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About the Story
It is 1937, or the 26th year of the Chinese Republic. In the city of Tianjin, nine-year olds Zhang Xiaoyun and Yan Yan struggle to survive through the Japanese invasion, the civil war, and beyond.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: November 4, 2016
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: Twine
Forgiveness Rating: Merciful
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Number of Reviews: 2
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Great-grandmother and the war is a story within a story, following Lan/Christine Zhang (referred as Lan/Christine below) listening to her great-grandmother (Zhang Xiaoyun, referred as Zhang below) recounting the tale of her meeting Yan as a child, growing up during the Sino-Japanese war, and her survival. It is a mix of hyperlinks and choice-based interactive fiction.
From the start, you are informed the story will have three distinct part, each with the possibility to start from the main screen. Those parts depict different period of Zhang's life throughout the Sino-Japanese conflict, through her retelling to Lan, her great-granddaughter: during the bombing of Tianjin, where Zhang is just a child having to leave everything behind; under the Japanese's rule, during which Zhang lives in a girls' boarding school, having lost contact with her family and struggling with her identity and emotions; and starting from China's liberation at the end of WWII, where snippets of Zhang's adult life is described, as she yearns to find who she considers to be her family.
An interesting parallel to this is that Lan/Christine experiences the retelling of her great-grandmother's life at a similar age Zhang is supposed to be during the story and facing mirroring those events, as Lan is about to move to the Americas as a child, then coming back as a teenagers struggling with her identity (changing her name being a major point), and as an adult reconnecting with her family after many years apart.
An other important character I have yet to mention here is Yan. First finding and following Zhang (or pushing Zhang to overcome her anxiety about the situation), then staying with her at the boarding school where she ends up getting involved with the local revolutionary group (and romantically with Zhang), before leaving Zhang behind in the final part to join the Communists. Yan and Zhang do manage to find each other twice after that (both by chance), with the final meeting reigniting their relationship, until Yan's death.
Another interesting thing with the depiction of these characters is how opposite Zhang and Yan are from one another. While one is very shy and awkward, the other was social and outgoing; one comes from a comfortable bourgeois setting with little thoughts(?) about social order, the other a lowly orphan* with strong communist leanings; one needs to be pushed to move with her life**, while the other kind of takes life by the balls. Like the saying goes, opposites attract...
**you do have active choices, but her character seemed to be a bit more of a pushover, especially compared with Yan.
From the writing of things, it is clear the story stems from a very personal one (see post-mortem), from the questioning of one's identity and place in the world, the yearning for connection (family/lovers), to one's survival in strange times. There awkwardness in some of the dialogues (aside from Zhang's awkwardness), which I found very touching, and somewhat added to Zhang's struggles with adapting to the changes outside of her home/of the boarding school or of her relationship with Yan (stranger to closer to lovers to cold to strangers to family). It also made the more romantic passages all the stronger.
It took me a while to grasp it, but Zhang mentioning how she sees Yan in her great-granddaughter felt more of a wish than a parallel (at least I wasn't seeing it as clearly as Zhang did): finding a friend in a strange new place and adapt to changes, discovering yourself and be more vocal about your identity, reforming bonds with family.
Additional context about an event, a location or a character is hidden behind hyperlinks, where "present time" Zhang or Lan/Christine will interject/get cleared/ask more question... This also sometimes strengthen the parallel between Zhang and Lan/Christine and the bond they have for one another.
There was quite a bit of abruptness within each part of the game where time/location jumps a bit out of nowhere. It is more forgivable in the first part, as child Zhang might be a bit confused by what is happening around or more by what it means. But in the second and third parts, those abruptness feels like something is missing (as in something had been planned for scrapped up at the end, which was confirmed by the author in the postmortem). Still, one could write it off as the great-grandmother forgetting bits of her history as she gets older (and maybe senile) or repressed memories from that traumatic period in her life (in one bit, the missing explanation through a hyperlink is filled in by an uncle).
The game ends bittersweetly, with a visit to the family memorial, where great-grandmother Yan is now buried. Yet, there is this sort of hopeful future that emanates from it, as sunrays break through the rain-heavy clouds...
This game does many of the things that historical fiction does best. It humanizes the people involved in and affected by war in ways that dry articles and statistics simply cannot. Zhang Xiaoyun's childhood and young adulthood are followed through retellings to her great-granddaughter, and at the center of it all is a very meaningful, very human, love story.
A Few Observations:
• I loved choosing options to get additional information, especially the ones that take the player back to the modern-day conversation between (great-)grandmother and granddaughter. Many of these function purely as footnotes, but some also involve playful asides that inspire affection for the characters as well as being informative about the history and setting.
• I also enjoyed the little moment of mlm and wlw solidarity when (Spoiler - click to show) Zhiwen says, "Maybe we're not that different," and the protagonist feels a sense of safety around him (plus her looks of recognition when she sees Zhiwen's reaction at being reunited with the cadre with whom he was presumably romantically involved)
• During this playthrough, I didn't choose many options I anticipated as being more romantically bittersweet, but those few I did read through were poignant and beautifully written. I think I'll devote another playthrough to choosing more of those options in the future.
• A potential error: (Spoiler - click to show) If the protagonist attends a resistance meeting with Yan Yan, later, after the two escape and the authorities show up at their school, the text reads as if Yan Yan is the only one in danger of being found out, when in all likelyhood the protagonist would spare at least a passing thought for her own safety as well. (This may be a missed variable or coding error, and is really a very minor, nit-picky complaint in what is overall a wonderful gameplay experience.)
In closing, I also want to mention the small piece of meta-commentary the game engages in, about the nature and purpose of stories. At one choice, the protagonist says that stories are useful because they "help people understand other people and themselves." If that is the purpose of stories, this game fulfills that purpose very well.
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