Thursday, June 16, 2022

Another Time, Another Place

Two days, two demos. I impress myself.

Sanya, as the closing screen of the demo proudly proclaims, is "a wholesome adventure". There is, apparently, a whole "wholesome" games movement that's been around for a few years, now. Someone should probably mention it to Syp.

I found out about it from Krikket, who posted her top picks from this year's festival of wholesomeness a few days ago. It seems weird I hadn't heard of it before, given the number of gaming channels and blogs I follow but I guess it's true what they say - good news is no news.

Sanya would fit right in although, as it happens, the game doesn't appear to have been one of the ninety or so titles revealed during the Wholesome Direct event. The protagonist is a young boy, an only child, both of whose parents work. The setting is an unusual one - a small town somewhere in post-Soviet Russia back in the '90s, not long after the fall of the Communist regime. (Well, perhaps we should say "stumble" rather than "fall", given subsequent events.)

I never did find out what Space does.

The eponymous Sanya, short for Aleksander, which is what his mother calls him when she's annoyed with him, seems like a lonely child. His toys talk to him but mostly to warn him about being on his best behavior. His father seems to be barely present, something Sanya seems concerned about. His mother clearly loves him very much but she's equally clearly run off her feet with responsibilities and understandably prone to look unfavorably on any lack of co-operation by her only son.

One of the first things that happens in the game is that Sanya gets his own key to the apartment. His mother talks to him at some length about responsibility and how she and his father have decided Sanya is old enough now to have his own key but I got the distinct feeling that it's a decision born mostly out of necessity. With both his parents working full time, Sanya has little choice other than to become a latch-key kid.

That's a final year Sociology thesis waiting to be written right there, that picture.

Or he would if he actually went to school. The family has just moved into the apartment. Most of their possessions are still in boxes. Sanya hasn't started at his new school yet, something he seems, understandably, both eager and apprehensive about. 

I  found it very hard to gauge exactly how old Sanya was meant to be. The graphics, which are gorgeous,  resemble illustrations from an early 20th Century picture book. Possibly that's what children's literature looked like in Russia in the 1990s. Whatever the reason, it tends to make Sanya look more like a little old man than a child.

Based on the toys he has and the things he says and especially on the fact that he can read comics but finds books difficult, I got the impression he might be no older than seven or eight, which would seem very young to be given the key to the door and left at home all day, alone. There's even the possibility that when he worries about going to school he's worrying about going for the first time ever, not just the first time to a new school. 

Has she run that past Social Services, do you think?

That would make him very young indeed, although as I think about it I realize I have no clue what age children started school in 1990s post-Soviet Russia. (It's six now, according to this chart.) Maybe they didn't go until they were seven, as happens in some Scandinavian countries.

As you can tell, Sanya is demo that made me think a lot. I found it fascinating. The developers are keen to stress its universality ("It’s a game about everyone who once was a kid.") but I found it incredibly specific to its chosen time and place, something that added hugely to my interest and enjoyment.

The demo is limited to the interior of Sanya's family's apartment, which looks really rather cozy, and the stairwell outside, which looks anything but. I found myself wondering whether their recent move indicated an upward or a downward trend in their lives but I don't believe there's enough revealed in the demo to make a judgment. 

That's always been Banksy's view.

I also don't get the sense that this is an inherently political game, designed to make specific points about regime change or social mobility. Those kinds of concepts just hang around in the background, inevitable, unavoidable, unspoken. Little things, like the graffiti in the stairwell, the hand-made notices pinned to the wall by people looking for work, even the rotary telephone that features in one of the action sequences, all add up to a compelling and moving picture of what life must (or might) have been like at that time, in that place.

How is it as a game, though? Pretty good, as far as I could tell from the forty-five minute demo. The UI is excellent; intuitive and natural to use without much in the way of instruction. The translation is first class, the dialog naturalistic and convincing. Most of the demo consists of Sanya talking to his mother, doing what she asks (Or choosing not to.) and running an interior monologue in which he reveals a good deal about himself and his circumstances.

There are no instructions on how to dial a number on this rotary phone. I felt absurdly pleased with myself when I figured it out.

From time to time the player needs to help Sanya do various things, for example sort his toys according to a set of somewhat arbitrary rules or find the number for his father's workplace and call him on the phone to ask if he's seen Sanya's toy dog. I thought he'd lost his real dog until an actual dog turns up in the stairwell during an action sequence involving some stealth mechanics and a cardboard box.

I enjoyed the action sequences and the puzzles well enough but, as with Cats and the Other Lives yesterday, I'm increasingly uncertain about the need for any of these segments in these kinds of narrative entertainments. I suspect I'd enjoy both Sanya and Cats even more if all I had to do was move the main character from location to location and trigger conversations.

It's a very small complaint, if it's even one at all. I guess as long as these things have no better distribution network than the existing "games" market, we're going to have to keep doing the odd puzzle and mini-game to get to enjoy the stories. So long as the result's as good as it is in Sanya, I can live with that.

Chalk up another for the wishlist.

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