On Cinders

I first came upon Cinders via a Rock, Paper, Shotgun mini-article about the game. It is a visual novel created by the team at MoaCube, and for some reason, the little article (which is the same size and shape as a hundred other articles I skim through in my daily reading of my RSS feed) really captured me. In preparation for this post, I have been trying to think what separated Cinders out from the rest of the crowd for me; it must have been the art. The panel in the RPS article is representative of the entirety of the game–Gracjana Zielinska‘s illustrations really do make the visual in “visual novel” pop in a way that I’ve never seen happen in the various trailers for visual novels in the past.

It is here that I should come clean: I don’t play visual novels. Hell, I’m not even sure that the word “play” should be used for them, but what I am saying is that I’ve followed the train of visual novel popularity over the past couple years from afar (by this, I mean Christine Love’s work). Cinders was the first time that I watched a trailer for a visual novel and thought “I think this is something that I want to experience.”

So I played Cinders.

My experience with the game was thus:

I played through the story of Cinders, a young woman who is the essential character in the Cinderella narrative. Her step mother and her step sisters are all mean to her. There is a prince. There are fairies. But none of those elements met up in quite the way that I thought they would in my playthrough. My Cinders was a manipulative libertarian who did everything she could to leave the life she was living, even though that life didn’t seem to be so bad the further I dug into it. The characters who I thought I would sympathize with turned venomous; I was also able to relate with the ones who were on-face despicable. Most often they were merely pitiable. What I am trying to say here is that when the MoaCube website says that Cinders is a “serious take on a classic fairytale story,” it isn’t a mere “maturation” that equates to sex, violence, and language. Instead, it takes the Cinderella take very seriously and offers the player the ability to work through the varied problems and traumas that come with being the center character.

I don’t want to push too much on telling specifics of the story–being a visual novel, most of the tricks that the game has up its sleeve are narrative based, and there were moments where I was genuinely surprised about where the story went. I can tell you, however, that Cinders has very high replayability. I completed the game in around four hours of play, but I had only unlocked 33% of 1/4 of the possible endings to the game.

With that comes choices. Frankly, I was surprised by the number of choices possible in the game. At several moments I expected to be railroaded into a scenario, but more often than not the quick-thinking Cinders had a series of options to choose from. More than that, the choices were not presented at mere dichotomy. Often there were three or more, with some real nuance in between them. All of these different aspects to choice combine together to create a strong, braided narrative. Early in the game, the player is introduced to a visual mechanic that signals when the current dialogue and situation are reflective of a previous choice. This is shown through a tiny branch displaying in the top right corner of the screen; by the end of the game, it was just sitting up there, blinking constantly.

Beyond the narrative, there is the visual realm. The backgrounds and characters are beautiful, though sometimes they can be a little static; the mouths move when they talk and they sometimes gesticulate, but they mostly just stand there and pontificate at you for long periods of time. That said, I loved looking at the character designs and the backgrounds. The colors pop, and I was genuinely moved by the depth and color spectrum of the Lake that Cinders goes to often. There are, however, some weird missteps in the art: the only person of color in the entire work appears to be of African heritage and is a witch. Her face is painted in a skeletal way–she resembles early 20th century representations of “witch doctors” (and, sadly, like the goddess of the sea from Pirates of the Caribbean). Even though we are presented with the witch as a strong female character who actively works to dispel myths about normative power structure, it is still sad that the only person of color in the world is someone who is scary to the general public in the story.

Beyond these formalistic statements, Cinders also positions the game player in an interesting way. I said above that I wasn’t sure if I could call Cinders a game, but it certainly passes the most broad, shorthand definitions (I prefer Anna Anthropy’s: a game is when a player interacts with a system). Is merely making decisions enough to constitute a game? In any case, the way that the player is created as an entity in Cinders should draw interest from game critics. The player begins the game as both “inside” and yet apart from the character Cinders. I made a number of decisions for her, and it seemed that I was looking out of her eyes a lot of the time; I was able to hear her thoughts most of the time. But yet, I was not Cinders totally–she was distinct from me; I don’t say “I” when referring to her. There is a subtle balance struck in the design, and I think that it deserves parsing out by the same critical eyes who turned to Christine Love’s work.

One more note: this “being in Cinders’ head while also being distinct” makes for some weird encounters with the game world. There are stretches of time where you are reading an internal monologue in front of an empty room. In these moments, Cinders is absent from the visible world, but still encompasses all of the player’s real experience of the game world. In the empty space created by the background art, a true discovery of Cinders’ self is possible. This is contrasted with the conversations that Cinders has with the characters in the world. Painted figures dominate the landscape then, huge and domineering, taking up a lot of screen real estate. Though it doesn’t sound like it, Cinders is actually doing a bang-up job of presenting a phenomenology of communication. Those who speak and are spoken to take up huge amounts of time and space; these things even begin to swirl and focus around them like they have their own gravity. In the absence of these, personal experience proliferates. Internal narratives and the unspoken are absorbed into the character, and the player, without interruption from the outside.

Hopefully this has convinced you that there is something to Cinders. I can’t do it justice. You should buy the game. To be honest, it is pricey, and the major criticism that I have to impart to the creators is that they should charge $15 max for the game and try to get it on Steam. So I liked it, it was worth my time, and you should at least try it out by playing the demo.

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