Building mystery and tension is a key component of any story. Without it, it’s all too easy for us, as readers, to give up; after all, if there’s nothing to solve, or to puzzle over, or simply to ponder, why bother reading on? It’s the mark of a great writer to craft that sense of ambiguity from even the most banal of beginnings. Being able to do so in a short story is even more vital; with fewer words comes a greater need to grab your audience immediately. Given most games have some sort of action in their gameplay, even smaller games can manage to imbue some sense of excitement or intrigue right from the off, but how about when you’ve got a game in a genre that doesn’t have any action at all?
One Night Stand (PC [reviewed], PS4, Switch, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2016 | Developed: Kinmoku | Published: Kinmoku / Ratalaika Games
Genre: Visual Novel | HLTB: 30 mins
The premise of One Night Stand is very simple. You wake up after a night of heavy drinking. You’ve got a thumping headache and you can feel the blood pounding at your temples. The buzz of your phone vibrating is like a saw in your ears, hacking away with an unrelenting fervour. Your vision is blurred; the light of the screen lances through your eyelids and forces you to squint. There’s a real overwhelming of your emotions and senses as the game opens. It’s a terribly well done intro that does a lot to place you in your character’s unenviable position.
As you come to, you find yourself in a stranger’s bed, with a beautiful woman lying next to you, turned away. You have no idea how you got here, or what happened last night, and the game asks you to work it out. I mean, the obvious happened, but how on earth did you wind up here? It’s a simple mystery but one which promises a lot, and the game wants you to explore all sorts of ways of resolving it.
I find myself surprised by the game’s lack of cynicism or by the lack of escalation. Perhaps it’s just the background I come from in games (as always when I review visual novels, I think it’s worth it to say this is well out of my usual wheelhouse) but I found a story that really was as simple and human as One Night Stand to be almost unsettling at first. When I reached my first ending I was struck by how believable it was but I oughtn’t to have been; after all there must be hundreds of interactions just like this every single day. After that, I had to play it again and again, trying for different endings, and each one opened up another facet of these characters’ lives and personalities. There’s a deeply human quality to the writing – how could there not be, really, as so much of the game can be spent talking to the person you spent the night with – and there’s a lot of different, all equally believable, responses your choices can have. While I don’t claim to have any great knowledge of visual novels, the one I found myself reminded of a little (from my admittedly very small pool of VNs I’ve played) was Katawa Shoujo, which also prided itself on the realism of its characters’ responses and expected you to reflect on what you said and both your intent and the perceived intent of your words.
As you’d expect from a visual novel the main way you can interact with the game is through clicking stuff to examine it and by selecting conversation options. One of the smartest and finest aspects to the gameplay though is that you’re limited in your time to look through things as you try and jog your memory. Just to be clear, I don’t mean time-limited in the sense that you have a countdown or anything, but the girl leaves the room at points and each time you can only examine 2 to 3 items before she returns and you switch to conversation again. This means you have to be deliberate and discerning in the items you take a look through; each item can help you remember different things which you can bring up when talking to the girl as you try and work out what happened on the night before. There’s something mildly frustrating about the way your character decides to obfuscate his amnesia. Like, I don’t know if this is just me, but I really don’t see how it’s embarrassing or weird if, after a night on the lash, your memory’s a bit of a mess, and I can’t help but feel that for all its commitment to providing realistic reactions, it would be an awful lot more realistic if your character simply asked what happened rather than played this little dance – then again, there’d hardly be a game then so I suppose I get it.
It’s also a lovely looking game. Everything is presented in gorgeous soft pastels, giving each scene a kind of fuzzy vibe which complements your hungover state, and occasionally flashes of white or horrible encroaching black borders punctuate your thumping headache. The girl is animated with some wonderful application of rotoscoping; there’s something about the fluttering drawn lines that imparts a tangible feeling of vulnerability, and having her be the only animated part of the game helps her hold that focal point amidst the rest of the VN. The light colour scheme also stands as a powerful contrast to the themes of awkwardness and tension that the game’s writing crafts as you try and navigate your conversations with the girl; you feel like you should be relatively safe, but no matter how much you poke around the bedroom it still holds an eerie feeling of unfamiliarity.
It’s in building that sense of uncertainty and unfamiliarity where One Night Stand excels. Each playthrough will shift and change depending on what you chose to investigate during the brief moments where you can rummage about the room. Your dialogue options and the branching paths your conversation goes down are dependent on the things you’ve picked up to look at. Your first couple of playthroughs are probably going to be spent genuinely trying to solve the mystery of what happened, with lots of rifling through clothes for any remaining detritus of the night before, but there’s plenty of different things to focus on and divert your attention. Once you do, you start finding an impressive level of depth; even when a playthrough doesn’t result in a successful ending for your character, along the way you’re going to have found out something new about the girl, whether that’s her personality, or her motivations, or even just what kind of books and films she likes. The game gives you the options to explore your own sense of care for her; while it’s perfectly possible to simply ditch her or even to have a nice chat before leaving, you can also do things that are a little less than moral, and the game leaves you to reflect on your own conduct.
One Night Stand wound up a more introspective experience than I expected. To be honest, in general I didn’t know what I would get from a game called One Night Stand, and then when I found out it was a kind of visual novel-adventure hybrid, I think I was even less sure of what I was going to get. For such a narrow topic, I think that game does a fantastic job of building its environment and atmosphere; it uses the genre and the conventions of branching paths to great effect, keeping playthroughs worth coming back to. Of course, it helps that it’s a very short experience, particularly if you’re a confident reader, but even if you’re not a grand fan of reading One Night Stand is nice and concise, making it probably one of the more accessible VN-style titles I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.