Hitbox Review: Smile for Me

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Some games sound completely incomprehensible when explained with no context. Smile for Me is the epitome of these types of games. The player might be throwing pickle juice on an ashamed guy speaking in antiquated English or determining a photographer’s aesthetic.

Platforms: PC

Developers: Gabe Lane, Yugo Limbo

Publisher: LimboLane

Release date: May 31, 2019

Price: $12.99

At the recommendation of The Northern Light’s features editor, Robert Gant, I decided to try Smile for Me. It’s a game about solving problems. Players will run around The Habitat, a rehab clinic for sad people and try to make them happy. The Habitat is run by Dr. Habit, who primarily uses nightly puppet shows to communicate with the Habiticians, or those who stay in the clinic.

Randy Hapukurk really likes pickles. Screenshot by John Novotny.
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The artistic direction in Smile for Me is very endearing. It’s as if a stylized cartoon was transported into a 3D environment. Unfortunately, the textures on objects and the building complex the player will be running around are very low resolution. Everything looks fine from a distance, but as soon as the player gets too close, they’ll notice everything appears to be made of very blurry cardboard. However, the only time this impacted gameplay was when I couldn’t tell what something was in the sink of a bathroom.

The textures are a stylistic choice as much as a fault. It leads to the player paying more attention to the smaller details, such as the numerous posters. One of these posters shows a doctor smiling with text that reads: “9/10 doctors agree! Being happy makes you immortal!”

Mirphy Fotoparat apparently thinks a bowl of soup is very sensual. Screenshot by John Novotny.

The characters’ voices are going to be divisive. They speak in a Simlish-like manner, opting for incomprehensible nonsense over traditional voice acting. Thankfully, speech bubbles appear under the characters so the player has some semblance of what they’re trying to communicate.

By far, the best part of Smile for Me is the writing. The nightly puppet shows are written in a meme-like style, where words are deliberately misspelled and left out. This could be annoying to some, but I found it amusing. The immense character diversity is incredible. I found each character amusing in at least one way. My favorite characters were the pickle-obsessed Randy Hapukurk and the sun-hating Trencil Varnia.

The gameplay of Smile for Me is reminiscent of ‘90s adventure games, such as Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island. Players gather items in various ways that are placed in their inventory, which are required to solve the Habiticians’ problems. This leads to situations where players will need to find a superhero cape to get a metal detector to find hidden items. The unique gameplay mechanic in Smile for Me is that players can nod their heads up and down and side to side using their mouse to indicate yes and no in response to questions. It’s unique, but doesn’t add anything to the gameplay that pressing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button wouldn’t.

The captions before the puppet shows are incredibly relatable. Screenshot by John Novotny.

The main issues I have with Smile for Me’s gameplay are the inventory management and the obscure solutions to some of the Habiticians’ problems. To select an item from the inventory, players need to click the left mouse button, scroll with their mouse wheel to the desired item and click the left mouse button again to select the item. If it sounds like this is a pain, it’s because it is. On top of that, every time the player uses an item, they have to reselect it from the inventory. Not only is this annoying, but it also slows down the gameplay and makes it feel janky.

At times, I struggled to solve problems with obscure solutions. This is emblematic of a larger systemic issue with Smile for Me’s gameplay. When players run out of ideas to problems, they begin randomly and aimlessly using items on everything they can find hoping that something will eventually work. This results in gameplay that isn’t engaging and only serves to frustrate the player. The other situation that can occur is moving on to another problem and hoping that the player either comes up with another idea or that they get an item that helps them solve that problem. I found that the former was more likely to happen.

Even with all of Smile for Me’s charm, I still didn’t find the gameplay very engaging. Sure, I had moments of discovery when I figured out a solution to a problem I had been struggling with for a while and it made me feel smart. However, after a few seconds, I would realize how contrived the entire thing was. There was only one solution to the problem. There was very little opportunity for player agency.

Want to suggest a video game for review? Contact John Novotny at [email protected]