Novel Ties is a series exploring text-heavy games.
Last week was a real rollercoaster for games journalism. IGN’s Filip Miucin plagiarized content from a YouTube channel called Boomstick Gaming, then Miucin doubled down and monetized his reaction videos. In the meantime, keen-eyed observers continued to find more examples of plagiarism in Miucin’s back catalog of YT videos.
The time is right, I think, to visit the radically transparent world of MoaCube Games. This indie studio founded by Tom Grochowiak and Gracjana Zielinska released a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella called Cinders in 2012. And in the time since, Grochowiak has spent a lot of time and energy sharing information about how MoaCube’s games are made, how they’re received, and what he’d change in hindsight or going forward.
Cinders is a beautiful game that’s often held up as the high-water mark for western visual novels. It’s true that the game has markedly non-“anime” art and doesn’t follow any strong Japanese genre conventions, but to distance it as “western” in this way doesn’t feel quite right to me. Its format, menus, and way of making decisions are all really like similar games from Hanako or Christine Love, and I feel both those developers have made better games.
Where Cinders excels is in its gorgeous artwork and adaptation of the classic Cinderella folk tale. Zielinska’s detailed, saturated artwork belongs in a dream, like the CGI-amplified fantasy world of Disney’s Ella Enchanted. The MoaCube team decoupled historical Cinderella from the sanitized Disney version and added thoughtful backstory and choices for everyone, including the “evil” stepfamily and the bland prince.
In 2013, Grochowiak wrote two long blog posts sharing details first about Cinders as a game and then about Cinders as a profitable business item. It’s interesting to read in depth about a developer’s motives and feelings in this way, because shedding blinding light is both good and bad depending on the context. Grochowiak is hard on other games he feels Cinders improves on, and I don’t like his level of dismissal of other art styles as “amateur.”
Other parts of his self-examination feel right in line with problems facing developers in 2018. How do we build enough value into this game that will cost $20? How much story is too much story? How do we find a balance between player freedom and moving our narrative forward how we want to? Which characters are flat? And a problem more common with visual novels: How do we encourage players to make the choices they find more interesting versus what they feel is “right”?
2012 in Context
Grochowiak places Cinders in context of indie games in general and says he’s happy with how Cinders did as a “niche visual novel” in that market. But visual novels were a very old niche market even then. It’s not clear to me if Grochowiak expected Cinders to compete with, uh, “mainstream” indie games, and if so, why he expected that. In 2012, Hanako Games released the hybrid visual novel life sim Long Live the Queen, and Christine Love released Analogue: A Hate Story. Jason Schreier nominated console visual novel Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward for Kotaku’s game of the year.
These were both huge games within this community, and both were made by western developers with strong feminist messages. Honestly, they’re both a lot more compelling than Cinders, whose only true “westernness” is in retelling a folk tale from within western tradition. Zielinska’s unique art style is lovely and visually distinctive, but in 2012 we had art nearly as beautiful in AAA games like Journey that also moved in full 3D.
MoaCube’s 2016 game Solstice broke from Cinders in a few important ways. It’s an original story in a totally invented setting. There are two equally weighted main characters and you switch back and forth between one point of view and the other during the game. And you’re solving a hands-on mystery with limited time dramatic consequences, more in line with Black Closet or Long Live the Queen. It’s a fun game that I actually played before I played Cinders.
But there are also confusing changes. Zielinska’s art style shifted toward more realistic, but that takes a lot of the magic out of her character designs and leaves them somewhat in the uncanny valley. MoaCube’s attempts to make more animated character interactions are ragdollish and don’t add the value I think Grochowiak intended for them to. And while there was something special about exploring the depths of maybe our most famous western fairytale in Cinders, Solstice’s premise and narrative aren’t nearly as good.
And After, Math
In 2016, Grochowiak wrote a summary of Solstice’s first few days on the market, based on site traffic, social shares, and number of sales through MoaCube’s site rather than Steam. You can tell he’s grown really ambivalent toward Steam in the meantime, and since Steam takes 30% of revenue, I understand that. But he also admits that Cinders is still earning money and that’s at least partly because of Steam. In fact, I found Solstice on Steam and only by accident. My love for Hanako Games wouldn’t have led me directly to Solstice without that robust and searchable interface. (This is literally the only time I’ll praise Steam’s UI in any way.)
This is Grochowiak’s last post on the MoaCube blog, and their only current project is listed as “on hold.” And with just a few days worth of following the market closely, Grochowiak doesn’t comment at all on the quality of the game. That makes sense too: He made detailed critiques of Cinders, including concrete and specific gameplay and design elements to change going forward. On launch day for the followup game, he must have believed he addressed them. I just hope this isn’t the last we hear of MoaCube.