”The day you become old is the day you’re not looking for new experiences anymore.” – Billie Joe Armstrong
LudoNarraCon 2021 (LNC) is a FREE digital convention hosted on Steam, with a focus on celebrating narrative and storytelling in video games and the talented and dedicated people that make such titles. You can read an in-depth overview of the event here!
Part of LudoNarraCon event sees developers exhibiting their games and making playable demos available for the duration of the event. This year there are over 30 demos and the following is a list of them all with mini-reviews!
Top Picks from the LudoNarraCon 2021 Demos
My top 10 picks from the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos selection were Spiritfarer, Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Unpacking, No Longer Home, A Space for the Unbound, Song of Farca, Svoboda 1945 Liberation, Not for Broadcast, Beacon Pines, and Minute of Islands. Mini-reviews for all ten of these game can be found here.
The Rest of the LudoNarraCon 2021 Demos
The Longest Road on Earth
The longest Road on Earth is a thoughtful and deeply personal title with stripped-down mechanics. The lack of dialogue or text allows players to create their own narrative through time spent with four characters. Each short story will allow players to be swept away by the haunting lyrics of over twenty original, nostalgic songs.
This game is the epitome of a choose-your-own-adventure, the total lack of text or dialogue not only makes the game very accessible but leaves the various stories very open to interpretation by the player. The circumstances of the various characters are vague enough that they could signify a variety of things though the music has an emotional influence. The music is the star of the show with gentle guitar, soothing and sometimes melancholy vocals and upbeat drums really helping to create a sense of immersion. The detailed black and white pixel art is also lovely. This has the potential to be one of the most moving of the LudoNarracon 2021 demos.
Mind Scanners is a retro-futuristic psychiatry simulation in which players diagnose the citizens of a dystopian metropolis, locate a host of other-worldly characters and use arcade-style treatment devices to help them. Additionally, players must manage time and resources to keep the mega-city known as The Structure in balance.
Despite the game description giving the impression that the game would be a thoughtless take on mental health at best, I persevered in trying out the demo only to be informed that the protagonist’s daughter is currently quarantined under the care of The Structure as she has a ‘highly contagious mental illness‘! Working as a mind scanner will grant access to her child so she begins to see patients. I was able to miraculously and permanently cure a patient who thought they were a tree by playing one simple and disconnected arcade game and was next asked to brand a patient sane or insane. The lack of research or collaboration with any mental health organisations is very apparent and I found this demo to be insensitive, verging on offensive. One to avoid!
Developer: Ghost Pattern
Platforms: Windows, Mac
Available on: Steam
Wayward Strand takes place in January 1978, on a flying ocean liner, harboured above the waters of Inverloch, in rural Victoria, Australia and being turned into a hospital. Players take on the role of teenage journalist, Casey Beaumaris as she visits an airborne hospital for the first time. Uncover the airship’s mysteries, and explore the lives of its inhabitants by moving through the ship and speaking to the characters as they go about their day.
The nursing home wing is available in the demo and players can get an impression of the endearing and entwined stories to be discovered beyond the main narrative of the game. Casey gets to listen to the resident’s reminisce, learn about them and the ship and get information for the school paper article that she is secretly writing. There is some mellow guitar music and snippets of voice acting to give some sense of audio immersion and the art style is a satisfying mix of cute hand-drawn pictures, scans of items, photographs and some simple 3D models.
I’d definitely recommend trying this short but sweet demo, especially as it does have some replayability afforded to it by the inspiration it takes from interactive and immersive theatre – while the player/audience is experiencing something in one room, something different is happening elsewhere!
She Dreams Elsewhere
She Dreams Elsewhere is the debut video game project from Studio Zevere, a one-man indie game development and film studio. It mixes a range of game styles and genres to create a truly unique experience, utilising visual and audio elements to emphasise atmosphere and story rather than distract from it. The game also avoids common tropes and distastefulness in its representation of mental health struggles, which it does in a way that is highly relatable, shows empathy, and seems to have a basis in lived experiences. I thoroughly recommend checking out the free demo during LudoNarracon 2021 and am eagerly anticipating the game’s full release.
A full review of this demo can be found here.
