This Is A Picture Book

by A. Merc Rustad


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Go, Jo, Go! …right?, December 3, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Twine, Horror, Sub-Q

This game is NOT for kids.

Page 1: This is Jo. Jo wants to go on an adventure!

You are reading a storybook about a boy named Jo who seeks to overcome adversary to reach a mountain and climb it. The narration depicts a fun adventure but inserted text on each page reveals how Jo really feels about the story.

Gameplay structure follows the concept of reading a storybook from start to finish. You click on a link at the bottom of the screen to flip to pages in the "book.” On the screen are additional links that allow you to explore Jo’s perspective as the protagonist of a storybook.

(It's almost over. Stop reading. Please.)

Turn to page 10...

There is more to this game than clicking on links to read a story in a picture book.

"Stop reading" and "Turn to page 10..." are both links that places Jo's predicament into the player’s hands. One hears what Jo has to say about the scene while the other simply moves forward with the story. This opens new avenues for the player to explore which then changes the gameplay.

The main plot element is that (Spoiler - click to show) characters recognize that they are cartoon characters in a storybook and that there are countless copies of the book that feature the same characters with the same struggles. As for Jo, he has experienced the same linear story of climbing the mountain repeatedly. Every time someone picks up the book to read it, he must relive the whole thing.

If you dutifully follow the page sequences straight to the end, (Spoiler - click to show) Jo manages to make an appeal when you reach the final page. He wants you to free him by ripping out the page to ensure the story never ends. That way he no longer endures the pattern of traveling to the mountain and climbing it.

The player has two choices. (Spoiler - click to show) They can rip out the page like Jo requested or close the book. Both led to lackluster endings consisting of a few words on the screen. I was expecting them to have a little more substance. Fortunately, it is possible to (Spoiler - click to show) reach an alternate conclusion by diving deeper. If you ignore the page sequences and explore the links on the screen you reach hidden content that takes the game in a whole new direction. That’s when the story starts to take off.

Clicking on other links reveal (Spoiler - click to show) Jo’s daydreams and idle thoughts of what he would do if he had free agency over the storybook that he is trapped within. These scenes depict violence, self-harm, and other subjects that depart from the picture book’s cheerful story. It also details the frustrations he endured and outlines his plan for vengeance on the author of the picture book if he had a chance to escape. If you explore these grievances enough, you can reach an alternate ending. It is similar to an ending that I previously mentioned but feels more like a solid outcome that ties the story together with no loose ends.

There is some cynical humor to the story and its protagonist. A (Spoiler - click to show) “children’s book” that jumps off the deep end with a dramatic shift in story tone. One minute a good-natured boy meets a friendly bear, and the next thing we see is the boy killing the bear instead. However, not all of it is a laughing matter. There are themes that make the humor less lighthearted and the story’s content more serious. But different elements can add dimension.

This is a PC who feels trapped. Jo often looks (Spoiler - click to show) for ways of committing suicide to escape the story but fails every time. The difficult part is that once Jo shares his grievances in an alternate scene the game then launches us back into the main storybook gameplay so that Jo can go through the exact thing he was talking about. At least I can say that it is possible for Jo to be free and seek vengeance. Closure, if you will.

A white section of page is used for the picture book which is then set against a pale blue backdrop. As a picture book it naturally features cartoon artwork. If this were a book for kids, I would say that the artwork’s style is a tad mediocre, but it has a crude quality that suggests a dissonance (or maybe it’s just the parts with the (Spoiler - click to show) blood). I have no idea if this is what the author intended but it pairs perfectly with the story and gameplay.

I like choice-based games that reveal a sinister truth and convey it with an abrupt change in visuals that tells the player in unveiled terms that they overstepped or disobeyed and should get with the program. The player has no choice but to follow the game’s orders, infusing the remaining gameplay a sense of dread. The game i love gardening comes to mind. If you refuse to garden, well…

This Is A Picture Book is a bit different in that the player is not being herded into making one specific decision. They still have choices even if Jo does not, but the change in the game’s appearance still indicates that there is a darker layer underneath this sunshiny story book. Things escalate.

The shock value comes in when you first encounter Joe’s (Spoiler - click to show) alternative narratives that dispose of the bright colours and outdoor scenery. Disturbing imagery is used. For instance, a friendly bear frolics on the green grass next to a clear blue lake. Next, the bear is dead on a stretch of concrete with red blood pooling from its neck. A noticeable transition that packs a punch.

Final thoughts
Right from the start you know that there is something wrong with Jo’s situation, but you do not know the extent of it until you go off the beaten path to explore the links that reveal the story underneath. I liked how the game rewarded the player interacting with more links by adding an ending that felt cohesive, humorous, and a place to finish playing. Hidden cynical horror with a catchy concept. I feel like people are either going to like it or dislike it. If you are comfortable with its graphic themes (Spoiler - click to show) (violence, self-harm, mentions of suicide, blood) then try it.