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About the StoryFollow user StaircaseHaven14 on a Neopets-esque site called Ruffians as she faces life's challenges, RPs with her long-distance BFF (or more than BFF?) Bee, and encounters familial hardship, from age 8 to 18.
16th Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
The middle part of this game is rough, with the player-character experiencing (Spoiler - click to show)maternal abuse and ridicule at school. Some of the scenes and conversations are heart-breaking. But thankfully, in the end there is still hope and things are looking up. Depending on how warm you've been in your conversations with Bee, the ending scenes can be beautiful in how much trust and love has grown between the two of you. I played through the game twice to try some of the other options. It is possible to get an aborted game if you don't want to open up to Bee at all in the beginning, and some of the best stuff is cut if you are more aloof towards the end. So in this game, as in life, it seems best to open yourself up to those that love you to get the best experience.
I thought this game did many things well, including a realistic portrayal of a now decades-old messaging system, and the speech patterns, cadence and abbreviations of kids chatting with each other online from elementary school age through college. The images of the Ruffians website were also great to help set the mood. I also thought the voice acting was very strong and really added something to the game. I loved the character of Rachel and her relationship with the player character. Finally, I had a huge smile break out across my face when the game ended with some music, a la the credits scene in a movie. It was a great song for the occasion and I let it play to the end.
The few things that I didn't like were the parts of the game where the audio looped until a part of a scene finished. Purposefully, the audio is intrusive to match what is happening in the scene. But the more it repeated the harder it became to focus on the text. I'd recommend the audio fading out or stopping after 2-3 loops. Also, sometimes the text and graphics were so big that I had to scroll to find the right place to click to continue the story, and I think that could be polished a bit to make it more compact.
Well worth your time!
The story follows the protagonist’s life, from age 8, in 2001, to age 17, in 2010, with each year being a new chapter. It takes place mostly as text conversations on Ruffians, a neopets-like website, between the protagonist StaircaseHaven14, and BusyAsABee, another user. They start out by roleplaying as their Ruffians, and eventually develop a deep friendship and might even fall in love as they grow up. The conversations felt authentic to me for the most part; maybe some of the early chats were too precocious for 9 or 10-year-olds, but overall it felt right. They felt like real people and real friends. The role-play segments were great. I liked that both characters had their typing quirks; Bee typed using all lower-case with messy punctuation and emojis, while Stair used mostly correct capitalization and punctuation and generally only used emoji in response to Bee.
In terms of structure, it seems mostly linear, but there are a lot of choices where you can choose for Stair to avoid or ignore Bee. I don’t know if these choices end up affecting the outcome, or if there are “bad ends” where Stair and Bee never get together. There are also some timed pauses, which I usually find annoying, but here, I feel like they worked in conveying the uncertainty and nervousness experienced by the characters. There is sound and music; the sound consists mostly of keyboard and mouse sounds, while music plays during the roleplay segments. The sound effects and some of the graphics changed as technology advanced from 2001 to 2010. This was a cool effect but I got a burst of anxiety when I heard the skype sound.
Not necessarily a major spoiler, but: (Spoiler - click to show)Another big similarity with Secret Little Haven is that the protagonist is a trans girl, with an abusive parent, who gradually discovers her identity over the course of the story. It was fairly obvious from the start that the plot was going in this direction, but I still enjoyed the buildup. We don’t see as much of the protagonist’s life and background in this game, but there’s a lot we can infer from her conversations. By contrast, we don't know as much about Bee. She just seems so incredibly nice with an incredibly loving and nice father; it almost seems unreal when contrasted with Stair.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the story. I was on Neopets during the game's timeline but never got into the community. Now I wish I had...
This is a relatively long game that plays out almost entirely within the chat function of an online game about magic dogs that fight monsters – I gather it’s meant to riff off of Neopets – and it’s almost entirely in dialogue, since 99% of the time you’re choosing different options for the main character to use to reply to Bee, their best friend in the game. As the blurb says, the game takes you through ten years in its hour-long playtime, and while there are some fun grace-notes around how the game updates in that time, the overwhelming focus is on how the central relationship shifts as the two main characters go from age 8 to 18.
