2023 IGF nominees: visual novels

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Tagged: reviews, butterfly soup 2, igf, the wreck, eternal threads

I don't really follow visual novels. But there are a lot of them, and some turn up in IGF every year, and I play the ones that are getting the most attention. That doesn't mean the best visual novels of the year! Just a couple that happen to come my way.

  • Butterfly Soup 2
  • The Wreck
  • Eternal Threads

(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Butterfly Soup 2

Another year in the life of the top-flight fully automated junior high school girl friends. And girlfriends. This is much along the lines of the first Butterfly Soup: an old-school visual novel, mostly dialogue with occasional choices and "look at around the scene" scenes.

It's all on the dialogue, and the dialogue works. It's impossible not to like these energetic, confused, outraged and outrageous specimens of humanity-in-progress. Like its predecessor, the story shifts fluidly between their messy friendships and relationships, the absurd situations of school life, and the bite of growing up Asian in America.

Unlike its predecessor, this game draws in older generations: the kids' parents, a grandparent and family overseas. Adults are outsiders, as they must be in a YA story, but they're present and not entirely alien. It's a more mature story, in more ways than the literal.

I laughed; I smiled at the end; it's good stuff.

The Wreck

Interactive narrative about a car accident and a tension-wracked family. Junon tries to deal with a tragedy -- her mother's illness -- while still coping with issues from her past.

This is really sharp. The presentation shifts smoothly between different modes of interaction as you alternate between the hospital and Junon's memories. It's strongly guided without being on rails. In the memory scenes, you get to look around for comments which advance the dialogue; in the hospital scenes you are both making choices and considering stretch-text-style variations of the text.

Maybe I'm stretching a little to call it a visual novel? It's primarily dialogue with occasional choices. But then there are the memory scenes, which are more walking-sim than anything else, although it's really float-through-your-memories-sim.

The writing is excellent, which is the main thing. Junon comes across as prickly and defensive while also being self-aware and funny. As you run through your day at the hospital -- versions of your day -- you learn more about her and the people around her. As you do, you get a chance to unpick what's wrong.

Eternal Threads

In May of 2015, in a rooming house in probably Manchester, the electricals went up and six people died of smoke inhalation. You're a time traveller with a history replay gadget and the ability to alter (only) small decisions. Save everybody!

I will admit that the gameplay isn't very deep. You can freely run up and down the week preceding the fire, but this is fairly pointless until you're oriented. So you start by watching the entire seven-day drama. You might try flipping a few decisions and observing the changes, but it's hard to be goal-oriented until you've sunk several hours into watching clips.

But that's okay! Sinking several hours into the game is a pleasure. The voice acting and mocap are entirely solid; you instantly care about these six British weirdos. And their friends. (And their accents, which are an absolute bonanza of chewy UK regionalisms.)

Anyhow, once you've gotten a sense of the timeline, it's mostly a matter of getting everybody to make better life choices. It's not entirely true that you can win by always choosing "face your problems", "talk it out", and "consider counseling". (Some characters need a bit of shaking up to bring their problems into the open so that they can face them.) But, in general, your better impulses will be rewarded. The hardest part is remembering where all the bad decisions are so you can flip them.

(The timeline screen is almost great for this. Unfortunately the "influence lock" button, which is supposed to let you scroll through all causes of an event, seemed to be buggy.)

Now, I'm definitely stretching when I call this a visual novel. But... it sort of is? It's mostly dialogue (full-animated, but so what) and then you get to try different story-paths to see how they come out! Is this not the core experience of the catch-all-the-endings visual novel? Except interwoven rather than branching, and you're searching for one "best" ending.

(Come to think of it, The Wreck also has this idea of altering events to find the best ending. This only exists at the story level, not gameplay -- you're incrementally improving in a memory loop -- but it's another visual-novel-ish aspect.)

Anyway, Eternal Threads is eight hours of soap opera dramatics, a wee bit of puzzly exploration (a few rooms of the house need to be unlocked), and a sequel hook. I enjoyed it.