Well I guess this is growing up
Growing up is hard. Making friends is hard. You know that very specific anxiety you feel when you see someone that you’d like to be friends with, but you have absolutely no idea how to make that connection? Or when you’d go on holiday with your family, and you spend the first few days seeing the same kids around your age around the hotel, desperate to strike up a conversation? That prepubescent mix of self consciousness and longing to belong is something that Button City captures better than any video game I have ever played.
You play as Fennel, an adorable, shy and clumsy little fox that moves to a new town with his mum. After spending the summer inside his room, his Mum encourages him to go down to the local arcade to meet some people. The arcade, Button City, is gripped around one game, Goba Bots, a 4v4 action game where players must collect berries and drop them into the central blender. As Fennel arrives at the arcade, he overhears two groups of kids arguing over the game. One of the teams is missing a player, and taking that leap in confidence that we all had to take when we were 10, Fennel joins in.
The group Fennel joins is made up of Chive, a sarcastic rabbit with a love of making robots, Sorrel, an angry cat and leader of the gang, and Lavender, a kind panda. It’s in the interactions between the group that Button City shines. Not only is it extremely funny, it’s incredibly kind. While characters can be chippy or sarcastic with each other, it’s never cruel, and it’s unashamedly positive. When you’re in that stage of life between being a child and being a teenager, you’re so painfully self aware about everything you do, whether or not your interests are considered cool, and being so desperate to be seen as “grown up”. It would be very easy to tell a version of this story where all the characters are cynical wee arseholes, as is so typically the case at that age, but Button City’s commitment to a bright, friendly outlook on life makes the experience so much more enjoyable.
You’ll spend the majority of your time in Button City just hanging out with your friends. There are quests to do for each of them, such as looking after Sorrel’s brother or encouraging Lavender to embrace their nerdiness by cosplaying with them. It really reminded me of the social aspects of the Persona series, except you’re all wee animals, a Fursona, if you will. You quickly release that Fennel is the friend you wish you’d had at that age. It’s your duty to be an encouraging, cheerful force. Although, as is the case in real life, Fennel has problems of his own that aren’t shared with the gang. His Mum is worked off her feet and is rarely home, and although she tries to hide her stress, Fennel can feel how much pressure she’s under, and struggles with being unable to do anything. Seeing your parents in pain and feeling utterly powerless, because you’re 10, is such a poignantly relatable feeling, and another moment where Button City’s writing is pitch perfect.
Appropriately for a game about an arcade, Button City has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics. There’s a lemonade stand mini-game, a rhythm game, which while designed to look like a DDR machine, is much closer in gameplay to the Persona dancing games, one of many references to the series. There’s an arcade racer that was surprisingly hard, and even a hilarious stealth section. This game didn’t need to break up all the talking to your friends, because it was already great, but every time it did I got excited to see what new weird thing they’d come up with, and all of them landed. The only real issue I had with the gameplay is that the quest log is sometimes quite unclear as to where you’ve to go. A few tasks require finding something that’ll have you checking every area of the town, which can be somewhat frustrating. However, this only happened a few times in what was otherwise a well-paced and engaging story. Special mention must be given to the last half an hour which is not only incredibly heartfelt, it really moved me with how accurately it hit that feeling of growing up and worrying about losing your friends. The last time you were hanging out with all your friends you grew up with, you didn’t know it was the last time.
It wouldn’t be a coming of age story without having to save something from an evil business cat. The narrative becomes you and your gang banding together to take down a mogul who’s offered to buy and demolish Button City in order to install his own footprint on the quaint town. Kids being kids and not understanding… Well, anything about business, you quickly devise a plan to scare him away. All of these capers have a distinctly cartoony vibe to them. Weirdly, it reminded me of a lawful-good South Park episode. 4 kids taking on authority using kid-logic. This whole section of the game is again where the writing shines. One of the last jokes in the game about what happens to Moneybags produced a gutteral cackle I didn’t know I could produce.
The art style is bright, colourful and simple. Each of the characters are extremely expressive, but also have a stumpy generic quality that makes everyone look like they fit in the same town. This was again where it reminded me of South Park, it’s a brilliant style and manages to give every location a unique feeling. Also, at some point they released that having these wee guys running around in circles with their eyes wide, freaking out, was hilarious and let me just say, they are absolutely right. It buckled me every time.
I had no idea what to expect from Button City. On its surface it’s a cute game set in a bright town, with reverence for hanging out at the arcade. However, after a few hours I was absolutely flatten by how much it resonated with me. As someone that grew up with a group of friends that would hang out every day out in the street, that fear of not being with the group, or for something to happen that would cause the group to end was terrifying. Those moments when you’re younger and you first feel like things will never be the same again. Whether that’s because you’ve moved, or because you’re leaving primary school and your group is separating, it’s an early moment of genuine trauma, and I can’t remember a game, or really a piece of media emulating it in a way that moved me quite so significantly.