Lake Starlight

by SummersViaEarth

YA Fantasy, coming-of-age story.
2023

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Number of Ratings: 11
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- Cerfeuil (Happy 2024!), January 24, 2024

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Bossy, Flossy, and Exhausty, December 24, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

Say you have a friend that is REALLY into flossing. We all know flossing is important, right? It’s kind of inarguable. For this friend though, flossing is their WHOLE DEAL. There is no conversation, no pop culture experience, no shared activity that won’t in two short steps become a diatribe about Gum Nobility or the evils of Big Corn Cob. Even when you try to agree that flossing is good, 45 minutes later it becomes apparent that you still don’t get JUST HOW GOOD it is. When asked to say three things about this friend your best effort is: “1) They are a flossing champion! 2) uh, they are ANTI-FLOSS’ worst nightmare and 3)…pass.”

Lake Starlight is the IF version of that floss-stan friend. It says some strong things about techno-capitalism and patriarchy. And while the thesis is totally defensible, it is also flat declarative, unnuanced, dripping in contempt and takes every opportunity to remind you of this. It’s biggest sin isn’t that it’s WRONG, it’s that it can’t get over how RIGHT it believes it is.

It doesn’t help that the non-polemic parts of the narrative are a bit unfocused. Let’s start with interactive opportunities. When you are asked to interact you almost never have sufficient information or agency. You are prompted for a name, before the protagonist’s (very specific!) gender and background are revealed, so my 14-year old Hispanic girl carried the name “Gritty.” Her favorite color is orange, and favorite fruit peach, but not sure those choices even mattered. Elsewhere, choices you make are rejected. “Which roommate do you want to hang with?” </select one/> “Nope, sorry, you get this one instead.” You earn “Intuitive Whispers” which I interpreted to be guiding hints, but the one I tried was opaque and unhelpful. It was frustrating enough that when presented with a seemingly-meaningful choice NOT to go to the titular camp (Camp Hogwarts For Girls?), I took it to see what would happen.

It was meaningful alright! Would you believe that a 14-year-old’s choice NOT to go to camp resulted in (Spoiler - click to show)a stifling marriage, casual drug use, and emotional distance from a shrug of a daughter all on the way to an early death? FOR SKIPPING CAMP THAT ONE SUMMER??? Reran with the other path because clearly the work needed me to, begging the question against a field of such limited choice, why was THAT choice even available?

Mostly, there isn’t much interactivity, just continuing to next page for LONG blocks of text about the virtues of nature-based magic and feminine power. Even there the monotone of it is the biggest takeaway - every character we meet has a tale of family tragedy wrought by techno-colonizing males. (Almost) every character is super supportive and capable. For sure, they are all female. (There is a Good Guy Uncle who gets a walkon, but he is the only male we see.) I mean, given what we’re told about the world, I am at a loss why these women haven’t just Lysistrata’d things into order!

Look, I don’t need fiction to be about me. I kind of love it when it challenges me. But if it wants to yell at me (about something I’m already on board with!), maybe try to entertain me also? Instead, I found myself grimacing more than 'yeah sister!‘ing. It doesn’t help I think that the subculture presented as Inarguably Good is much more sus than the narrative believes. Story background establishes an ill-defined Mean Girls’ cult as Bad. I initially thought of that as kind of clever world building. But the reality of our protagonist’s indoctrination into her Magic School… that put off really strong cult vibes. To the point I started questioning, “wait a minute, do we really know how bad this other one is? I really only have the narrator’s word for it, and Cult Camp is getting a total pass from them.” Elsewhere, on the heels of a diatribe against technology, we learn one of our key Role Models is a herbalist? We don’t get a lot of details, but there’s a reason your doctor warns you against herbal remedies. Recent history has shown that there is very little daylight between homeopathy advocates and anti-vacc’ers, where are we on THAT spectrum? If I question the narrator’s assertions on what is Good, maybe what is Bad is in question too?

It is awesome that specific-perspective fiction exists outside CWM wish-fulfillment. It is awesome that THIS long-neglected perspective fuels a fantasy empowerment story. For me, a lighter hand would have gone a long way. I found the narration to be suspect and off-puttingly one note. The protagonist’s primary characteristic was “self-doubt” and was mainly lectured at by Unimpeachable Authorities from behind metaphorically shaking fingers. Those two things made this a Mechanical exercise for me. Lack of meaningful interactivity, except when it was TOO impactful, felt Notably intrusive to the experience.

Seriously though, you gotta floss.

Played: 10/19/23
Playtime: 1.5hr, two playthroughs, 1 short, 1 to end of Book 1.
Artistic/Technical ratings: Mechanical, Notably buggy
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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- Jaded Pangolin, December 19, 2023

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Magic Summer Camp - The Extended Intro, December 14, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

Lake Starlight is an incomplete young-adult fantasy game, where you play as a teenage girl on the day of her “coming-of-age” celebration, during which she will be given the choice to go to a Magical Summer Camp™ to harness her powers or * shrug *. Themes of sisterhood, environmental justice and anti-corporation are prevalent throughout the story. The current version includes two endings: a “sad” one, and the end of Book 1 (which ends abruptly).

