Spring Thing 2022: The Wolf and Wheel

Here we have a story about stories — a sort of cross between Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and The Lathe of Heaven in a Russian-ish setting and Visual Novel format. (I’ve always found the VN presentation somewhat bothersome, but it’s a step up from Twine imitating VN presentation, in that you can click-to-advance anywhere on the screen.) You play as a server at an inn during a time of monsters and bizarre prodigies. People come in for a drink and tell you stories of the latest folkloric wonders they’ve seen, and these stories are interactive, offering one or three choices that affect how they end. The binding conceit, though, is that the interactivity is something the player character is doing. You enter a sort of trance while listening, and at the end, you might find that the storyteller has been altered by the choices you just made for them in their past.

The implications are disturbing, and the changes you make are not appreciated by certain magical creatures of the forest who can tell what you’re doing, and who come by in the night to complain and threaten you. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it. Even if you want to leave a story unaltered, you have no way of knowing what choices will do that. There’s some interlinking of the stories — definitely some repeated motifs, and possibly some decisions that affect later stories as well. In one, I had an argument with a werewolf about moral philosophy; in a later one, men are killed by a werewolf, possibly as a result of what I said. The protagonist’s strange power of interacting with fiction is thus portrayed as a curse — a peculiar perspective to put before interactive fiction enthusiasts!

One thing I really appreciate: Characters will ask after you, and, while you have the option of lying or deflecting, you also have the option of just telling them everything. Too many stories where the protagonist has some weird experience or develops a strange power have them simply decide to keep it a secret for no good reason. I’m glad this game didn’t force me down that path, particularly as the preponderance of weird experiences in the setting makes any secrecy seem a little pointless. Still, clamming up is offered as an option, and the fact that it was offered made me all the happier to be able to reject it.

There’s one element of the premise that I don’t think was handled well: in addition to everything else, the sun is gone and no one knows why. The problem with this is that it’s presented obliquely enough that it didn’t actually register for me until the end of the first chapter. There’s a line early on about “before the sun stopped making its way across the sky”, but that just made me think “before sunset”. There’s a mention of going to the inn in darkness every day, but that just made me think that I have an early-morning shift. And then it just stops being relevant for a long time. I might think it’s a deliberate effect, that the player is meant to spend the first day without full knowledge of conditions, if it weren’t for the blurb, which I hadn’t read before playing, stating outright that it takes place “two weeks after the sun stopped rising”.

The blurb also tells me that this is a demo for a larger game, in which you’re out in the cold having strange encounters directly, and that the whole storytelling conceit was just a way to wrap up a bunch of unrelated storylets for the demo. This surprises me. Despite being basically disjointed, it seemed too cohesive for that.

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