LnScramble, Reviews

Ludonarrative Scramble: May 4th-May 15th

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 roulette.

We only have 3 actual games. There’s no Friday game because I had a workshop, and you’ll see what happened Monday.

Monday’s Game

The first game I played this week was kind of a bust. I would have felt bad ripping into it the way my heart wanted to, so we’re just gonna skip a specific critique. Instead, some general remarks.

Sometimes when I pick up a new game or book or see a new movie advertised, I immediately recognize “ah, yes, this media was not made for me.” So I try to be aware of that bias if I choose to consume that media or if I’m in a place where I have to develop an opinion on it.

I think it’s entirely possible to judge the individual merits of a piece of media (its writing quality, its construction, its aesthetics) even if the gestalt of the thing doesn’t personally appeal to you. So, often, you can still attract some off-demographic audience by having a standout element that can be enjoyed on its own divorced from the context of the overall product. Is Sucker Punch a good movie? No. No it is not. Does the main character fight a giant mecha samurai with a minigun? Yes…yes she does. 

On the flip side, you can take even the most rudimentary ingredients (public domain assets, templates, pre-built systems) and do incredible things with them. It’s all about knowing where your strengths and weaknesses are and working around and within them. Look at games like Liar Liar, Speed Dating for Ghosts, Thomas Was Alone, anything by Oh! A Rock, or any old school text-based games like Zork or Ballyhoo. The individual elements of these games are very straightforward, even simplistic or completely missing (like in the case of text-based games having no art) yet are very enjoyable to play and leave you with a positive experience. 

So , yeah, use simple art or public domain materials or unpolished writing, but fill it with intention. Make it Aesthetic™.

That’s what I attempted to do with my (for now) duology Naxos and Meninx

Aella of Athens

Dev: Visual Butterfly

Genre: drama, romance

My Playtime: ~20 minutes

This one was tricky for two reasons. I didn’t quite get to finish it because something pulled my attention that I had to deal with (though I’m going to try to come back and finish it up), and it’s labeled firmy as a work in progress and demo. So. You know. It’s going to be rough around the edges which is fine. 

The first thing that struck me, which I think is kind of funny, is that I had no idea what engine it was built in. I didn’t recognize it. And the engine did them dirty. This is the kind of game where I would want to chat with the dev and use my limited programming experience to see if I can help them in some way shape or form. But I also get it. I went peeking into the postmortem to find out what they used, and I understood why someone with less experience would choose it. It’s such a tricky thing, you know?

Love the art (even in its current state), and I’m really excited to see it fully fleshed out. The designs are great, and those lines are CRISP. It’s a shame the engine pixelated them a little. The backgrounds are obviously stand-ins, right now, and they might run into a little bit of trouble with just the sheer number of backgrounds they’re anticipating (based on the demo). If they end up doing bespoke backgrounds, that’s going to be a lot of work or a lot of money when I think they could trim that down a little bit narratively. Ultimately there’s not really a wrong developmental decision, I just know how easy it is to get overwhelmed with assets. 

I like the Greek setting. I like the characters individually. They have great voices both written and acted. The beginning was a little weird, though. It kind of dumps a lot on you all once, and I was a little bit confused about the main character’s relationship with the wind god characters. I actually went back through the line history to make sure I didn’t miss something. Reading the story synopsis on the game page helped with that, but that’s kind of a bummer that it required clarifying. I was also a little confused by some of the mom’s actions, they seemed to be counterindicative to each other, but maybe later in the story reveals that out a little.

Overall, a bold choice to start en media res and just get right down to things, but my editor brain has a few tweaks to narrative flow in mind that would make things a little less cluttered and more dramatic. 

Defying Heaven’s Will

Dev: melimeli

Genre: mystery, drama, xianxia; BL

My Playtime: ~15 minutes; 2/4? endings

This was a game I had been skipping over the past two weeks because even though I liked the thumbnail, I recognized it as being Chinese fantasy novel inspired and knew I knew nothing about that. So I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to objectively critique or understand it. Then the randomizer was like “do it, you coward” and here we are. 

I have to say, first off, I’m extremely impressed by the fact that despite having a lot of genre specific jargon, I was not confused at all. The writer did an excellent job of using the language in such a way that even though I don’t really know the vocabulary, I still got what was happening and everyone’s relationship to each other. Whether this was on purpose or they just have a knack, bravo either way. The dialogue is also interesting in that very precise, high-class diction. Didn’t hate it. I feel like it fits the theme, and I can dig it. By that same token, I think they could have gotten away with going even more high-falutin’, particularly in the narration parts. Really paint that prose purple. But that also might have been too much, and it’s hard to get that balance right with such a short turnaround. So eh?

The sprites were lovely. It looks like their artist uses Blender which can be a double-edged sword. Takes longer to model the initial sprite, but you can do more with it once it’s modeled if you rig it right. I don’t know what their workflow was like, but it would have been nice if they’d have been able to get expressions into the mix. The sprites looked great, but they were a little narratively bland. 

Their engine didn’t do them a lot of favors (I thought it was browser Ren’py, but by the end I was unsure), but browser-based VN’s give everyone trouble. 

Overall a game with good bones that could benefit from a little more polish. 

Girl Versus Zombies

Dev: frankiefrank6121

Genre: horror

My Playtime: ~10 minutes; 4 deaths, 1 win

This is an excellent, tiny game. I died twice before finding the right ending, then kept going to get a feel for other ways to die. The art is great. Really gut-wrenching and well-done. Whoever did the screaming did a great job. The writing was nice and succinct which worked for the game. I only wish it was longer! The game description says they made it to get used to Ren’py. I hope they keep going! 

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