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About the Story
This Valentine's Day feels an awful lot like Groundhog Day...
You find yourself in an inexplicable time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. Can you find a way to stop your lover from leaving you?
27th Place - tie - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
Number of Reviews: 7
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
The thing about Groundhog Day is that itís a horror premise dressed up as a rom-com. Like of course thereís the sheer existential terror of the way the time loop cuts you off from the rest of the world, shipwrecked on an isolated outcrop of temporality. But beyond that, God or fate or kismet or whatever taking a direct hand and saying you are meant to be with this one specific person, and will keep you stuck in a timey-wimey rut until you perform just the right steps to unlock the prison? Thatís the part that kicks things over into nightmare territory. Even if thereís a spark and connection, life is long and relationships are hard; once timeís arrow is flying forward again, whoís to say whatíll happen next Groundhog Day, or the one after that? If you get in a fight, or decide you want a divorce, will the world stop again until you take it back? Every minute of every day would be torture as your subjectivity is annihilated.
As per usual I am perhaps overthinking things. But Last Valentineís Day remix of the classic formula comes up with what I think is a better alignment of themes and narrative: if the story is trapping the protagonist in a loop, shouldnít the resolution also hinge on an internal emancipation? Certainly the main character doesnít start out the story in any obvious need of a personality adjustment: walking through an unseasonably-warm February afternoon with a spring in their step, they seem to have it all figured out, with their biggest dilemma deciding whether to get orchids or roses for their partner. Given the framing of the game, itís not much of a surprise when they get home only to be blindsided by a Dear John letter, nor that you quickly get sent back to the beginning of a day thatís suddenly a little colder, reflecting on a relationship that suddenly seems to have some cracks in its faÁade.
The challenge of a time-loop game is that it can get boring for the player to run down the same track time and again, and in its second iteration, I was worried Last Valentineís Day was going to fall into that trap; the situations, and even the specific sentences you read, are quite similar to the initial sequence. The modifications are well-chosen to clearly but subtly shift the mood, but I still felt my eyes starting to skim over seemingly-familiar bits of prose. Fortunately, subsequent trips through the loop see even clearer variations, focusing on new characters or situations, or zooming in to focus more on things that were bottom-lined the previous time out. As a result, while the palette of narrative elements stays limited throughout, I found the game remained fresh through its running time.
These narrative elements are decidedly low-key, but effectively play with the central theme of a curdling relationship. You have encounters that foreground the potentially transactional nature of love, highlight the possibility of heartbreak due to betrayal or tragedy, or just provide a light thematic throughline based on the legend of Orpheus (I was disappointed that telling a character that yes, I was familiar with the story, wound up terminating that branch of the conversation rather than leading to a dialogue about what it means). There are plenty of choices available throughout, and while I never got the sense that any particular decision I made was going to have much of an impact Ė the protagonistís escape from the loop isnít a puzzle the player needs to solve by doing everything exactly right, thankfully Ė these frequent interjections of interactivity succeeded in keeping me engaged as I decided how sympathetic to be to each of the views of love being offered up.
For all that thereís a lot of external incident, though, the game is quite solipsistic, with the reality of the protagonistís partner never coming through in any concrete way. Instead the focus is all on the protagonistís feelings and reflections about love. I think this is a reasonable choice for a game thatís so internal, but it does contribute to an impression that the work is intended to speak for and to younger people entering into some of their first relationships (also adding to this impression: the fact that the florist, who I think is described as being in her very early thirties, is referred to as middle-aged, and who, after suffering a romantic setback of her own, bemoans the difficulty of starting all over and worries that sheís far too old to find love again. For the record, I am 42 and only like halfway crumbled into dust). The writing, while generally strong, also occasionally hits a clunky or callow note, like this bit of one of the breakup notes:
"Life with you has been an adventure. There is no other word to describe it. The clouds parted and I started anew. There was so much excitement. And so much angst. I ceased to live in a pit, I ceased to walk on a plateau. I was on a roller coaster, and you were there right beside me, laughing and screaming and crying, all at once."
