Scratching that Itch…io: Butterfly Soup... soon


#21

ooh, you requested some visual novel recs! i love having a reason to recommend vns on itchio to people and equally feel that “enthusiasm for itch not translating into actual coverage” sometimes, thanks for giving me an excuse to sign up for waypoint and wait patiently until it’d let me link enough stuff to spout off about vns, haha! your post on EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK was excellent and i enjoyed reading your thoughts, so i’m looking forward to any writeups about vns you play!

I’m gonna use proper capitalization so this is easier to parse. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of indie visual novel developers on Itchio that I haven’t seen much coverage of in any decently large gaming outlet, at least off the top of my head, who’ve made things I think would be perfect for this column! They’re broken into groups of three so this doesn’t take up your whole screen any more than it already does, haha.

Cyanide Tea, Soulsoft Electronic Arts, and Girls Make Games.

Cyanide Tea is a team that has since unfortunately moved on to other things outside of their partnership, but they made two of my favorite visual novels – Where We Lay Our Scene, an emotional dating sim about a model-turned-actor named Christian navigating relationships with the four love(/friendship) interests, and Break Chance Momento, a dark time travel-themed visual novel about catching a serial killer with a heavy focus on plot and trying to keep your friends and family from being killed. Neither one is free, unlike most of the other entries on this list, but both are well worth a look.

Soulsoft Electronic Arts is one of the oldest English VN developers on the list, at least as far as their first published work – 2008’s Dream Savior Gakuen – goes, but what I’m recommending here is their newer horror/thriller VN hosted on Itchio, Let’s Meat Adam (link contains NSFW content). Starring vain and honestly kind of pretentious protagonist Adam, LMA’s concept is best summed up as “it’s a bunch of gay men trapped in an escape room game with a serial killer (?) and there’s a whole lot of neon”. Aesthetically, tonally, and contextually, I can’t think of anything else quite like it in games. That NSFW warning definitely isn’t a joke.

Girls Make Games has a rotating team, given the nature of how the actual camp behind it works, but their debut visual novel Interfectorem (warning for art of graphic violence against a child, specifically the murder mentioned below, in the Itchio page’s preview pictures) is smart, well-put together, and one of my personal favorite horror visual novels. It centers on a sheriff named Alis who comes home to discover her young sister has been murdered while she was out on a hike – and now Alis has to struggle to survive the same killer herself. The young team that made this has a lot of potential, and what they’ve made here is already strong enough that I’m excited to see the rest of their careers.

Ebi-Hime, GB Patch Games, and Pyonkotchi.

Ebi-Hime is one of those developers who kind of skirts the boundary of “decently large outlet’s coverage”, so I’m not 100% that she hasn’t been featured somewhere similar to Waypoint, but it’s still kind of a shock to me that I don’t see articles about her work regularly! She does an incredibly huge variety of stuff with a wide variety of tones/themes, skewing mostly toward WxW content – my favorite VN of hers is Where The Sun Always Shines, a free linear story about jaded novelist Blake and his scrappy young friend, Sunny. It’s emotionally honest and extremely well-written, with a lot of interesting aspects to its visual presentation.

GB Patch Games has shown that they specialize, at least out of the work of theirs that I’ve read, in some truly stellar character writing. The strong character writing and good balance of realistic, relatable teenagers with the most blatantly terrible parts of those characters’ personalities is what makes XOXO Droplets so uniquely hilarious. If you’re a fan of women characters that people like to yell about for being “unlikeable”, XOXO Droplets’ protagonist JB is definitely for you.

Pyonkotchi only has one non-April-Fools VN with anything out to play right now, but I’d be missing out if I didn’t recommend their demo of Magical Warrior Diamond Heart, a magical girl-inspired visual novel about a teenage girl named Valerie who suddenly discovers that she’s a Legendary Crystal Warrior. MWDH is one of the only visual novels I’ve ever seen with a character whose nonbinary identity/presentation really resonated with me and it nailed a lot of the things I loved about 90s-00s shoujo humor, which I think is the kind of thing some Waypointers like? Y/N?

Team Rumblebee, STARDUST★SODA, and KONOL Games/Yossarian III.

Team Rumblebee got a bit of attention for their Life Is Strange fanmade dating sim back during the original installment of LIS, but I always love to recommend Loan Wolf to anyone who might not have kept up with them after the fact! It’s another free, short WxW dating sim, about a werewolf who’s stuck working a desk job as tech support. They haven’t released anything since 2016, but both of those visual novels are incredibly sweet and charming!

STARDUST★SODA has such a wide variety in tone and art style that’s something else in the best possible way, but my personal favorite is so obscure;, a visual novel the team completed for last month’s NaNoRenO about two high school students in early-2000s Hong Kong who meet on a social messaging app and bond over their favorite bands. I first found them through Last Call, an equally excellent story where you play a bartender trying to help a woman named Dawn reconcile with two people who aren’t in her life anymore.

KONOL Games/Yossarian III makes some extremely funny, extremely distinct visual novels – the best example I can think of is their NaNoRenO 2018 entry, Crunchy Lunch, which is entirely about that moment where you’re in a public place and you want to eat something, but whatever you want to eat is really, really loud. It’s told exclusively through sticky notes, too. Yoss III’s comedy is top-notch, at least to me, and I personally really enjoy their art style!

The excellent NaNoRenO 2018 visual novel-themed game jam.

If none of those sound interesting, or you just want to dig deeper into visual novels on Itchio, I seriously recommend giving the NaNoRenO 2018 jam page a look! NaNoRenO is an annual game jam centered around finishing a visual novel during the month of March and it always produces some incredible results. I’m going to add in the caveat that I participated in it and it’s not hard to find what I did in its entries page, but I genuinely believe that there’s a visual novel for nearly every kind of interested reader somewhere in its whopping 74 entries and didn’t want to just make a list here of all my favorite NaNoRenO entries. That list might be even longer than this one.

A not-hidden disclaimer here that the English VN community on Itchio can get a little claustrophobic, so I’ve worked with or know a handful of people in some of these studios/teams. But the only VNs on this list I actually contributed to in the slightest was STARDUST★SODA’s so obscure;, which I personally volunteered for as a late-stage beta tester and didn’t touch otherwise!

The smaller nature of OELVNs as a community and my involvement in it is just an important fact for me to note, IMO, so you’d be able to have that context if you decided to play it. I definitely stand by all of these VNs as being worth unpacking in this thread for their content alone.

And, hey, this is an awesome thread! Thanks so much for making it; I can’t wait to see what you cover next!


#22

A writing friend of mine named Pip Turner used to write a column on his blog where he covered an itch.io game weekly. It’s wrapped up now but it’s still a couple years worth of curated itch recommendations. Included are a lot of more unknown games that are still cool to supplement the bigger itch stars that have already been linked here.


#23

I’ve been doing something similar on my pinboard account, and just playiing a game from the roulette every week or so. I will follow along with this for sure!


#24

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK! Followup - Fuck, Okay, Let’s Talk About Video Games As An Artform, And Critical Discussion Of Games


Someone Grab David Cage, We’re Talking About Art And Games


Alright, alright, I get it. No one likes the “games are art” conversation. It was stupid to question 40 years ago, and it is still stupid today. But this conversation is veggies. It’s good for us, and some roasting might even make it even more palatable. Also, I’m vegetarian, veggies are my jam. Let’s eat.

If you’ve been reading my posts for the last couple of weeks, you’ve likely picked up that I have some issues with current state of games criticism. Much of that has been concerning the recent overwhelming acclaim God of War got from almost every mainstream critical publication, and what that might reflect on the lack of variety we have in critical perspective in games media. I’d argue this issue is even worse when it comes to criticism for what I’m going to call “art games” (such as EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK!).

What I mean when I say "art games"

When I say art games I mean games that have a strong thematic message and most aspects of the game are used to push that message, as opposed to being for enjoyment. They might be fun games, but they prioritize message and theme over fun or enjoyment or competition. This definition could cover a lot of games, with this definition, one could argue Dark Souls is an art game (and that’s a worthwhile discussion for the record). But for the sake of conversation, an art game is a game that (ugh) one would sit in front of Roger Ebert and say “You don’t think games are art huh, punk? How about THIS?”

Anyways, art games.

The critical discourse around art games is limited by the lens we view all video games. If we take a look at many critically acclaimed art games over the last several years (Hellblade, Brothers, Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, etc.), we see a common thread of what is being evaluated. Polish is still king; aesthetic is still often the determining factor in whether or not a game even gets reviewed; the existence of a story often feels just as important as what the story says, and an attempt at approaching a challenging subject is a bigger deal than what a game says about that subject. Many biases remain from our idea of what games are, and an implied notion of what games should be. Art games generally get better reception if they use the same structures, mechanics, and game-language seen in “more traditional” games. Things such as moving in a space, progress based around accomplishing goals, traditional story structures, are leaned into. Even a question like “what do you do in this game?” limit how we critique the full spectrum of games being made.

