This is Ludonarrative Scramble! Over the course of the week, I play a handful of (mostly) free, small, indie narrative games (visual novels, IF, text adventures, etc), and talk about them.
This week’s theme: NaNoRenO 2020 Entries
Dev: Heiden Rosen
Genre: Comedy, Political, puzzle/vn hybrid
My Playtime: ~25min; 1/1 ending
So I purposefully started with a game I knew would get me excited to play more visual novels, and I just love Heiden’s games. Knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Heiden has a knack for effective integration of visual novel style story-telling and point and click mechanics, and this one is no exception. The puzzles themselves aren’t overly complicated, but they’re clever and fun and flow well with the story. The first time I was just a little stumped Perle was there to help me out, and I realized I had only made the mistake because I misread one of the clues. There was a slightly trickier part later that I wondered if maybe the puzzle hadn’t been properly vetted, but I quickly discovered the solution going back just a room.
The world-building itself is solid, you can see that in the reference points (and knowing that there’s more lore there from other projects), but I will say there are times I feel it might get a little in the way of the central story. That’s such a difficult balance to strike, however, even in a full development cycle that for something in such a short amount of time with limited QA and narrative feedback available, there’s only so much you can perfect.
The art is very obviously unpolished, but it’s so uniformly unpolished that the style reads through clearly and lovely. Heiden’s work is so emotive, too, that what it lacks in precision it more than makes up for in that visceral feeling of aesthetic delight.
Overall, it’s a wonderfully cute little story, that made me so happy to be right about the ending.
Genre: comedy, slice of life-y, gentle horror
My Playtime: ~20 min; 3/? endings
I have to confess that once I saw it was built in Unity, I was already beset with some specific expectations. They were generally met, which can be a double-edged sword.
The game is EXTREMELY cute. The art? Endearing as all get out. I love them. They’re adorable. The aesthetic. The gently rumbling train car. The overall mood. *Chef’s kiss* Love it.
The lack of UI, though it creates a wonderful minimalist workspace, works against it, however. I was chagrined by the inability to independently adjust the volume of the music and the sound effects, and not having the ability to save before choices threw off my usual visual novel playing groove. Now this is admittedly a HUGE pet peeve of mine that might not bother others and the super short playthrough made it not as big of a deal as other, longer games I’ve played with the same situation. It’s partly a Unity problem. There are plugins and frameworks that help with the bulk of visual novel elements, but if you don’t use them, it can be really difficult to get in all the parts you need for a traditionally functional visual novel. So I don’t know. I don’t know if it was an oversight on their part or a limitation of the engine/framework they were using. I’d like to know the answer, honestly, because I’m curious what a better solution would have been.
I have a hard time landing on where I feel about the writing. While it was very cute and simple stories are the de jour for jams like this (as they should be), the pacing was also a little strange. The first part felt a little draggy, then we get into the real meat and potatoes, then suddenly I’m at the first of the three endings I got. Writing full stories in as few words as possible is, of course, a practiced skill, and with such a compact game, that same difficulty remains.
The only reason I’m even so nitpicky about the above things, though, is because of how otherwise EXTREMELY polished this little foray is. If I saw this somewhere like PAX I would beeline for it instantly. I would love if, someday, the devs got back together and made a longer, more elaborate game about talking to people on a train. I think it would be delightful.
Genre: comedy, absurdism
My Playtime: ~45 min; 4/4 endings
There’s this show that used to be on Adult Swim called 12 oz. Mouse. When you first watch it, you’re like “why the hell am I watching this?” Then after a few minutes, the irony starts to set in. That doesn’t mean you suddenly like the show or whatever, but you at least start kind of getting it.
That’s kind of what this game is like.
You open it, and you see this sort of MS Paint thrown together thing. And it says “beta.” And you’re like “how beta are we talkin’.” Then you get into the game, and you can look past its roughshod exterior to the diamond in the rough that lies underneath.
The art is underwhelming. We’ll start there because it’s the most obvious. Now, the way the rest of the game plays out, this is absolutely the kind of game that could get away with “bad” art a al Gakuen Handsome or Bob Epic Team, but they would have to polish it up still from its current state to get it there. That being said, the actual raw design of the characters is actually pretty promising? In a way that I’m not sure I can totally describe? Like…if I saw someone doodle them on a napkin, I’d be like “yes, these guys are cool. Please tell me more.” And I love Sheep?
The underlying design will really end up being this beta’s strong suit when it eventually does go into a full release. It’s actually got a fair amount of unexpectedly complex narrative variance from choice to choice that’s done in, I think, a very very clever way that I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen before.
