless you’re in New York City, where summer wind smells like baked dog shit). In autumn, the air cools and smells crisper, crunchier, like fresh earth (or, if you’re in NYC, it smells like chilled dog shit).
School’s out forever. I begrudgingly accept that I’m a working semi-adult now. So to get my fix, I turn to these eight video games, which are either set in schools or feature memorable school elements. They’ll make you feel like you’re 18 again, only armed with a gun, or an ax, or hunted by monsters, for some reason. And we have something for everyone.
The theatre kid
Persona 5, the 2016 instalment of the Japanese role-playing series, is the game I turn to for imagining my high school experience turned upside down and shaken. It’s absurd and abounds with magical realism, but it also employs the same relaxing repetition your actual high school years settle into.
Between your time spent crime-fighting with a tasteful black mask on, which is a very theatre kid thing to do, you — as the protagonist — Joker need to attend your daily classes and answer questions correctly, just as any other 16-year-old. Then and only then can you be prepared to crush adults’ evil hearts in turn-based combat, complete burger challenges for money, and have an inappropriate relationship with your homeroom teacher. Do not try this at home.
Lollipop Chainsaw turns a high school jock and his cheerleader girlfriend, the protagonist, 18-year-old Juliet Starling, into a lean, mean zombie-stomping machine. The hack-and-slash game, which is getting a remake some time in 2023, is not at all a faithful representation of high school life. It does, however, take the feeling of being pent-up and only being understood by music with guitar in it and turns it into something fun, bright, and bloody.
But the game has a strained relationship with its popular girl protagonist, who, despite her chainsaw-wielding, is often made the joke of a presumed adult male player’s vulturine gaze, especially with an infamous “up-skirt” achievement. Most of the time, this game isn’t accurate, but as a former high school girl, I can confirm that men are weird (to say the very, very least!).
If men are weird about high school girls (they are), Yandere Simulator imagines what it would be like if high school girls were even weirder. The perpetually in-development stealth game, which was banned from Twitch in 2016, features a bloodthirsty “yandere,” an obsessive, usually female character who will go to great lengths to make a crush hers (and only hers), as she kidnaps, tortures, and murders other girls at school.
There are some more soothingly realistic aspects to gameplay, like being able to join school clubs and make friends, but if you’re playing this game, it’s because you want to find out what it would be like if Machiavelli was an anime girl.
The one who works at Hot Topic
FromSoftware’s action role-playing game Bloodborne, my favourite game in the whole world until the end of time, isn’t explicitly a “school” game, but it reminds me of the older kids at the mall behind the Hot Topic counter I’d encounter while in school. It’s where you imagine yourself turning up if you were to shirk your parents’ pride and set out for the great unknown as a 14-year-old. Bloodborne is indistinguishable from any suburban mall.
It’s also not not a school game. Bloodborne’s grisly plot is fuelled by the teachings and happenings at Byrgenwerth, a site for higher education turned into a shell of its once-grand self, now filled with slime instead of scholars.
I played and thought about Bloodborne a lot in college. Being a young adult can be gloomy, you know?
The one who works at Hollister
Social simulation game The Sims 4 has two school-based expansion packs: Discover University and, more recently, High School Years. Without its community of truly depraved mod makers, The Sims 4 is a normie brat, letting young adult and teen Sims in its expansion packs do regular normie brat things like go to class, make friends, and develop something that can one day be interpreted as a skill. Still, because of its mostly sandbox nature, Sims 4 is, in my opinion, the best game to turn to when you want to immerse yourself in school day memories.
The teacher’s pet
Two Point Campus, a business simulation game where you build and run a university, is worse than the harmless class normie. It’s, instead, the lacrosse guy who’s also in Delta Sigma Pi and dreams of unzipping his pants at the Goldman Sachs office urinals.
But a business bro persona melted down into game form, as Kotaku staffer Zack Zwiezen writes in his review, is not so insidious. In fact, “Two Point Campus isn’t here to stress you out.”
“It offers a more relaxed and personal management sim in which you worry more about your students’ physical, social, mental, and emotional needs than say balancing the books,” he writes. Step into your college dean’s loafers for a bit. They looked expensive.
Super Study Cram Sesh!!! is a short itch.io text-based college game that its creator, lynngu1n1 apparently made for their college class. In it, you need to make a series of decisions in the 24-hours ahead of the test you didn’t study happening the next day, which includes staying in your dorm to study, heading to the library, or sticking your hand into a trash can filled with dining hall pasta. Tastes like desperation.
The art kid
The episodic game Life is Strange, uses high schooler Max Caulfield’s ability to rewind time to comment on friendship and consequence and the fact that, hey, life is strange. The game reminds me of the everyman character in the story, the Gossip Girl Dans of the world, the Bilbo Baggins-es, who are meant to represent us as the audience. Life is strange, we all think.
Strange, too, is Max’s seniors-only boarding school Blackwell Academy, which players can explore, gossip in, and uncover secrets in as part of gameplay. But in addition to intentional weirdness, the fictional school suffers from an unfortunate developer oversight — it’s incredibly white-centric.
In a 2015 article for Vice, games journalist and writer Shonté Murray-Daniels describes how Life is Strange is “a fairly convincing game about high school life — unless you’re a student of colour, in which case it completely ignores your experience.” Subtle racism like this, which is present in nearly all games (even the ones we really, really like) and in real world schools across the country, are unfortunate reminders that you can escape in games, for a time, but the reality they were made in will always eventually creep through.
What do you play school-set games for? Nostalgia, comfortingly familiar storylines, or just because? Tell me, in addition to some of your favourite school-set games, in the comments.
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