Lake Starlight

by SummersViaEarth

YA Fantasy, coming-of-age story.

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Number of Reviews: 5
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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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