“Having not said anything the first time, it was somehow even more difficult to broach the subject the second time around.” – Douglas Adams
Left on Read is a visual novel and narrative platformer about the challenges of forming relationships over distance, during Covid-19 lockdowns. Players must take on the role of a college freshman, texting their crush over the long period of quarantine, carefully choosing dialogue choices to keep the conversation interesting, the relationship alive and, most importantly, avoid being left on read!
Developer: Weston Bell-Geddes
Released: May 2020
Narrative-focused games of this ilk often use point-and-click controls or something similarly simple. Left on Read, however, adopts platformer mechanics as a way to progress the story and make dialogue choices. Each message is represented by a platform and the player must use WASD and space to navigate them. The game itself is unchallenging but the controls are not as smooth or responsive as one might expect meaning that missteps and falls happen regularly. Whilst death is not punishing as falls return the player the most recent message, it is quite possible to accidentally select an unintended dialogue choice with a misstep making the sub-par controls really quite frustrating.
Left on Read presents itself as a choice-driven game in which dialogue must be carefully selected in order to progress the game successfully, in fact, it is rather linear. Only a few dialogue choices present themselves each day, most of which merely offer the illusion of choice and result in very little variation.
On completing a playthrough of Left on Read, realistic mode will unlock. This gives more lifelike delays between messages and can take around 24 hours to complete!
Narrative and Styling
The narrative is delivered entirely through dialogue between the protagonist and their crush. This includes the expected delivered and read statuses, pauses between replies and those three dots! The thought process of the protagonist is also revealed through the editing of their own messages before sending. Some dialogue choices will only fully reveal themselves after being selected and a small portion even change after selection, removing the player autonomy to a degree.
The characters and relationship have an awkwardness that affords them some genuineness but the secondary characters feel underdeveloped. The crush, in particular, comes across as self-absorbed which in turn makes the entire relationship appear one-sided. This is not problematic except for the fact that it doesn’t seem intentional and clashes with other aspects of the narrative.
The UI and overall aesthetic of Left on Read is very simple, consisting mainly of typical messenger graphics arranged on a black background. The playable character is represented on-screen with a bouncing white square. The game menu opens with droning ASMR-esque sounds that evoke a physical reaction and a sense of relief as the game starts and it cuts out. Following this, the game uses slightly ominous but relaxing keyboard music and recognisable messenger sounds.
Left on Read tries to reinvent the wheel by adding platformer mechanics to a self-prescribed choose your own adventure story. This detracts from the narrative focus without adding anything beyond novelty. The game would have been better served by sticking to more traditional methods of interactivity, especially when the unpredictable controls are also taken into account.
However, the game does present a familiar, awkward and entertaining narrative using simple but effective visuals and interesting sound design. It is relatable and current, highlighting the difficulty of maintaining long term relationships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic with a nice balance of realism and lightness, giving it a certain amount of appeal in these trying times.
Looking for more interactive fiction reviews? Check out the following:
Stilstand: An Insightful Portrayal of Loneliness – Assemble with Care – Instructions not Included – If Found: A Coming of Age Story with a Sci-Fi Twist