Distancing yourself from your parents is an unavoidable part of growing up. Eventually, most of us come back around from the rebellious phase and learn to listen to what parts of our tradition and culture may be worthwhile additions to our own identities. But what if we're already too late?Shan Gui
is a short, Chinese-developed visual novel about finding one's familial and spiritual roots in a society that increasingly shuns both.
During its one hour of playtime, the reader follows lost and disillusioned Han Hui on her way to revisit a vacation spot from her youth. She meets and befriends little He Jia, who guides her through the mountains and shows her around the various nature sites.
Let's get the formulaic part of this review out of the way first: It's a kinetic novel without any player choices or branching paths, the story is pretty unique in its thematic focus but extremely slow when it comes to pacing, the background and character art
meets a high quality standard and retains a distinct visual style that I would not mind seeing more of, the soundtrack, relying heavily on solo piano pieces
but branching out here and there
, is nice (if ultimately forgettable), and the very authentic voice acting adds a lot of charm even though it suffers from the use of lackluster recording equipment.
Alright, now let's get to what makes Shan Gui
The textbook approach to structuring a story is to establish a setting and a premise, create some tension or conflict, then construct a dramatic arc that resolves the conflict and guides the reader to a satisfying conclusion. This curious little thing, however, does very little of the sort. Even though it uses the elements and mechanics of storytelling, its mood and deliverance probably have more in common with those of a poem or even a painting.
I can only imagine that the theme of modernization and technocratization of everyday life clashing with filial piety, tradition and spirituality might resonate with young Chinese people even more than it does with me, but at the very least it has the potential to speak to anyone (or at least anyone in a position to be able to play computer games), no matter their cultural roots.Shan Gui
handles its themes with care. It doesn't hide behind opaque metaphors, nor does it beat you over the head with simplistic morals. It simply puts you in Han Hui's shoes on her way to learn more about her past. It's up to personal opinion whether her quest is a worthwhile one, and it's up to interpretation whether she succeeds, and if there ever was a concrete goal to begin with. I was easily able to empathize with her struggle to explore her identity and I am glad to have witnessed this very personal journey.
The one negative aspect that really stood out to me was the sexualization of the main characters in some of the artwork, which is not only unnecessary but also completely at odds with the story itself. Maybe the developers assumed (correctly?) that those screenshots would increase sales, which is a bit of a depressing reality. In any case, I had to roll my eyes and grit my teeth through it.
In addition to that, Shan Gui
unfortunately also ticks some other boxes on the "Bad VN" checklist. Still though, while putting my opinion into words I find myself thinking "Sure, there are embarrassing typos in the script that really should not exist in the age of spell checkers, but...
" and "Yeah, the sightseeing web links in the middle of the in-game dialogue are pretty immersion-ruining, but...
" and I just have this positive gut feeling about it as a whole. It seems like whatever it tried to do, it succeeded with me.
Many Steam users have yet to make their first contact with a visual novel, and I have to say that I can not generally recommend Shan Gui
as a starter VN, simply because, for all intents and purposes, nothing much happens. So unless you specifically enjoy slow and meditative mood pieces, there's a decent chance you'll just find it boring.
Generally though, with the above caveats in mind, I'm going to take a bit of a leap and recommend that if you think it could be for you, you should sit down (preferably with a cup of good tea) and give Shan Gui
a chance. If you're lucky, maybe you'll even learn something about yourself in the process.