Do Not Buy This Game
Anyone who does buy this game can expect the developer to narrate in their ear about the player’s poor life choices, whilst they attempt to create something resembling a game to walk around in!
Do Not Buy This Game offers up an entertaining demo that pits it against games such as The Stanley Parable or The Beginner’s Guide, with abstract environments, reverse psychology and meta-narratives along with a similar art style. Much like the aforementioned games, this one really needs to be experienced to be understood and I highly recommend checking out this more obscure addition to the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos.
Forgotten Fields is a cozy narrative game about Sid, a struggling writer who travels back to his childhood home one last time before it’s sold. Players can visit old friends, relive memories, solve puzzles and play through sections of Sid’s book in this heartwarming game about nostalgia and the passage of time.
This demo provides a very slow-paced and laid back experience that focuses on the stories of its protagonist. It has gentle background music and a simple art style that utilises solid block colours in pastel and muted shades. This may be a bit too relaxing for some but is an easy experience to chill out to.
Set in 1986, Lake has players take on the role of Meredith Weiss as she takes a break from her career in the big city to deliver mail in her hometown. They must decide how she will spend her two weeks in beautifully remote and disconnected, Providence Oaks, with its iconic lake and quirky community and what she will do next.
This demo presents a vibrant, colourful game with a simple premise that has the potential to be very relaxing. Unfortunately, game lag (despite lowering the graphic settings) and large amounts of screen tearing made it difficult to play for any real length of time making it a bit of difficult to get much of an impression of what the finished game will be like.
Game Director Story
Game Director Story is an unflinching and satirical look behind-the-scenes at how big-budget AAA games are made. Based on first-hand accounts by industry veterans, Players experience the emotional roller coaster of guiding a team through the agonizing decisions and compromises needed to ship a game.
This is an insightful and realistic look at game development. As the protagonist, an owl, the player must make tough decisions to keep the team and publisher happy, balance time and finances and manage the project. things remain relatively light-hearted in the demo, aided by the colourful aesthetic. The game has some lovely hand-drawn art and the knitted animal plushie characters are a cute addition. I’d recommend taking a look at this demo, especially if you have an interest in the game development process.
Nuts is a single-player surveillance mystery in which players must record the squirrels, report the findings and piece together what’s really going on in Melmoth Forest.
The heavily stylised and minimal art style, with limited and thoughtful colour palettes, when paired with the photography aspect of this game and the overarching mystery players are promised make it highly reminiscent of Return of the Obra Dinn. This title does have a much cuter base concept, however, and the task of observing squirrels makes a pleasant change. A familiar concept with unique elements, this was a thoroughly enjoyable inclusion in the LudoNarraCon 2021 Demos.
TUNIC is a top-down, isometric, action-adventure about a tiny fox in a big world! Players can explore the wilderness, discover spooky ruins, and fight terrible creatures from long ago.
This demo is an early build but showcases a cute and colourful art style and an adorable protagonist and a fun adventure. There are a mix of enemies, items to collect, and a beautiful environment to explore. It even poses a bit of a challenge and death does not go unpunished, setting players back a little way. Overall, this is a delightful and enjoyable offering.
The Invisible Hand
The Invisible Hand puts players in the first-person world of a mid-level stockbroker, beginning their first day working at the trading firm FERIOS. Despite yearning for the job since childhood, the competition is stiff and there will be a fight to prove their worthiness! The mindset of FERIOS staff should match the ethos of their employer: profit is all that matters, the rules don’t apply if you’re a winner, and only losers feel guilty for the pain, loss and poverty that are the unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of the critical and important work they do.
This satirical simulator packs a punch with its parody of the stock market with exaggerated examples of corporations with no morals! It begins with a hilariously hectic intro and then sets the player on an extended job interview in which they must trade stocks with this relatively detailed sim. Neither the simple, 3D art style nor the game’s music is anything too spectacular but it is the mechanical and comedic elements that make this game so enjoyable. This looks to be one of the more challenging games being showcased by the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos.
Developer: Safe Place Studio
Available on: Steam
Venice 2089 depicts a futuristic version of the titular city, struggling as the effects of rising water slowly destroy the city. Players take on the role of Nova, a bored teenager, exploring her home with a trusty hoverboard and drone!
