A genuinely touching and occasionally quite moving “interactive” romantic novel that I’m glad I played and that I would recommend….
… except for the pacing.
Oh my sweet FUCK the pacing.
Page 28, Game 16: Animal Lover by Trainwreck Studios
So, just as a reminder, in the very likely event that you’re reading these reverse-chronologically: the game is named Animal Lover, and the tagline is “Five boys, five animals, more trouble than they’re worth.” And I very deliberately chose to make my bestiality joke in meta format, by claiming I was not going to make a bestiality joke.
Hold that thought.
You are a 22-year-old woman, still living at home, working as an administrative intern for a veterinary clinic over the summer. You’ll be returning to school soon, where you’re studying to be a proper vet yourself.
A bunch of irrelevant incidental “scene setting” shit happens, then an adorable little girl walks in with an adorable little hamster named Hamchop.
He reminds you of your own childhood hamster, Mr. Barbasol. So cuuuuute! He shoves his adorable little hamster nose outside of the cage as you’re taking him back, and on impulse, you lean forward and kiss him right on the snoot.
At which point he immediately turns into a very naked dude.
At which point your humble reviewer is suddenly all “OMFG THIS GAME IS GOING TO ASK ME TO FUCK A HAMSTER.”
But, no. Turns out our boy Edmund here is a prince from Ye Olden times who’s been suffering under a witch’s curse — and your kiss has transformed him back into a human for the first time in hundreds of years. Hoory!
You get him some thrift-store clothes (you’re a broke-ass college student living at home working as an intern, you don’t exactly have a lot of liquidity here), and then he drops another bombshell on you; he thinks he saw another critter who was just like him back when he was a shelter’s office pet. A cat that, to his eyes, had another human dude trapped inside of it. So you head down to shelter and sure enough, when you adopt and kiss a raggedy-ass cat named Apollo….
… you get some more hot guy wang as Frankie enters the game.
This raises the question: how many guys like this are out there, witch-accursed and doomed to live as critters? Well, you now have TWO boys who can spot ’em, so you may as well find out. But there’s a problem; you transformation kiss suppresses the curse, but doesn’t remove it. At night, someone has to get re-critterfied.
This game gets a lot of things right. In a lot of ways, the characters you encounter (including, as the tagline indicates, a total of five cursed critter-boys) all have a lot of depth and thought put into them. The game explores pieces of this wacked-out situation in a very intelligent, grounded way. There are scenes that are honestly quite moving. This is billed as a “dating sim,” so I put on my best straight-girl mask and decided Frankie (a refugee from the 50’s) was the one I was most interested in and … yeah, as simulated boyfriends go, it was a compelling relationship. I played it until the end.
… which took somewhere in the ballpark of six hours.
As many things as the game gets right, it gets just as many wrong — and the pacing is, by a mile, the biggest issue. SIX. GODDAMN. HOURS. Of reading, and clicking. Reading, and clicking. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click. Read, click.
The game gave me just enough — and I mean only barely by the skin of its teeth JUST enough — interesting stuff to read that I kept going. The majority of the time I spent on this game was with literary packing peanuts, pointless bullshit that ought to have been summarized in a sentence — preferably packaged with another set of pointless bullshit in the very same sentence.
But, no. Click, a sentence starts to appear, describing how the doctor has not checked her messages, and is asking you if she has anything. Click, the sentence stops slow-rolling and simply appears. Click, click, sentence saying you don’t know. Click, click, uhm. Click, click, no. Click, click, doc says she’ll give you stuff to do in a minute. Click, click, take your time, doc. Click, click, rush over to the answering machine. Click, click, the machine has three messages. Click, click, Dr. McMillen! Click, click, …she said. Click, click, yes protagonist? Click, click, hey, there are three messages. Click click, who from? Click, click, uhm. Click click, I dunno. Click click, okay, listen to them. Click, click, sure, I’ll do this obvious and mundane part of my job. Click, click, I feel bad about lying when I told my boss I got in early when in fact I only barely beat her through the door. Click, click, I want things to be good. Click, click, the answering machine as a blinking play button. Click, click, I press the button. Click, click, hi there. Click click, doctor. Click click, we are doing a survey. Click, click, BEEP. Click, click, that beep was me stopping the call as it was not important. Click, click, the doc hates robo-calls. Click, click, her hatred of robo-calls actually makes me nervous. Click, click, now I’m pressing the delete key. Click click….
