In a change of pace I would like to review an amazing game that came out in mid-2020, but likely will never get the love it deserves from the greater gaming community.
The LGBTQ+ Visual Novel A Summer’s End - Hong Kong 1986 created by Oracle and Bone Studios of Vancouver, Canada. As the title suggests, this story place in Hong Kong in the summer of 1986. A young office worker named Michelle meets Sam, a young free-spirited woman with a love for cinema. As a result of their meeting Michelle begins questioning herself, the path her life has taken, and her future.
CW for emotionally manipulation and rejection by family; deceased and ill family; depictions of hospitals and cemeteries; emotional turmoil; romantic relationships; discussions of sexuality; homophobia; sexism; off and on-screen sexual activity; depression
Note: There is a patch than enables more graphic sex scenes and nudity, but you can play without it. The story maintains its intimacy and cohesion.
The art is amazing, varied, and extensive in comparison to many Visual Novels I have viewed. Having lived in Hong Kong for a while, it was refreshing to see the city through a new lens. I recognized a surprising number of the landmarks and the feel of the more generic scenes is really spot on for the districts they take place in. The art also does a good job of invoking the era and Hong Kong itself through color pallet choices, use of neon colors for scene lighting suggesting neon signs, and visually interesting effects in memories amd dream sequences. Almost all of the characters have multiple clothing and hair styles and the studio even released a set of promotional pictures which are available on their website featuring the main characters on period album and magazine cover mock-ups. Some of these also show up in scene transitions along with a specially made composite video of TV clips from the era including tape distortion and rewind effects. All in all amazing work for such a small studio.
One interesting choice was the lack of characters in much of the background art despite Hong Kong being a densely populated and seeming always bustling city. However, they explain on the blog that they chose to do this because it was too distracting from the focal characters and for ease of reproducibility. I also feel that in a number of scenes, the lack of other people is appropriate as it heightens the sense of isolation of Michelle, deriving to her life choices, work habits, and feeling lost on her journey of self-discovery.
The music makes this game just as much as the art does. The studio pulled from a number of composers and created several tracks themselves. It all has a feeling of familiarity for anyone acquainted with the era's trends in disco, its younger cousins house & techno, synth-pop, and Cantopop. The creators were also quite good at creating and sticking to themes for particular parts of the city like Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, and Clear Water Bay. Several tracks jumped out at me like "2:30 AM「VHS s k y l i n e 」" and "Dreaming" for featuring a mild stretching & trembling distortion reminding me of listening to that old tape that has been played a couple too many times. Club Ruby, one of Sam's haunts, rings with several funk tunes like this one. I have a hard time thinking of any music that seemed out of place. A 24 track soundtrack is available for purchase in both FLAC and MP3, though it is missing several of the most iconic tracks, Timecop1983's song "Dreams (feat. Dana Jean Phoenix)," ArtHaiz's "Italio Disco 80's," Jared Stevenson's "Smooth Funk," and PengusStudio's "Eighties."
The plot of this story is that of hope. The goal seemed to be to create a realistic LGBTQ+ relationship between Michelle and Sam with all of the expected tensions one might expect for a more traditional Hong Kong. However, the story goes beyond that. In its style choices and the actions of its characters, it encourages holding on to good moments for as long as one can and building toward even better moments in the future. It is that choice to hold on and continue down that path or let go for future security and stability that defines Michelle's decisions.
The story drives this point home even further by not just exploring our star couple, but about Hong Kong itself. This story happens only shortly after the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which the UK and People's Republic of China (PRC) agreed that the British colony would be returned to the PRC in 1997. Despite the agreement leaving Hong Kong with basic self-rule and economic autonomy for 50 years, it left many many Hongkongers uncomfortable for the decade leading up to the handover. A friend I had growing up had left along with roughly one million other Hongkongers concerned about the effect of the PRC government would have on Hong Kong. Just like Michelle, they had a choice to leave or try to make the best of living in a PRC Hong Kong. Recent events make this choice even more difficult one to consider in retrospect.
My rating for A Summer's End - Hong Kong 1986 is 10/10 for great art, romance, memories, and very appropriate soundtrack! If you would like to know more, the creators have a website complete with a blog and links to purchase the game on Steam or itch.io that can be accessed here: https://www.asummersend.com/