Short Reviews: Fall 2020 Game Jams

Today on my series of short reviews of short visual novels, I’m catching up on some entries from two popular game jams that happened this fall: Yuri Jam, a casual event focused on romance involving LGBTQ+ women, and Spooktober Jam, a competition to create the best horror and/or generally Halloween-themed project. I participated in Spooktober Jam myself as a co-writer of Were|House, and I also want to mention in the interest of full disclosure that some of the people involved in the projects I’m highlighting are friends and colleagues of mine—but I don’t think that really makes me any more biased than usual, since I’m always trying to hype up short VNs you might not have heard of whether I’m acquainted with the developers or not. Read on to get my recommendations for short stories about cosplay, sharks, gender identity, questionable therapy techniques, and cooking!

Sew in Love
This Yuri Jam entry follows a young woman named Nova as she tags along to a cosplay competition with her brother Kyro and his friend Brooke (the latter two of whom are recurring characters who also appear in Summer at Marisol Bay). Nova feels immediately drawn to another one of the competitors, the confident and glamorous Imani, and becomes determined to mend the rivalry between Imani and Brooke so that they can all get along. With partial voice acting, a few original songs on the soundtrack, and sprites with cute blinking animations, Sew in Love has impressively high production values for a game jam project. I think it could have been fun to see this one include a bit more detail about cosplay, since while the plot is centered around the competition, Nova isn’t especially involved in it herself, so there’s a lot more general slice-of-life than there is exploration of a niche hobby. But if you’re looking to read about cute girls (and one cute boy) hanging out and getting to know each other, LegendEx Games has you covered with Sew in Love.

Fishy
Winner of an honourable mention from Spooktober Jam judge Bishounen-P, Fishy is a short and surreal story about a group of teenagers visiting an aquarium for a birthday party. I especially liked its rough and cartoony aesthetic; the characters all had appealing designs, and a lot of personality came through in details like their alternate poses and frequent movement around the screen. The story combines a lot of relatable teenage social anxiety with the horrors of the ocean and freaky-looking sea creatures in a way that I found really unique and interesting, and it also includes some nice representation of people (and animals) with disabilities. One thing I found a bit strange about it was the way that it’s written in second-person, since I tend not to be a self-insert type of VN reader and would rather not have a narrator claim these events are happening to me personally—but I did really end up relating to the protagonist of this one, so maybe that choice was effective after all! I’ll be looking forward to seeing more from developer I Choose Paradise in the future.

Kim Is A Girl
I was especially intrigued by this unconventional Yuri Jam project when I noticed that it was available in both English and French, since I haven’t heard of very many French VNs before, and I’m always looking for opportunities to practice my second language. Kim Is A Girl (or Kim Est Une Fille) tells the story of a non-binary person struggling with feelings of loneliness and abandonment after their partner Kim, whom they had thought was also non-binary, starts to change some aspects of her identity and gender presentation. There are no typical character sprites in this one—the visual style is a bit more like either a picture book or a graphic novel at different points in its short runtime, but it’s still some really nice art that suits the story well. I read it a second time in English to make sure I hadn’t missed anything important in the French, and while a few lines of the translation seemed like they could benefit from another editing pass, I still enjoyed it both times. And although Kim Is A Girl centers on topics that some LGBTQ+ readers might find difficult, rest assured that it comes to a very sweet and genuine conclusion.

Therapy with Dr. Albert Krueger
Therapy with Dr. Albert Krueger took the prize for first place (as well as for best thumbnail) in Spooktober Jam, and after reading it, I can definitely see why. With a compelling retro visual style and catchy chiptune soundtrack, it thrusts the player into a surreal therapy appointment with the eponymous doctor, full of animations and minigames that show impressive command of the RenPy engine. I think it especially deserves credit for some disturbing and immersive sound design that really adds to the horror, and it also has a non-binary protagonist, which is cool! However, my one major complaint is that the developer decided to disable both the text skip and save functions, leaving only a very limited autosave that kicks in on your second run to make it a bit easier to get multiple endings. It’s a short enough game with enough variation on subsequent playthroughs that it’s not too bad, and I understand what they were going for with it, but being forced to button mash through text I’ve already read in a genre where a skip function is standard is a massive pet peeve of mine. But if you’re prepared to set aside some time to engage with this story on those terms, it’s a unique piece of fun and unsettling horror that definitely deserves the recognition it got from the game jam judges.

Ell’s Kitchen
Lastly, this Yuri Jam entry from developer WitPOP also packs a lot of production value into its short runtime. The protagonist, cooking youtuber Ell, and her off-camera friend and girlfriend are all fully voice-acted, and Ell’s sprite has a lot of pose variations that really bring her to life. There are also little minigames that let the player cook along with her as she demonstrates her friend’s favourite dumpling recipe, doing things like clicking to chop up vegetables and dragging items across the screen into a bowl. The characters in it are also alternate universe versions of the cast of BAKED:MAGIC, which WitPOP submitted to the 2018 Yuri Jam, so you’ll definitely want to check it out if you enjoyed that one too. There isn’t really a story to Ell’s Kitchen—just a bit of cooking and slice-of-life—but it’s very cute while it lasts. I kind of want to try the recipe myself!

Thanks for reading, and I hope anyone who tries these VNs on my recommendation enjoys them!

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