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(based on 15 ratings)
About the Story
Social gatherings are not your preferred activity. But this one is obligatory, and it threatens to ruin you.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
Winner, Outstanding Feelies of 2022 - Player's Choice; Winner, Outstanding Feelies of 2022 - Author's Choice; Winner, Outstanding Slice of Life Game of 2022 - Player’s Choice and Author’s Choice - The 2022 IFDB Awards
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Number of Reviews: 7
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I don’t usually second-guess myself when I have a review that’s out of line from the main thrust of opinion on a game – different people are different, and having a variety of takes on a work I think is helpful for players and authors alike. At the same time, when I’m pretty much off on my one, and especially when I’ve got a more negative view than others have, it’s hard not to wonder whether the problem is me. And there’s probably no recent game where I’ve had more of these second thoughts than Autumn Chen’s previous game, A Paradox Between Worlds. While I admired the enormous amount of work that went into it, and found the character interactions at the heart of the game really well-drawn and engaging, the several metafictional layers atop that heart worked less well for me, and the Tumblr-mimicking gameplay which involved lots of highly-granular decisions felt exhausting. In the face of near-universal admiration for the game, though, I’ve gone back and wondered whether my lack of personal experience with the kind of fanfiction-focused communities it depicts led me to judge it unfairly, or if my real-life exhaustion (my son was about six weeks old when I played it) was what was actually making me feel tired.
The bad news is that NYE2019 doesn’t help me resolve that question; the good news is that that’s because it’s a much more focused piece that foregrounds the character work I’d already enjoyed in APBW, without any of the stuff that had turned me off. Add in a richly-detailed setting – the protagonist is part of a Chinese-American family at a party mainly attended by other Chinese Americans – and well-framed choices that create a high degree of responsivity and you’ve got a game that’s been a highlight of my festival so far.
The game opens with a bit of Tolstoy-biting – “every social gathering is horrific in its own way” – and mostly lives up to the melodramatic gauntlet it lays down. As Quiyi (or Karen), a college senior with social anxiety who’s suddenly thrust into proximity with a set of high-school friends and acquaintances she’s largely not seen for years – several of whom she used to crush on – not to mention the inherent awkwardness of being around a bunch of older adults who primarily see her as the child she used to be, the protagonist is facing landmines aplenty.
Fortunately, you’re given a lot of options to navigate this complex milieu. I’m not familiar with Dendry, but at least as the author has adapted it, the interface looks fairly ChoiceScript-y, but with the ability to scroll back up and reread recent passages and without the sometimes-intrusive stats. Your possible courses of action are well-framed, with a small bit of writing often providing a little bit of a preview for what might be in store. Here’s the opening set of choices for who you might want to hang out with or what you might want to do:
• Mom - She’s hanging around somewhere…
• Kevin Zhao - In the basement with the other kids.
• Wander around aimlessly - Keeping your head down…
• Food - The ever-inviting lure of snacks…
• Use your cellphone - First finding a safe location.
• Emily Chen - Sitting alone in an alcove…
The social interactions sometimes have fewer choices, and occasionally there’ll be a grayed-out choice that’s visible but unavailable, usually to denote that Quiyi’s social anxieties are constraining her, but even on a second playthrough I always felt like I had a lot of different ways to approach each situation. Despite all this freedom, though, the game actually has a tight structure – after a freeform opening, there’s a bottleneck as you sit down for dinner with the other young adults, leading to a nocturnal walk through the snow that may lead to a second open-ended section before things wrap up. It’s a canny framework, allowing for a lot of different paths through the story and making me feel like I was directing the story, while still making sure that there’s an overall shape to the narrative with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end regardless of what you choose.
