The Insight: Spot-Checking Itch.io’s Visual Novels, Including One That’s A Twisted Tempest Of Tension

By Ronald Gordon

Lately, things seem to have slowed down a bit when it comes to big games being produced and released. Sure, summer’s been slower than usual, but it’s only natural to assume that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause bigger publishers to have to deal with working from their individual abodes as opposed to working as a team in massive studios. However, that doesn’t mean that the Indie creators have stopped working from home on their passion projects. If anything, Indie Games have been popping up more frequently. 

Itch.io Logo

Itch.io is a website/app that has a wide array of Indie games to play. I was familiar with the site, having seen it in a multitude of YouTube videos, but I hadn’t thought of looking into it before. I found a batch of enjoyable visual novels there; to keep this brief, I’ll cover the five that interested me most. While some of them are sappy romance novels that satisfied my hopeless romantic side, there are also a few wacky ones that helped me fend off the boredom of being stuck in a hot room all day. 

The first is one of the few visual novels that really stuck with me, mostly because of the Relax, Recharge, Reflect message it conveyed. The game is called Soft Underbelly, and it was authored by rosa✦dev. In the novel, you have a nice relaxing talk with your adorable cat, who has come to interrupt your work flow and get a couple of pats and belly rubs. You take the distraction as an opportunity to reflect on the things you’ve chosen to ignore in your everyday life, making observations that likely wouldn’t have come to mind if the cat didn’t pull you away from your work. I felt a warm fuzzy sensation while playing through Soft Underbelly, due not only to its simple color scheme or its slow melodic music, but because it’s a sad story that hits home with everyone. We all have problems we’d rather not face, but sometimes we need something to push us into reflecting on those problems and seeing how we can get better. Like some sort of beacon or representation on what we could be without those problems we have. It could be a younger and more naive version of ourselves before the present day, or a lovely fearless cat demanding pets and scratches from its owner. It all depends on the person. 

The next novel I played through was called A Tavern For Tea, made by npckc. In it, you run an establishment that serves various kinds of tea. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come in, and once they do you serve them without prying too much into who or what they might be. Your goal is to get a tired Adventurer and an overworked Demon Lord to open up and talk to one another, even though neither of them ever even smiles. It takes a couple of tries and a lot of different tea combinations (and some backtracking from dead ends) to get them to be friends. Once you get it right, though, you’ll be amazed at the effect a hot cuppa can have on someone.  

After that, I found a novel that’s a bit goofy and a bit buggy, but still a hilarious experience. It’s called Out of Reach, by Anter, and in it you step into the shoes of a nervous anime fan going on their first date with a girl. Classic dating sim scenario right? Wrong! Every choice you make results in your character doing something completely different, as if they’re thinking one thing and saying another. You pick Strawberry Ice Cream, they say Pistachio, you pick maybe they’ve dated other girls, they bring up the fatal mistake of possibly dating their mom. If you can somehow navigate the twisted tempest of tension that comes with first date jitters, you can help this sad sack realize that there’s a lot more to the world than gaming and anime. 

Keeping with the theme of playing as a nervous wreck of a character, the next novel I explored is about a stressful situation (which is stressful because of the attractive people you face). Phil Johnson’s “Hey, Can I Borrow Your Pen?” puts you in the middle of a quiet classroom. All seems to be going well until….your pen dies on you. Now you have to select a dialogue option that allows you to borrow a pen from one of your four classmates without falling in love or embarrassing yourself. It’s a nearly impossible task, since every wrong choice causes one of four bars in a special Heart meter to go up. Despite that, the novel was a delight to tussle with, not least because the character art changes with each level, from simple stick figures to brilliantly detailed works of art that look hand painted. 

This last novel I reviewed is unfortunately only a demo, but it was still an interesting experience. Dr. Smiley’s Funhouse, made by tranzcowboy, is about a horribly unfortunate boy named Adrian. Bullied at school, unloved at home and slightly overweight, Adrian’s life is closer to tragedy than it is to comedy. After his awful mother grows tired of his confrontational attitude and lackluster behavior, he’s sent off to Dr. Smiley’s Funhouse, a place for bad kids to turn their frowns upside down. However, despite how happy-go-lucky this chapter’s cartoonish style and upbeat music may seem, it’s actually part of a horror game. Dr. Smiley’s going to turn your bad kid good….whether they like it or not. The demo intrigued me so much that I actually want to follow the developer to see how the full version plays out. 

Itch.io is an entertaining, generally free-to-use platform with a vast assortment of games and visual novels to give you a cheerful experience or help you fight the malaise of being isolated. Most are free to play, but there are some that have a set price and others that let you name your price. For those who, like myself, cherish the feel of a quirky passion project or that rare homebrewed masterpiece, Itch.io is the place to go for the best of both.

Ronald Gordon, a Bronx native who attends City Tech College, is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle. 

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