This demo suggests very casual gameplay, with an exploratory aspect that makes it feel almost like a sandbox game despite being given specific tasks like putting up posters and finding new ice cream flavours! The narrative is fairly loose but appears to focus on family and returning home with an underlying but clear message about the environment and global warming. The main environment is 2.5D and depicted with a clean and vibrant cartoon art style and there is some relaxing but lively music to accompany the gameplay. This demo is illustrative of a game that will appeal to a wide audience and I highly recommend trying it during the event!
Teacup is a narrative adventure game with a focus on exploration. Players take on the titular role of Teacup, an introverted frog who loves tea and reading. But on the morning of her tea party, she realises she has no tea and must venture around Little Pond, talking to other creatures and finding herbs to restock her pantry.
Teacup is a delightful little demo with characters as charming as the game’s concept. Chatting to the various NPCs and sometimes helping them with tasks such as organising a fruit and veg stall, will serve to help Teacup on her foraging mission as the whimsical animals help her in return. The music is mainly of a gentle and soothing piano variety which matches the visual styling really well. The overall art style is one block colours and pixel art in lively pastel shades with a spray paint/pointillism effect that adds coherence whilst simultaneously softening the overall aesthetic. This demo is illustrative of what a calm, casual game Teacup will be with lots of jolly elements making it one of the more relaxing of the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos and perfect to enjoy with a cup of tea!
Genesis Noir is a poetic adventure game about stopping the big bang to save your love! It is unclear from the demo quite how the recently released full version of the game will have evolved and expanded and how the different aspects have been amalgamated into a tangible and complete game – it’s all very abstract! That being said, it was an unusual and enjoyable experience that inspires curiosity and is definitely worth trying out while the demo is available!
A full review of this demo is available here.
The titular city of Love Shore is a futuristic metropolis and, following a fertility crisis, is now partly populated with cyborgs, amongst the old gods of the criminal underworld and downtrodden humans trying to make their way back up the food chain. Players can play as one of two distinct characters, Sam or Farah, both cyborgs and facing similar problems. They must navigate the neon lights and dangers of Love Shore, solving murders, fighting gods and potentially falling in love along the way.
Clever narrative design has the tension and intrigue build slowly in this demo, really working to capture the audience’s attention. This is aided by brilliantly descriptive writing and great character design with diverse and authentic NPCs helping to solidify the protagonist’s backstory. The music is a mix of ’80s, synth and lo-fi which matches the environment’s mix of futuristic elements and prominent retro stylings such as holograms and neon lights. This, plus the atmospheric, hand-drawn art and moody lighting effects make for a very impressive example amongst the LudoNarracon 2021 demos.
Ambition: A Minuet in Power
Ambition: A Minuet in Power is a ‘choose your own adventure’ style visual novel set in the 18th century and takes place in a city of love, lies and revolution – Paris. The protagonist is a young, female fashionista just trying to survive the political turmoil. Players can date a plethora of unforgettable characters, try to amass wealth and respect and engage in gossip that can alter the course of history, or lead right to the guillotine.
The game has a range of mechanics that tie into the narrative relatively seamlessly, such as choosing outfits to affect credibility or the turn-based system for choosing who to talk to. It also has some lovely, clean and colourful digital art and fittingly pompous classical musical with a somewhat regent feel. These elements, along with the wonderfully descriptive writing make this an interesting example of a visual novel and certainly worth a look.
Murder Mystery Machine
Murder Mystery Machine is a point-and-click detective game with a modern-noir setting. Players take on the role of Cassandra Clarke, a rookie on her first day working at the District Crime Agency who must work with her partner to investigate the murder of a politician. Initially appearing to be a robbery gone wrong, the two detectives are soon entwined in a complex and interconnected series of wrongdoings that will take puzzle-solving and deduction to unravel.
This demo has players search for evidence by inspecting and interrogating, they must then determine links and contradictions to decipher the who, what and why of it all before being graded on the effort. This is interspersed with dialogue that is well written and progresses the narrative nicely. Murder Mystery Machine has a simple but polished 3D art style that is a bit cartoonish, nicely contrasting with the moody noir lighting. Overall this is an intriguing introduction to the game.
