Thursday, February 9, 2023

Say Hello. Wave, Goodboy!

Next up in Next Fest this month - Hello Goodboy. Apart from a truly inspired pun for a title, what do we have here?

"A wholesome, non-linear adventure game, where a lost soul and his dog set out on an otherworldly trek through the afterlife. Pass into the world beyond, commit acts of kindness for other souls, and mend mistakes from a forgotten past life. All with a very good boy by your side!"

 Well, alright then. Let's get started.

The intro confused me more than a little. I hadn't at that stage read the description above so I didn't know for certain the game was set in the afterlife but when the very first screen I saw was this...

... I did have my suspicions. 

The following cut scene, though, left me uncertain whether the boy in the picture was meant to be dreaming or if he'd somehow died in his sleep. I'm still not sure. Maybe it's all explained at the end of the full game or maybe I misunderstood something. Or maybe it's a problem with the translation.

Let's talk about the translation. It's good but it's not perfect. The occasional line stands out as not being quite idiomatic English. Partly from that but also from the general tenor of the game, I got the impression it might have been developed in Japan - it has that almost indefinable, know-it-when-you-see-it, off-kilter charm that's helped to make Japanese video games a gold standard around the world. 

In fact, the developers, Rolling Glory Jam, are based in Bandung, Indonesia. While I've watched a fair number of Indonesian bands on YouTube and been mightily impressed a few times, I definitely couldn't claim to know anything like enough about the culture to say how typical or otherwise Hello Goodboy might be - but if it's in any way representative, I look forward to seeing a whole lot more games from Indonesia in the future.

By which, yes, you can take it I had a good time. I found the demo entertaining, accessible, involving and surprising, all of which are good things. The controls felt natural in moments, the graphics were universally delightful, the characters were endearing and the soundscape soothing. 

Gameplay, which consists of a great deal of explanation and exposition, as befits a demo, but also plenty of exploration and action, zipped along handily, punctuated by a number of mini-games that were, for once, actually fun. I particularly enjoyed the one where a hen and a goose ask you to fill a suitcase with packs of seeds resembling Tetris tiles. The frequent interludes when you have to use your magic toolbox to repair things by tapping the space bar at the correct moment were fun, too.

There's a narrative throughline concerning some kind of corrupting force but the demo doesn't do much more than introduce the concept then tell you not to worry about it for now. Mostly what you have to do is familiarize yourself with the Journey you're on, something you do by discussing it with Coco, your canine companion.

Coco is a typically friendly dog, whose role is neatly inverted from sidekick to mentor, a relationship beautifully encapsulated in the way he (She? They?) refers to the protagonist, Iko, as a Good Kid. Coco has a better idea of what's going on than Iko but neither of them seem to have the whole picture. I can't say I was all that much clearer by the end of the demo either but so long as I was being a Good Kid I didn't much care.

Being a Good Kid involves making the right choices, this being one of those games where choices matter. How they matter or what happens if you make the wrong choices is less clear. I'm not even sure you can make a wrong choice. There was one time when I had to decide which of four drinks to bring to a picnic and every time I chose one, Coco gently suggested it might not be suitable. The right one turned out to be the last one I picked but there didn't appear to be any penalty for getting it wrong the first three times.

By and large, that leniency reflects the gentle, relaxing nature of the game but if that sounds a touch too twee for your tastes, I wouldn't write the game off just yet. What appears to be the fluffiest of sequences, involving two young people on a picnic date, takes a very unexpected turn into some dark psychological waters towards the end. Thankfully, all is resolved happily, although I was left wondering whether, had I made different choices, the outcome might have been a lot less cosy.

Hello Goodboy is unusual in other ways than its emotional timbre, not least in the way it occasionally delivers an infodump of real-world statistics for no discernable in-game reason other than the character speaking is, according to his girlfriend, a bit of a geek. It left me wondering whether the game had its origin in educational software. If not, that's some serious characterisation they have going on there.

Playing the demo through to the end took me just under an hour, by which time I'd completed one of the Seasonal zones; Spring, as it happens. Completing it lit one rune on a panel in the central atrium. There are, naturally, four. Assuming all the zones are about the same length, I guess that implies a four hour running time plus however long it takes to do whatever happens when all the runes are lit.

In other words, I haven't a clue how long the game is likely to be when it releases in Q2 2023, as is currently planned. I'd certainly be up for a few more hours, though. So I've wishlisted it.

Of course I have. I'm a Good Kid!


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