I didn’t particularly enjoy this game, honestly. It wasn’t much of the typical YA setting where the Earth is on fire, society is really bad, but you (yes you! a teenager) can change the course of humanity and solve all its problem (with magic!) - those can be pretty fun! But the execution didn’t quite click with me.

I think part of my issue with it was both in how lengthy the passages where, giving the player little to do but try to digest the over-exposition of concepts or other characters. I’d often go dozens of passages before I could do something… if the game wouldn’t pull the rug from under me and end up choosing for myself instead. I wondered what the point of it all was…

Even if the game goes all-in with the exposition, and in a pretty cliché way (a very-YA style), it often does very little with the concepts introduced. The world is pretty bad all around, but who cares, here’s your ticket to essentially Heaven on Earth for the summer. Meet a bunch of girls with tragic or at least interesting backstories, but you don’t get much to do with them or engage with those background either. The reason for it being the story being incomplete. One would hope this would end up being more fleshed out when/if the game updates.

I played this game twice, finding the bad ending first… and I think I liked that ending better. It at least gave closure. The “good” path of Book 1 ends too abruptly…

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- dgtziea, December 13, 2023

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Introduction to camp, December 8, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

The girl whose two moms were a mermaid and a pirate did most of the job, but it was the Prana Yurt that broke me.

I know it sounds like I’m saying that to make fun of Lake Starlight’s world’s-wokest-wiccans premise, but I think – or at least hope – I have some substantive critiques beyond just being a hopeless geriatric reactionary. This choice-based game is the first part of what promises to be a much longer YA-style story, following the tween protagonist as she leaves her home in a polluted, dystopian city and attends a sleepaway camp where she’ll make friends, learn about her magical heritage and, from the cues in the game’s ending, eventually take on the greedy companies that have ruined the land. The game is resolutely BIPOC-centered; the protagonist is a Latina (though oddly, the game has you choose a name before letting you know that), and a major part of her journey is connecting with her family roots and encountering other characters who are likewise empowered by their respective traditions. And it’s also staking out a clearly environmental-justice-oriented stance in laying out who’s made the world as bad as it is, and who needs to be stopped to begin to heal it.

This is all fine, I think – it’s as subtle as a brick to the face, but it seems to be pitched to younger players so that’s forgivable. Similarly, the worldbuilding is fairly thin, since there are lots of details making clear this is basically our world (the man character speaks Spanish, another one is named “Marie Bayou” and is from “Orlenze”) while the major departures, like the swarms of blood flies and the mind-control cults, are never explained, but I’m not sure heavy helpings of lore would have improved the experience. The writing had a number of typos, but generally struck me as in-genre for a YA work; it’s fairly simple and frequently made me feel like I was crumbling into dust:

Together, all of you yell out, “Yessss!” Then Stella shouts for everybody to jump up and she teaches you a super-fun cheer routine that involves lots of booty shaking and kicking and jumping and spinning around while shouting: “Oak Grove cabin, Pump it up! Oak Grove cabin, Pump it up!”

There are some 13 year olds who would find this cringe, but others for whom it would work, I suspect.

So all of that is to just say this is very much not for me, but that’s completely OK! Not everything has to be, and in fact I think the IF scene is stronger when there are more games not pitched at nerdy middle-aged white guys as the key audience.

I do think there are some issues here that go beyond mere preference, though. For one thing, the player isn’t given very much to do – there are sections of the game where ten minutes will pass in between choices – which I generally don’t mind too much, but I confess I did get annoyed when Lake Starlight felt like it was actively undermining my choices. Like, there’s a segment where you get to choose which of your cabin-mates to pair up with for task, except when I clicked on the one I opted for, I got told she’d already teamed up with someone else and I got automatically assigned to another girl. Previous to that, there’s a bit where you need to choose your strategy for introducing yourself to the other campers, and I decided to focus on my self-assurance – only for that to completely fail as I turned into a bundle of nerves. Making matters worse, I made that decision because I’d previously chosen for the protagonist to be born under the Fire Moon, which was supposed to make me brash and strong-spirited, so it felt like the author was doubly-negating my input. If a game has a specific story it really wants to tell without the player getting in the way, great, but in that case I think it’s much better not to present false choices.

