I’ve been on a bit of a Visual Novel kick recently, inspired by a post on Queereka about Christine Love‘s new sequel to Analogue: A Hate Story, Hate Plus. I’m actually planning on discussing both those games here when I get the chance to write about them more thoroughly, but for those interested in her work generally, I wrote a review of don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story for School of Doubt just a couple of weeks ago.
Today I’m going to be focusing on a different game, though, that quickly made it into my to-play queue once I started looking for more examples of the genre from indie developers. The premise of Chris Cornell‘s Save the Date is, well, that you are going out on a date with a nice girl named Felicia and you need to save her from a number of improbably dangerous scenarios.
SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT: I would advise playing the game a bit before proceeding, as my commentary will thoroughly ruin most of the game. It takes about an hour or so, all told, though each individual playthrough is quite short.
Okay. Played it? Good. If you decided to willfully spoil yourself to this little gem of a game, well, shame on you.
So let me say right out of the gate that I very much enjoy games that play with narrative and metafiction, although I’m aware that this isn’t many gamers’ cup of tea. In this case I thought Cornell’s manipulation of the expectations associated with the Visual Novel and games generally was quite clever and genuinely thought-provoking from a design standpoint.
In Save the Date, the only way to win is not to play. Of course, we know this isn’t quite true in the sense that neither of the game’s “winning scenarios” are actually satisfying to play.
(For those who didn’t play or didn’t finish the game: it turns out that there really is no way to save Felicia on your date within the confines of the game mechanics. While at the beginning of the game you are able to use the knowledge gained in certain scenarios to overcome certain roadblocks, there eventually comes a time when all dialogue trees are exhausted and it becomes clear that there is no way past the alien invasion. However, after a certain number of playthroughs the game over caused by cancelling the date at the beginning of the game is turned into a “good?” ending, in the sense that Felicia survives and leads a happy life.)
The most interesting path in the game is, of course, the one where you have the extended conversation with Felicia about storytelling mechanics (including references to Groundhog Day and Chrono Trigger!). Amidst the rubble of the long-broken fourth wall, she asks you, the player, to close the game and write your own ending to the story. This is, of course, completely contrary to everything we expect and desire from a game narrative, and it is quite difficult to actually close the window on her and do as she says.
Particularly striking is her vivid anger if you actually admit you are ignoring her plea to stop and condemning her to death purely for the sake of completing a dialogue tree (essentially the defining mechanic of the branching VN). Which of course you eventually have to do in order to complete the dialogue tree.
After this kind of dramatic tension, it feels perfunctory and deeply unsatisfying to restart the game just to give Felicia the brush-off. Even worse is the “hacker” ending, easily found if one is inspired by the conversation about breaking the frame of the narrative to look through the Ren’Py files in the game directory. Written like incoherent wish-fulfillment fanfiction of a barely literate eight-year-old, it chastises the player for trying to manipulate gameplay rather than the narrative, and for thinking the developer might have written a real ending after all.
On that note, here is my ending to the story.
Felicia: …so…You’re still here. I’m still here. You’ve already been mangling the story by reloading, restarting, and undoing your choices after you see where they lead. Why are you getting cold feet now? What’s the problem here? Seriously. Quit the game. Walk away. Write whatever ending you want for me in your head. Whatever you imagine will be every bit as real and valid as whatever the game is telling you to imagine…
…why are we still here? Why haven’t you started writing your own ending yet?
Player: I have. I’m deciding where things go now!
Felicia: Oh. I was expecting something more immediate and dramatic. I guess I’m not really in a position to criticize, though.
You stand silently a few more moments, watching the meteor shower. As the seconds tick by, you realize with a sigh of relief that the aliens have not appeared. Perhaps this is working after all.
Felicia: So…does this mean it’s safe for me to go home?
Player: …wait. There’s something…in the midst of all of this…something I never found out. And I suppose now this is my only chance to ask.
Felicia: I see. And what was it?
Player: Through all the dates, all the deaths, all the conversations right here on this bench…I never did find out why you wanted to get together.
You have trouble reading her expression in the dim light. She looks, if anything, wistful.
She turns her eyes away from you and toward the city lights.
Felicia: Since we met, I always thought we had this…connection…and…I thought maybe you felt it too…
You nod, but she is still looking away.
Felicia: …and I wanted to tell you, before things went any further, that…I’m dying.
But the future refused to change.