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Nice mice, January 10, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
I worry that, just as with people, it can come off patronizing to call a game “adorable,” so I’ve been staring at the thesaurus for the last five minutes. Esther’s is “cute” and “appealing”, sure, but that undersells how winsome it is. Is it “precious”? Nah, that sounds too cloying. “Captivating” and “enchanting” miss how pleasantly low-key it is, and after that, let’s just say the line of proposed synonyms that start with “dreamy” and proceed from there are a bit too adult for this children’s-book-aping Twine game. Sorry, folks – I guess we’re stuck with “adorable.”
In the best picture-book tradition, the game stars two mice, Janie and Harold, and follow them on their way to their favorite brunch spot, the eponymous Esther’s. Said café is run by a little girl who’s a thoughtful host in every way save one – she doesn’t understand the mice’s squeaky language, so always serves them cheese and crackers, rather than the mimosas and avocado toast they’re craving (Janie and Harold must be millennials). Today’s the day when they decide to really make an effort and get through to Esther – and it’s up to the player to help.
This is a cute premise for sure, and it could come off twee, but I don’t think it goes too far. Partly this is due to the lovely illustrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in a real children’s book – they have a textured, watercolor quality and a neat attention to detail: look closely at the opening image, which shows Janie bringing flowers while Harold carries her library books, and you can see she’s checked out Goodnight Moon. And I won’t spoil the one where Janie tries to mime an avocado, but it got the first out-loud laugh of the Comp out of me.
The prose also hits just the right note, with simple, clear sentences but a sly turn of phrase here and there to make it fun for a grown-up to read, too:
"Janie buttered an invisible toast and pretended to nibble at it. Harold stuffed his pretend toast in his mouth. He licked his fingers with pretend satisfaction."
It’s nothing fancy, but the repeated use of “pretend” setting up “pretend satisfaction” is cleverly done.
The interactivity is also nicely gauged – you’ve got a fair number of options to choose from, and while the challenge of getting your order right isn’t a devilish puzzle or anything, the authors have done a good job of communicating just enough information about what each choice might do, while still retaining room to surprise you with how exactly each stab at communication plays out.
Esther’s is admittedly a small thing – my playthrough went quicker than it usually takes me to get through Goodnight Moon with my son, albeit he’s typically doing a lot of wriggling and pointing which pads things out. But it pulls off everything it tries to with aplomb, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time I was playing it. There’s no other word for it: from stem to stern, it’s adorable.