Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Always the Same Blue Sky... - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The worst part about Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it offers not but a taste of brilliance. There's a lot about it to like: approachability, colorful visuals, fantastic music, expressive writing... which makes it all the more tragic that the entire story wraps up in forty minutes. It's less of a visual novel and more like a visual short story, offering you a momentary glimpse into its cozy island setting before reaching one of its two endings. While I don't inherently dislike experiences that seek to be brief yet impactful, the amount of work and polish on display here practically beg for a longer runtime, especially in regard to the game's ulterior message.

This is not to say that I was disappointed by the experience; what I ultimately feel about the game is somewhat hard to describe. I think Always the Same Blue Sky... is good!—I definitely enjoyed my time with it. But narrative-centric visual novels can be finicky creatures to develop properly, since their emotional payoff depends on your fondness for their characters. There's nothing wrong with Kira (the sole heroine of the story) either, but familiarity forms the strongest of all bonds, and being able to say "hello" and "goodbye" to her in a single sitting doesn't provide the player with the emotional resonance the story seeks. Considering that the tale ends on a bittersweet note makes this issue all the more lamentable.

Always the Same Blue Sky... does try its best however, and the heartfelt effort is commendable on its authenticity alone. Though there are a handful of sections where the dialogue feels a bit forced (usually before a branching path centered around philosophical argument [e.g. "I have firm beliefs and I know what I'm doing is right. It may feel difficult superficially but I have a job to do for the greater good..."), the writing overall is splendid, featuring a wondrous amount of expressive phrases. There's a nostalgic, nearly saccharine feel to the game thanks to the portrait and description of the antique town ("The school is situated on the end of a peninsula and no matter where you are, you can hear the constant lapping of the docile waves on the beach not far below") and the ways in which the player character describes Kira's ethereal beauty ("Although untanned, the colours in her hair gave the impression she had spent a lifetime bathing in the sun. Full of depth, it appeared radiant in the bright light that flooded through the window behind her."). I suspect the writer Grant Wilde is somewhat of a hopeless romantic, as he naturally excels at filling the player's heart with an anxious whimsy that longs for love's sweet release. Granted, it's a naive, star-struck type of teenage love, but that doesn't detract from how soothing the relationship with Kira can be if you're able to transport yourself to those distant summer shoes.

Lastly, I need to congratulate the musician Jon Hayward for writing some absolutely amazing music. While I'm by and large a visually-oriented person, I find that the aspect of visual novels that hooks me the most is actually their soundtrack, as even titles that I deem not particularly good (*coughKanoncough*) can at least tug at my heartstrings with a melancholy tune or two. The short journey you find yourself on in Always the Same Blue Sky... is filled with breathy flutes and gentle marimbas, as evidenced by its phenomenal "Main Theme" or the curiously winding "Alleys and Side Roads". The work Hayward puts in to fit the music so perfectly to the style and setting of the game cannot be understated; where simple themes could've sufficed, Hayward truly brought out the beauty in this fleeting relationship.

My concluding thought on Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it serves as an amazing proof of concept for Wilde. I think it's strong enough to be played and enjoyed on its own, but it undoubtedly feels like a diamond caught in mid-transformation. The twist at the end is something I wish had more care delivered to it (as it's a bit jarring as is) but I really like the tone and outcome of both endings, finding them interesting concepts that would probably flourish better had the story spent more time building up to them. Always the Same Blue Sky... is like a precious sapling that only needed space to sprout into a mighty tale, yet in spite of that detriment there's still plenty to admire about it.

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