From Brave Lobster Studios, New Meaning takes us on a journey with Luke during a terrible three days in which his mental health suffers. How will he navigate looking for meaning in life?
A review for this game was requested through the VN Game Den review request form. The game makes references to depression and suicide.
The art is technically competent, but not very refined. It definitely has a certain style to it that overall meshes with the main tone. The character designs are practical and read well for the setting and story of generally normal high school characters. The backgrounds are generally constructed fine. There’s a little bit of stylistic inconsistency, but individually they’re not unpleasant to look at or distracting. Its overall look just isn’t really anything special that stands out. There’s the occasional body and facial movement, but it’s not very heavily utilized. Overall, everything feels a bit flat and lacking in any real dimension or depth of feeling, but there are no major technical issues.
The core idea of its narrative is interesting. It positions you, as the reader, as some kind of outside force enacting your intentions on the story with the imperative of “save Luke.” When you make choices, you’re making them to influence and affect his life. So from a ludonarrative angle, it’s an intriguing approach to player-reader engagement with the story and text. It doesn’t really pull this whole idea off very well, though. The choices literally don’t matter. Despite being given a task you’re intended to fulfill, it doesn’t really seem like you’re even given a choice one way or the other. There’s only one path to take, and that path isn’t a very fun experience.
Having a linear, one-ending visual novel that still has options for the player presents as a very specific design choice. There’s a balance that has to be struck between providing additional interactivity and feeling like the choices actually matter to the overall plot. There’s also nothing inherently wrong or even bad about forcing the player into a sort of villainous role where they have to make some ethically questionable choices or giving them the option to make those choices. This game, however, railroads you into what’s ultimately the worst possible outcome of the scenario presented. I, as a player, don’t want it to happen. The main character doesn’t want it to happen. But the game itself acts as a sort of third character and actively denies the player the ability to make the choice they want to make.
Now, the forced helplessness of a singular, unchangeable narrative outcome is also a specific design choice that can be utilized to great effect. The problem with them doing that here is that the antagonist of the story, so to speak, is a real-world mental health concern that can absolutely be addressed and made better by making certain healthy choices or receiving intervention from an outside source. The game pretends you have the ability to do both of those things then actively says “No, you’re not allowed to do that. You have to do this bad thing instead.” To even try to give the benefit of the doubt to the developer, I did some extra research to see if they gave a reason for this choice. In my opinion, the reason they give is not very good and reads as extreme naivety and a lack of the understanding of the nuance needed for a mental health storyline. The game also doesn’t seem to really understand what this mental health concern is actually like for the people who experience it or how it unfolds in a realistic way. That’s not to say the developer or the writer don’t have experience in this field, but it is not very well-conveyed in the game itself. Then, at the end, it has the audacity to sign off with this smarmy line about having to manifest your own meaning in life.
So with all these things taken into consideration, it ends up just feeling insensitive, callous, and insulting to anyone who’s dealt with this particular mental health concern. The whole ordeal is a cumbersome, unnecessarily bleak approach to a real-world concern that’s trying so hard to be edgy and deep that it completely misses its own point.
New Meaning is trying to do something new and interesting. There is an idea there that at some point in the development process had some potential. But the whole thing is trapped with this unfinished feeling from top to bottom. It’s unpolished with very few of the endearing qualities that might otherwise save a new or sophomoric game, but the bones of the game aren’t terrible.
It’s available for free on Steam.