Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Love, Loss, and Murder: LudoNarraCon 2024

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Since 2019, FellowTraveller has been hosting LudoNarraCon, a global, digital convention celebrating narrative video games, the talented people who make them, and the fans who love them. Every year since I’ve been playing video games more regularly, I’ve tried to play the demos hosted by the con and this year’s games have been wonderful!

Usually there are some common themes across the games each year, and this year we’ve got love, loss, murder, mystery, and so much more from developers all around the world! Ludonarrative is the intersection between narrative and play and below are some of the demos that I enjoyed the most that highlight this connection. There’s an option for every gamer among this year’s crop of games.

The Posthumous Investigation

From Mother Gaia Studio, The Posthumous Investigation is a reshaping and blending of Brazilian writer Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas where Brás Cubas has been murdered and tasked the player to solve his murder. In black and white, you play as a detective who has one day to solve the mystery because you’re in a time loop!

Originally a game jam prototype, a federal grant issued by ANCINE (the Brazilian National Cinema Agency) allowed Mother Gaia Studio to turn it into a full-length investigative interactive narrative game! The team felt that it needed more depth beyond just a time loop investigation, so they “came up with the idea of adapting the work of Machado de Assis, a 19th-century author that happens to be the most influential writer in Brazil. When we tried to mix the noir ambiance that was already in our prototype with the themes of Realism explored by Machado, we realized we had something good on our hands.” — Bruno Toledo, Creative Director

I am so glad that was the direction the developers took because this was one of the best demos I’ve played in a long time, and it was a lengthy one too! There is a specific endpoint to the demo which you can only reveal by talking to all the characters and going through a number of loops after investigating and finding certain items and statements made by various characters.

I had a ton of fun playing the beautifully illustrated and designed demo, and can’t wait to find out how the rest of the game plays, especially because of its direct homage to the original Cubas story and the rest of Assis’ work. (Which, look him up, he was a fascinating guy!)

Minds Beneath Us

Do you ever wake up and wonder if something isn’t quite right? Minds Beneath Us is an adventure about a guy and the data ghost living in his head and controlling his body after society has become fully automated with AI. The most disadvantaged of citizens have had no choice but to link their brains to the internet, and of course, anytime there’s AI, there’s a murderous conspiracy!

Players make their own dialogue choices which shape the relationships between characters and impact the story. Throughout the demo and the full game, you’ll investigate for hidden clues and objects to help you unlock new dialogue and action choices. Set in a futuristic Taipei, Taiwanese BearBone Studio has delivered what looks like a fascinating side-scrolling text adventure game.

I don’t want to give too much away because the experience of playing through the demo is really intriguing and worth doing unspoiled, but starting out as one character and then ending the demo as another was super twisty and I am so curious to find out more! Dropping the player right into the drama and action is a great way to start a story.

Nova Hearts

Magical girl sequences! Battles with weird furry creatures! People turning into werewolves! Nova Hearts from French studio Lightbulb Crew follows Luce and her friends Will and CJ who have been turned into superheroes at a party after Luce returns from college in a different city. Romance, battling, and of course a mystery are all present in this really fun visual novel meets turn-based battle game.

The art, music, and animations are lovely but I do hope the final version will have a variety of baddies to battle. While there are powerups (which you can enable after gaining points in each battle), it’s unclear how much diversity there will be in the battles themselves which take place between what seems like nearly every major interaction. This is not a bad thing BUT could become repetitive in a way that detracts from the overall experience.

Still, I enjoyed the hour and half that I spent playing through what the team titled Chapter 1 and am very intrigued to see how my actions and dialogue choices impact the relationships forming between Luce, her friends, and other characters that we meet. Unlike most games that include phones as part of the mechanics, Nova Hearts is genuinely all about Luce’ phone which has multiple apps including a news app that provides information as the game progresses from the town’s new and upcoming journalist, May. (Also a love interest? Maybe?)

The game is supposed to come out this summer so I’m definitely keeping an eye on it!