Later Daters is a dating sim for sexy seniors. Players take on the role of the newest resident at Ye OLDE Retirement Community and can begin looking for love, or frolics with the residents. Also featuring bridge, arthritis and orthopaedic shoes.
This endearing demo will provide plenty of fun and jolly moments whilst also hitting players with occasional, brief but poignant sadder moments that really hit home. It has well rounded distinct characters each with their own brand of racy dialogue. The aesthetic is simple but effective and uses vibrant pastel shades that fit the tone of the game. Music in-game is minimal but well-executed, the star of the audio show, however, is the super catchy theme tune that plays over the menu screen. I’d definitely recommend fans of visual novels and dating sims check out this inclusive and refreshing take on the genres, it was a highlight among the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos.
I was a Teenage Exocolonist
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a narrative-focused life sim with a card battling component and a queer-friendly science fiction vibe. Players can explore, grow up, and fall in love and the choices made and skills mastered over a ten year period will determine their fate and the survival of the colony.
This LudoNarraCon 2021 demo is really promising. It showcases engaging and varied gameplay with a variety of activities to enjoy and social, mental and physical skills to train. The artwork is really charming, hand-drawn and with a watercolour aesthetic. Although this demo does not have the full game audio, the looped synth noises made for a great ethereal placeholder. There is a short character customisation section, and the writing and characterisation of NPCs is distinct and engaging. Overall, an intriguing experience that I’d happily recommend.
As the player steps into their first day at Kraken Academy, they soon find themselves responsible for saving the world from impending doom! This is no ordinary high school, there are ghosts, cultists, crocodiles that eat children and a Kraken with whom to join forces. By using a magical time-travel amulet, the unlikely team may eventually reveal the identity of the traitor.
This is a fun demo with a mix of pixel and hand-drawn anime-style artwork and a lively, retro-esque soundtrack. Despite having a few humorous elements it also missed the mark on occasion and the dialogue felt somewhat stiff with little beyond surface-level characterisation. It was a lacklustre experience overall but the game seems to be targeting a teenage audience so perhaps those in that age bracket would enjoy this demo more.
Button City is a cute adventure game about even cuter animals and their local arcade! Players take on the role of adorable Fox, Fennel and explore a vibrant diorama world, enjoy fun arcade games and make fluffy friends. The gameplay ties into an exciting narrative about a greedy fat cat threatening to tear down the arcade!
Amongst the joliest of the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos, Button City is sure to make players smile; it gives a great overview of the game which is very jolly with a positive overall vibe. There are a range of gameplay types and mechanics at work and it is great fun to explore. The world and its characters are delightful and are matched well by the upbeat low-fi music and colourful low-poly art style.
Out There: Oceans of Time
Out There: Oceans of Time is a space exploration game that mixes elements from rogue-lite, resource management and interactive fictions genres. Players can recruit alien crew, explore uncharted planets, scavenge for resources and maintain their ship in pursuit of the elusive Archon.
This demo shows some of the fantastic artwork that features in this game and gives a vague impression of what the gameplay will be like. However, the lack of tutorial and consequent lack of understanding meant that progress was very limited, as are any comments on the game as a whole. This may be worth a try for those very familiar with the franchise or this style of game but others may struggle with it.
Umurangi is the Te Reo word for red sky and Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography game set in a dystopian future! In a place called Tauranga Aotearoa the player finds themselves working as a courier as a result of an impending crisis – the perfect opportunity to capture some ‘photo bounties’.
Taking and editing photos in this game is a simplified but fun and engaging experience. Finding the prescribed bounties as well as completing bonus objective such as timed photography and finding spare film makes for a really satisfying and mostly relaxing game that doubles as a kind of creative outlet. The vibrant art style and chilled but energetic music fit the style and tone of the game really well. The environmental storytelling is well implemented and presents an intriguing story earning this thoroughly enjoyable game its place amongst the LudoNarraCon 2021 demos.
Overall, there is a fantastic selection of demos available this year. All demonstrating the value of narrative in games but with enough variety that there will be something for everyone. If you haven’t already started checking some of these titles out, what are you waiting for?
For more LudoNarracon 2021 related content, take a look at:
LudoNarraCon 2021’s New Supporter Pack and Exclusive Game!