Having hit some serious writer’s block in my last two attempts to review a movie, I thought I’d try something different.
Something where I was more confident that my story-focused skills could produce a meaningful review. So I fired up Steam and went looking for free games, and found myself looking for a visual novel.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the genre, the visual novel is kinda sorta like an illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure story, except that you may go thousands of words between decisions. The stories are generally novel-length. The first visual novels were Japanese and used anime-style art, and that convention has stuck. Visual novels are usually centered around dating: pick the right decisions and you can date, and have cartoon sex with, the girl of your choice.
And I do mean “girl.” Most visual novels have a high-school-age setting. Their target market is lonely young men who spend too much time on their computers. *glances uncomfortably in the mirror* I can’t imagine that the setting is because men like that have fond memories of high school per se, but I suspect that the student years hold a certain fascination to them because it was the last time in their lives that they were guaranteed interaction with the opposite sex: today, many of these Lost Boys only talk to women when they hand over money to a woman at a cash register, or when they try desperately to impress their favorite YouTube stars with adoring comments.
And where would you expect to find a lot of lonely young men who want to imagine a life where someone cares for them? If you guessed “Russia,” you either cheated by reading the Cyrillic in the title card, or you guessed correctly! Russia’s reputation as a land of unhappy people is born out by statistics: its suicide rate for men is the seventh highest in the world. As its economy continues to falter, many young Russian men find themselves alone, afraid, and directionless.
So naturally, a group of Russian hobbyists put together a free visual novel aimed at their local market, “Everlasting Summer,” and it’s been translated into English. Which is good news for me. I studied Russian in undergrad, but I only remember a few words and phrases, ranging from mildly useful (что случилось, “what happened?”) to gibberish (Я хочу смелую народную акулу, “I want a bold national shark”).
The hero of this visual novel is Semyon, who lives anonymously in a huge city (implied to be Moscow). He dropped out of college, has no job, and idles on 2chan (the Russian 4chan) all day. He has recurring dreams of a camp gate and a girl’s voice. One day, he hops the bus, and finds himself at that very gate.
The camp gates. The English translation features notes on Russian culture in the corner, but doesn’t explain what’s holding that umlaut in place.
This is Sovyonok Pioneer Camp, a summer camp for members of the Pioneers. The Pioneers were the Communist equivalent of the Scouts. (There’s no truth to the rumor that Pioneer Webelos stood for “We’ll Be Loyal Soviets.” I mean, come on. There’s no “w” in Russian.) Semyon soon realizes that it’s the eighties for some reason, and the camp leader, Olga Dmitrievna (if you don’t know why she’s always called Olga Dmitrievna, the game will tell you) has mistaken him for one of the campers. The Soviet setting and the time travel doesn’t affect the game much—you won’t see any signs of food shortages or perestroika or anything like that.
From there, you get your introduction to your four dating options. Slavya is the sweet and innocent blonde who spends her time helping Olga Dmitrievna. Lena is the shy brunette who buries her nose in a book. Alisa is the dangerous blonde who punches people out and plays rock music. And Ulyana… ugh. Ulyana.
So this is a dating game, right? And the prologue states that all the characters are over age 18. But let’s look at the facts.
Lil’ sister, don’t you do what your big sister done.
Ulyana is about a head shorter than all the other characters. She’s shockingly immature, throwing bugs in people’s food and so forth. People suggest that Semyon give Ulyana a doll. Semyon asks Slavya for advice on how fourteen-year-olds act when dealing with Ulyana. In summary, ugh. The good news is that there’s no sex scene with her, and I felt like the worst person in the world racing through her storyline just to confirm that no, Steam is not carrying something that will get you arrested. (In fact, if you’re playing the Steam version, all the sex scenes will be blacked out unless you choose otherwise.)
Over the next few days, Semyon interacts with the girls, as well as with a few other campers and camp staff members who exist mainly for comedy purposes. (One of them, Miku, is the star of a bonus storyline.) If you make the right choices, Semyon may meet these women again in the waking world. If not…
Background art is one of this story’s strengths.
