Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.
Writing Novel Ties is such a pleasure, because I love the kinds of games I get to write about. They’re well written and charming, but they’re also generally lower cost and less reliant on hardware and flashy graphics. And their creators are as varied as you’d expect from comparable genres of writing. For every inkle studios, where talented coders worked to make their own game engine and markup language, there’s a dozen projects made possible by existing tools like Ren’Py and RPG Maker.
Laura Shigihara is a composer whose music has appeared in dozens of games, including Plants vs. Zombies. She writes and performs music for Freebird Games, including To the Moon and its sequel Finding Paradise, both of which were built in RPG Maker. To the Moon is still one of Steam’s best-selling games made with RPG Maker. Her 2017 game Rakuen tells a completely new story of Shigihara’s own using RPG Maker as the game engine. She brought in artists but did almost all the other work by herself.
Rakuen follows a young boy and his mother in an unspecified and dreamlike hospital ward, where the boy appears to be a patient. He and his mother, never named in the game, are surrounded by strange limitations and barriers like locked doors and areas that are “under construction.” The boy is approached at night by a fellow patient, maybe, whose appearance is coded as very demonic. What’s going on here? Why is the boy in this hospital, and why is it so strange in here?
Shigihara uses the beats of a traditional RPG to set the story in motion. The boy must get out of bed and explore the hospital, talk to its employees and his fellow patients, and find whatever clue helps him unlock the first new area within the hospital’s confines. From there, he continues to find new clues and suss out more of the story. The hospital itself is not any more bleak than any other setting would be, but the boy’s curiosity is compounded by his cabin fever.
As he explores, his mother accompanies him, and they find passages into a parallel world. Sometimes there’s danger, but the boy is never really in danger. In fact, exploring the hospital and its portals to the other world gives the boy clues and information about the reason for his own hospitalization. He’s never out of reach of his mother, who steps in at the game’s only true danger point to protect him.
I say the boy is never really in danger, but it’s possible to die in this game. I died during one challenging part of the story, though your mileage may vary as far as how challenging it really is. Surprising no one, your interactive-fiction correspondent isn’t great with races against realtime in games. But you can save your game at any point and start again like you would in any RPG, and there’s no combat at any point in Rakuen.
It’s hard to talk about any one-person game project without mentioning Undertale, which I think opened a lot of people’s minds about the possibilities of tools like Game Maker, which designer Toby Fox used to make the game. Fox even used an early version of RPG Maker to make games when he was a kid. But that trivium is an important distinction. Fox grew up with access to a computer with developer tools and ways to download ROMs and other ways he experimented with programming as a kid
On the other hand, Laura Shigihara trained as a musician and composer, and it was through her music career and work that she started to think about making a game. The relative ease of use of RPG Maker was probably vital to making Rakuen, and she had an existing support network in her colleagues from Freebird Games, who’d used the engine to great success. Over two years passed between the release of Rakuen’s trailer and the game’s launch in 2017.
In 2016, Shigihara spoke with Bandcamp’s Casey Jarman about making Rakuen and composing its soundtrack. She divided her childhood between the U.S. and Japan and told Jarman that kids of all genders played video games in Japan as a matter of course, instead of the strong gender divide she saw in the U.S. And Japanese composers mixed genres easily and with gusto, which Shigihara says led her to mix genres as well. In Rakuen, she mixes entire game genres in the same way.
My favorite contemporary composer is Susumu Yokota, who died far too young in 2015 after a decades-long career of exactly the kind of genre-mixing Shigihara says she admires and emulates. I can see the truth of the comparison between musical genre and gaming trope in both of their work, and Shigihara’s choices in Rakuen help to make the game’s story even more powerful. From the traditional pixel sprites to how the game’s story unfolds, Shigihara uses RPG conventions to propel players around the game’s next corner.