I should have a review of Cage’s Matchstick Men (2003) coming up soon, but in the meantime, I thought I’d bring to your attention some wonderful games by my friend Ebi-Hime. I know some of you readers who know me in person know that she makes games, while other Cageaholics won’t have heard of her before. Anyway, for those of you who have wondered where to start with Ebi-Hime’s prolific output and for those who have never even played a visual novel before, this post will put things bang to rights!!
So. A visual novel is a story-game you read on your computer. Sometimes there will be choices, sometimes not. Visual novels are like comic books in that they combine words with images and like films in that they often use music and tend to be dialogue based. They are like games because they involve interaction and sometimes choices and rules. They are generally very simple to read though, so non-gamers will not have a problem. Generally, the mouse is used to click through dialogue screens / pictures and occasionally a choice of two or more options might pop up and you choose the one you prefer (or feel is the most appropriate for the character). They tend to be written in first or second person. The player / reader occupies the mind of a character and experiences the things the character experiences. A lot of visual novels are quite light and some are erotic, though none of the ones Ebi-Hime makes include any sexual or explicit scenes. For those of you who get a taste for the medium, I would recommend Umineko: When They Cry, which is a mind-bending magical murder mystery investigation into the nature of truth; Chaos;Head, which is a gritty and atmospheric conspiracy theory horror; and G Senjō no Maō / The Devil on G-string, which is a wonderfully involving story about a young man whose father is a Mafioso. The latter two are a little adolescent in tone and contain some eroge elements, but are certainly worth a look. The singular nature of the visual novel medium (and the fact that they can often rely on slow pacing to achieve deep character development) can mean that they translate very badly into the medium of anime. Frankly, the Umineko and Chaos Head anime should both be avoided.
Anyway, this post is not about the visual novel medium per se (which I have limited experience with) but Ebi-Hime’s best games. I’ll start at the top, but I’d recommend all of the below and suggest you take a look at whichever piques your interest.
1.) Lily of the Valley
A short game with only one choice at the end, perfect for those who have never experienced the medium before. Lily of the Valley puts you in the shoes of a man in his early 30s stuck in a dead-end call-centre job, travelling back to Wales for the funeral of his mother, where he meets a young girl, who identifies herself as one of his mother’s students. The game is a subtle, but quietly searing portrait of male entitlement. Tonally, the experience is melancholy, but not without humour, like the most low-key episodes of Peep Show. The male character is a well-written man from a young, female writer, who is sketched sympathetically, if not positively. The narrative is simply, but the episodic, chapter style keeps things propulsive. The music is very well suited to the game and the backgrounds are minimal, but pretty. It may come across as overly critical of the depressive / melancholic mind-set, but I think it is more critical of the inability of many men (including myself) to see things from other’s perspectives… or at least, to de-centre oneself from the narrative of life. One of the psychological effects of patriarchy is that it allows men to see themselves as ‘neutral’ i.e. when a woman of colour looks into a mirror, she is trained by society to see a woman of colour reflected back at her. When a cis, able-bodied white man looks into a mirror, he sees a human being. The game remains the player that their life is not simply their own and that one cannot escape the inter-connectedness of existence, nor our reliance upon other human beings. It is a harshly compassionate work. The equivalent of a Kurt Vonnegut epigram.
2.) White Box
A sad, small story about a girl who is dying in hospital and wants love and attention from an older, male doctor. The narrative is pretty straight-forward (although I certainly can’t think of enough examples of the same story to justify calling it clichéd) but the characterisation is keenly observed and the moral issue at its heart – what level of intimacy / friendliness is appropriate for a doctor-patient relationship? – is carefully handled and does not veer into exploitative territory. The story is morally nuanced and the doctor is never characterised as a villain, even as he steps over lines of ethical practice. In fact, it feels like a very morally sober, even distanced work, which probably displays the influence of Ryū Murakami upon Ebi-Hime’s writing. The story contains aspects of melodrama, yet the tears it brought to my eyes felt earnt. It is a non-choice based visual novel, so it functions less as a game, than as an immersive story. The experiences of the author in hospital (as briefly related in the author’s notes) provide emotional authenticity to the depiction of hospital life. A well-balanced sentimental thing to make you sad, but with a realistic, all-too-human pair of leading characters.
