Embracelet

Year: 2020

Developer: Mattis Folkestad at Machineboy

Genre&Topics: bildungsroman, adventure, teens, love, family, loss of beloved ones, alienation, existential crisis, ecology, magic, supernatural

Embracelet is a narrative and expressive 3D adventure in third person view with low poly graphic style. It was developed by Mattis Folkestad, founder of the one man studio Machineboy in Norway; he composed even the soundtrack. It is commendable that an indie author has ventured into the difficult task of developing a narrative and expressive game with few financial and human resources; that’s the reason why the game is worth of our attention. Let me say that the experiment is totally successful. I’m very happy that Mattis submitted a copy of the game to my curator page on Steam; it’s very rare to receive games as good as this one. You can play it also on Nintendo Switch.

Embracelet tells the “bildungsroman” of 17 y.o. Jesper living in Oslo with his mother; he has never known his father, who died before Jesper was born. Jesper is in the middle of an adolescential crisis, he is no longer interested in school and has no friends, his beloved grandfather is seriuosly ill and is going to die. Before to die, grandfather gives him a magic bracelet, with the power to manipulate the world around him, and a mission to accomplish: travel to Slepp island where grandfather lived when he was young and unravel the mistery of the magic bracelet. In the past Sleep was a thriving community based on fishing and tourism; now it is almost uninhabited, and voracious oil companies are compromising its delicate ecosystem. In Slepp Jesper will meet Karoline and Hermod and together they will have an unforgettable summer full of incredible adventures, friendship and love that will change their lives forever.

Superpowers, adolescence, coming of age story, loss, friendship, love, family, ecology, narrative game… Does it ring the bell? Obviously yes, Embracelet is clearly inspired by Life Is Strange. However they are two completely different games and experiences. It has even something of Oxenfree (adolescence, magic elements and comics ballons) and of Night In The Woods (existential crisis, the decadent town of Possum Spring and comics ballons). Mattis Folkestad could not rely on motion captured actors; he did a great job by animating every single hand drawn character in the hand drawn game world. Mattis worked as cartoons designer in the past, I found on the web one of the project he worked for: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390159/fullcredits

Embracelet comes with a lot of divinely animated NPCs; the intense human relationships that the player establishes with the characters are the real strength of the game. Not by chance the title comes from the verb “embrace“. I didn’t think it was possible to get attached to characters and places just sketched in a low poly style; yet at the end of the game there remains a sense of nostalgia for not being able to experience new adventures with your virtual friends in the fascinating low poly world. The hand drawn visuals are magnificent, able to create a contemplative atmosphere and make you forget the low poly graphics or, maybe, just because of the low poly art! The beautiful soundtrack helps to build a pleasant, peaceful, poetic mood. Divinely written texts and multiple choice dialogues help to estabilish strong and empathetic relationships with the characters. As consequence, the absence of acting voices is not a limit: while reading the comic balloons, it seems to hear the voices of the characters!

Programmed camera and gameplay

Gameplay comes with a weird feature: you cannot control the camera. Usually we are used to control camera with the right stick in 3D games. Here the camera is programmed to follow your avatar Jesper so that he is always at the center of the frame. Outdoors or in large places, camera is executing programmed “dollies”, following Jesper from behind or from the side, from near or from afar; indoors or in small places, camera position is fixed but it is programmed to rotate for following Jesper. So you cannot rotate the view, visual is determined by programmed camera following your avatar movements. At first I was perplexed by this feature, then I realized it allows the author to define always the best view, just like directors do in movies; at the same time it combines with the free movements of the avatar. In this way the aesthetic beauty of the view remains consistent throughout the game, it’s a good compromise of cinema and game! It helps a lot to build the expressive mood of the experience. You can see the best result of this technique in the “running for love” interactive sequence (see the second part of the review for details). Thanks to such technique the game switches seamless between gameplay sequences and cut scenes. Maybe here cut scene is the wrong term; you have sequences where you can control Jesper, and sequences where you cannot control Jesper; transition is highlighted by the upcoming of two horizontal black bars at the top and at the bottom of the screen, just like in movies. However animations are built in game engine, there is no visual difference between interactive sequences and not-interactive sequences. AI moves Jesper from the position where you left him to the position programmed by the author. Everything is so smooth and seamless. To say the truth in some scenes you can still interact, you can select the different options of multiple choice dialogues or use the superpowers of the bracelet or do other limited actions; maybe the best term is scripted sequences. I wrote here about the need to find new techniques for managing the camera as result of player’s interactivity and programmed AI such to grant always the best view; and even of the importance of scripted sequences in interactive narrative. Embracelet is a good achievement in the right direction. Some commentators complained about the programmed camera movements; in my opinion the programmed camera works fine, provided that player follows the peaceful and slow mood of the game. If you run, go fast and play in a hurry, the slow camera struggles to follow Jesper and place in the right position in short time. My suggestion is: enjoy the contemplative and peaceful atmosphere of the experience, give time to time. You have to be a sort of co-director, indulging the programmed camera.