There is a metagame element (that I’ll avoid describing to prevent spoilers), and I would normally shy away from that sort of thing. I’ve seen it veer toward the hamfisted, and I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about this game’s approach to it. It might break the game narrative a little too much. But it did prompt me to spend more time playing than I would have normally because I wanted to see how it would progress. I don’t know. I think there’s something there, but it might need tweaking.
Overall, I want these guys to finish the game and shore up the sides while still maintaining the implicit irony of the whole thing.
Genre: psychological horror
My Playtime: ~35 min; 2/? endings
This is a tricky one because with the exception of UI–which is the default UI, whatever. It’s chill. It’s a jam.–all the other elements of the game hover at this weird 85%-90% perfection. That last little gap makes you go “oh this was great, but maybe they could have done this instead and it would have that extra 5% more awesome.” On one hand that nitpicking makes you feel like you’re being over critical for a jam game, but on the other you wonder if they could have rearranged their time juusssttt a little to squeeze that last round of polish out. Who knows! It’s a jam! But it’s also so hard for me, sometimes, to not take what I see as the game’s potential into consideration when evaluating it for what it is.
The story is a solid psychological horror with a straightforward plot that works in its favor. Since it’s not filled with one dramatic turn after another, the few quick twists carry more weight. I was able to get two of the endings easily, and if there were more, I’m pretty certain I know how to get to them. I would have liked to have seen more with the titular Bunny character. I get what they’re doing with him, and I think that intention might have been more easily communicated if they’d drawn him through the story a little more during some of Lucy’s interactions with Evelyn. There’s also a really weird narrative flow as far as tension peaks and valleys that could use just a scooch of tweaking because the drop off toward the end didn’t leave quite enough time for it to build again into the finale. It sort of ripples into the character arc for the main characters, so I noticed it a little more than I think I would have otherwise.
The art is great. Well done, highly polished, and fittingly dreary and somber for the game. My only real qualm is their use of black screens. In visual mediums, that “fade to black” is a really powerful dramatic cue. It carries weight. This game, in my opinion, uses it a little too much which kills its efficacy sometimes. If it was by-design, then I think their hand was just a little too heavy. If it was because they were lacking appropriate backgrounds, I think they would have been better served in some places just altering the story slightly to work within the backgrounds they were able to do. Super nitpicky thing, but, again, it stands out because the rest of the game is so well-crafted.
The one thing I will say I really wish straight up hadn’t been done is a small interactive element toward the end. It’s programmatically clever and luddonarritively cossonate, but to me it was more annoying than fun, especially since it tied into how to achieve one of the endings. I don’t want to spoil what it is, but if you play, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Overall, a nice, succinct little horror game that makes me eager to see more from the developer.
Genre: horror, epistolary
My Playtime:~25 min; 1/1? ending
I know I’ll be playing a specific epistolary visual novel next week, so I picked a different one this week. Again, though, this is a game that is in that 85% range, making the things that need tweaking stand out even more.
For one, the title really only gives you the gameplay schema and tells you very little about what the game actually is, so go in with an open mind ready to try something different than your typical visual novel. It’s a bit more like a piece of interactive fiction or a kinetic novel. You’re not making any choices, you’re still experiencing the story. Which is perfectly fine! I had a lot of fun! Just keep that in mind as you play.
The game starts off right away with something that is very clever and seen (or needed) very rarely in Ren’py games, and that’s a set-up walkthrough. It’s really great! I think they did a great job with that. Most of the game development went into setting up the interactivity and on the million screens that are used and timed just right through the game. And that interactivity tells the story in a very appealing way.
That being said, I think I would have been willing to give up some of the interactivity for a little more narrative bulk. That doesn’t mean a longer story. Quite the opposite. I think it’s very streamlined and very well told. I even think they could have chopped off the little epilogue and left it open-ended and it would have been for the better. This game tries to do something very interesting in that it creates a story that you don’t really have any control over in an interactive medium. There’s a very bold artistic choice that I applaud. Where I think this game fails implementing it, though, is that narratively it implies that you can make a choice when as a player you actually don’t. I get three messages telling me not to do something, and I’m not even given the choice to do it if I wanted to. I don’t know what the answer is, but with the game as it’s been presented to me so far, I would have really liked the ability to actually make choices to not do my job.
This is a solid jam game with a cool concept that could maybe work on execution, but more than that, I’d really like this dev to make more games because I think they have a knack for interesting story-telling.