“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s a question that many children are asked ad nauseam throughout their childhood, as if a four-year-old’s passing interest in rocks should lock her into a life-long career as a geologist. But the game Growing Up takes this concept to the next level, with every choice you make from infancy onward compiled to determine your future career.
Growing Up is an indie role-playing sim developed by Vile Monarch and published by Vile Monarch and Littoral Games. It was recommended to me by a close friend, and I downloaded it on Steam and played through my first pass at the game on the same day. I’ve since played through it five or six more times, and will probably give it another go the next time I get bored.
The premise of the game is simple. You start off as a baby, and make choices throughout your childhood until you turn eighteen. The choices you make and the people you meet impact your future career and the futures of the people you meet.
Time is of the Essence
The whole point of Growing Up is that you start as a baby and literally grow up throughout the game until you turn eighteen.
Each round of the game, you have four things to do:
- You choose which new skills you want to learn
- You connect your brain neurons together to improve your character stats
- You take actions, from practicing skills to interacting with people, that impact your happiness, your parents’ happiness, your wealth, and your stats
- You finish the round by practicing learned skills or activities
Once you finish a round, time passes, and you start the next round. It’s not quite one round per year of your life — it’s more like 3-5 rounds per year of your life — but time moving forward is a continual aspect of the game that you have to pay attention to.
Within your character’s 18 years of life, you also have certain milestones at which you test your development. The game gives you “exams.” There’s one at the end of preschool, one at the end of elementary school, one at the end of middle school, and one at the end of high school.
I’ll get into the exams themselves later, but essentially, the first three exams give you an idea of how you’re doing, and the final exam ends the game and helps determine your character’s life path from then on.
What I loved about this system is that you have a finite amount of time to develop your character into the person you want them to be. In an otherwise laid-back game, it gave you clear markers of success and goal posts along the way.
Speaking of having a finite amount of time, let’s talk about…
Managing Your Spoons
The spoon theory was developed to help people with mental health problems or disabilities discuss low energy levels and productivity with friends and family. The idea is that each task takes up a certain amount of energy – or spoons – and people with mental health or disabilities may have fewer spoons than their contemporaries or may use more spoons per task.
Playing Growing Up was like watching the Spoon Theory in action. Each round of the game, you had a certain number of energy points, and you had to decide what actions to spend those points on. Would you learn a new skill, boosting your intelligence and your parents’ view of you? Or would you play a game and boost your morale?
Managing your spoons was important because you had different stats to keep track of throughout the game. Specifically, you had to pay attention to:
- Your happiness: This is the first stat you manage starting in preschool. You gain happiness when you do “fun” things, such as watching TV or playing hopscotch, and lose happiness when you work or study.
- Your parents’ happiness: Your parents are happiest when you’re studying hard, and become less happy when you are having fun. (Is it problematic that your parents only like you if you’re stereotypically successful? Probably. But that’s a discussion for another day).
- Your money: Money is introduced once you hit middle school. You can use money to buy food that boosts your happiness, items that boost your parents’ opinions of you, or items that boost your brain power in different ways. You can also buy aesthetic updates for your character (like haircuts or new clothes).
If your happiness or your parents’ happiness drops all the way to zero, you get a strike. If you get three strikes, you lose the game and have to start over from scratch.
I’m not exactly sure what happens to your character when you lose, but I imagine it’s something like this:
This was the aspect of the game that gave it a little bit of a challenge, especially because the things that made you happiest made your parents least happy — and vice versa.
There were things you could do to help your energy levels go further. For example, there were items you could purchase with in-game currency to add a boost to either your happiness or your parents’ happiness.
You could also choose to take a round to go on vacation, which would give you certain skill points and increase your happiness without decreasing your parents’ happiness. And every couple of rounds, your parents would come up with a unique challenge for you — like raising your empathy — that would improve their happiness without impacting your happiness.
Though I never got all the way to three strikes in my playthroughs, I have gotten one or two strikes before, and managing my character’s happiness against my parents’ happiness definitely fueled some of the decisions I made each round.
Connecting Those Neurons
One of the coolest aspects of Growing Up was how you developed your character.
Instead of a traditional skill tree, like you’d expect in most RPGs, this game puts you into a randomly-generated brain map each round. Within that brain map, you decide which neurons to connect, which puts points into one of five stats:
Different stats were used for different skills. For example, if you want to learn history, you need to develop your memory stats. But if you want to play football, you need to boost your physique.