I was quite happy with the painted backgrounds. The game’s text says they’re supposed to remind you of nineteenth-century landscapes, and while that isn’t quite the case, I found them to be gorgeous anyway. The lead background artist, ArsenixC, has a DeviantArt gallery where you can take a look at his effective use of light and shadow.
The character art, in contrast, is a disappointment. The designs are bog-standard anime, and the character appearances in cut scenes are sometimes off-model. There’s one shot where the top half of Slavya’s head appears to be swelling up, and another where Lena seems to be wearing a funnel-shaped bra. I think the game’s setting would have benefited if they’d used an art style that you’d be more likely to see in Russia.
Bonus points for not using the ubiquitous Kevin MacLeod of Incompetech for the soundtrack. Sergey Eybog and Between August and December split the soundtrack duties. Eybog wrote a memorable theme song, with a few other pieces that also fit the game’s mood. “A Promise from Distant Days” is wonderfully wistful. The best of the Between August and December tracks is Alisa’s theme, “That’s our Madhouse,” a good old-fashioned rock and roll number that’s a lot of fun. A few musical selections confused me. The camp nurse gets a song that had me convinced that the nurse would eventually try to seduce Semyon (she didn’t) and for some reason the communal shower is accompanied by an off-brand version of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
There’s a mini game in which you play a strange poker variant that involves trading cards with your opponent. You have to play against Ulyana twice, because Ulyana is an asshole. I don’t know why the game didn’t just use standard poker, but I didn’t mind playing.
The biggest selling point for a visual novel is, of course, the story. The weakest element of this story is the characterization.
Olga Dmitrievna chews out Alisa for a uniform violation.
The generally-accepted king of the mountain for visual novels—in English, at least—is Katawa Shoujo, in which the player competes for the hearts of girls with disabilities. The biggest reason for this praise is that the girls each have their own plot arcs and characterizations. None of them are the people they initially seem to be. In contrast, first impressions will go a long way in Everlasting Summer. Only one of the girls turns out to have characteristics that you wouldn’t immediately guess upon meeting them. Then again, the girls in Everlasting Summer aren’t necessarily real. They’re in a dream world, or whatever the hell the Sovyonok camp is (even the bonus endings don’t make it clear).
Rather than serving as characters of their own, the girls in Everlasting Summer are message delivery systems. Each story has a theme, and each of those themes is about a way that lonely, directionless people can find meaning in their lives. Of the four stories, Lena’s story and Ulyana’s (ugh) story stick most closely to their themes, which I won’t spoil for you. Slavya’s theme is somewhat unfocused. I thought that the theme was going to be that you could find meaning in life by serving other people, but the ending swerved towards something else. And I think I know what Alisa’s theme was, but it wasn’t clearly conveyed.
Slavya’s the Nice One.
While the plot and the characterization are hit-or-miss, Everlasting Summer deserves credit for its fine use of language. The translations from Russian are a bit literal, but they are vivid. For instance, Semyon describes the dream world as “just like on the other side of the cracked screen of an old TV, which struggles to fight against static noise and strives to show its audience everything without missing a single detail.” He remembers his first love as “[t]ransient images, a shadow slipping away and vanishing in the city haze. I can’t catch her among the buildings and corners.”
When combined with the artwork and the music, Semyon’s musings do an excellent job of creating a mood: the mood of the isolated young man whose dreams are dying, who is realizing that the world is leaving him behind, and who is still reluctant to change. That was my life from 2001 to 2005, so I speak from experience here. Using my English-teacher roommate’s definition of art as “the infliction of emotion,” I think this game would qualify as art.
The Everlasting Summer team is working on a second game. I’m curious to see how they’ve improved. In the meantime, I think Everlasting Summer is worth picking up, as long as you avoid the odious Ulyana route.