Indeed, given the wealth of detail on offer, unlike the protagonist I had a lot of fun just exploring the party. I’ve been to a bunch of gatherings that aren’t too dissimilar in general dynamics from the one on offer here (though the specificity of this being a largely Chinese-American party was novel – I’m more familiar with being one of the token white guys at parties thrown by my Iranian-American wife’s family friends, or those of my South Asian- or Korean-American high school friends) and everything rings very true. The sequence where highly-educated lefties argue over the 2016 primary made me grind my teeth in just the way those actual conversations did, and on a more positive note the descriptions for the snacks were particularly good – the haw flakes sounded really appealing, and there’s some good character beats in just short asides on the presence of Lay’s potato chips on the food table:
"Anyway, these chips are for the kids, that is, you. Because the parents decided that ABC kids need their American snacks, or something like that. And well, you eat a bag full. Yeah."
Throughout, the writing is a significant strength, and while Quiyi’s narration is generally quite understated, this means there’s little distracting from the canny way particular details emerge into focus:
"You put on your jacket and your shoes. No one is watching you open the door. You leave. You’re free. It’s quiet. Snowflakes glisten in the air, shining under the streetlights. Your footprints defile the fresh snow."
My first time through the game, Quiyi mostly wandered around aimlessly, having a few haphazard stabs of conversation with her peers at dinner but otherwise spending time at the snack table, wandering aimlessly, and checking in with her (nice) mom and (standoffish) brother. Predictably, this led to an ending where her feelings of isolation and pre-post-college ennui didn’t move much over the course of the evening, even as it was clear there might have been other potential outcomes, or at least that other people were capable of achieving moments of connection. I though this late-game passage about her feelings of alienation and having let opportunities slip through her fingers making the inevitable let’s-all-take-a-bunch-of-photos-so-paste-on-a-smile phase of the evening all the worse:
"Someone takes a picture of Emily and Miri, smiling and hugging. You didn’t know they got along but somehow it makes you a little sad. Emily stops smiling for the photo with her parents. They don’t force her to smile. Come to think of it, you haven’t spoken to her dad all night, even though you worked with him before. Oh well."
It’s a flat recitation, but that gels with how I imagine she’d be retreating into numbness as a self-defense measure. I found a lot of pathos in this ending, as Quiyi’s failures felt like ones of imagination: as she wandered alone through the snow, she conjured up daydreams of difference sci-fi futures, but she can’t picture a conversation that goes well. If the story peters out rather than reaching catharsis, with her getting stuck in an extended moment of stasis despite her impending graduation, that’s fitting, and had its own kind of poignancy to me.
Except I should probably say my failures, rather than Quiyi’s, since this is only one branch the story can go down. My second play-through, I was able to help her to some moments of positive connection, including establishing a burgeoning romance with Emily. This set of scenes is also well-written – I found the awkward I-like-you conversation segueing into awkward but really amazing hand-holding very relatable, as well as the out-of-nowhere discussion of whether to have kids which is ridiculous for 22 year olds who haven’t even kissed yet to do, but seems completely plausible to me.
Ultimately though I liked my first playthrough better – there’s something inherently artificial about gameplay where you make the right choices and you get to date someone, and while there’s some funny lampshading of it, this plotline inevitably feels a bit more tropey and familiar than the one I first experienced. I’m not sure this is anything I would have picked up on if it had been the only narrative option on offer, though, so it’s more a matter of preference than an actual weakness.
My only real complaint here is that I think this branch might be too hard to get onto, at least on a first playthrough – having not played the prequel game, I hadn’t necessarily picked out Emily as a more significant character than say my mom, and since as far as I can tell opting to talk to her in the game’s first set of choices is necessary or at least very helpful for being able to strengthen the relationship later on. But playing as someone with social anxiety, first time around it made more sense to ease into the party by checking in with family, grabbing some food, etc., by which point I think that ship appears to have sailed.
I also have a note of caution. As I’ve been writing this review, I pulled the game up to double-check some stuff, and discovered that there’s a Status page that tells you how hungry or thirsty you are, your overall emotional state, and provides some background on the other characters that explains some stuff I had to dig to find out (like what’s the deal with your parents’ marriage) as well as displaying a numerical ranking for your relationships with each of them. I completely missed this when I played – I did so on my phone, which maybe made it harder to find some options – and while it the info it provides probably makes it easier to get together with Emily, honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t know it was there, since the in-game exposition covers these bases in a considerably more deft way. So if you haven’t played the game, maybe steer clear of that page.
