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A unique take on a beauty pageant with a complex protagonist, September 2, 2022
Our protagonist is Karen Zhao, a high school junior from Massachusetts. Her full name is Qiuyi (Karen*) Zhao, but she goes by Karen. One day Karen’s mom informs her that she has been signed up for a beauty pageant, with the argument that it would diversify her extracurriculars for college. Karen, knowing that she cannot refuse, has no choice but to add pageant preparation to her long list of responsibilities.
This is a story about being forced to step out of your comfort zone while life adds extra surprises into the mix. As the player you must manage her hectic life and hopefully win the pageant.
*The player can actually choose her English name, but I always found myself sticking to Karen since it is the default. I will refer to her as Karen in this review.
Each week the player has three time slots that they can use on a list of activities including preparing for the pageant or attending Science Olympiad study sessions. There are additional activities on the weekend although those usually deviate from school. This management of responsibilities involves some strategy and provides incentives for replay. The gameplay will have “Introspection” segments where you can check your progress in preparing for the pageant and other goals.
There are no individual (Spoiler - click to show) stand-alone endings. No “Ending 1” or “Ending 2.” Instead, the game assesses the player in different categories such as their performance in Science Olympiad or their final relationship status with one of the characters. The pageant, being the focus of the game, is the closest thing to an overarching ending. You either win it or lose it (although losing it comes in a few different flavors). Based on your performance you may unlock achievements at the end of the game. I liked this format because it feels more flexible in its assessment of the player’s choices.
I only have two technical issues. The first is that if you (Spoiler - click to show) win a slot as co-captain the achievement remains locked on the achievements page. The second issue is that I have been unable to (Spoiler - click to show) win anything other than a bronze medal with Audrey for Science Olympiad. I looked at the source code and saw that it is possible to win a gold metal if you study enough with her. However, even when I spent every study session with her, I would always get bronze. The player has a limited amount of study sessions with Science Olympiad partners. Study sessions are once a week but stop long before the weekend of the competition. This means you need to choose which teammates get more interaction.
Story + Characters
Three main themes kept surfacing: the clash of perspectives between Karen and her parents, the stress of preparing for collage, and her identity as a gay young woman. Anxiety is a major theme. There is anxiety with school and parental expectations, the stress of wondering if you are good enough for your dream collage topped off with being acutely aware that your peers all seem to have the same ambitions as you. But for this review I am going to focus on the other two themes.
Karen was born in China and traveled to the US with her parents. The intersection of parental traditions and her experience as a modern teen are themes that are heavily explored in this game. Sharing family stories is a common activity. (Spoiler - click to show) For Karen, this sometimes cultivates feelings of guilt about the severity of her parents’ upbringing in comparison to her own. Her parents had to worry about things that she takes for granted and yet her struggles are unique to her own experience. Daily life also involves regular interactions with the local Chinese community. Potlucks and get-togethers are typical weekend activities. (Spoiler - click to show) During this the parents chat about their children’s grades and social activities. In these conversations is a traditional sense of what roles children should take. But for young people like Karen, Emily, and Audrey these norms may feel dated. That is not to say that they reject their heritage. One of my favorite parts in the game is when (Spoiler - click to show) Karen and Audrey are encouraged to sing with the adults during Bible study.
There is one loose string that caught my attention. If the player (Spoiler - click to show) interacts with Karen's family enough, they reach an encounter where Karen's father learns that she is gay by noticing the books that she checked out from the library. He tries to talk to her about it, but the situation is so overwhelming that she runs into her room, locking her door. The scene is short and intense enough that you would expect to see a follow up later in the game, but it never happens. Not even at the end of the game where it summarizes her relationship with her family. Given that these topics are a prominent theme in the story I was surprised that the game did not build on the encounter.
Karen is gay but hides it from her parents and most people. The game conveys the frustration of having her parents talk casually about marriage and grandchildren when a core aspect of herself completely goes against it. She also interacts with Emily, who is (Spoiler - click to show) transgender and struggles with not being able to be her true self around her parents and their expectations. Emily’s parents know bits and pieces but ultimately, she has not yet come out to them. Emily was one of my favorite characters because she introduces Karen to big questions. Throughout the game Karen and Emily may choose to counsel each other or simply chat. Emily is also one out of three characters that the player can pursue a romantic relationship with.
A defining plot point is if the player makes it to the (Spoiler - click to show) research event called “Emily and the Professor.” Karen participates with research in a lab managed by Professor Chan who is also Emily’s father. In this scene, he brings Emily to watch Karen give a presentation, referring to Emily as his son and asking Karen to teach “him” about science. The player can choose to proceed with the presentation or step down and say that they are not ready. With the latter choice the player chooses not to be a part of Professor Chen’s attempt to force an identity on Emily. Choosing this option is clearly a risk for Karen but it feels empowering. We see the culmination of their friendship in the face of uncomfortable situation. It is an eye-opening moment not just for Karen but for the player as well.
The game has a crisp look, almost like the text is written on a piece of stationary or index card. The textbox area is set in a white box sent against a cream background and accented with grey lines and red links. Together it creates a simple but polished appearance. I liked how the game incorporates more than one language. It uses Mandarin characters with italicized translations. This game is made with Dendry which adds some variety to the development systems that I have encountered.
This was the first game I played by Autumn Chen who is an incredible author. Everything is well-written, concise yet meaningful. Karen is a memorable character who is relatable and unique. Because of this, (Spoiler - click to show) winning the pageant feels more like a victory. I highly recommend the game, especially if you are interested in the slice-of-life genre.
Also: There is also a sequel game called New Year’s Eve, 2019. It features Karen in her senior year. (CORRECTION: Senior year of collage)