The Light in the Forest

by Emily Worm

2022

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Number of Reviews: 3
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A low-key, welcoming fantasy, June 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Itís always nice when the first game you play in a festival or comp gets things off on the right foot, so I count myself lucky that The Light in the Forest was the lead-off game in my randomized shuffle. Admittedly, it didnít make the best first impression on me, with default-Twine formatting and a wall-of-profanity opening that situates the player in a deeply unpleasant situation Ė the protagonist is a trans woman with some mental health issues about to flee a Dickensian psychiatric facility. But the game quickly reveals that itís anything but miserabilist, as sheís soon able to make a charming, supportive reconnection with an old friend, and some creepy-yet-compelling fantasy elements start to come into the narrative (the formatting also gets more creative). While there are definitely still some intense challenges to face, the gameís grounded, low-key writing and fundamentally decent characters made my experience of playing the game a really positive one.

Most of the story is focused on the protagonistís relationship with two women Ė Mandragora, an acquaintance from school who happens to be working as a barista at the coffee shop where the protagonist takes shelter after the opening and who quickly gives her a place to stay, and Nightshade, whoís a sort of half-demon witch from another dimension with a mystic connection to her (everyone is named after plans, including the protagonist whoís called Solanine). Things with Mandy primarily focus on Solanine working through her social anxiety and ADHD in a series of well-realized set-pieces Ė thereís a complex bit about making a grilled cheese sandwich thatís almost-but-not-quite a puzzle Ė while choosing how flirty to get with someone whoís clearly into her. As to Nightshade, itís a matter of deciding what to make of a series of strange happenings and whether or not to maintain their connection or separate it. This makes the character interactions engaging on a gameplay level, beyond the often-charming dialogue itself.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy elements, which isnít always a given for me. They arenít overemphasized, but itís mentioned in passing that thereís been a magical apocalypse thatís seen demons hopping into our reality. Itís nonstandard, but I liked the fact that the world has ended but life still goes on Ė and isnít even all bad, making it a nice metaphor for the identity struggles the gameís focused on, as well as a nice idea on its own. Again, this isnít a central part of the story, and there isnít like Tolkien-style WORLDBUILDING by any means, but there are some compelling details in this part of the game, like the way Solanine performs a regular ritual to ward off negative spirits:

"You left your candlebone pen on the dresser. Ideally you would light a candle as you do this, but with only their bones and nothing for fire you are forced to make do without as you trace over the sigils on your arm."

Sure, there are some niggles here. For example, while the writing is generally strong, beyond the odd typo thereís the occasional line of clunky dialogue (at one point Mandy says ďLike I said, youíre important and I donít want to let anyone be abandoned. Especially not when everything is likely to be much worse for them because theyíre being constantly misgendered.Ē Nice idea, but a little on-the-nose). And sometimes the low-key vibe can undercut the intensity of events Ė I hadnít realized how close to panic Solanine was meant to be as she was rattling around the cabinets trying to rustle up her sandwich. Similarly, the ending I got was also more understated than I might have preferred. But none of this did much to impact how much I enjoyed my first dip into Spring Thing!