2024 IGF nominees: visual novels

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Comments: 2   (latest straightaway)

Tagged: reviews, igf, saltsea chronicles, end of lines, solace state, windy meadow, roadwarden, the cosmic wheel sisterhood, the wreck

Next up: visual novels, and games expanding on the idea of the visual novel. Yes, we had some of that yesterday. I gotta split up the list somehow.

  • Saltsea Chronicles
  • End of Lines
  • Solace State
  • Windy Meadow: A Roadwarden Tale
  • The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood
  • The Wreck

(I was on the narrative jury and played review copies of all these games except Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood and The Wreck.)

Saltsea Chronicles

Narrative exploration game about a ship crew traversing the tropical post-climatic seas. The focus is on the crew as crew -- you play them group, not just one of them -- and, by extension, the society of the islands as society.

This is lots of fun, pretty much entirely for the well-drawn characters. When the game started I thought "Oh no, I will never remember all these people's names." Within half an hour I knew them all like old friends. The island cultures are nifty as well, although the world-building is going for flair rather than serious depth.

Most of the interactions are low-key. (Although the stakes rise appropriately as you approach the climax.) Various tensions and micro-dramas arise among the characters, and you can push to resolve them in various ways -- as you like; it's not a series of puzzles to solve. The big decisions are "who comes ashore to explore this island" and then "where do we sail next". I suspect this produces a lot of possible story variation, but I've only seen one runthrough.

My only complaint is that the game invites lawn-mowering every interaction spot. I can't resist, anyhow. It's all delightful to read but it slows the game down more than I think the designers intended. Maybe if there was a limit per time phase, so you had to pick which things to investigate on each island? I know, you'd have to rebalance the entire dialogue system... just musing on possibilities.

The baby! Is a full story participant! With many lines of "dialogue" as everybody else! How can you resist? The visuals are also terrific; the style is deliberately simplistic but actually pretty great. (Just look at that "title sequence" animation.)

End of Lines

A traditional visual novel about climate refugees traveling across Europe. The latest offering from the studio that brought us Seers Isle and Across the Grooves.

It's 2090 or so. The rain is gone. The bees are gone. Birds, crops, you get the idea. Northern Africa was always a desert but it's no longer a survivable one. A village sends its strongest members off on a quest to find habitable land.

As far as I could tell from one-and-a-half runs, the branching is pretty modest. You encounter roughly the same sequence of locations and events. There's a bit of resource-management gameplay, so you can wind up with more or fewer supplies and perhaps different companions in the journey, but it's not primarily a resource game. The primary events are story beats. (Contrast The Pale Beyond, which was more about a narrative presentation of resource decisions.)

This is solid work and solid writing, together with Nova Box's rich digital painting style. But I didn't find it to have the narrative spark of Nova Box's previous offerings. Or maybe you thought prophecy (Seers) and time-travel (Grooves) were narrative gimmickry -- in which case End of Lines will be more to your taste. The impact is entirely in the portrayal of a ruined world and the characters' memories. The adults remember our world, you see... and how they lost it.

It's not entirely pessimistic. There are survivors, and maybe even smooching. But it's an awful lot of death and misery leavened by only the narrowest contingent sort of hope.

Solace State

An optimistic visual novel about brain-hacker activists in a mostly-grim corporate future. Fear not! Solidarity triumphs, with dating options.

This is densely written with plenty of storyline, but I never really got hooked. The creators have put lots of detail into the setting, but the game spends more time explaining it to you than letting you act in it. It's old-school VN pacing: long narrative sequences (with footnotes) with occasional choice points and more in-depth hacking scenes. The latter are a nice idea -- you have a chance to dig into people's motivations and press them on various subjects -- but they're still pretty tightly scripted.

Come to think, the ethics of brain-hacking are a primary theme of the story, but that doesn't apply to you. Brain-hacking scenes happen when the plot says they have to. Whether and when is never a player choice -- only what you do once you're in there. I wish that were thematic, but I'm pretty sure the writers just didn't think about it.

I'm not sure whether it's the writing or the weak interactivity, but the world winds up feeling rather a shallow political take. The bad guy is a walking cliche and everybody else is, at worst, unconvinced by your heroic public activism. Cardboard dystopia and utopia. Yes, takes on contemporary politics are the mainspring of sci-fi, and I'm all in favor of games portraying collective action. I just found this one unconvincing.

Narratively unconvincing, at least. I have no doubt that reality will make this "dystopia" look like weak cream soon enough. But I don't play games to predict reality.

On the up side, the dynamic visual presentation is terrific. Nice way to give the scenes a cinematic quality -- camera angles, pans and zooms -- without the expense of full animation or motion-capture.

(On the other hand: if your game has a dialogue-speed pref, it needs to include the camera zooms between lines of dialogue. Think about us fast readers! Trying to speed-read this game is really frustrating.)

Windy Meadow: A Roadwarden Tale

A pixel-art visual novel in the Roadwarden setting. Three braided viewpoint chapters (plus epilogue) in a farming village beset by crisis.

I found this a bit mixed. Roadwarden was interesting because of its intricate field of quests and goals, tied together with common game mechanics. Windy Meadow drops all of that to focus on its characters in a pretty standard branching narrative.

This isn't a misstep; the characters are solid and interesting. As with Roadwarden, though, I didn't find the story itself all that engaging. And the setting doesn't stand too far above its generic-D&D roots. The standout element, I'd say, was the thoughtful portrayal of a non-neurotypical character living in a society without our modern framing of that idea.

Not the top of my list, but I'm glad I played it. Also has some good visual touches, plus a lovely acoustic soundtrack.

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood

A pixel-art visual novel about Tarot readings... only not really. Demons, gonzo space witches, the perils of prophecy, road-trip yarns about orgasms. A choice model that sneaks up on you in a really quite interesting way. An excellent social sim challenge for the third act.

No spoilers beyond that. My full review is here; I tried to avoid spoilers there as well.

The Wreck

Interactive narrative about a car accident and an emotionally scarred family. I loved this. In fact a pre-release version was a narrative honorable-mention last year, so maybe I don't need to say any more.

If you disagree, my full review is here.

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