While I would have enjoyed the game more if its take on love had been a little more grounded and, dare I say, mature, Iíll admit that this is a game with a naÔve protagonist who is a little too much in their own head. As I read the game, it gradually makes clear that whatís trapped you in the loop isnít so much any external force, itís your own desire to cling to the past and escape heartbreak, and your tendency to catastrophize whatís after all an ordinary and expected part of life, however painful. The prose in the ending is slightly overdone for my tastes, but it hits a properly resonant thematic note: itís not that you finally move on by jumping through the proper set of hoops, but rather that you move on by moving on. And having gotten the knack, one hopes, thereís no sword of Damocles hanging overhead waiting to strike if you ever again stray from the straight and narrow.
This was a pleasant treat to play, although it was often sad.
Itís a looping game where the same events play out over and over but with variations. Many things are the same: a visit to a flower shop, passing by a statue, etc.
Things change visually as well, with the game getting darker over time.
I liked the writing and thought the loop was fun. I liked the note the game ended on.
I didnít always see a clear progression between the different cycles. At first it seemed like things were getting worse and worse, and the darkening would imply that, but in many ways that didnít happen. Maybe it was just about change? Itís okay for things not to have clear progression, but the background darkening seemed to indicate there would be. In any case, this was well written and Iíd definitely play another game by this author.
So, this game's blurb is rather misleading. The PCís partner never appears in the story; by the time weíve gone through picking up flowers, walking through the park, and reaching home, the partner has already left, and this doesnít change in the subsequent loops. This isnít a game about trying to prevent the inevitable, then; itís about trying to process it.
Unlike a typical time-loop story, details of the day are different every time, from the weather to whatís happening at the dog park, and these shifts help build momentum as the PC progresses linearly through each loop, always carrying out the same string of actions. Choices are present, but fairly few, and I donít think they really matter (although on second thought, I wonder if some of those toward the end actually doÖ). I didnít mind this, as it still felt like an experience I could only get through interactive fiction. The repetition with minor changes created an interesting atmosphereórather than fighting against the constraints of a static world, the PC has to journey through one that reflects their own shifting emotional state back at them.
The dialogue was written a bit awkwardly, and in the end, the handling of the themes was a little too on-the-nose for my taste. The PC and their partner were never particularly defined as characters, and I think if they had been the emotions would have hit harder. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience, always ending each loop curious to see what would be different next time, and anticipating when and how I would break free.
Last Valentineís Day represents the experience and aftermath of a breakup as a time loop in which the PC relives the last day of the relationship over and over, passing from shock and disbelief through despair before finally reaching the point where heís able to move on with his life. The world around him reflects his mental stateóthe weather, the condition of the park he passes through, and the lives of the people around him go from pleasant to miserable, then gradually improve again.
This externalization of the PCís feelings serves as somewhat of a substitute for actual interiorityóthere's little specific detail to be found here, so I donít have a strong grasp of who the PC is, who his partner was, or why their relationship fell apart. The most we get is a letter from the ex describing their relationship as "like a roller coaster," which, in addition to being a cliche, has a whole range of possible meanings, some of which would make the PC a rather unsympathetic figure. But the evocative descriptions of the environment and the predicaments of the somewhat more distinctively drawn side characters help to ensure that the game sounds the emotional notes that it means to, for the most part.
The game effectively captures the post-breakup emotional arc of a person who has been dumped; choosing to represent this as a Groundhog Day loop emphasizes how difficult it can be to move past this experience, and the fact that choices donít matter much makes sense inasmuch as this kind of post-relationship grief is, to a degree, something you have to just wait out. (Others have suggested that this passage-of-time aspect makes the time loop framing a bad fit, but to me the emotional logic of it made sense -- the PC is obsessively retreading the breakup in his mind, but with each cycle he comes a little closer to being able to actually put it behind him.) But without any distinctive characterization for the main ex-couple or insight into how things got to this point, it all feels a little hollow in the end.
Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review
Time Loop stories have been with us for over a hundred years, but it seems fair to say that their broad cultural impact is back loaded to the last 30. One might be forgiven thinking ďGroundhog DayĒ (1993) inaugurated the sub-genre in whole cloth, given its quantum leap in cultural awareness. Of course nothing is new under the sun and there are ALWAYS precursors.
It is hard to believe the rise of video games as mainstream entertainment isnít a factor, what with restart/respawn/try again being a fairly ubiquitous game mechanic. It kind of gives people the experiential touchstone and familiarity to launch the riffing. Thereís also something very human about believing if we try hard enough and long enough we can Ďdo overí to make things right. Or maybe just wanting to believe, really badly.
