Indie Wonderland: Cinders

A few hours in

So, how did my fairytale eventually end?

With the vaguely-defined-but-useful help of Madame Ghede, her Voodoo-trope ‘fairy godmother’…

…not to be confused with her actual *Fairy* ‘godmother’, whom I decided not to put too much stock in this time around…

…Cinders was able to sneak into the aforementioned masked ball the Prince was holding to find his new bride. There, she was able to upstage both of her sisters and her stepmother, impress the Prince with down-to-earth honest folksy wisdom, and make a grand exit that involved the leaving behind of a particularly patterned slipper.

In the chaos that followed, Cinders was able to escape Carmosa’s oppressive household with the help of Perrault, the dashing (now-former) guard captain. Both finally free of their self-inflicted obligations, they proceeded to go on many cool adventures together.

And they both lived happily ever after.

It was a good ending, one that felt like it followed naturally from the things I’d said and the choices I’d made.

Then, I reloaded an earlier critical-decision-point save, allowing me to experience two alternate timelines. In one, Cinders used her ill-gotten knowledge to oust her mother as head of the household…

…with the help of a this-time-somewhat-disgusted captain Perrault, who appears to be sad we’re not running away together…

…while in the other, Cinders managed to charm the Prince to such an extent that he tracked her down for marriage the same evening. Yes, using the slipper as evidence, obviously.

No word on what Perrault thought of this particular outcome.

After playing those endings three, I found myself pretty positive about Cinders as a whole. And when I exited to the main menu, where I found that my in-game and ending-related choices had repercussions for the design of the main menu

Compare and contrast to the starting menu. See all those doodads added? I *earned* those doodads.

…that positivity reached an all-time local peak.

I still feel good about Cinders, matter of fact. The storytelling and writing are pretty excellent, the characters are actually well-written and manage to escape being one-note fairytale tropes, the choices — for the most part — feel impactful on the narrative as a whole, and the fairly unique art style gives the whole game an aesthetic charm all its own. My appraisal of it did take a hit later, when… but no, no, let’s not dive into negativity immediately. There’s plenty of time for that, later.

Cinders’ story is good. Interesting, strong, somewhat captivating. Having the Cinderella fairytale as a basis certainly does it some degree of favour, but it doesn’t just ape the story as-written. Rather, it adds to it in a lot of ways and a lot of places. It never veers so far off the beaten path that you can’t recognize the original influence, but neither does it fail to justify its own existence in addition to it. Or, in less purple terms, it’s a good reimagining of a classic that can exist side-by-side with the original.

Perhaps Cinders’ strongest narrative point is how it expands on the core cast of characters. In the original tale, for example, Cinderella is little more than a passive fantasy recipient: she lives in miserable conditions because the story requires it, she’s elevated to happiness because the story allows it, and she gains her happy ending because the story demands it. Cinders’ Cinders, on the other hand, is actually an active character: her tragic background is an integral part of the larger world around her, she crafts her ascent to greatness through her own ingenuity rather than having it thrust on her via writer fiat, and she gains the happy ending of her own choosing through the work she’s put into making it happen.

That that ‘work’ isn’t always ethically upright goes without saying, of course. This *is* based on a fairytale.

Cinders’ stepsisters and stepmother are much more fleshed out in Cinders, too. By which I mean that they are fleshed out. Gloria and Sophia aren’t just needlessly cruel foils to overcome, but two profoundly damaged individuals, products of their environment and upbringing, each broken in their own way: Gloria’s desire to emulate her mother has left her incapable of being her own person, and Sophia’s angry snark masks a deep self-loathing. Cinders’ ‘evil’ stepmother, Lady Carmosa, receives similar treatment, at times being portrayed as either wantonly cruel or just necessarily harsh. Even the Prince, a one-note character at best in the old tale, has his own agenda of political progress and escaping his father’s legacy.

And Cinders isn’t afraid to take the piss out of itself too, on occasions.

The new characters are similarly fleshed-out. We’ve already seen a bit of captain Perrault, an old soldier in a time of new war, and some of Madame Ghede, the wise woman slash witch. Their hinted-at former relationship rings surprisingly human for the strange characters that they are. And Tobias… I don’t actually know much about Tobias, I never chose to hang out with him. I assume Tobias was bitten by a radioactive Recette as a kid and now he runs an item store? Listen, my point is this: maybe not all characters are equally well-written, but at the very least they all fit. Every character has their place in the world; none of them feel as if they only exist to make a particular point in the story. Well, except maybe the Fairy.

