The Secret of Nara

by Ralfe Rich profile

2021

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Number of Reviews: 3
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A deer's life, April 17, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

There’s a lot of IF out there with nonhuman protagonists – monster, aliens, what have you – but Secret of Nara is fairly unique in featuring a totally normal, non-talking, non-anthropomorphized animal. The game walks a fine line, portraying the deer who serves as the viewpoint character as resolutely nonhuman, while still providing enough of a window into their experience to allow for decisions to be legible. The writing can occasionally veer into over-abstraction, and the story, such as it is, is very much low-conflict, but I found the game a meditative pleasure to experience.

The prose is the main thing to talk about with this one. It does a good job of conveying really concrete, specific information about how the protagonist and other deer are behaving, and what they encounter in the environment. There’s no cheating – the deer’s thoughts are primarily emotions, not words, and while they probably have a clearer idea of what other deer are trying to communicate with their actions than a human would upon observing the same behavior, it still takes some work to decipher. Combined with the serene natural setting – a mountain and forest – there’s some lovely imagery here. This is an early passage I liked, where the deer reflects on their solitary existence:

"Cold winds brushing against your fur, peaceful stillness, and empty presence have been your every day for as far as you remember."

Occasionally the challenge of conveying a nonhuman mind can leave the prose feeling a bit airy, and there are moments of awkward phrasing, but the writing is generally strong, and a major draw.

Structurally, there’s a fair bit of branching – in each of my four playthroughs, a different incident served as the climax of the story, though they’re all decidedly low-key, like having a funny moment with a tourist or helping another deer. I liked this approach, since trying to make decisions lead to dramatically different outcomes, rather than leading to different scenes, probably would have made them heavier and more dramatic than the story would support. And that’s a good illustration of why Secret of Nara works so well: it’s a disciplined game, knowing exactly what to do to realize its novel premise.