“Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” –Neil Gaiman
LudoNarraCon 2022 (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 the 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 my top ten, with mini-reviews!
Top Picks from LudoNarraCon 2022 Demos
Strange Horticulture is an occult puzzle game in which players take on the role of the proprietor in a plant shop in the town of Undermere. Tasks include finding and identifying plants as well as helping local residents with their various needs. As the days go by and different people visit the shop, however, a darker narrative begins to reveal itself.
The game smoothly blends its mysterious occult narrative with varied gameplay and familiar puzzle mechanics to create a really engaging interactive fiction with originality. The well-written characters, symbiotic narrative design and moody cartoon aesthetic also work together well, complimenting the gameplay to provide players with a casual but atmospheric experience overall.
A full review of this game is available here.
Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus and Butterfly
Developer: Toge Productions
Coffee Talk Episode 2 is set in 2023 and sees an eclectic host of interesting characters (some new, some familiar) frequenting a late-night coffee shop in hope of connection. The game features conversations ranging from casual slice-of-life stories to much more poignant or dramatic discussions with engaging dialogue, good characterisation and a touch of humour. Despite the heavier nature of some of the conversations, the gameplay remains relaxing overall. The act of brewing drinks adds some variety to the mechanics and allows players to experiment with ingredients, learn recipes and be creative with latte art, making sure the customers are kept happy and given the correct orders!
The detailed pixel art uses muted tones but includes some vibrant highlights and nice lighting effects. This suits the game well and also matches the game’s soundtrack which is made up of jazzy numbers ranging from chilled-out lo-fi tracks to more discordant bluesy sounds. The overall effect is very atmospheric and helps immerse the player. This is one of the absolute highlights of the LudoNarraCon 2022 demos and I highly recommend it to fans of the franchise and newcomers alike.
MINDHACK is a visual novel about transforming the minds of evildoers. Players take on the role of the doctor and must reform criminals by debugging their minds and hacking their personalities. The gameplay alternates between longer sections of dialogue in which players can learn about the dystopian world in which they live and get to know the diverse bunch of interesting characters and typing challenges in which the mind-hacking takes place.
The game has a simple, slightly sketchy, cartoon art style that uses a very muted palette with minimal and deliberate use of colour that ties into the gameplay itself. The music is varied and ranges from frantic electronic tracks with a heartbeat and medical beeps to more rocky numbers with electric guitars and drums. The dialogue is a little stiff at times but the engaging and dramatic narrative more than makes up for this.
MINDHACK is a great addition to the LudoNarraCon 2022 demos. The combination of typing game and visual novel is nicely paced and a lot of fun. I highly recommend checking it out but it is worth noting that the game comes with a content warning due to the explicit language and difficult subject matter and themes.
The Vale is a story-driven, action-adventure in which the player takes on the role of the recently appointed warden of a small keep on the outskirts of the kingdom over which her brother reigns. Blind from birth and sheltered for much of her childhood, she eagerly welcomes her exile as an opportunity for adventure.
As an audio-based game, The Vale intends to breathe new life into medieval combat and provide a truly novel and immersive experience for visually impaired and sighted gamers alike. It utilises 3D audio and haptic controller feedback to deliver visceral gameplay that shatters the barrier between player and character.
Playing The Vale demo was a fun experience, it provides everything you might expect from an action RPG in an innovative and accessible way and promises to be an exciting and engaging experience for sighted and blind players alike.
A full, double-author review of this demo is available here.
How to Say Goodbye
How to Say Goodbye is a narrative puzzle game inspired by illustrated books. It tells a story of loss, death and grief as gently and positively as possible. The game follows recently deceased Sendak, lost in an unknown world populated by spirits, some friendlier than others! The goal is to help Sendak cross the space between life and death and reach the other side.
The puzzles involve a moveable grid on which Sendak sits. Players must manipulate the environment, circumvent obstacles and retrieve required items such as keys in order to unlock the next puzzle and progress the narrative. The puzzles in the demo are not too challenging but it seems that there is a difficulty curve and that the level of challenge will increase as the game progresses.
The thought-provoking narrative and engaging mechanics are matched brilliantly by the game’s soundtrack which is uptempo and would be jolly if it didn’t sometimes slip eerily into a minor key. The more melancholy elements of the game are contrasted pleasantly by the colourful, 2D cartoon art style. All these aspects work in tandem to create a poignant and entertaining experience and I highly recommend checking out this demo!
