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Awkward party limbo and self-deprecating humour, June 1, 2023
Jumping a few years into the future of Pageant, Karen Zhao comes back, more anxious than ever, for a short evening, celebrating the turn of a new year. Stuck in a house out of social obligation, Karen has the option to interact with a cast of familiar faces, go down memory lane, or hide from everyone as best she can to avoid starting a panic attack before the clock strikes twelve. How ever will she cope?????
The one thing that I love about Autumn's games is how real the characters and their interactions feel. NYE19 is no different, continuing on the tradition of anxiety-inducing situation and self-deprecating humour bordering on self-loathing. But unlike its predecessor, Pageant, NYE19's tone translated less as slice-of-life-of-a-stressed-teenager-trying-to-make-it-through-the-semester-oh-god-is-she-having-a-panic-attack-again-just-kiss-her-you-dummy and more of this-is-what-a-college-student-forced-to-come-home-for-the-holidays-special-sitcom-epidose-feels-like. From the really awkward meetings with your old high-school friends (or did you date them? or were they crushes?), to the adults hounding you with questions about your future, or your family wanting to uphold a certain image around people. It's a party we've all been to, it's the kind we wish we didn't have to stay...
And Karen, our favourite anxious lesbian, does too. From the start, she warns the player she does not want to be here, really does not find having to engage in small talk (especially with people she's lost touch with), and actually wishes being anywhere but at this party. It is awkward to interact with people you knew (or more than knew) some years prior but with who you have lost contact (life...), finding how they have (not) changed, and how they've been fairing compared to you.
During the span of an evening, you meet (again) Emily, a trans woman (out of the closet then?) who helped you in Pageant to win (kinda) said pageant; Miri, your best-friend, who tagged along for the party because she did not want to be at her family's party and became the social butterfly you could not be; and Aubrey, your high-school rival, who seems to still be doing just as well with her Harvard education, her Harvard boyfriend, her probably-perfect-looking Harvard life... You also get to roam around the party daydreaming nihilisticly about the state of the world, hide in the basement to watch a MCU movie and be cringe to your brother, stuff yourself with food to temper with your imminent anxiety attack, play some mahjong and lose badly, hide in the bathroom and take selfies sending your into some self-loathing, play some games on your phone...
Whatever you do (especially your interactions), you are constantly reminded of your shortcomings from the past and how you let your anxiety cause the dwindling of your relationships. Your past haunts your every move and your every thoughts, and being in the presence of people from your past makes it all the worse for your mental being.
Half-way through the game, you sit down to have some dinner, forced at the kids-but-not-really-kids table where all your (former?) friends are interacting. It is very awkward, with Aubrey forcing everyone to introduce themselves as if they were having some sort of team-building meeting, her boyfriend forgetting about the No-No-Conversations (Politics-Religions...)... You can choose to participate in the conversation, eat, or listen, but no matter what happens, you will leave the table before the meal/conversation is over, leaving the party as well to go for a walk.
This is where things get interesting. Emily asks whether she can come along, and agreeing or not will give you very different outcomes. The latter will find you wallowing about your loneliness and how devoid of human connections your life is (much due to your own actions), while the former has a more hopeful and levelheaded conversation (leading possibly to a relationship...). With each still, and throughout the whole game, Karen goes on an introspection about the seemingly importance of human interaction, how easy it is to fuck up things, and the transactionality of relationships, all wrapped in a nihilistic and fatalistic bow (everything goes wrong, even if you do the right things).
Even if this sounds all depressing, it strangely is not. I found myself giggle at some passages. The dry self-deprecating humour is honestly hilarious (especially the Narrator's comments). At any moment, I was expecting a laughing track to cue. Or maybe I was just playing this with a strange mood...
The game is also very meta about what it is trying to convey. From playing a dating-sim game within an essentially dating-sim game, to the commentary on human interactions being comparable to dating-sims in the optimisation of [emotions/variables] to get the best possible outcome through a sequence of actions we hope is the correct one while we play a dating-sim where the sequence of choices can be optimised to get that "good ending", the story and the gameplay play quite interestingly on each other to get those points across.
Still, unlike other works from Autumn, while I enjoyed myself playing it, it didn't have the same impact on me. I didn't click as much with it as her other games, and felt a bit unsatisfactory? by the end of the playthroughs. The game has some strong moments, especially the part outside of the house, and some funny moments during the roaming around before dinner/before the countdown, but at other moments, it felt hollow. Maybe it is because of your limited agency in the way you interact with others or act, since Karen is an anxious and socially awkward person who has a hard time expressing her feelings and thoughts. Maybe it is because some of the characters you interact with and the way you defined your previous relationships don't feel as fleshed out (Miri and Aubrey comes to mind, especially compared to Pageant or even Emily). Or maybe it is Karen's blasť look on dwindling and lost relationships that ticked me that only allows her to have superficial contact with people (aside from Emily). Or maybe it is the more fragmented type of different gameplay/mechanics that didn't work as well as the Storylet format of Pageant, or the more linear work of GG and the war. Or maybe because the end was a bit too abrupt... I'm not quite sure
There is a wonderful sentence from the post-mortem that really encapsulate the vibe of this game, and strangely reminds us of the hope Karen feels just before returning to the party... and this is where I will be ending this review:
> The past is inescapable, but the future is not entirely determinate.
There is still time...