Saturday, March 5, 2022

A Novel Approach

Two more demos from Steam's Next Fest today; one wishlisted immediately, the other on the "maybe" pile. Steam describes both as "Visual Novels". Let's start with the warm-up act, Night Cascades.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this one. It comes with a daunting list of "Mature Content" advisories: "Contains discussion of same-sex relationships, homophobic attitudes, smoking, alcohol use, mild rude language, occult symbolism, misrepresentation of religion, and corporal punishment. Contains suggestive romantic scenes between two adult women". A couple of of those promised to be new gaming experiences for me. I'm pretty sure I've never been warned about "misrepresentation of religion" in a game before.

The demo really doesn't live up to the promise (Or should that be threat?) of a list like that, although to be strictly fair, almost everything in there does make a nominal appearance, if only by allusion, with the notable exception of corporal punishment. The whole thing takes place in a single location, a small, cluttered office in a police station, somewhere in the early 1980s.  The action, such as it is, consists of a lot of conversation and a couple of "puzzles" in the form of photographic evidence from the crime scene.

There are three characters: a male police officer, who may or may not hold those aforementioned "homophobic attitudes", a female police officer, who is gay but not out to her colleagues, and a supply teacher and folklore expert, who also hires out as an advisor to the police on cases of a supposedly occult nature. 

All three of these characters have pre-existing relationships of some kind, the details of which are explicit in the case of the teacher and the senior cop (She tutors his adolescent daughter.) and largely implied in the case of the two women. (They were at college together, where they seem to have had some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship.)

The crime under investigation involves some witchy shenanigans in the local woods and the gameplay, such as it is, revolves around close examination of photographs. There's a lot going on, especially for a demo that barely lasts twenty minutes. You might wonder how they pack it all in and the answer is by having almost no moving parts.

For once, calling this a "Visual Novel" stretches the definition of "visual" more than it does "novel". The camera is static and so is the background. The characters are standees. All focus is on the dialog, which for much of the time fills a full third of the screen. Other than during the two evidence examinations, which themselves are no more than very basic exercises in clicking on images, all that's required of the player are a few mouse-clicks to keep the dialog rolling.

I lie. Even that minimal degree of interaction isn't strictly necessary; there's an Auto Play option, allowing the whole thing to unfurl like a very slow, minimally-animated cartoon, the kind that used to blight the TV schedules in the very 1980s when Night Cascades is set.

I quite liked it, other than the music, which is so annoyingly cheesy I had to turn it down to a murmur.  There's really no game here at all but I find it increasingly fascinating to observe the way a game-like interface, allowing even an extremely limited range of interactions, can successfully raise involvement far beyond what could hope to be achieved with the same content in more traditional media. If I came across Night Cascades as as an actual animation using this technique I very much doubt I would carry on watching for more than a few moments and I'm sure I wouldn't read it as a novel but somehow just having to press a button to move the text on makes me want to keep going.

I could if I wanted, too. The game, if we're calling it that, went live the day after Next Fest ended. It's not very expensive and there's a ten per cent discount for the first week. I'll pass, for now, but I'm reserving the option to come back later.

The second demo is for a game called "The Wreck", described succinctly on its Steam page as "A mature 3D visual novel about sisterhood, motherhood, grief and survival.". Guess what? Based on the demo it's all those things and more.

I haven't seen nearly enough Visual Novels to know how original The Wreck is but it felt very fresh to me. My default take on these things has long been to wonder whether the ideas they're trying to express wouldn't be better served by other, more established forms like movies or television, books or comics. As I mentioned above, though, the more I expose myself to the possibilities of the new forms, the more I begin to understand their discrete appeals.

The Wreck takes that to another level altogether. It's an experience I don't feel could easily be replicated, let alone surpassed, in a less interactive, more passive medium. That's not because there's a lot to do as a "player". There's no gameplay as such at all. And yet somehow there is and it's compelling.

