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Vacation shouldn't be this much work, April 11, 2021
I really dig the premise of Sunny’s Summer Vacation – you play a Very Good Dog (a corgi) whose person, Emma, is headed to the beach for a weeklong vacation with one of her parents (you get to pick if it’s a mom or a dad). The serious part of the backdrop is that Emma’s folks are in the middle of getting a divorce, so it’s your job to take care of her and cheer her up. This is a relatable set-up that allows for Sunny’s cartoony antics – playing volleyball with a seal or helping Emma build sand-castles – to sit alongside a plot arc with some depth and resonance, as lots of people have been on one side or another of this particular experience.
Structurally, the way this plays out is that each day, you help Sunny have fun with Emma by playing one of a series of minigames, with success rewarded by shells you can use to upgrade her treehouse-cum-shanty. Then each evening, there’s a vignette between Emma and her parent that advances the story of their relationship and the divorce. In the story sections, you often have a few choices about how to interact with Emma, though these usually reduce to either being playful or being really playful. When it comes to the minigames, you’re in the driver’s seat, and that’s where the large majority of the game winds up being spent.
This is where the issues come in, since I found the minigames dull and unrewarding. There are four of them, and they remain the same each day:
• A scavenger hunt where you hover your mouse over some highlighted words to find out whether you found treasure; after doing this about 20 times, the round ends.
• A stone-skipping challenge that plays out like a Twine version of a golf game, as you need to click to stop fast-moving counters the determine the orientation, angle, power, and spin of your shot (either I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing or the coding here is wonky, though, since my best throw came when I released a stone at a 97 degree angle to the water!)
• A sand-castle building game where Emma describes her plan, and then you dig sand and use differently-shaped buckets to build walls, gates, fountains, and castles in a 3x3 grid.
• A volleyball game, played against an easy, medium, or hard opponent, where you click to serve, bump, set, and spike.
These are all good ideas for beach activities, but the problem is that many of them are overly complicated and drag on way too much, while offering zero in the way of interesting choices. The volleyball one is the worst offender – you need to click to serve, click up to three times to see if your opponent manages to bump, set, and spike it back to you, then make up to an additional three clicks to bump, set, and spike yourself, then click again to see if your shot succeeded… you or the opponent can fail at any stage, but against the toughest opponent, a single point can take up a couple of shots back and forth, so it’s a lot of clicking with no strategy or choices to determine whether you win or lose.
Compounding the boredom, the notional goal of the minigames – winning sea shells with which to pay the gopher for upgrades to the shanty – wasn’t very motivating. You get almost the same number of shells for mediocre performance as for a perfect run, and I got more than enough shells to finish the upgrades midway through the vacation. Plus the upgrades didn’t appear to do anything to change the description of the shanty, or open up any new options – all that happened was a number indicating my shanty level ratcheted up.
Besides the minigames, there’s not really much to do during the day – if you explore all the locations you’ll find a few small treasures that wind up getting featured in your shanty’s trophy cabinet and win you an achievement. But you’ll do this on your very first day and after that the environment stays static, despite indications that a fair will be coming to town and a shift in the tides might open up the way to a hidden cove (the about text indicates that a later, commercial release is planned, so possibly these locations are meant to be fleshed out at that point).
Happily, the evening sequences are well-written (though the author’s got maybe a touch of adjectivitis), and I enjoyed seeing the dynamic between Emma and her parent develop. Sunny’s attempts to play with her and cheer her up are heart-warming and satisfying, though I wished there was a way to get a fuller view of how Emma feels about the divorce, or what her relationship with the absent parent is like. Also, indications that the vacationing parent still has feelings for their former partner, and the wistful way they talk about their absence, took me aback – it sometimes feels like the divorce is something that’s happened to the family, rather than a choice being made (I almost think game was originally about the other parent dying, then was quickly rewritten to be about a divorce). But given that you’re playing a Corgi, I suppose this muddiness in understanding the marriage is appropriate.
Anyway the result of this mismatch is that by a couple days in, I started skipping the minigames so I could get to the good stuff, except then Emma complained that she was said and feeling like she wasn’t making the most of the vacation. So I forced myself to suffer through at least a couple for each of the remaining days, but I still only got a mediocre ending that didn’t seem to hold much in the way of catharsis or character development for anybody. Part of me wanted to replay again to see if I could get a more satisfying resolution – but the thought of having to go through all that filler to get to the good stuff dissuaded me. With that said, the core of Sunny’s Summertime Vacation is solid, and if the later release retunes the minigames, it’d be well worth another look.