Or listen to and watch it read online here (albeit in somewhat silly voices):
3.) The Way We All Go
This one is an epic. You play a short, shy and generally amicable young lad back for the holidays to the small town here he grew up. You haven’t been back for two years. Unfortunately, the last time you left, you didn’t exactly tell everyone that you were leaving. Your tendency to avoid conflict is not your most flattering trait. Even more unfortunately, you have friends with what might be called ‘yandere’ tendencies. Try to let friendship shine and romance blossom! While not getting yourself killed! In many ways, The Way We All Go is a gleefully dark game since there is a perverse pleasure in seeing your rather hapless protagonist bumped off. However, it also has genuine emotional heft and the tragic back-story of one of the characters is portrayed with convincing brutality. Tonally, the game is a curious mix of the breezily light and the gloomily dark, but it all comes together in a very pleasing, coherent fashion. It is also remarkably ambitious, sporting twenty different endings and a myriad of branching paths. As such, it is highly interactive, but some useful built-in systems such as the ability to skip text you’ve already read and a screen that saves a list of the different endings, ensures that it has high replayability value. If you like goofy jokes, light-hearted romance and a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence (although nothing very explicit or gory, just some rather bloody descriptions) I’d thoroughly recommend The Way We All Go. I’d probably give it an age rating of 12 or 15, depending on your mileage.
Download it here for whatever price you choose:
It is far longer than most amateur visual novels, with some very cute art (as pictured!) and some gorgeous photoshopped backgrounds. It probably deserves a couple of pounds or more.
A complete walkthrough for the game is here:
4.) Schoolgirl x Squid
Probably the game that Ebi-Hime is best known for and certainly the goofiest. Anyone who has criticised the game for being too clichéd is missing the point that it’s a light-hearted parody and relentlessly silly. That said, one of the ending still made my friend Peter cry and brought me close to tears, so it’s not all laughs! In short, it is a game in which you date a squid. I like this because it rescues squid-human relationships from the unpleasant and squicky realm of hentai to the world of pure heroine romance. It is also a very educational game in which you will learn fun facts about squids and their uptake. The story doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense and it is important to remember that the main character sometimes sees her pet squid as a teenaged boy (but then, she is lonely and bullied and she is in love with her squid). It’s sort of heart-warming and sort of head-shaking and mostly very entertaining. I certainly enjoyed the experience of getting to date a squid. The art is bright and cheerful C.G.I. and ms paint drawings. It doesn’t look as slick as The Way We All Go, but neither is it meant to. It is however a great deal of fun.
Be amused by some people on a forum playing it here:
5.) Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan!
Goobier and goobier! Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan! is a game in which you play the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as a cute 14-year-old magical girl. If you want to know how and why Slavoj Žižek transformed from a cute maiden into a bearded grumpy intellectual, play this game (clue: it’s mostly Jacques Lacan’s fault). Ebi-hime does a good job at making her heroine talk like Žižek, with Žižek’s popular catch-phrases “And so on” and “Whatever whatever” both in use! In truth, this game is not quite the educational master-work of Schoolgirl x Squid, although one will learn the basics of Žižek’s philosophy and pessimistic, misanthropic outlook on life. It is probably 2 parts magical girl to 1 part Žižek. However, it is a game in which you play Slavoj Žižek as a magical girl. This is clearly something that needed to exist and I am glad that Ebi-Hime made it and I am proud to be a friend of the creator of such an illustrious work.
For some reason, Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan! crops up on Steam’s online community. It clearly has some devoted fans… as well it might!!
So, that about round up Ebi-Hime’s best games. Her new work in the making looks to be as huge and epic as The Way We All Go, but with a fantasy setting. We can but hope there will be slime girls!
Of course, being friends with Ebi-Hime, I have been somewhat biased in my write-up above. But I genuinely people her game-stories are a lot of fun, which a great balance between silliness and emotional weight. Lilly of the Valley in particular hit me hard (I get the impression it was somewhat intended for me, though apparently I’m not quite as bad as the main character, albeit just as melancholic and neurotic… at the very least, the customers who insult him at his call-centre job have been lifted from my own experience!) and I think The Way We All Go is a very impression achievement. I can’t wait to see what someone so prolific and talented produces over the coming years.
Ebi-Hime’s game Tumblr is here: