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Worthwhile even though currently incomplete, April 23, 2021
Rounding out the excerpts in this year’s Back Garden, Budacanta is a visual novel with ropey graphics but a neat conceit: you’re a voice in the head of the autistic main character, Alianora, helping her navigate challenges both logistical and social as she travels from the U.S. to Budapest to visit a friend and take in some motorsports (I think like F1 racing, maybe?) The piece of the game on offer covers her departure and a train journey through Prague, then ends on arrival in Budapest, with a few choices and vignettes along the way.
I led my description of the main character with her autism not to reduce her to her diagnosis but because the game is clear that it’s largely about the questions of why, and how, an autistic person would travel so far from home by themselves. There’s a satisfying answer offered – likening the unfamiliarity a neurotypical traveler feels in a strange place to the similar discomfort autistic people sometimes feel even in familiar surroundings – but the game intends to show as well as tell. As a result, it has a light pedagogical feel, with frequent asides to the player to better inform them about what it’s like to be autistic, and offering different potential strategies for navigating a world built for the neurotypical.
I thought these bits were well done – I was familiar with some of this information, like “spoon theory” (roughly, the idea that neurodivergent people or people with disabilities often have a relatively fixed pool of energy or capacity to do things that feel effortless to folks who don’t have those conditions, so deciding when to do those things can be a weighty task). But it’s all well-explained, and I definitely learned some new things – I was surprised when Alianora said that she enjoyed talking about being autistic, and saw her stock of spoons increased as a result, because I would have thought explaining these things over and over could get exhausting!
Per that reference to the stock of spoons, as far as I can make out the core gameplay of Budacanta looks like it will be about making resource-allocation decisions. At some of the major decision prompts, you’re shown your “spoon count,” and occasionally your cash on hand as well, indicating that some decisions will increase or decrease these finite quantities. Because this is just the first part of the game, there’s currently no risk of even coming close to running out of either, but I could see this working well to add a bit of additional engagement to a story that so far seems like it’ll be a pleasant, low-key bit of tourism.
The narrative voice is appealing throughout, friendly and casual in a way that feels authentic. The writing is generally good, too – I liked this description of a plane taxiing then taking off:
"Low primal rumbling sensed as much through the feet as the ears. To the sides, a thrumming blaze pulsed a beat of four."
There are some rough patches in this version of the game, though. The primary one is probably the graphics, which in most scenes are black-and-white sketches painted with a broad brush and which I often found hard to decipher. They do get more colorful as the journey progresses, so hopefully the visuals will see an upgrade as Budacanta moves to a full release. The choices can feel a little awkward, too – upon starting the game, I found several of them seemed pretty similar to each other so I wasn’t sure what each would do. And in important decisions, the first choice often lists the player’s spoon and money inventory, as well as stating the time, before adding an actual option after a hyphen. I think this is mean to be a way of updating the player about Alianora’s condition, but it would be clearer if this information was conveyed in a separate part of the interface. Finally, there was one odd bit of writing that likened neurodivergent people temporarily “passing” as neurotypical to Black people “passing” as white, which I found rather jarring given how fraught racial passing can be – but from how it’s described, I think the intended reference might actually be to code-switching.
Regardless of these small issues, I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so with Budacanta – even the graphics stopped bothering me after I focused my attention just on the text box. This is definitely another one where I’ll be anticipating the full release!