Wytchwood is a crafting RPG adventure set in a world of gothic fables and fairytales. Players take on the role of the witch of the woods and must explore, gather ingredients and cast spells!
The demo begins with the witch waking up to find a mysterious goat, who is not quite what he seems, in her house eating the pages of her grimoire. Without her recipes, she must explore the open-world environment, observe different items in order to rediscover them and successfully complete a linear series of quests.
The music consists mostly of gentle guitar tracks and is generally quite relaxing. This matches well with the game’s distinct art style with its soft lines and lots of texture in different muted colour palettes for each area and hints of vibrancy throughout. Additionally, the supernatural narrative is engaging and ties into the quests adding to the sense of immersion.
Wyytchwood is a fantastic addition to the LudoNarraCon 2022 Demos and the full game promises to be a fun and quirky adventure game that draws on multiple genres and will appeal to a wide range of players.
A Space for the Unbound
This demo for the upcoming game A Space for the Unbound is a slice-of-life adventure set in rural Indonesia in the late 1990s. It tells a story about overcoming anxiety, depression, and the relationship between a boy and a girl with supernatural powers.
This title makes a real emotional impact and touches on a range of complicated themes including self-discovery, loss, friendship, insecurity and emotional and financial strain, amongst others. It is a deceptively casual experience that reveals itself to be much deeper and more turbulent than it first appears. Beautiful in a variety of ways, I would happily recommend A Space for the Unbound Prologue to anyone with heartstrings to pull on!
A full review of this demo can be found here.
Behind the Frame
Behind the Frame sees players guiding a paintbrush and solving a variety of puzzles in order to help an aspiring artist complete her masterpiece. As the painting starts to come together an emotional tale of chance and artistry is slowly revealed.
The demo begins with a spot of painting, which has quite a tactile mechanic, the player is then confronted with a to-do list of mostly everyday tasks such as making breakfast. After which they embark on more artistic endeavours such as sketching her neighbour and their cat. There are also a number of escape room style puzzles, they are satisfying without posing much of a challenge and seem to provide new paint colours when completed.
The art style is a lovely mix of soft painterly backgrounds with an anime cartoon style for the characters and interactable objects. The diegetic music is jolly and jazzy, featuring piano and strings. It manages mellow and upbeat, fitting the style of the game really well.
Overall, Behind the Frame is a unique and relaxing game that mixes painting and puzzle mechanics with a lot of charm. The styling and gameplay blend seamlessly and the demo sets the foundations for what promises to be an immersive and emotive narrative making this a definite top pick from the LudoNarraCon 2022 demos!
A YEAR OF SPRINGS (review by David Ingrusee)
A YEAR OF SPRINGS is a remastered trilogy compilation of three interconnected, brief visual novels (one night, hot springs – last day of spring – spring leaves no flowers). The stories chronicle the lives of three Japanese friends, Haru, Erika, and Manami, who try to navigate the mazes of friendships, feelings, love, and fitting in with society at large.
Overall, A YEAR OF SPRINGS succinctly shines a light on the difficulties facing LGBT people, of legal challenges and a society that’s slow and resistant to change. The game even manages to show how hard it is for well-intentioned people to not be insensitive or approach their friends without tact, thanks to how it uses choices and multiple endings. As a visual novel and social commentary, it does a spectacular job and I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the demo.
A full review of this game is available here.
The Wreck is a mature, 3D visual novel that follows Junon, a failed screenwriter as she repeatedly tries to make it through one of the most challenging days of her life after waking up in a hospital and being faced with some very difficult decisions. Players can relive the past, alter the present and embrace the future, or simply watch her story end in the titular wreck!
The vibrancy of the cartoon art style contrasts with the hard-hitting narrative, but there is a fuzziness to it that gives the visuals a dreamlike effect that matches the protagonist’s state of mind. The music is minimal but effective, the highlight being the energetic intro track with an 80s vibe to it! The voice acting was also very nice, with Junon played very passionately which befits the character and the situation.
The Wreck’s a drama-filled storyline, gripping time-travel mechanics and suitably disorienting visuals make for an emotive and powerful experience. It is a fantastic example of interactive fiction and a great addition to the LudoNarraCon 2022 demos.
Overall, there is a fantastic selection of demos available this year and these are the best of a good bunch! All the included titles demonstrate 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?
If you’d like to read about last year’s LudoNarraCon top picks, check out the following article:
LudoNarracon2021: Top 10 Picks from over 30 Free Game Demos!