Oh my goodness, there is so much going on in Day Repeat Day. I went into it knowing absolutely nothing, and came out having learned an enormous amount and yet having so many questions. To be asinine, this exists on the midpoint between a Papers Please-like, and a lost phone game, with…match-3. But come back! This is special, so much more than that implies. This is a game about the melancholy ups and downs of life.
You’re an employee for an Amazon-like called JokiJoki, carrying out your job via Bejeweled-style puzzles, while chatting to colleagues, friends and loved ones via instant messaging. With these disparate elements, plus some extraordinary video work, the result is a moving, compelling and quite brilliant game.
This is by Kimmo Lahtinen, who created the wholly dissimilar (and also excellent) Barbearian, and wow, this guy has range. At first I thought this was simply going to be a straight satire of Amazon, how appallingly it treats its employees, the patronising incentives offered for repetitive tasks, the union-busting, the anti-worker practices, and indeed the ghastly Jeff Bezos. It is that! But it’s a lot more too. It’s an entire life simulator, leaping through the years between each chapter, as you meet new people, choose how to interact with them, and then the life-long consequences of those choices. All the while playing match-3 puzzles to complete your day-job.
Even that doesn’t capture the totality of Day Repeat Day. There are the multiple intermission video collages that look as though David Lynch made the brainwashing machine in Lost’s Room 23. Then there are the phone numbers you can find, that connect you to this universe’s peculiar version of the internet, showing more surreal video montages, or out-of-time text-based websites that each contain elaborate stories of their own. One such hidden site is a complete, and superb, interactive fiction game where the twist is you never leave a single location.
For most of the time, you’re alternating between completing the match-3 games, which are fantastic, and making dialogue choices in the many IM conversations you have with friends, your partners, mysterious strangers, and even the Bezos avatar, Richard Richmond Jr.
In each day of work you’re given a task list, which is a series of match-3 challenges, invariably asking you to collect a certain number of one icon (ZooKeeper-ish), or a number of starred items, that sort of thing. (My only real complaint with the game is that it presents this match-3 not as a metaphor for your job, but the literal interface of your job, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.) The grid always changes, and the more you play, the more complex the mechanics become. Then, during this, you can natter with people as conversations pop up, making some hugely varying dialogue choices as you go, cutting a different path through the three or four hours it lasts. You can also opt in to overtime, which is more bespoke puzzles, but this always comes with a social cost, implications on relationships, or missing important events.
Right at the start you’ve just broken up with your partner, Robin, and are negotiating all that comes with this. It’s a fresh start, a new job, and you can choose if you’re over them, or wanting to cling on. Opportunities come up to go on dates, or make connections with family, or look after friends. Playing it through once, I became convinced this must be one of those games that makes it look like you’re influencing the story, but really it’s just funnelling you down its prescribed path. Replaying it, I was shocked to realise how wrong I was. Simply not dialing up one character on the second day completely rewrites your character’s entire life. Which is extraordinary. In fact, it’s possible to be such an arse all the way through that you can end up with no friends at all, and almost no one ever bothering to message you.
I’m absolutely blown away by so much about this. Not only on my second play through did I alienate the people I considered to be the main characters the first time I played, but I found a redemptive ending from just one positive action I made midway. And then on top of that, if you don’t initiate contact with major characters, it isn’t then brute-forced back into your narrative later. They just don’t appear. Even refusing promotions has a significant effect on the rest of how the game plays out.
These diverging possibilities make replaying very compelling, and since the bulk of what you’re doing is match-3, if you’re down with that as a gentle puzzling time, they too offer just as much the next time you play as the last. Having played it twice I’m now determined to go a third time, to see where other major decisions could lead, because it’s obvious there are other paths my life could take.
It’s not a cheerful game a lot of the time. In that respect, it’s realistic. As you jump through your character’s timeline, you encounter positives and negatives, but honest, normal, everyday ones. It’s a game about the minutiae, how turning up to a party you’re reluctant to attend can change your life forever, or make no difference at all. How forgetting to pick your kid up from daycare can be representative of deep, engrained issues in a marriage. It touches on tough topics like cancer, alcoholism, breakdowns, but with grace and delicacy. It’s fair to say this is a claim few match-3 games can make.
This is all boosted by a tremendous melancholy soundtrack (by the developer’s brother, as it happens), and a superbly simple interface, with a lovely hand-drawn feel to the match-3 puzzles. Added to that is the extraordinary surrealist film work, that clearly mimics Lynch, but crucially understands Lynch: the cuts, the monstrously innocuous sound effects, the abstracting of normality, it’s all there. And wildly incongruous in amongst the game, but this only makes it more evocative and affecting. Aaaand on top of all that, you’ve got the dozens of hidden extras, the weird websites, the miniature text games. Good gracious.
This has blown me away. I played it because it was presented as a VN with match-3, and that sounded so damned weird I had to look. It turns out to be much, much more than this, more than either genre, a whole, complicated and unique creation, that speaks truth about life, about work, about hierarchies and about mistakes. It’s stunning.