There are heavy themes discussed – there’s a prominent trigger warning about domestic abuse – but not, thankfully, depicted: you engage with the aftermath, as the main character and Bee grapple with how to understand what’s happening and hopefully chart a path free. Similarly, I was a bit wary since the blurb flags that there’s some sexual exploration – a tricky thing to manage in any circumstance, but especially so when everyone’s underage for most of the play time – but the game strikes a nice balance of making clear what the characters are up to without getting at all explicit or too uncomfortable.
Indeed, if anything, despite all the traumatic themes and plot points on offer, LDR felt pleasant, and ultimately comforting to me. Bee is a supportive friend (Spoiler - click to show)(and if you go that direction, romantic partner), and his dad, who gets called in occasionally to offer advice, is invariably respectful and helps set good boundaries (re-reading this review, I'm now not sure whether Bee's pronouns are ever specifically stated, but their magic dog is male so I thought of Bee as "him" even though that's a dumb rubric). The main character likewise has a loving sister who’s there when things get tough. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely painful and sad moments (Spoiler - click to show) (reflecting on why the main character chose “StaircaseHaven14” as their username was one of those for me – and both characters suffer some bullying and abuse for their marginalized identities, since the main character is trans and Bee has a disability), but the sweetness of the central relationship ultimately won out.
Partially this may be due to the choices I took – there are a lot of these on offer, as you’re prompted for input after every couple lines of chat, across ten different vignettes separated by a year each. And while most of them are more about emphasizing different aspects of the main character’s personality – especially around self-esteem and their ability to open up to Bee – I get the sense that your choices can add up in significant ways (Spoiler - click to show)(most obviously in how and whether you pursue romance with Bee). I mostly made choices that had the main character trusting Bee and trying to engage with their feelings, rather than bottling them up, which wound up working out really well – possibly the vibe is different if other choices are made.
I think either way, LDR would be effective, though. A good part of the credit here goes to the writing, which treats the situation, and the tender-age characters, with the nuance they require. The dialogue sounds exactly like I’d expect these characters to sound, with shifts over the time and clear differentiation between the two primary voices (the maybe-a-bit-uptight main character uses proper capitalization and punctuation pretty much from the start, but under Bee’s influence eventually loosens up). There’s the very occasional false note – at one point, the eight-year-old protagonist replies to a question with a diffident “Maybe. We’ll see.” – and maybe a few small anachronisms, but LDR overwhelming succeeds in creating a plausible milieu.
Where LDR maybe errs in going too far in creating plausibility is the jankiness of the presentation. Obviously the messy-but-improving-over-time graphics are both a gag in themselves, and a way to mark the passage of time, but I found some of the art actively off-putting (one of those dog-aliens will haunt my nightmares). You primarily move the story forward by clicking a large reload icon, and it’s occasionally replaced by a large picture of a keyboard or a blown-up mouse cursor. But the game window is usually at the top, so need to do a bunch of scrolling, and it took me a while to realize that the graphics are completely static and none of the displayed interface elements actually do anything. There’s also some timed text that I found sometimes went too slow, and sometimes too fast. After I played for 15 minutes, I figured out how the game wanted me to play it, and again, it’s clear that much of this is an intentional throwback to how much the early-mid internet kind of sucked, but it was still a bit annoying.
Anyway, though, this one is all about the relationship between these two characters, which it charts very well. There are lots of touches that I think a specific target audience will especially enjoy, but LDR’s resonance goes well beyond just those folks by offering a sympathetic, well-written depiction of a challenging but ultimately hopeful adolescence.
See All 5 Member Reviews
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This is version 5 of this page, edited by JTN on 9 December 2020 at 7:22pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item