Afterlove EP

From the creator of Coffee Talk comes a slice-of-life adventure set in modern Jakarta about love, loss, and finding your own way forward. Afterlove EP follows Rama, a young musician struggling to move on with life after the death of his girlfriend, Cinta. The game begins by introducing all the characters before moving a year after Cinta’s passing. Rama has neglected his music, mental health, and his relationships. Oh, and he’s been hearing her voice.

Plus he’s only got a month before a critical gig with his band, so either he gets serious about his music or the band will move around him. As the player, you explore the city, choose which relationships to repair, and come to terms with your past.

Afterlove EP is a beautiful narrative adventure, dating sim, and rhythm game. It’s also bittersweet. About one person’s loss, it’s also about the loss that Pikselnesia felt after founder Mohammad Fahmi’s passing. I can’t imagine how the rest of the team must have felt while finishing the game, but they pledged to complete the game and bring his final project to fruition.

The Mermaid Mask
The Mermaid Mask, two colorfully drawn characters in front of a submarine with green light coming from it

A follow-up to Tangle Tower by British developer SFB Games, in The Mermaid Mask, players must investigate the murder of Magnus Mortuga, the captain of the world’s strangest submarine. Grimoire and Sally are two investigators who venture to the submarine and find an eclectic set of puzzles and clues, each revealing a bit more about the murder and implying that there is some Creepy As Heck Ish Going On.

Mortuga was found in a locked room with an ancient stone cauldron that had up until the finding of his body, had been closed…Oh boy. The demo is short but provides enough of the game to provide a good experience and preview of the full game. I haven’t played Tangle Tower but after this demo definitely want to especially if the puzzle in Mermaid Mask is reflective of the puzzles in the former game. For example in the demo, you must rotate four dials into the correct arrangement. While the first puzzle is pretty easy to understand, if you do get stuck you get hints (which is good because some games don’t have them and then you get stuck and give up on the game…)!

There’s also a map and you can see how many rooms there are in the submarine that I assume you’ll have to traverse back and forth as more clues and maybe characters are revealed. The colors remind me of Courage the Cowardly Dog and Scooby-Doo so I am ready to dive into the full game!

Moses & Plato – Last Train to Clawville

The final murder mystery (that I played) from this year’s games is Moses & Plato – Last Train to Clawville from Hungarian team The Wild Gentlemen, and the newest entry in their World of Wilderness. Following detectives Moses and Plato who have been tasked to protect an ambassador and his daughter on a train (love me a bottle mystery). And of course, the ambassador is murdered leaving Moses as the suspect.

Throughout the game, you’ll have to decide which locations to investigate and which characters to interrogate before certain time-locked events. You’ll be able to smell, view, and hear for clues, and connect the various characters together in a Mind Garden (which is very useful). If you can’t figure out the actual killer before the train reaches the last station, well. Good luck to you and also now there’s a war breaking out. Aiya!

For as much as I don’t enjoy media about cops, playing as furry detectives (and PIs or the like) is always a lot of fun in video games for me. Especially because Moses and Plato are hilarious. I also have no clue about their relationship but I hope they’re more than just besties and partners and was really intrigued by how much information we learn about both of them in just the first 35 minutes or so of the game. I’m definitely planning to give the other games in this universe a try if I can get over the bugs.

Pine: A Story of Loss

Finally, Pine: A Story of Loss from Made Up Games is this gorgeous mix of illustration and animation following a woodworker who is grieving the loss of his wife. Told wordlessly through interactions that pull you into his experiences, the game came out of one of the creator’s own losses and is immersive and emotional.

His simple daily chores of tending to his garden or collecting wood for the next winter are interrupted by memories of the happy times they spent together. Desperate not to forget her, the woodworker captures these memories in beautiful carvings out of the wood he collects.

As the player, you’ll click on things as prompted and motion with the mouse to cut down wood and branches, pick up plants, and fill buckets of water in the demo. You’ll also carve unique mementos captured from his memories as you prepare for the upcoming winter. The demo was about half an hour so I can’t imagine the game itself is too much longer as it’s meant to be played in one setting.

With diverse designs of characters, settings, and plots, these seven games are just a taste of what LudoNarraCon has to offer this year and I can’t wait to keep playing the demos! Find out more about these games and the panels on LudoNarraCon and Steam.

Images courtesy of FellowTravellr

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