Anyway hopefully it’s clear that these are beyond niggly nits to pick. I’m really glad to have played New Year’s Eve 2019, and I’m glad I can now wholeheartedly jump on the Autumn Chen fanwagon.
Reflexive introspection of the encounter: forced into self by being viewed by all the others who make you you, the you you have to bear time after time as all connections decay, and you no longer know how to breakthrough, worse, you no longer know if you should, if maybe beneath the dissemblance lies only its hollows: “Every social gathering is horrific in its own way. Over the years you have learned to adapt, to cope, to survive. The one which you are currently attending, however, threatens to ruin you.” Every encounter with the expectations of those who still, if only out of nostalgia, expect things of you, ritualized into a numbing ceremony where you mutter the expectations that become increasingly distant from your intimations.
Zhao Qiuyi, “a senior in college, a one-time honors student” returns “back home for winter break.” Having gone out into the world on her own, Qiuyi is now being parsed by those to whom she returns: what has she proven of herself, or if she has returned emptyhanded, isn’t that just who we’ve always kind of guessed her to be? “Which brings you to the truly agonizing part of this party. Everyone you grew up with between the ages of 10 and 18 are here. Your old friends and acquaintances, and their parents and siblings and everyone else. People you thought you had left behind, or had left you behind. It's as if every loose plot thread of your life has come together in this moment.” Qiuyi’s social anxiety doubles under the compounding of the mediated introspection anxiety which lurks within a lot of our illusions of familiarity. Not only are you awkwardly just trying to not seem awkward, but you’re also navigating a competitive socialscape, where everything threatens to be contingent upon some external set of values you have to conquer and ingest. You are an adult now, it’s time for the return on investment. “"So what are you doing after graduation?", Aubrey asks. / "Everyone's been asking that..." / Aubrey laughs. "Hey, it's an important question! It's your entire future! The rest of your life is on the line!" / "Yeah, but, it's just... kind of..."” Doesn’t it just kind of suck being young enough to have a future, the way it weighs on you, the way people appraise you each year, gauging how much ROI you might have? Isn’t there a beauty in reaching an age when nobody asks anymore, when you can wilt in peace with dignity? Where you can just be yourself, finally stripped of all external worth, doomed to at least this silence, more precious than a thousand beetley stares? “The conversation continues, with more detailed questions and comments. You smile and answer. Mom doesn't say much. It's as if she's presenting you to her friends, as if you're a project.” You have a responsible to everyone around you to be valuable, so that they won’t feel lied to for all of these years. All of us hurtling whiteknuckle to the grave hoping the ones we love have the answer, are an answer, can answer all the questions teeming in faster than you can pretend.
Your obligation is to risk manage your profile to promise future growth: “You can approach these gatherings mechanistically, orchestrating a series of events that will achieve all of your goals in an optimal fashion, while minimizing your exposure to awkwardness and food poisoning.” The nature of communal smalltalk, with its faux familiarity, offers many opportunities to believe in that familiarity, which is a trap, of course, behind which lies the fatal judgment; you really ought to emphasize distance, swallowed by your distance to the surface they glean. “How was university?” Rhetorical questions which, because they are rhetorical, a ceremony of friendliness, shiver the freezing feeling that your answer is not wanted, that any actual content between the two of you would stammer the show past its pretense, and there’d be the pause that everyone would sit through knowing you caused it. Somehow any authenticity just makes you lose, and everyone not only knows this, but assimilated it, they have made the show authentic in a way that, as you get older, seems increasingly somehow better than you.