At first, LVD suggests it might be feeding that desperate, yearning beast in us. It quickly dispels that notion. The setup is, our protagonist picking up Valentineís Day tokens for their lover on a short walk through the city and home. (Spoiler - click to show)There they get some hearbreaking news. Then the day seemingly repeats.
This is going to be hard to talk about with minimal spoilers. LVD kind of presents as a time loop story, but puckishly isnít really that. Broad strokes locations, events and encounters echo themselves, (Spoiler - click to show)but each time different in a way difficult to dismiss as mere Ďinterpretationí. It is definitively the same Holiday, and kind of has to be the same year, but many details evolve over multiple cycles, independent of player actions. The world, including NPCs, physical objects, and even the weather, take on shades and details that reflect an evolution in the protagonist. It is all very competently done. The story is documenting some dramatic emotional changes through external details rather than internal monologue, but in discrete, nuanced steps with each loop. I found the stages of progress to be well done in conveying its gradual, perhaps inexorable, flow. The changing landscape leaves the player/reader somewhat at sea. Are we actually Time Looping? Are we revisiting a scene, gradually removing delusions from the protagonist to get to an underlying Ďreality?í Are we able to affect anything about subsequent loops at all? It is kind of a nifty uncertainty the story holds us in.
I think though, that the mystery has a specific answer that feels quietly satisfying but on reflection falls apart a bit? Thereís no way around this, sorry. (Spoiler - click to show)Through the looping (for want of a better word), the protagonist goes from denial, to heartbreak and loss, to healing. Intriguingly, empathy seems to be a key factor in that slow transition. Itís a touching narrative, carefully curated step by step. That slow building makes the final pass feel earned and hopeful and what kind of monster doesnít appreciate that?
Well Rhaaah, Rhaah, (brandish claw hands) I guess? There are two things that kept me from fully embracing the work, and I think they both trace to that central looping conceit. The first is that in order to take this deliberate, detailed emotional journey we have to start with a deeply oblivious protagonist. That would be fine if we had something else to latch onto about them, but itís kind of their defining characteristic. To the point Iím like "Wait, if this blindsided you, maybe the problem was you to begin with?" And sure, that could lead into the self-delusion interpretation, but doesnít that kind of make them EVEN LESS sympathetic?
The interactivity underscores (or can underscore) this gap. If you play as a reasonably empathic human being to NPCs, the protagonistís seeming obliviousness with their primary relationship jars MORE, not less. Interestingly though, as things progress, (Spoiler - click to show)that empathy reads as a key factor in healing which is both a more subtle and more satisfying message. The message that I think was omitted was any kind of awareness or resolve around how it got to that point in the first place.
[sidebar: this kind of begged the question to me how much influence the interactivity had on things. Late in my run I made a deliberately counter-empathic choice to see if it changed anything, and it didnít feel like it? Maybe I was already baked at that point per the gameís algorithm, hard to know.]
The second sticking point for me is the central metaphor itself. As a metaphor, time loop can cover a lot of bases. Self improvement. Expanding narrow perspectives. Recognizing importance in everyday things. Value of perseverence. Control (or Lack of it) of your own destiny. The one thing it REALLY doesnít convey is ďpassage of time.Ē Itís all the same day! The story seemed to be making a case that some hurts (Spoiler - click to show)get worse, a lot worse, before they get better and you just keep moving forward until they improve. Told through the lens of NOT moving forward, but repeating! Kind of a 12-step program on 120xFF. Next day, youíll be fine! It is certainly a hopeful climax for the protagonistsí journey, but the time loop conceit really muddied it for me.
Look, these kind of meaty emotional and metaphorical dissections are my crack cocaine. I am grateful that IF so often provides opportunity to ham-handedly indulge it. I am grateful THIS work did! The emotional narrative was well written, and I thought building empathy into the interactivity worked well. Clearly I was on board for the central conceit! These are Sparks for me. My own obsessive over-analysis just kept it from Engaging is all.
I would be remiss if I didnít mention one of the biggest Sparks, the (Spoiler - click to show)total trolling headfake of its blurb: ďYou find yourself in an inexplicable time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. Can you find a way to stop your lover from leaving you?Ē THAT is some top-tier (Spoiler - click to show)artistic bait and switch.
Playtime: 20min, finished
Artistic/Technical ratings:Sparks of Joy, Mostly Seamless
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience feels complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless