2021 IGF nominees: visual-novel-like-likes

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Tagged: reviews, across the grooves, haven, pendragon, igf, neo cab

And now some games in the visual novel orbit. Or outside it.

  • Neo Cab
  • Across the Grooves
  • Haven
  • Pendragon

I think "visual novel" is going down the same road that "interactive fiction" and "roguelike" have travelled over the past several years. On the one hand, they're enormously influential genres. On the other hand, that influence plays out in a lot of ways; maybe not ways that old-school VN fans would consider important.

Are we talking about visual novels as design tropes? (Dialogue-centric, no map or model world.) Or UI elements? (Talking heads over that dialogue.) What about themes? (Character-heavy with romance.) Art style? (Anime.) What about when those elements get hybridized into other genres? (Everyone talks about Hades, but is Disco Elysium also VN-inspired?) (Some recently asked me if Disco Elysium was an example of "choice-based interactive fiction", to which I had to say yes, pretty much...)

It's the same situation that led to the hairsplitting of "roguelike", "roguelite", "roguelike-like"... not that that clarified much. Ultimately it's up to the fans to decide where the center of gravity lies. Visual novels aren't my home turf, so I'll just throw some titles into this blog post and hope.

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Across the Grooves and Haven. I bought Pendragon and Neo Cab myself.)

Neo Cab

I bought Neo Cab last summer, which was of course a million years ago pandemic time. So this is more "what I remember" than most of my comments.

You're the last gig driver in a city where the industry is turning over (again!) to driverless cars. The friend you were planning to stay with has history with the tech situation. In fact, everyone you pick up or interact with is involved with the issues, from lots of angles. (Users, employees, protesters... usually more than one per person, come to think of it.) It's a nicely multifaceted take.

This is on the storylet side of visual novels, if that makes sense. Plot threads everywhere; you won't follow them all. The ride-share conceit gives you an excuse to run into many different people, with some control over which storylines you want to pursue.

The other conceit is the FeelGrid, a high-tech mood ring which gives you an emotional readout for the current conversation. This is less successful as a mechanic -- it comes off as a pure agency limiter, greying out half of your already-limited set of responses. But then it plays into the theme of creepily intrusive "disruptive" technologies; it's central to the plot in that regard. There's a big climactic fight scene (argument, not combat) in which the FeelGrid is supposed to be key, but I never had much sense of using it and bumbled through that scene.

(I'm not sure how I would have recast the FeelGrid to feel like a bonus rather than a penalty. Provide a set of dialogue responses, and then double some of them as "say this but angrily?" Hm.)

Overall, though, a good solid piece with engaging characters and dialogue. It's an obvious contrast to Eliza (last year), which also dug into tech, gig work, and disrupted industries. Eliza came off as flat and disinterested; Neo Cab is passionate while still recognizing that the issues are all multisided. I much prefer the Neo Cab approach.

Across the Grooves

For your consideration: a mysterious vinyl 45 whose music allows you to revisit the past. The record falls into the hands of a young French woman, dumping her into a world of secretive European record hunters and music cultists.

This does a good job of marrying form and theme. The first sign of strangeness is when you're clicking through the lyrics of a (fully recorded) song and encounter a dialogue choice -- in the lyrics, and yes, it affects which verse you hear next. And then you're in the past, making choices which affect the present.

The art is also excellent. It has a painterly style, more expressive than the usual VN anime drawings. It also shows characters drawn in scene, rather than just overlaying a face on a backdrop. Which is more work than you might think! Alice, the protagonist, is portrayed in a range of styles as the timeline shifts around her.

Really, though, the strength of the game is its sense of music history. Alice hangs around with musicians and DJs and record shop owners, swapping bits of occult history -- everything from a bluesman's soul to "Zoso" -- with a torrent of grounded detail from all sorts of genres. (It's all meticulously footnoted, thank god. I haven't been this far out of my musicological depth since the first year of Questionable Content.)

The writing is solid but it doesn't quite hold up to the premise. Alice figures out the magic record immediately and starts playing along; her reactions never convey the dislocation that she's experiencing. This damps down what should be a wild Tim-Powers-ish ride.

And for a game about changing storylines, you don't have all that much scope to actually alter the storyline. I played through twice and got essentially the same arc. The differences are traditional VN stuff: different story beats within each chapter. You can visit different record stores in your travels. You can hook up with a couple of different characters. And different versions of Alice appear, as I said.

There's nothing wrong with this, but it doesn't push boundaries the way the art style does. I feel like the premise deserved more structural fireworks. But, hey, I'm a structural fireworks fan! Of course I wanted more. This is a good game and it's worth a play-through or two.


An exploration-and-narrative game interrupted by real-time JRPG-style combat. Yes, I say "interrupted".

The underlying premise is a romance which isn't a dating sim. You play Kay and Yu, two kids marooned on an alien planet. Sorry; I say "kids" because I'm old, but they're young adults in an established relationship. The game isn't about them getting together. They are together. They're still in the "Whoa, we could bone on the coffee table!" stage, but they're a couple. They explore as a couple; you control them as a couple (or do it two-player co-op). They banter and you run both sides of the dialogue. Their idle animations go for an occasional smooch.

This is an excellent premise! It's entirely adorable. Every part of the game is packed with snippets of conversation. Go craft dinner; Yu and Kay chat about the meal. Stop to rest; they murmur to each other under the night stars. There's a contextual dialogue engine down there which is really impressive. It's hooked into everything, down to collectibles you've found and specific controller actions. (Make a U-turn while zooming along and one of the characters may complain about getting dizzy! It's that detailed. It neatly handles the tutorializing, too, as they give each other instructions.)

The designers clearly had buckets of fun digging into all the little interchanges that couples have, from doing the dishes to snarking about the wet spot. It's all deeply familiar -- and yet startling in the videogame context. Most games which portray intimate relationships at all are fixated on dating tropes. Haven feels brilliantly fresh in comparison.

The story itself, once you get into it, isn't all that fresh. It's a pretty standard YA dystopia: kids on the run from an overly regimented society. Society wants them back. There's an awful secret which I never quite got to the bottom of. The kids will probably figure it out. True love and sex on the coffee table will win the day. It's not great literature, but it's so personably and engagingly told that I was happy to stick around.

The only problem is, I couldn't stick it out through all the combat. The alien planet is full of cute monsters. You don't kill them, gosh no; you have to pacify and cleanse them of pollutants.

The combat is structured the same way as everything else. You control Kay and Yu together. They can attack in parallel or with simultaneous moves. They shout encouragements and instructions back and forth. Thematically it's fine. In execution, umf. It slows the game down, and then it starts getting hard.

The game introduces itself by saying that it's "not intended to be difficult". Probably it isn't difficult for people who grew up on Final Fantasy. But I bogged down about two-thirds of the way through. Every big monster kicked my ass. Switching to "easy" didn't help. The auto-fighting "rush" mode didn't help. Eventually I got tired of dying and quit out.

I really think this was a genre problem -- as in, "this isn't my genre". The game must have timing cues (when to attack, what moves to use) but I wasn't picking them up. Which is a darn shame, because it really is a delightful game. It's worth playing for a couple hours just to roll around in the comfort fic of established relationshipping.


A dynamic-narrative dialogue game built out of a strategic board game. This should be impossible, but it's Inkle; of course they do.

Unfortunately, the fact that it's impossible doesn't make it all that compelling. At least, I played several run-throughs and never felt very engaged. (I admit that I never got past the easiest difficulty settings.)

The narrative technology is phenomenally smooth -- of course. It's the same engine that underlaid Heaven's Vault and I rhapsodized about that at length. Pendragon narrates the course of your game; it talks bit characters on and off stage; it describes where you are in the context of your journey. But it never seemed to say anything interesting. Hello, wanna fight, I'm going to Camelot, sure. Next scene, more same.

(The campfire stories were fun, but they felt like interruptions. The game ground to a halt for them.)

I think that if the strategy game had been interesting, it all would have hung together. Imagine this kind of narration on a game of Waterdeep or Race For the Galaxy! Any game with a strategic arc and a bunch of flavor text. Pendragon's grid-based combat just wasn't the right underpinning.

Still: interesting experiment. I'm sure the design structure will work its way into other games.