One of the stronger things I’ve seen Cinders do, actually, is occasionally switch the viewpoint away from the titular heroine and onto the side characters. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a clever way of showing situations that the reader needs to know about and providing character insights that are necessary to grasp the story as she is playing out.

Providing the evil stepmother with some *genuine* pathos is no mean feat.

While Cinders’ choice-based gameplay isn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as visual novels go, I do like how much impact the choices feel like having. Partially because of the branch-indicators of story chance and partially because of the dialogue, on my first playthrough, I could often identify moments that I felt would have gone differently had I made other choices earlier. Finding the shady character again, getting chewed out by Carmosa, failing to bond with my sisters, basically everything related to Perrault… In every case I could easily visualize the road less traveled by, which helped to make the choices I did make more impactful.

Again: the actual choices aren’t usually incredibly interesting. Particularly the ‘ending’ choice, that you make with either Madame Ghede or the Great Fairy, has a bit of a Mass Effect 3-air to it: three options, all with distinctly different outcomes and consequences, presented as a simple list for you to peruse. The things you’ve been doing up until this point only very partially matter: you can run away even without a buddy, you can take back the house even if you didn’t get both parts of the evidence, and any incarnation of Cinders is always attractive enough to snag the Prince. Your personal ending of choice may or may not feel like it fits with your playstyle — running away with Perrault was a logical extension of my Cinders’ philosophy — but having all three of them there as guaranteed exits undercuts the effect a little.

“Could you colour-code these endings for me?”

But, again, the choices at least feel like they reverberate through the story at large. I appreciate that.

And finally, Cinders’ graphical style is… pretty unique. I want to say ‘storybook’, appropriately, particularly where the backgrounds are involved. They’re like time-worn aquarelles, really incredibly gorgeous. And I dig the character designs as well, on account of how they’re… I don’t know. Human? Cinders veers away from what I consider the more Japanese-visual-novel sin of giving all (female) character different brightly coloured hair styles and outfits (to match their personalities), and instead paints a visually more overlapping palette of human actors that maybe aren’t as different from one another as they think. It’s a more subdued form of character differentiation, Madame Ghede notwithstanding, and I think it works well. I’ve commented on some of the faces before, particularly Sophia’s, but these are minor quibbles in light of the whole.

So, in summary: I played Cinders once, seeing three endings unfold as more-or-less logical results of my actions, and I was pretty satisfied with what I saw.

Then I played it again.

I can’t think of any way to illustrate what I’m going to say in a nice manner, so have another Perrault joke.

The thing about Cinders is that a lot of my enjoyment of it was contingent on the feeling of my choices having mattered. Like I said, I could see many ways in which the story could have significantly changed. This is something many visual novels do: following different paths or ‘pursuing’ different characters can lead to wholly changed outcomes. See Hatoful Boyfriend for an example of this. I figured Cinders would follow a similar route…

…except it didn’t. Replaying Cinders a second time made it clear that this game much more emulates Flower Shop in story regard: the main ‘storyline’, such as it is, is set in stone, and only side narratives and incidental occurrences change based on your actions. Uncle will always get that heart attack, no matter how many beans you plant. And Cinders…

I want to say it feels worse in Cinders, somehow. That in Flower Shop, at least, I had the experience of making mechanically different choices that lead to my preferred endings, while I don’t feel that way in Cinders. I know that’s objectively bullshit: I managed to get all four endings in a single run of Flower Shop, changing only minor bits near the end. So it’s not that. But then why did replaying Cinders make me feel so betrayed?

There’s a part near the end of Cinders’ main story, during the Grand Ball, where both Gloria and Sophia get a chance to woo the prince. They both fail, obviously, but I ‘liked’ that they failed in ways I predicted: Gloria was too blank-slate to be interesting, and Sophia burned her own chances through relentless snark. They acted like the people I’d come to know them as, and I could see that my current Cinders’ attempts to help them hadn’t worked.

Poor Gloria. You’ve gotten so absorbed in trying to emulate your mother in all respects, you’ve forgotten to be someone for yourself.

I’ll be nicer to my sisters next time, I figured. And I did. And sure enough, I got through to both of them, beefing up Gloria’s personality and softening Sophia. And then, when the ball came around…

they still failed. In slightly different ways, mind: Gloria accepted that she was uninteresting and that she ‘needed to find herself’, and Sophia realized she was being snarky for the sake of snarky. But in the end, both of them failed to charm the Prince again. Leaving the way wide open for Cinders to swoop in and steal him, again.