With the left stick you move Jesper, with the right stick you move the circle for point&click mechanics: searching and picking items, opening drawers or doors, interacting with elements in the environment. It is essential for the main “superpowers” mechanic: you can direct the power of the bracelet to the elements you point with the circle; for unleashing the power you need to push the action key in synchro with two big oscillating concentric circles. The bracelet mechanic allows for some nice but easy environmental puzzles; most of them are mandatory for progressing the story, a few others are optional but cute. Most of Embracelet’s gameplay comes in the form of exploring the island, talking to the villagers, and solving some light puzzles. However the strenght of the game is the way narration and gameplay mix together for expressing deep emotions and contents.

Contents

The game makes you touch with hands the fragility of teens facing the tough reality, it makes you live the bildungsroman of Jesper; you can feel all the emotions and moods of the characters and experiment their relationships. You can enjoy the peaceful and contemplative mood of a quiet and bigger-than-people Nature while sensations of nostalgy, decadence and time passing engulf you. The oil company menacing the Slepp environment is the symbol of a wrong economic system; but hope for alternative, more sustainable and better future is shining upon the horizon! I liked the contrast between the ever grey and oppressive sky of Oslo and the marvellous nature of Slepp, with the Sun at midnight, the blue sky, the aurora borealis, the magnificent colors when the Sun is on the horizon. In Oslo Jesper feels trapped in palaces similar to concrete crypts; in Slepp he discovers the true himself and the love for life, nature and people. Love is the magic word, love is the power; love helps to get over the pain for loss of beloved ones, to build positive and stimulating relationships, to save nature from human greed, to overcome difficulties, to bring out the best in people, to build a better future. Well, maybe it’s a trivial solution, we’re talking about this in the second part of the review.

Conclusions

Embracelet is an example of video games as synaesthetic media, it’s a well integrated mix of different expressive languages aimed at interactive narration: comics, animation and game. Not by chance it reminds me of To The Moon. That’s good, the contribution of creatives coming from other visual arts can help innovate the medium and give a boost to expressive evolution of video games.

Embracelet is the result of animation skills, long patient job of drawing, writing and programming, music composition, care for every particular, good direction, ambition to tell meaningful story through video games, experimenting integration of cinema and video games, etc. The result is greater than the sum of the individual elements; that’s where expressive art emerges: Mattis has the “artist touch” for sure.

PART 2 (Spoilers here; read only after completing the game)

The only flaw I found in the game is the excessive “lightness“. Let me explain.

Embracelet tackles meaningful topics with poetic touch: loss of beloved ones, adolescencial crisis, existential fragility, loneliness, alienation, etc. Jesper’s bildungsroman in Slepp is at the same time an escape from tough reality, a journey in search of himself, an experience helping to grow and get out of the crisis, a way to reconnect with life, the world and other people. Well, the solution to all problems is a bit trivial in my opinion: love! Yes, the whole story of the bracelet and of Jesper is resolved with the discovery of love!

Speaking of Jesper, you have two alternative choices: you can love Karoline or Hermod. That’s interesting! At first I followed my instinct and chose Karoline. As consequence in the end you have the beautiful interactive sequence where you run to the top of the mountain searching for Karoline. I like so much when developers succeed in mixing so well cinema and video games; it reminds of celebrated running sequences in movies like The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut or THX 1138 by George Lucas; but you’re not watching filmed actors, you’re Jesper, you’re running while the camera follow you along the wild rocks of the island with epic dollies from afar and you can feel on your skin the desire to embrace Karoline. Awesome! Give Mattis the Oscar of video games for such sequence just now! 🙂