All of your peers performing this display with dazzling skill that shames your awkwardness compounds into judgment. People with whom you are supposed to share a rapport, “But outside of some chance encounters, you never became close.” Why should anyone care about anyone outside of the propinquity that forces them to pretend it? “But at some point you stopped doing the same things she did, stopped discussing homework solutions after class, stopped doing the same events in Science Olympiad, even stopped talking to her at gatherings such as these. And the worst part of all, she didn't seem to notice.” The sadness of reunions: everyone, through their own choices, have left you here, in this undead past. You have become the person people smile overloudly at, “Haven’t seen you in ages!” with the incredulous tone that implies it must have been an accident, or, when their eyes glint in just the right way to flash honesty, your fault. Spending the next five minutes mumbling them through a reminder why you aren’t seen. And, of course, you’ve done exactly the same yourself: “Miri was probably your best friend in high school. But until today, it had been at least one year since your last perfunctory messages.” After all, what could possibly replace the false play of familiarity? What does actual familiarity look like? What do people even say to each other, you know, when the conversation isn’t forced? “What would you ever talk about? You can't think of anything to say. It's as if your brain's vocalization system is frozen in place, not an unfamiliar feeling, but never a pleasant one.” All the things you could ask, all the ways there could have been so much more between us, should have been, right? But what could you have said? Not like the dreamthings you say which shimmer with lost emotions, the Deep Question that gets the Deep Answer that forms the Deep Bond. Like actually sitting there, in that moment, ask. Who else could you have been, you who did not make things better? Is it any surprise you don’t just relent to the howl of white noise? “You've gone days, perhaps weeks without a real conversation. You don't really talk to people anymore.” Letting go, until you lose the habit altogether: “You smile, but you're not sure if it works.” And maybe, in some way, that is the final acquiescence to the inexorable: “You see the landscape of choice laid before you. An ocean of choice and possibility, concealing swirling eddies and whirlpools, mines, traps. Which choice will lead to life and which choice will lead to death? Trick question; they all lead to death, just sooner or later. Which choice leads to love and which choice leads to hate? / It's all a trick. Whichever choices you pick, you know that it's going to be the wrong choice.”
If that all seems a little teenage maudlin, then well, yes, of course, it’s hard not to put on a nurturing smile and nod Qiuyi on, go on, get out there, yes it’s a little uncomfortable and hostile but if you can just get out of your head for five seconds you can enjoy the company of others, not everything is a swirling sadness maelstrom about you, why not take the time to actually be interested in other people and learn from them, live with them, share this beautiful moment even if it doesn’t imply any others? Stop obsessing about why people hate you and just radiate the light innate to you, you miracle of this once then never. It’s easy at some level to tap your fingers with impatience and rattle off a thousand little lessons of perspective. But you know what? It really does feel like that, when you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty. New Year’s Eve, 2019 captures exactly the melancholy anxiety spiral that led me, like Qiuyi, to bail out early or mumble my way head down through a deeply draining evening. Even before you get there, you’re spiraling into your own despairs, and it just gets worse from there. Self-fulfilling prophecies that nevertheless perfectly predict their fulfillment, your own lack of it.
Also, the absolute audacity of being the plus one who drops this line: “So, how about that election?”
You are Qiuyi/Karen Zhao, a young Chinese-American who is home from university and celebrating New Year's Eve with friends and family - except that you suffer from terrible social anxiety and really, really do not feel like celebrating or even socialising at all. It's six hours until midnight. How will you fill all those hours?
This is a thoughtful, character-focused narrative written in Dendry, a choice-based format which is well suited to this story: Karen feels trapped, her options limited. Various social interactions are on offer, but all are difficult; other possibilities include taking a walk, eating from the buffet (I did a lot of that) and playing interactive fiction to pass the time.
This game did a really great job of simulating a social event that goes on for too, too long, and the feeling of having to find something to do to fill all those empty hours - but though the evening is boring, the game itself, the relationships described and the narrative voice, held my interest really well. If you check out the 'Credits' page, there is a Spotify playlist which I would have played while reading for extra atmosphere, if I'd read that bit at the start.
This is a really polished, professional game, and I must check out the prequel.
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Outstanding Feelies of 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the game with the best feelies of 2022. Voting is anonymous and open only to...
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This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the game with the best worldbuilding of 2022. Voting is open to all IFDB...