Review: Won’t You Stay?

Won’t You Stay? is a short, nightmare-inspired horror visual novel from Little Missy Otome. As a nameable main character, participate in a fully voice-acted escape-the-room story and try not to face one of many possible bad ends along the way.

A Well-set Tone

After going through the title screen, one is met with a bit of meta-information as white text on a black background. This kills a bit of the mood set by the title screen, but the game quickly swings back into shape with the first scene. The toony artwork lulls the player into a false sense of security before hitting you hard with the horror elements again. It’s high energy and gets you pumped for what you think is about to happen next.
It does, however, choose a very poor font for the sake of aesthetic. It’s not easily readable for someone without difficulties of that nature, so it’s likely quite illegible for someone with poor eyesight.

A Novel Approach to Interactivity

Taking a route uncommon in visual novels, Won’t You Stay? chooses to allow the player to turn on a voice for full narration. While this does have the side effect of adding a layer of detachment between character and player, it allows for more nuanced styles of play. You can fully automate the long sections of exposition and simply listen to the story. The voice acting is phenomenal, and that leads to a fun storytelling experience.
This method of “playing” the game, however, does more easily highlight some of the weaker parts of the writing—namely, that it drags considerably during the setup of the main conflict and in the “villain’s monologue” portion at the end. As those are the primary cornerstones of the narrative, that’s a lot of game in proportion to feel like a drudge.

Lacking in Narrative and Gameplay Coherency

These pacing issues are part of a bigger issue with the game’s overall failure to really integrate what little choice-based gameplay there is in a way that flows with the story. You’re placed in front of exposition for a large chunk of time, then forced to act on it with no warning. The first time one actually interacts with the story, it’s a timed feat with nothing to indicate that the timing is about to occur. This can be an excellent gameplay mechanic, but given the complete lack of forewarning, it reads more as a gotcha than a mechanic. You’re tasked with determining the first thing you’re intended to do in a sequence, but you were provided that information long enough ago in the reading that, by the time you’ve even parsed the request (much less drawn up the recall for what you need to do), you’ve been slapped with a bad ending. It’s more frustrating and annoying than it is fun, as it’s only the second interaction you’re met with in the whole game, a considerable distance from the first, more standard choice. It also never uses that mechanic again.

The followup interactions vary from haphazard to clunky, presented more as a thing to do to get to the next set of story versus an integral part of it. The structure of the whole game boils down to “here’s a bunch of story, okay, I guess some interaction, now here’s the rest of the story.”

A lot of effort was put into matching mouth shapes and animating the sprites, and there is a considerable amount of raw dialogue. It’s very impressive. So much so, it leads one to wonder if it would have benefited from not being trapped within the confines of a game engine and instead worked better as some other form of non-interactive media. It would really shine as an animation or audio drama.

Poorly-constructed Horror

The game bills itself as a psychological horror and, at first, presents itself with all the expected trappings of one. It even starts strong with the presentation of a mystery and does an excellent job of setting our main character up for the drama to come. It doesn’t follow through on that promise of horror, however. After our character enters this dangerous situation, the game spends a long time just telling you, “This is scary, isn’t it?” without really showing you the kind of danger you’re actually in. During the interactive section, you’re faced with the choice to allow something horrific to happen, but you’ve not really been presented with enough time to actually let that horrible thing sit. You’re not weighed down by the choice. After that, the rest of the story fires off so quickly, you barely have time to parse what’s happening, much less feel the tension. The couple of times it touches a properly shocking, horrific moment, the writing around it isn’t well-constructed enough for it to actually punch where it matters. When the game tries to end with an unfinished question, it makes reference to something that was so buried in a massive wall of exposition, it takes a minute to even realize what’s being referred to, killing the effect.
Without the building tension, the game has to rely on general spookiness and the occasional jump scare, making it feel more like a haunted house than the psychological horror it portends.

Good Bones
While much of the execution could use an overhaul, the bones of the game are actually quite solid. The writing isn’t bad at a line-to-line level, but it could benefit from some structural editing, especially from a narrative design perspective. The interactive elements are competently programmed, but an approach that considers all the ludonarrative aspects would make their implementation that much stronger. The voice acting is incredible, for the most part, and the soundtrack is great, but leveling between them could be tweaked and I’m a little uncertain on some of the casting choices.

Won’t You Stay? is a game that has something very important going for it: potential. It’s an early release from a relatively new developer, so the numerous rough spots can be attributed to inexperience. Going forward, however, I’m left with the expectation that this developer will do great things springboarding off what they’ve learned in the making of this visual novel.

Won’t You Stay? can be downloaded for free from itch.io.