And to make sure I’m not exaggerating, to make sure I’m accurately describing how click-tastically tedious the gameplay often winds up being, I just replayed that section of the game. It is an accurate summary of gameplay. You’re welcome.
There are two more messages to go. None of them are relevant. None of them are meaningful. None of them make so much as the barest contribution to the story this game is telling, none of them do anything to help establish the theme or the tone or drop little worldbuilding nuggets that will pay off later, none of them do anything except exist and pad-out the runtime. And yet to get to the good parts of the game, you must click, and click, and click.
I have had this exact complaint in other visual-novel-style games, enough so that the part of my brain that tries to force me to be fair in spite of myself wants to say hey, it’s just a convention of the genre. Maybe what I perceive as tedious, glacial pacing is, for a true fan who would have actually played this game deliberately and not because a random number generator told them to, part of the chill laid-back appeal. Part of me wants to believe that I’m just being unfair.
But the rest of me calls bullshit, because I’ve seen this before: in fiction. Specifically, un- or self-published fiction. Novels, short stories, whatever — the author just goes on and on and on and on and on and on about pointless bullshit the reader has absolutely no reason to care about, at all.
Writing fiction is hard — but actually writing the words is SO much easier than DELETING the words. The difference between amateurs and pros is often that the pros can CUT things. Amateurs frequently make the mistake of thinking that every word they write must be read. That the more time they spend on a project, the more more worthwhile it is. That if some trivial nugget about their character’s existence is interesting to them, it will be interesting to the reader.
They are wrong.
I have seen this dynamic play out, over and over again, in every flavor of written media I’ve ever engaged with. It absolutely plays out here.
Which is a shame because, like I said, the good bits are very often QUITE good when the story can be arsed to actually get to them.
Unfortunately, I have to qualify my praise for the good bits. As a work of speculative fiction, Animal Lover is sloppy as hell. Not awful, not a complete disaster. But sloppy.
It explores some parts of the burgeoning situation, but not all — and the omissions glare. For instance, there’s the question of where are these temporally-displaced boys are going to stay or what they’re going to eat — as mentioned, you are a broke-ass college student/intern, so your resources are limited. So, that’s good!
But, how does the kiss-to-de-critterize thing work? Are YOU the only one who can do it, or can the boys, like, kiss each other when one of them goes back into critter mode? The question is not even asked until very deep into the game, and even then, it’s asked and answered off-screen by your best friend (who honestly seems kinda sheepish about kissing one of “your” critter-boys) in what feels like a throw-in to address a beta reader complaint. All characters assume that you are the only one with the magic lips needed to transform them back to humans. This rings outrageously false, and seems like one of the first things the guys involved would try figure out.
Ditto for the whole “temporal displacement” thing. Some of these guys have been critters for a long-ass time. Now, it turns out that they’re not just one single critter — Prince Hamster hasn’t just been one single hamster. Every time a hamster-him dies he’s reborn as a new hamster, and given that the little fuckers only live a few years, he’s been a LOT of hamsters. That’s good! That’s well thought-out! An immortal hamster would frankly have drawn a bit of attention!
But why does he take to the modern world so easily and casually? I mean, I don’t want to WALLOW in fish-out-of-water olden-times time traveler tropes, but it seems worth acknowledging, at the very least — and it only barely gets the occasional nod here and there.
What about 50’s refugee Frankie? Frankie, like everyone else in this game regardless of their original era, speaks flawless modern idiomatic English except for those rare moments when the game remembers that his slang would sound completely different, daddy-o. His transformation was recent enough that it’s plausible some of the people he knew are still around — but very, very old. There’s no Steve Rogers visiting Peggy Carter on her deathbed here, though; that aspect of the character is never explored. Nor is the fact that his mother, who he lived with loved very much, surely died decades ago. Frankie doesn’t process that grief — or any other grief, really. Why did we not have a scene where Frankie looked up her obituary?