The key difference between this demo and the one for Night Cascades is involvement. There's no conceivable way you could add an Auto Play option to The Wreck. It's very much an active not a passive experience but I categorically would not describe it as a game. There are sequences when you need to look closely into the screen and make a selection but they have none of the sense of being puzzles, even in the limited scale of those in Night Cascades. There are numerous dialog options but it never becomes any kind of "Choose your own adventure" with multiple outcomes, even though there's a palpable sense of mutabilty to the experience, all centered on small choices made in the moment.

Pull back. The first thing that struck me about The Wreck is how beautiful it looks. I took four screenshots in the opening few seconds, a car driving down a country road in bright sunshine. After that I was too wrapped up in the experience to take many more.

If the visuals are striking, so is the sound, specifically the voiceover that narrates the whole thing from the perspective of the central character, Junon. The studio behind the project is The Pixel Hunt, "an independent video games studio based in Paris." This, presumably, means the text and dialog is translated. If so, the translation, at least in the demo, is flawless.

The voice acting is better than that. The actor ("Actress" as the developer's website somewhat quaintly styles it.) playing Junon gives what have to be some of the best line readings I've ever heard in a video game. The nuance is extraordinary. The accent helps, if I'm honest. There's such a musicality about it.

Like Night Cascades, much of the demo is taken up with dialogs through which you navigate by mouse clicks but the two could scarcely be more different. For a start, The Wreck feels hugely more natural, the characters giving the impression of three-dimensional figures in a living world rather than cardboard cutouts in a store-room. 

Much more significantly, the clicks you make change things, only in ways you don't get to see. Certain words are picked out in different colors and those you can click on to get a response, usually from Junon's thoughts, but each choice you make moves the scene on with no explanation and no going back. What Junon would have thought or said had you made a different selction remains opaque.

I absolutely loved the enigma of that mechanic. There was none of the glib sense of choosing a path, more the momentary recognition of a passing thought. As an evocation of the way a mind works I thought it was unusual and powerful.

The whole demo is steeped in smart, effective and to me, at least, original processes that just work. There's an extended flashback to a memory from Junon's childhood, which you're able to roll backwards and forwards in time to catch fresh insights. It's the demo at its most gamelike but it still doesn't feel much like playing a game. 

Neither do the times when words appear scrawled or painted across the backgrounds. Nothing asks or tells you to click on those, it just seems like the thing to do. Apart from one or two basic tips on which controls to use, nothing ever really tells you what to do next and yet I always knew.

There's a scene where Junon, driving her car in an emotional state when she probably shouldn't be, veers off the road to avoid a deer and runs headlong into a wall. Everything in the car flies up around her in slomo. Nothing tells you to click on any of it and yet you know you should, so you do and on the game goes.

It's hard to describe and as I said I didn't take as many shots as I normally would to exemplify and clarify. I could go back and replay it, get the screens I need, but why? The demo's there, still, it's free and it takes less than half an hour. That would be half an hour well spent, I'd say.

Very highly recommended, although maybe I ought to add a trigger warning for anyone having issues around end of life choices. It's curious this demo gets nothing when the much more inoccuous Night Cascades comes with a basket full. 


  1. Damn. As if I don't have enough games to play already....

  2. "The camera is static and so is the background. The characters are standees. All focus is on the dialog, which for much of the time fills a full third of the screen."

    This has been the status quo for visual novels since sometime in the 90s, when I became aware of the genre. There are occasionally animations in the character standees, but a lot of work is done by still images. (Particularly fight scenes, which are usually a few effect flashes and a static pose or two.) You're very much Here For The Text.

    1. I do think that's fair enough in historical context but, like "MMORPG", "Visual Novel" seems like an unfortunate legacy name that doesn't really describe what you're getting. As an experience, it feels to me more like being led through a narrative by a Powerpoint presentation than like reading a novel.

      I thought the other demo was far more novelistic in that it makes a very good attempt at externalizing some of the sensations of reading an actual novel. It felt at times like being inside the narrative rather than observing from the outside, which is certainly how reading feels when you really get drawn into the book.

      Then again, there's definitely an argument to be made that what the more visually adventurous mechanics, like the ones in The Wreck, are doing is modelled on a cinematic experience rather than on a textual one. Maybe they ought to call them Visual Movies... oh, wait, that wouldn't make much sense...


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