Lake Starlight

by SummersViaEarth

YA Fantasy, coming-of-age story.

Go to the game's main page

Member Reviews

Number of Reviews: 5
Write a review

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.

Was this review helpful to you?   Yes   No   Remove vote  
More Options

 | Add a comment