Other characters were transformed recently enough that most of the people they knew are still around … but probably not all. Surely they’d learn of some unwelcome deaths if they bothered to look. But, no. Nobody bothers to look up friends or family. It’s like nobody outside of this little circle exists.
There is one exception to the rule, when one character bumps into an old friend by happenstance, and it’s wrenching. The guy grew and changed without him, and it feels like a betrayal, even if it was perfectly natural. It’s one of the aforementioned Good Parts I referred to. It raises the question of why the game had so few other moments like it.
There is another partial exception, in that one of the boys got transformed very recently, within the past year — and he makes NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to reach out to the people who PROBABLY WONDER WHERE THE FUCK HE VANISHED TO and had just resigned themselves to both him being dead and to them never getting a definitive answer on it one way or the other.
Dick move, bro. Or did you just hate everybody?
There’s other sloppiness. Edmund’s Ye Olden Times home country is referred to as Rosalie, which I presume is somewhere between Florin and Guilder. He doesn’t know when he was transformed because, despite being an educated noble, he apparently didn’t know what dates were (and as best anybody can figure it was before the Salem witch trials). His country and culture are apparently so ancient that they’ve been forgotten completely, and yet he seems to carry absolutely none of it with him or mourn the loss of an entire world. That’s just fucking lazy.
The game lasted about six hours. For the amount of content it actually contains, it should have been over and done with in two. Or, the dev could have kept it at six hours but replaced all the tedious minutiae with interesting stuff (of which there was SO MUCH left unmined). Either one would have made the game immeasurably better.
… assuming this actually needs to be a “game” in the first place. I’m not convinced that it does. The decision points in this “game” are few and far between, and often aggressively irrelevant.
At one point early in the game, my vet boss asks me WTF is going on. Well, that loud clatter was a hamster exploding into a hot boy! Do I lie, or not lie?
I chose “not lie.” “Not lie” seemed like it was shaping up into one of the game’s themes, and at that moment I was still getting a feel for the game’s world. Maybe the doc would be like “Holy shit, a werehamster? I haven’t seen one of those since my first year at the clinic!”
Instead, after I chose to not lie, the game told me I’d chosen wrong and I lied anyway.
Gaming is an interactive medium. Animal Lover is barely interactive, and often only grudgingly so. At another point, I tried to take things in a racy direction to see what would happen. The game wagged its finger at me. Shame! It’s a dating sim, but not THAT kind of dating sim! SHAME!
I eventually wound up with Frankie, and while he was definitely who amongst the critter-boys I found most appealing (dude seems like he REALLY wants to grow as a person), I do not have the slightest bit of confidence my own choices influenced that outcome.
But I did play it to the end. I did want to see how it came out, and the last hour or so is tense AF. Granted, up until that final hour (and sometimes even within it, gyah), it was switching back and forth between “Keeping me interested” and “Wasting my fucking time” so aggressively that I sincerely wondered whether I’d wind up glad I stuck with it or pissed-off at myself for throwing good money after bad. The game wound up landing on “glad I stuck with it.”
But that is indeed where it landed.
I’m not sure I can actually, you know, recommend this game. But given that I’m glad to have played it, I’m not sure whether it’s right to not recommend it either. I suppose if you’re a fan of the genre, you might dig it less ambiguously than I did.
I will say that if I encounter another game from this developer, I’ll be willing to give it enough benefit of the doubt to stick with it for a while. That’s more — MUCH more — than I can say for the majority of the visual novels I’ve come across thus far. There were a lot of good moments here. If only they comprised the actual bulk of the game.
Will this next game scold me for sexualizing hanging out with attractive people in a hot tub in our underwear?
Page 2, Game 3: Long Gone Days by Camila Gormaz
“Modern-day RPG that imagines the world of war that’s coming for us, with a focus on civilians and language barriers.”
I’m thinking no hot tub shenanigans of any sort, sexy or chaste.