Do characters have to be likeable in order for a story to be compelling? I would argue that they do not. You don’t have to like someone in order for him/her to be an engaging character. The most memorable characters are those who elicit intense feelings from us, good or bad.
It is with this in mind that I review Nowhere Safe: Unintended Silence, a visual novel from Red Panda Games’ Visual Novel Games division. I can safely say that I did not like any of the characters, save for maybe one. They were all screwed up in their own unique ways, many of them suffering from various forms and severities of mental illness. The depictions of the characters’ conditions were very hauntingly written and the storyline, harbored around themes of festering resentment, was heady, depressing, and very mature. This is certainly not a game for the faint of heart, and even an experienced visual novel reviewer like me felt its impact.
The story is told through the eyes of Kimiko, a young woman rendered agoraphobic due to a violent trauma in her past. Apparently, in the events of the prior Nowhere Safe game, Kimiko was brutally raped by a murderous psychopath and is now stuck with the 6 year-old daughter of that rape and a fiancée who’s growing more distant and cold by the day. Not only is the child’s presence a constant reminder of Kimiko’s past, much like Hester Prynne’s daughter in The Scarlet Letter, but she is quietly displaying unsettling sociopathic tendencies at school. I could tell you more about the story, but doing so would require revealing spoilers and even non-spoiler content that would overly soften the game’s intense content.
The game may not have a novel’s worth of exposition due to its short length (100% completion can be reached in less than a day), but the characters and themes were blown wide open, and I was treated to more character development than I’ve seen in many epic 40-50 hour RPGs. The five endings and the sixth “Easter Egg” ending were all quite disturbing, even the supposed “good” endings. Some people might be put off that the game is really short, but honestly, I wouldn’t want it to last any longer. It’s perfectly paced, hits huge emotional notes when needed, and never wears out its welcome. Any longer, and the game would feel padded and overwrought. The only caveat I have is that not having played the first Nowhere Safe game takes away some of the impact of the characters’ backstories and connections. Although I was able to get up to speed with everyone, thanks to some expository summaries, it still felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story and had missed out on important information to truly flesh out the plot and characters.
Progressing through the story is just like any other visual novel. You read text until presented with a branching choice. The choices made determine the ending received and each path reveals more of the storyline like layers of an onion. It is best to explore every branch and see every ending so you can omnipotently uncover every layer of the story. It is possible to play the flash version of the game online for free, but paying the $4.99 for download offers a few nice bonuses: full screen support, game saves remain even after clearing your Internet history, higher quality audio and video, and the good feeling of supporting an indie developer (maybe even with some tangible incentive bonuses). Whether you think that’s a good value for your money is up to you, since the game can be played for free, but the emotionally draining storyline is worth experiencing.
Punctuating the storyline are great environment graphics and a lovely soundtrack. Since the protagonist is agoraphobic, the graphics for the house, while homey, feel stifling. By contrast, the outside environments look far more vivid. Some outdoor environments even take on a surreal bent that looks very dreamlike. The heady music does a stellar job of enhancing the atmosphere. The music is often sinister without being cheesy, there are moments where the silence speaks more volumes than any piece of music could, and the vocal theme at the title screen is delightfully haunting. There are a couple of voiced lines here and there, but the game has no voice acting. This works very well because the brief times there are voiced sounds jarred me the right way at the right time; unlike, say, Xenogears where a couple of voiced lines outside of cutscenes felt completely random. The only issue I have with the aesthetics is that the adult characters look way too young. Parents in their 30s should not look like glossy anime teenagers, yet Kimiko’s fiancée and his twin brother don’t look a day over 16. In addition, I found the character art too glossy and “tropey” for such a morose storyline. The character art gets the job done, but a more fitting stylistic choice could have been made.
Nowhere Safe: Unintended Silence follows in the footsteps of games like Trace Memory and Richard & Alice in that they pack deeply penetrating stories into a handful of hours. I never once felt cheated by those games’ short durations. In fact, I’ve actually felt more cheated by some 40+ hour RPGs where at least half of those hours consisted of needlessly ancillary padding. Nowhere Safe: Unintended Silence may not be right for everyone, but I do urge players who value story to try it out. The full game can be played for free online, so there’s no excuse not to check it out.