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[Keywords] Kindred Spirits and Progress Markers

Kindred Spirits on the Roof is available on Steam and other digital PC storefronts.

People still love the look and feel of physical books – they're just nice objects to see lined up on a shelf to or to hold in your hand. The latter is even practical – crack open a novel and you can tell instantly and intuitively exactly how far through you are. Who says that old tech isn't feature-rich?

That's something we lose a bit in games, unfortunately. There are certainly exceptions, like Pokémon games or traditional Mario titles with their predictable structures and clear overworld maps. But on the whole, games don't always give you great feedback about your overall progress. Even a “38%” mark on your save file could mean a great many things based on whether that includes (and weights) optional content and collectibles.

Instead, you usually kind of guess your progress based on how the narrative is unfolding or how long other people say they took to reach the end. That gets even worse with certain genres. Puzzle games can add hours if you get stuck. Many modern games are up to their gills in optional content (which will distract me ten times out of ten). And you can especially feel it in visual novels.

Visual novels are functionally consumed the same as you would a book – with occasional breaks to solve a puzzle, depending on the title. So, of course, two people will spend wildly different amounts of time on the exact same content. One might simply read more briskly, or they like to wait and hear the voice acting play out.

Plus, even with their regularly-branching stories, you'll likely have only two interfaces with them from minute one 'till the end. Sometimes – in kinetic novels – you don't even get to have any meaningful input to orient yourself by. A pause menu and a reading page, and that's your lot.

In short, it can be tricky to tell how far into a video game book you are.

But not always.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof takes a very successful crack at remedying this.

So, to know where you are, you typically need a map. Fair call?

There are a handful of ways you'd typically map out a story. You might show markers physically moving around a map – if your plot involves that kind of scale. If your narrative has a lot of francy, branching paths, you may even want a flowchart.

But the most obvious and straightforward one is a timeline. Events, in the order they happen. Simple and clear. And what's possibly the most universal, natural way of showing a timeline of events?

A calendar.

What better way to navigate life events than a calendar?
<em>Spirits with a very full schedule apparently<em>

Now, Kindred Spirits absolutely isn't the first game – or hardly the biggest – to do this. The Persona sub-franchise has famously mapped its campaign to a calendar since 2006. Tokimeki Memorial codified it for visual novels and “dating sim” games well before that.

But Kindred Spirits on the Roof helpfully uses it as a way to directly navigate the story.

And sure, there's a lot of crud that looks like it gums up that calendar screen. But every piece bit of it is communicating good information once you pick through it.

Each tab at the top? They mark defined “chapters” (and with new content marked, in case of the rare prologue or epilogue). The big, friendly bear stickers? The main story path. And the different fruits? All supplemental scenes from different point-of-view characters, all visually slotted in place.

The best part? Each of those is nice and brief, between a five and a fifteen-minute read. The calendar serves as something of an “intermission” between them. Rather than reading for hours straight, you're made to stop and reflect, if only for a second. Take stock of how much of the current arc is left based on how much of your screen is marked in red. After the first month is filled out, you can even roughly gauge the length of the entire game (and where you are in it) at a glance. Slick!

As an aside, I love the headphones up in the corner that change your background music. This whole menu layout really sells the idea of sitting at a desk, reflecting on the day's events. Perfect for a game that plays out like a laid-back, slice-of-life show.

And it's also a really elegant solution for one of my ongoing bugbears with visual novels:


To be fair, as noted, other games aren't necessarily great at this, either. But when the third hour of “game” looks the same as the twenty-third, it helps a lot to have any marker of progress.

And, aside noting which of the handful of different endings you've seen, a lot of games in the genre don't really even try to provide this. Maybe if you're lucky, you can guesstimate based on what percent of an image gallery is filled out. But that's like guessing how many rabbits are in your yard based on the one you can see from your window.

It's especially weird to think that visual novels are often so unclear about this when their closest analogues – books – are so transparent. Whether you're reading physically, digital, or with your ears, you can always get an exact numeric marker of where you're at relative to the end.

Or, in the case of a trusty hardcover, how many pages you're holding in your left hand vs. your right. Tactile response is king.

To be clear, I'm absolutely aware that it's a bad habit to get hung up on the “how much is left” question. It's distracting, and takes you out of the story. But so can not quite knowing I'm hitting the conclusion or the second-act break. And with stories around 150,000 words (right around one of the latter Harry Potters), that may well tip a “stop for the night or push through 'till 1 A.M.” decision.

I don't always need that knowledge when I'm reading. But when I do, having it at my hip sure is handy.

Maybe it's because “playing” a visual novel is still the verb as often as “reading” one is, regardless of how minimal the input needed. Yet moment-to-moment you don't get the same feedback as from the shifting weight of a book or the ticking numbers of good role-playing game.

And over a lot of sessions with the same story, that lack of a mechanical response can wear on you. After all, keeping at any same thing for long enough can easily turn it into a chore. Even an utterly endearing story.

So it's nice to see something like Kindred Spirits on the Roof embracing the strengths of the format. Not even to the extent of adding puzzles like Zero Escape or active tasks like VA-11 HALL-A, either. Instead, it's a little bit of framework and structure, which covers for potential pitfalls and keeps you oriented.

A bit “gamey” for something that's pure storytelling? Sure. And all the better for it.

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