As I was playing EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK!, I found myself thinking about how the limited scope and biases of modern criticism aren’t particularly favorable to a game like this. The game’s structure and mechanics don’t mesh with how traditional reviews and criticism is done. Even something like a let’s play doesn’t do a good job communicate the experience, something the developer mentions explicitly on the store page even.

And let me be clear: I am not saying that Giant Bomb should start finding a format to do quick looks of twine games or something like that. Not at all. I’d argue many publications aren’t really proper for reviewing a game like EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY in an official capacity. Game Informer still uses a sidebar to evaluate graphics, sound, playability, entertainment, and replay value separately. First impression videos are focused as much on the player as they are the critique. Scores to an extent limit how a publication can critically review, as they influence how a game is ultimately evaluated by implying every aspect of a game is quantifiable in its quality or the feelings it produces. Even the audience plays a role in this, especially the audience. Does the audience want a critique of a piece of art or a product review? The vitriol that often comes with a review not aligning with a subset of reader’s expectations can influence how criticism is written.

None of this is easy either. I found writing about EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK! to be incredibly tough. Maybe that’s partly my inexperience as a writer or viewing media critically, but I had difficulty trying to figure out how to communicate what made the game the excellent experience it was. It’s one thing to say “this game looks rad.” but another thing to express what that contributes to the overall experience and the game’s message and themes. This is even tougher when discussing less concrete things like how mechanics contribute to theme. Things that are very apparent in your head become very difficult to express in words.

Thankfully this seems to be improving. There are more distinct perspectives in the critical field than ever before. More publications are foregoing scores, while not necessarily a good thing, this shows publications are experimenting with their approaches to criticism. And while “the problematic sidebar/paragraph” is annoying in how it often isn’t incorporated into the writer’s actual evaluation of the game, such things were never even mentioned before. Games criticism is getting better as new voices and fresh perspectives drag the establishment up to their level. I still remember Justin McElroy arguing the Telltale Walking Dead wasn’t a game because it didn’t have “proper fail-states.” We’re fucking miles away from that y’all.

I only wish this improvement came faster, as many interesting, daring, games like EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK! will be missed as many of the big players in games writing’s understanding of art games and how to critique them finally starts to catch up to the games being made.


Discussion questions (if you want, I’m not your Dad):

  1. Do you think there’s an issue with how we evaluate art games and games in general?
  2. What steps do you think could be taken to improve games criticism, if any?
  3. How much impact does critical discussion of games actually have on the direction of the medium?
  4. How much does the audience influence critical discussion of games? Can this be changed? Can new types of critique change the way audiences engage with games?

#25

nathalie lawhead has talked more than once about art games and what makes them art/how capital g Gamers react to her work, especially the same piece we’re already discussing here – i go back to her itchio interview and her post-gdc 2018 writeup the most, especially this quote from the itchio one:

The space games allow for [“uncomfortable” art] is really superficial. It’s “safe”, and controlled. We all want to be the hero in the end. If this is the only thing that we are OK with, in this medium, then we’re missing out on a lot of other human experiences.

i think the question of what to do to start fixing this, at least critically, is kind of a challenging one – i certainly think that games like lawhead’s or robert yang’s are aiming for a different set of experiences than games developed by triple-a gaming studios. recognizing a wider variety of experiences in gaming or being open to seeing what else is out there is never a bad thing.

but if you aimed to feature some of those less visible experiences first and foremost in a lot of gaming outlets for a broader set of perspectives, you’d also have difficulty with some audiences finding new targets to ridicule in a big way. that’s what happened to lawhead herself when double fine featured her work at day of the devs, which she talks about here and here.

in that sense, i think even the best intentions from journalists/critics have to take the potential for their criticism of art games causing something terrible for the artist into account, at least on a scale of the same outlets you were talking about in your post. they’re implicitly asking those artists to be ready to handle that harassment, which i don’t think most well-intentioned people in games journalism/criticism want to ask.


#26

So this is a very important factor that I didn’t take into account, but I’m thankful you brought up. That’s not even something I’m at all knowledgeable of how to solve! I did intentionally avoid using Alienmelon’s legal (I presume?) name in my above piece because they did not present it prominently on the store page, I figured that was the most responsible thing I could do in my own critique. But I’m unsure of what measures a bigger venue should take to protect developers, especially ones working on smaller games, from harassment.