The deeper critiques I had about the game go back to where I started this review. First, there’s the girl with the pirate mom (the mermaid one is blameless in all this so I’m leaving her aside). She tells the rest of the cabin about her mom’s occupation with a clear sense of pride, and they all nod along like this is a cool, normal job for someone to have. Sure, she does say something about “colonizers” being the target of her mom’s piracy, but given the absence of any active colonial activity being foregrounded in the story and the setting’s resemblance to the real world, this feels like it’s justifying violence against people based on their group identity. It’d be one thing if this was an isolated incident, but the game several times gives a pass to “good”-coded characters recklessly threatening violence against the protagonist. The camp head has a trio of pony-sized attack dogs charge the main character in what’s played as a small welcome-to-camp practical joke but looks way more like hazing to me, and later in that same scene, one of your cabin-mates draws a bow and points a nocked arrow directly at you, seemingly to show what a cool rule-breaking badass she is, but which is entirely equivalent to the decidedly un-cool activity of pointing a loaded gun at somebody.

Maybe I’m being overly-precious about this – and in an empowerment fantasy like this, I totally get that part of the draw is the cathartic idea of unleashing redemptive violence against bad people who share traits with the real-world politicians and oligarchs who’ve inflicted harm against communities of color and the environment. But Lake Starlight seems to me to have a too-cavalier attitude towards violence, and having played it not two weeks after the self-appointed representatives of an oppressed people unleashed horrifying violence against civilians and sparked a confrontation with a vicious government that’s killed thousands more innocents, its juvenile take on these issues grated.

Then there’s the Prana Yurt, which struck me as taking two vaguely non-Western words bespeaking alternative wisdom or lifestyles and mashing them up without any rhyme or reason. There are parts of the game that seem well-observed to me, like the protagonist’s home life and relationship with her family. But there are other parts, like the Prana Yurt, that feel like the result of antiracist mad-libs – I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the pirate-mermaid daughter is named “Lilo Keanu”, which I’m pretty sure is the Hawaiian Kemal Pamuk*. The BIPOC Avengers is a cool concept, but given the hard work that goes into building nonracial solidarity, it again feels like it can trivialize important real-world history to treat things so superficially.

I’m aware as I say all this that I could just be a big old hypocrite (emphasis on the old) – back in the day, I enjoyed the heck out of the tabletop roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension, where various stereotypes, including kung-fu monks, violent neo-pagans, and indigenous spirit-summoners team up to fight an authoritarian technocracy, and it’s definitely guilty of all the sins I’m laying at Lake Starlight’s door. Still, Mage came out in 1993; 30 years on, I think it’s reasonable to expect more.

* I don’t think I’ve recently explained the Kemal Pamuk thing anywhere. See, in the first couple of episodes of Downton Abbey, there’s a sexy Turkish guy who shows up as a guest star, and Julian Fellowes, when deciding what to call him, very clearly just stole the first name of the first political leader who popped into his head (Kemal Ataturk) and the last name of the first writer who popped into his head (Orhan Pamuk). This is extremely racist, but IMO also quite hilarious when you play the parlor game of applying the same logic to Western countries – Abraham Twain, Winston Shakespeare, Louis Hugo, etc. etc. etc.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Twine game about camp for magical children, addressing many social issues, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This game features a magical protagonist that goes away to camp for magic kids.

At first I thought the game had read my mind; I named my protagonist Eduardo, and I was shocked to see Eduardo raised in a Spanish family! But then I realized it was just part of the story, especially when I saw that Eduardo was chosen to be a girl (I had imagined a boy), although gender is explicitly stated to be somewhat flexible".

The game treats many social issues, with a heavy emphasis on climate change and corporations destroying the wilderness, which gave me fond flashbacks to movies like Ferngully and Ernest Goes to Camp from my youth. Many of the NPCs were black, indigenous and/or hispanic, with a wide variety of hair types, skin tones and backgrounds. Mention was made of differing family types, including having two moms or being orphaned. And there was a discussion on how magic had been stigmatized in women more than in men.

So it seemed like social issues were a heavy topic in the game, not as a side tangent but as the central focus.

There’s a lot of promising features in the game but it is incomplete. Only the first chapter or so are finished, and there are some typos here and there, not enough to be distracting but enough to be noticeable. So once things are fleshed out I could see it being pretty solid.

There’s a lot where it’s hard for me to say if it worked or not. The personalities of the NPCs, the voice in the player’s head. A lot of it depends on where this ends up going. So I think my rating might end up a little in the middle of the range, getting bumped up or down if a continuation is made in the future. But overall there’s a lot of promise here, both in the writing and the art.

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- Edo, November 6, 2023

- jaclynhyde, October 31, 2023

- Zape, October 11, 2023

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Maybe better than I considered, but still..., October 6, 2023
by Max Fog
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

This game has a nice premise, with you being sent off the camp by your grandmother. Classic. However, this one takes it differently, in a more Camp Half-Blood way.

Don't get me wrong, it isn't *awful* or anything at all, but I got tired of it quickly, because the writing goes on, and on. It repeats itself, or the conversations become too distracting, which means I skip ahead and miss stuff. A little bit of cutting would help a lot.

Song: Lotus Flower. The game has a more pop-y relation to what the song would be, but not an absolutely great song, although still peaceful and melodic.

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