This is a story about cats.
But first, you should know the basics of Saltsea Chronicles, the new game from Die Gute Fabrik coming later this year on Switch, PS5, and PC. We’ve followed the studio for over 10 years, from the experimental PlayStation Move game Johann Sebastian Joust in 2012 to Mutazione, one of 2019’s best-written games. The studio, which more closely resembles a creative collective, tends to blend compassionate and human stories with bright colors and playfulness.
Saltsea Chronicles isn’t only about cats, but I promise we’re getting there. The studio’s work sort of defies elevator pitches, but let’s give it a go anyway: Star Trek by way of Kentucky Route Zero with the saturation turned to max.
As in Star Trek, you oversee a crew of unlikely allies on their journeys to various islands. Each locale has a unique population, along with a moral, philosophical, or dramatic dilemma to be untangled. You choose where the crew does and doesn’t travel, who steps ashore, what they say, and what findings they bring back to those waiting on the ship — then head off on the next adventure. But the mood skews toward Kentucky Route Zero, Die Gute Fabrik’s own Mutazione, and their contemporaries that blur the lines between games, theater, and literature.
Now in theory, all of this heady stuff should be the most interesting thing about the game, and I should dive deeper into its many mechanics. But in practice, toxoplasmosis. Like a tabby on catnip in a room full of scratching posts, I got distracted midway through my demo by one particular island and its furry population.
The island of Los Gatos is replete with humans and cats. Lots and lots of cats. The game’s beautiful art direction borrows from papercutting and vector graphics, so the cats aren’t represented by specific breeds so much as prong-eared, squiggly-tailed blobs. They’re adorable.
Cats nap on the beach, gather at the doors, perch on railways, and snuggle in windowsills. The world itself has been shaped in their image, like a mountain with a feline silhouette and a housing district stacked like a cat tree. Inside one structure, humans and kitties keep warm near a huge stove shaped like a yawning cat head. And everything is covered in soft, plushy fabric.
The initial appeal of Saltsea Chronicles, like so many cozy games, is the vibe. Die Gute Fabrik has put a great deal of effort into the ways the cats swat at butterflies and coyly curl their tails. Objectives (little dots hovering over certain people and places) will guide you to the narratively critical bits, but they’re just one of many things to do. You can try to solve local problems, though some are unsolvable. Or you can just collect stickers for your almanac. Either way, people rest around Los Gatos, waiting to chat, though who you spark up conversation with is entirely up to you.
A visit to Los Gatos isn’t mission-critical. Depending on choices throughout your quest, you may never even come across its coast. This is intentional — the creators have filled the game with so much story that, they hope, players will want to take the journey many times over.
Not only will you see different islands, but you may also take different characters aboard based on the different lenses through which you see them. You might choose the perspective of a puckish child or a new caretaker balancing adventure with rearing a child. A team of creative and writing collaborators has played a crucial part in giving each of these characters’ lives and their journeys meaning.
This is a theme that repeated throughout our hour with game: We gain a fuller picture of the universe by incorporating more points of view. For example, many islands feature a similar card game albeit with different house rules reflecting the perspectives of the community. In one variant, you lose if you get over 100 points — a nod to the locals’ post-hoarding mindset.
Yes, it’s clear in the opening moments how Saltsea Chronicles’ structure will replicate the typical Star Trek episode, and how the game will mirror a classic season. (It’s telling that the game itself will have an option that encourages breaks from the screen between islands, similar to the breaks between a show’s episodes.) But through Los Gatos, the creators’ comparison to Star Trek goes further.
While I hiked from room to room of the cat-stuffed island, I learned the less obvious function of its communal homes: Los Gatos also serves as a sanctuary for victims of domestic violence. It’s a heavy layer that rests upon the otherwise cozy sequence, and my teeth clench, worrying the two tones will clash. But instead, the opposite happens. The team at Die Gute Fabrik uses this fantastical world to ease you into more challenging conversations.
This is the fruit of collaboration with so many talented writers, and the game’s own internal leisurely pace: Subtlety is possible.
And so Saltsea Chronicles, for a moment, appears to be the cuddliest game of the year. Until it becomes much more. I look forward to visiting its many other islands when the game is released later this year, not just to see their beauty, but to hear what their residents have to say.