You’re absolutely right that there’s an added responsibility that comes with covering smaller, personal games and steps taken to protect them from harrasment. And I’d guess most large outlets aren’t prepared to shoulder that? I wish I had ideas about how to tackle that :no_mouth:


#27

hey, i definitely don’t have any concrete ideas to solve the spectre of harassment that can follow larger outlets around either, whoops! so i really feel you on that. i don’t know if i’d even consider this if it wasn’t something i personally had to worry about.

what i’ve seen work least-terribly in other situations is reaching out to said artist directly and seeing what they would prefer be done, both before and after the fact – some developers want public statements of support from an outlet, for example, while others worry about it exacerbating harassment – but there’s no generally-applicable action i would suggest in every situation.

(if everyone stopped being an asshole, that’d solve a lot of these problems, but the world we live in is the one we live in, so.)


#28

i made a video that talks about this! (transcript also linked for easy skimming)

in short, we tend to, like you say, value polish and technical showmanship, and lack of seams over everything else. and once certain titles reach critical consensus it becomes really difficult to reevaluate them or push back against the narrative, especially now when a small number of people can create a big roar.

and the games that do make it through this process and become canonized tend to inform what we expect games to be, but also give us a really skewed idea of what games history is like, even purely in the mainstream space.

so we end up with a lot of biases which we don’t interrogate, and a very limited idea of what games should even try to do


#29

Thank you for sharing! I wasn’t even thinking about how historic video game canon directs how we view games that tap into similar ideas and I think that’s an excellent point. Clinging on to the canon and the expectations around how games should do things biases because “the best” always did it that way limits our views to what games “should” be. I think about this a lot with control schemes actually, as once one big game seems to bring a new control scheme in for something, it gets duplicated without much question. Like I look at how God of War and Assassin’s Creed origins are using the Demon/Dark Souls control schemes for their combat without really considering what that adds to the game (and not much imo for either). Come to think of it, non traditional control schemes might be worth looking into for future entries of this…

Once again, thank you for sharing, I’ve been really enjoying your work!


#30

So, this week if I have the time I will be diving into one of the following:

  • Butterfly Soup
  • MewnBase
  • Black Room

And after that I plan on doing a bit larger project and dive into another aspect of itch: Game Jams!
I’ll be doing a write up on the games from the Ludum Dare 34 game jam! The theme for that one was two buttons only. That should be real fun!


#31

This is a super cool idea for a thread! Definitely going to go through this later and check out some of the games mentioned.

Wanted to chime in and say All Walls Must Fall is a very unique take on the rogue like/lite and turn based strategy Genres. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s doing a lot in a relatively sparse framework


#32

I will say I have huge adoration Butterfly Soup, but also that it might partially be from my personal proclivities (i.e. i do like the gay girls)


#33

I may join you in playing Black Room this week. I wasn’t prepared for how slow its pace is when i tried to play it before. I think my expectations will be more in line this time.


#34

I’m still not sure if I’m going to play it for this upcoming piece, but I will be playing it sometime this month or in June.

I would love to have people join in and play these games. A big reason I am doing this is to do my part in trying to promote discussion of smaller games, so having someone to be able to discuss the game with… well I’d dig that!

I’ll be deciding what game to play on Wednesday.


#35

If you keep doing this throughout the summer I would love to also integrate the ‘exploring itch’ posts I’ve been doing into this, as soon as my schedule gets a bit lighter in the second half of June.


#36

Yeah, feel free to share those articles! Really anyone, feel free to share anything you’ve written. I’m going to be focusing on one project at a time, and I’d like to keep discussion focused on giving the game or games I’m focused on at the time a spotlight, but there will be gaps in time between games, and I don’t mind people sharing their writing.


#37

Alright then. A few years ago I played Electric Highways.

I was fascinated by my inability to describe the reasons I like it as much as I do.
One of my attempts to figure it out was this Let’s Play.


#38

Just sayin, it is timely;


#39

Update: I am playing the black room for the next piece
(cc @Clyde)


#40

I played Black Room for two hours this morning. I’m not sure if it is intended to be completed by a player. But I do see tonal/narrative progress as I move through it. I copied the link where I was to save it and I’ll go back later today, but I’d like to make some comments now:
Once I got a few rooms past the green pillow room, I started thinking of the beginning of Black Room as a statement of the work’s context. The description on the itch.io page describes the context, but the first rooms in the series and their furnishings introduce the way the author came across the spaces that she is depicting, and why she feels a need to depict them. I can’t tell if I am in the end of Act II or if there was a wide threshold where the Black Room transforms into fantastic conceptual spaces full of colors, furnished with game-like visual planes and there is no real end; this is just the result, what the author brings to the family tradition.
For reference, here is the room I’m in currently:
http://hgjfkdhskjdgturrgehdsbjkfhdsjkahturaytklfdjjfjfff.net/undine.html