Each round, you had a certain number of “brain points” you could use to build a path through your brain and connect those neurons. You could also find neurons that would give you more brain points for the round, or special neurons that would reveal more of the brain map (so you could chart a more strategic path).
This part of the game was simple and repetitive, but also quickly became one of my favorite parts.
I will say that when I first started playing the game, I focused on trying to keep everything even. In later playthroughs, I found I had more fun if I tried to envision an actual personality for my character and focus on specific strengths.
I will also say that it’s a good idea to connect the little graduation caps when you can. I ignored them at first, but they give you more brain points, and those carry forward to subsequent rounds. So they’re almost more important than any individual stat.
Either way, the points you collect when building your brain pathway impact your character for life. They steadily gain more points into different personality traits. This lowers the amount it costs to learn new skills, and also opens new skills up for you to learn.
Each round (starting in elementary school), you’ll see a marker on your screen that says “Exam Readiness” and gives a percentage.
You can bolster your exam readiness by learning academic skills and by mastering those skills. The more ready you are for your exam, the more moves you have to complete the exam.
The exams themselves act as a sort of color-matching minigame. Match the right colors, and you can answer one of the test questions. Answer enough questions, and you boost your grade on the test. You start with an F, and the more questions you answer, the closer you get to a high grade.
Grades of B or higher improve your parents’ happiness, while also giving you slight benefits to your overall character stats. On the other hand, if you get below a C…
In the final round of the game, your exam score “greatly impacts” the ending you receive.
The Friends You Meet
Although the concept behind Growing Up was fun, and the minigames engaging in a relaxing way, the place where this game really shone was with its characters.
Starting in elementary school, you have the ability to meet different characters. Some characters, like the short-order cook at the local cafe, are always available to you. But the friends you meet at school are randomly generated each round.
There are nine of these characters in all. Each one has the potential to be romanced (though they have built-in sexual orientations, so your gender will matter), and you can either build your relationship with them up and help them achieve their personal “good ending,” or you can neglect your relationship with them and push them toward their “bad ending.”
Although none of their stories were amazing, they were each unique enough that I wanted to see them through to their ends.
And because the characters you meet are randomized each round, it’s impossible to get all their endings in one go. In fact, I’ve played this game a number of times, and there’s still one character (Kato) whom I’ve never met.
Additionally, the choices you make when interacting with these characters aren’t always straightforward. Sometimes, you make the wrong judgment and say the wrong thing, and just like in real-life, it can have long-term consequences.
In fact, some of the characters require you to make questionable (read: immoral) decisions in order to achieve their good ending, meaning you have to decide whether you want to focus on improving those friendships or focus on making your character a “good person.”
These choices and differences make Growing Up fun even on a replay. If additional DLCs provided more characters, I’d download them in a heartbeat and replay the game as many times as it took to see all the endings.
And Round and Round It Goes
When you complete Growing Up, you get to learn what happened to your character. Specifically, you learn about their future career — which is determined based on their final exam score and the traits and activities you focused on throughout the game — and you learn what happened to each of the NPCs you encountered.
Afterward, your character marries (either someone you met in the game or someone new), and you have a baby of your own… which becomes the protagonist of the next playthrough.
I liked this circular system of gameplay. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat because once your character became an adult, they lost any/all personality they had developed, and spoke and acted just like every other set of parents in the game.
The parents have limited dialogue options, and even NPCs who had vibrant personalities as kids have the same hum-drum adult personalities as any set of parents.
I would have loved it if unlocking different NPCs as spouses unlocked different parent dialogue options, or if unlocking different careers passed down different benefits to your kids. That would have made it feel impactful. As it was, the cyclical nature of the game just felt gimmicky.
All Grown Up
I’ve finished Growing Up a number of times, and each time I felt a sense of satisfaction with the ending. It’s a pretty short game to play, but the replayability makes it worth every penny. A completely original soundtrack and a selection of interesting characters bring an otherwise solid casual gameplay experience to a whole new level.
I’m giving Growing Up an impressive 8/10. It’s not the best game in the world on a technical level, and if you don’t like casual indie games, it’s not the title for you. But while I would have loved to have seen more attention paid to the adults of the game, at the end of the day, Growing Up did what it set out to do, was fun to play — and replay — and had interesting gameplay mechanics that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
I won’t pretend that everyone will like the game as much as I did. You very much have to enjoy casual simming games to like this title. But if you’re looking for a relaxing experience with a little bit of story and a little bit of heart, I highly recommend this indie title.
Now, I just need to go back and play one more time so I can figure out who the hell Kato is…