What I’m about to say might sound harsh, perhaps even radical, but I beg you to bear with me as I bravely say it: preteens are jerks. Brilliant, brave, awkward and endearing jerks. It’s not their fault, it’s generally not intentional, and absolutely all of us smug adults were too, way back when, but regardless, it’s true. They’re critical and self-absorbed, judgmental and stubborn, and even without the raging hormones, it truly all makes perfect sense. This is the age when you have no idea who the hell you are and what space you should occupy as you stumble into whatever hellscape older generations have left for you. Selfishness is by far the quickest means to self-discovery, so I can’t fault a single one of them for embracing the hell out of acting upon their feelings and impulses and judging everyone and everything harshly as they make sense of it all. It’s just necessary.
Preteens are jerks, and usually just a big ol’ pack of bullies. If we’re being honest, though, these tween-age terrors usually bully themselves the most. Preteens, more than any of us, are victims to the construct of “cool,” whether their brand of cool is conventional or part of some counterculture. To adopt “cool” is to abandon sincerity—the trait that allows us to be self-assured and a whole lot less jerk-ish—and walk alongside insecurity, a gluttonous fiend that feeds on validation from everyone who throws it your way other than yourself. Preteens are jerks because society has historically done a shabby job at reminding them sincerity is among the most valuable attributes we can possess. What makes Happy Ray Games’ Ikenfell incredible is how eager it is to prove that.
Ikenfell is the type of game I wish I’d have played when I was 12, and probably would have had it existed then, considering my longtime affection for turn-based tactical RPGs, cute characters, and anything vaguely Harry Potter-ish, may the series rest in peace. I also wish I’d have played it to understand what diversity in media looks like, something games sorely lacked when I was a child. Ikenfell understands sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum, and has characters who fall in vastly different places among them. In addition, it features both racial and body diversity without embracing any harmful stereotypes. But beyond these choices, the most important thing it embraces is sensitivity, a quality adolescent me had an overabundance of despite repeated periods of trying to smush it down.
In Ikenfell, nearly every character is overcoming some mental hurdle. The game understands the issues these fictional folks face are not unlike our own, and does a good job both crafting relatable characters—characters who are neither good nor bad but simply well-intentioned and flawed—as well as reinforcing how debilitating mental illness can be rather than diminishing it. Perhaps the most direct way it does this is by the inclusion of content warnings in the game’s options. Once enabled, the feature issues warnings before any cutscenes depicting self-hatred, trauma, hoarding, anxiety or any other potentially triggering topics. While Ikenfell stays clear of any topics that would push the game beyond family-friendly, it’s clear the developers understand it’s important to treat any sensitive topic with compassion for its players.
It also establishes a point that many stories fumble: there’s no such thing as just “fixing” mental illness. Overcoming your patterns and trauma is not something that is solved through the “power of friendship,” nor is the process linear. Characters grow, find comfort in one another, achieve relatively happy endings, and engage in thoughtful conversations (with the game’s protagonist, Maritte, acting as a shining example of how to be a truly supportive and respectful friend), but all of the characters remain themselves, worries, quirks, baggage and all.
At times, the dialogue and scenarios in Ikenfell feel a bit immature, sharing qualities with fanfiction written by an enthusiastic teenager. However this quality doesn’t make the game lesser or detract from what it’s supposed to be. The perceived immaturity stems from two important things: Ikenfell seems intended to resonate more deeply with players who aren’t 27, and it embraces awkward sincerity and idealism in a way a lot of what we consume simply doesn’t. When I discovered the team responsible for Ikenfell’s chipper, charming music—complete with vocal tracks inspired by the likes of Transistor—were the same in charge of Steven Universe, there was absolutely no part of me that was shocked. Ikenfell invoked the exact same feelings of warmth, inclusion and idealism found in shows like Steven Universe or Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. It feels like a young adult novel, probably penned by Rainbow Rowell, and while it’s not for everyone—particularly the jaded—there was something about it that warmed my heart.
Ikenfell doesn’t try to be cool or “quirky.” Instead, its charm comes from its awkward sincerity—its unpretentious presentation that could include eyerolls or cringe in those unacclimated to the genuine. Ikenfell is a night spent hunched over the family computer reading fanfiction you’re ready to minimize if you hear footsteps. It’s playing Neopets and flash dress-up games while binge watching Drake and Josh. It’s an experience that takes you back to those fleeting instances of unabashed joy you had in the comfort of your house between your school days and those weird Friday night roller skating things that were popular for like, a year—you know what I’m talking about, right? Right.
So, while I didn’t play Ikenfell when I was 12 because, ya know, it didn’t exist in 2004, this game somehow manages to capture an unassuming sense of nostalgia that comforted me throughout the entirety of my playthrough. It brought me back to being that jerk of a preteen, wondering if my crush would message me if my AIM away status was the right set of Green Day lyrics, or if it would ever feel like I was wearing my Hollister shirt rather than it wearing me. But beyond these trivial issues that felt monumental at the time, it made me wish I’d have been gentler to that weird little girl, and told her it’s okay to be selfish right now—but make the goddamn most of it and do it with ferocious sincerity.
Ikenfell was developed by Happy Ray Games and published by Humble Games. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Mac.
Jessica Howard is an editorial intern at Paste and the managing editor at gaming site Uppercut. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.