In the second run I chose Hermod. Well I think this choice is more coherent with the story of Jesper. Omosexuality can better explain fragility, crisis, loliness and alienation, the difficulty to be accepted by his peers, the need to travel for better knowing himself. However if you chose Hermod you cannot live the epic “running for love” sequence. And the ending disappointed me: you leave Karoline alone on the island! No! So cruel! That’s not happy ending! Jesper and Hermod, such selfish! 🙂

Let’s talk about the mystery of the bracelet. Here Mattis uses an old trick typical of many classic drama: in the end of the story it introduces another story that has nothing to do with the characters and the events narrated! I can accept it in ancient Greek drama or classic Victorian novels (e.g. see A Study In Scarlet by A.C. Doyle), but I cannot accept it in contemporary stories! The story of Luciano and Nadia left me completely indifferent; you cannot feel the same engagement as in the story of Jesper & friends that you lived from the beginning for hours and hours. The story of Luciano and Nadia is just a sketch of 15 minutes, it is completely unrelated to the story of the three teenagers, the two stories have no common elements. The new narrative sequence abruptly breaks the state of suspension that the previous narrative flow had so skillfully built. The story of Luciano and Nadia would like to enhance the power of love that feeds the bracelet’s superpowers; hower I could feel nothing. Luciano and Nadia are not empathetic characters. The love between Jesper and his mother, Jesper and his grandfather, Jesper and Karoline/Hermod or the love for Nature, I could feel them, because storytelling builds very well such relationships from the beginning in hours and hours. To make it short, I didn’t like such narrative trick at all, it’s a weak narrative moment. In my opinion the mystery of the bracelet had to be explained in relation to the past of the Slepp island villagers, grandfather included; the explanation hadn’t to fall suddenly from the sky, but had to be built gradually with a series of clues and mysterious events dating back to the past, it had to be part of the main story and involve main characters or their ancestors.

Summing up, love is the answer. Well, it looks like a trivial solution to me. It’s ok for the appeal of the masses, but life doesn’t work in such way. I prefer deeper existential analysis; not necessarily pessimistic, just more complex. However if you broaden the meaning of love as tendency to create positive relationships with nature and people, to “embrace” nature and people, well it sounds still diminuitive but so far better.

Another defect: many passive sequences could be interactive, e.g. the boat chase; in the ending cinema overcomes video games interactivity. I know that interactive sequences are not so easy, they need a lot of work and resources; btw interactivity is the secret weapon of video games that can “win” over cinema.

The lightness of Embracelet and the overcome of cinema don’t change my postive valuation. I hope to see thousands of similar games in the future!

Rating: 80/100

P.S. Mattis has gently submitted Embracelet on my curator page on Steam; however that has not influenced my review.

4 thoughts on “Embracelet

  1. Perfetta analisi come sempre. Anche se non mi trovi d’accordo con la gestione delle telecamere. Funziona molto bene da un punto di vista cinematografico, ma Jesper più volte scompare dalla visuale o risulta talmente piccolo da non essere visibile (almeno nella versione Switch in modalità portatile). Lo hai giocato in inglese o in Italiano? Ti devo dire la verità, a me la storia nella storia non è dispiaciuta perché anche se apparentemente scollegate, non sono altro che una reiterazione degli eventi. È la dimostrazione che pur se in epoche diverse e a latitudini diverse (Italia e Norvegia) alcuni temi si ripetono, la storia si chiude. E poi nel salto temporale c’è anche una verità storica , ovvero il commercio di baccalà che lega i due paesi. Per il resto concordo perfettamente con il voto e la tua analisi. Bravo Mattis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beh in effetti immagino che su Nintendo Switch Jesper diventi davvero piccolo quando si allontana; l’ho giocato su PC sullo schermo grande quindi non ho avuto questo problema. Per quanto riguarda la storia nella storia, non ho capito cosa c’entri l’amore familiare fra marito, moglie e figlio che alimenta il braccialetto, con l’amore e l’amicizia che Jesper scopre a 17 anni; ho capito che l’autore vuole mettere l’amore in tutte le salse al centro di tutto, ma per l’appunto mi è sembrato un approccio banale, superficiale, nazionalpopolare, buono per le masse. In fin dei conti rompe l’atmosfera che aveva costruito fino a quel momento, legata a quei personaggi, a quell’isola, alla Norvegia, a tutto quello che aveva meticolosamente costruito fino a quel punto. Comunque si, bravo Mattis; ha fatto un lavoro incredibile se ci pensi! Sempre un piacere analizzare giochi simili e discuterne con te!

      Liked by 1 person

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