If there is a theme to playing Cinders more than once, it’s ‘finding out that what you thought were crucial decisions points actually aren’t’. If you had Cinders follow the shady character in your first game, and you felt proud that she puzzled out the ball invitations clue from that, guess what: you still get a shot at that even if you try to avoid him as much as possible. If you never ever go to the inn, you’ll still run into Perrault by writer fiat. You’ll still get an offer of help from the Fairy, even if you mock and ignore all the traditions. And so on, and so forth.

Regardless of what you do, the story plays out to largely the same beats. Regardless of how you’ve played Cinders’ relation to Carmosa and her sisters, you’ll still be left home for the ball, and you’ll still be angry and miserable about it. Regardless of how you’ve interacted with your helpers two, you’ll still get in. And regardless of how your Cinders has behaved, you’ll always get your princely man in the end.

There are differences in outcome, mind. A family-oriented Cinders turns out to make for a very poor queen:

I mean, real talk? I do like how this ‘evil queen’ Cinders came forth not as a result of me picking Obviously Evil choices, but from sympathizing with my rotten relatives over the actually nice people. Still, the sudden shift in tone is a little jarring.

But by and large, the story flows the same. And that’s a bit of a shame, honestly. I’d been hoping for some more variety.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, what really hurts Cinders’ replay value for me isn’t so much the story linearity as it is a simple mechanical choice: the skip function doesn’t properly stick. Like most visual novels, Cinders allows the player to ‘skip’ past sections of dialogue you’ve already played, so as to allow you to get to the ‘good stuff’ earlier. In previous games, the skip function stays on once toggled, only turning off once you hit ‘new’ dialogue or a choice you need to make. But while Cinders’ skip function does this… it also stops skipping every time the scene changes. Which is to say, every time the screen fades to black, then fades back in. Which is to say, every five-or-so sentences.

Cinders: if you’re going to make it needlessly difficult for me to explore your complex, branching story at my own speed, I’m going to find something else to do with my time.

Don’t let my current negativity entirely overrule the good, though. I had quite a lot of fun with Cinders. Like I said: on a first playthrough, it’s well-written, interestingly acted out, it feels responsive to player choice, and have I mentioned how pretty it is? It’s only on repeated plays that the seams of the presented experience start showing.

For instance: if you accept the Fairy’s help, you might be wondering how this Weight-and-Price talk changes the ending from Madame Ghede’s more straightforward assistance. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t.

Cinders is a well-designed, well-written, well-drawn game about women living a realistic fairytale that just overreaches its grasp. It’s fun, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys atypical fairytales: even though the €20 price-tag is a little steep as far as indie games go, nowadays, I still don’t regret supporting it in the slightest. I just… also don’t have any inclination to go back at any time soon.

If you’re on the fence, there’s also a demo on Moacube’s website. I can’t tell you how far that demo takes you, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to see how well Cinders’ style and writing match your preferences from the first five minutes or so.

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Jarenth is no Prince Charming, but then again… is anyone, these days? Ponder life with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam.

5 comments

  1. Those are some nice dresses. Alice: Madness Returns probably still keeps the title of “Prettiest Dresses in Video Games”, but it’s nice to see some competition.

  2. I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your writing, and I’m currently reading all of the reviews from now to Hack’n’Slash (I read Concursion’s earlier).

    Anyway, there’s a minor typo:
    “Regardless of how you’ve played Cinders’ relation to Carmosa and her _sisters_, […]”
    should have been “daughters”.

    1. I can see how you’d read that as a typo, yeah. My intent was to ‘sisters’ link back to Cinders, not to Carmosa: “Regardless of how you’ve played Cinders’ relation to Carmosa, and Cinders’ relation to her sisters”.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  3. I love reading this one, because Cinders is a game I’ve adored ever since I stumbled upon it.

    I didn’t mind the way the story was structured, I thought it was fairly clever because even if you can still go down the main same paths at all points, it dramatically affects the ending you get. Sure you can follow the guard captain and then flake out and follow the prince, but then you end up in an unhappy marriage without the personality to rule.

    It’s one of the visual novels where the state space is the story. It’s not just a couple of linear paths strung together, instead you’re meant to learn about the characters and the themes from the way they change in story arc to story arc.

    When you discover that taking all the nice options all the the time doesn’t result in a good queen, that makes you appreciate the personality of a Cinders who does manage to be a just Queen.

    In the end financially ursurping your mother doesn’t rely on your choices throughout the whole game, but trying to financially usurp your mother whilst keeping her respect does rely on your choices throughout the whole thing.

    1. It’s interesting that you say this, because when I tried ‘bailing on the guard captain to go for the prince’, as you say, I did turn out to be an excellent queen. Wonder how much that influenced my thoughts on the game as a whole.

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