Indie Wonderland: Sepia Tears

A few hours in

Nope on both counts.

‘Jarenth, what’s the relevance of this image to the larger narrative?’ GOOD QUESTION.

It’s been several hours at this point. I’ve played Sepia Tears to completion, then tried to play several choices again. I still can’t really tell you what it’s about.

To re-tread the point I made last page: usually when finishing a visual novel, I’m able to give you a one-to-three-line summary of the whole thing. ‘You’re the last ancestor of an evil sorceress and scantily-clad angels must protect you. You end up enacting a ritual to banish her forever, and then start living together with the three former angels who are now high school girls.’ It’s weird, sure, but it works as a summary. ‘You’re an ace student who joins a struggling swim teams, helps both members confront their inner demons while dealing with your own oppressive family situation, and end up in a polyamorous relationship.’ ‘You take a trip to the beach with your so-called childhood friends slash shared lovers, then dump both of them for a random girl you met in a field in a grand moment of emotional catharsis.’ I could go on. The fact that I could, and that I could spin you like four more Sakura-specific tales, is mostly a damning indictment of my life’s choices, but I could go on.

Sepia Tears, though? It’s a love story, I guess. Except that it isn’t. Except that it is, but it’s like two or three entangled stories. There’s spurned love from the past that’s coming home to roost… except it’s not really that at all, because of amnesia and poorly-conceived stolen identities. Then there’s a story of non-reciprocated attraction, that’s hampered only a little by the attraction never once being mentioned until the moment where it’s relevant. And it turns out she’s in love with your best friend? Who doesn’t really seem like much of a friend to begin with? And all of this takes place in a span of six days, except it might actually be several weeks? Or less? Or three years? Or an hour?

I am trying to do this game some justice but it is very difficult.

I forgot the context to this, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Let me try to take this from the top.

In the book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Salvador Dali recounts one of his (now-famous) methods for getting surrealist art inspiration. He would sit in a comfortable chair, dangling one arm off the side. In that hand, he would loosely hold a large key; below that key would be a (glass or brass) bowl. He would allow himself to slowly relax and drift off to sleep. And when he would doze off far enough that his hand relaxed and let go of the key, the resulting racket would jolt him awake — but still with the sleep-addled non-logic of dreams in his mind.

As something of a sleep deprivation aficionado, I always related to this story. I sleep terribly, it’s my own fault, I just play too many damn video games. And while I can function pretty alright on five or six hours of sleep, one common… let’s call it ‘side effect’ is that I tend to zone out during calm or boring work periods. It’s nothing as dramatic as falling asleep and nothing as self-directed as actively daydreaming. My mind just wanders. I often don’t even notice that it’s happening — that’s the insidious part of it — until I suddenly snap back to reality and realize that I’ve been thinking about magic and jetpacks for the last four minutes. Crucially, it’s a fugue state that’s much more grounded and closer to reality that full-on dreaming. It combines the fast-and-loose non-logic and free association of dreams with the very real situations and circumstances I’m currently in, using these as diving-off points to jump head-first into madness land.

Sepia Tears is like this. It’s a game that looks realistic and normal and grounded for most of the time, except for the points where it briefly puts logic by the wayside. Mark will be lying in bed, thinking about school and exams and maybe a girl he likes… and then suddenly Mystery Purple-Haired Woman is sitting in his window. How did she get here? Who is she even? ‘Oh, I’m someone you knew three years ago, but you must have forgotten about me’. That’s not an answer. But instead of freaking out or demanding some straight talk, Mark decides to ditch the sister that’s currently waiting to walk to school together in order to follow Purple-Hair to the park.

Technically, it’s presented as a choice. In practice, the choices in this game don’t ever matter quite as much as you’d like.

Mark and Lukas are hanging out in class early, so Lukas could bring his game console for Rin to play. In a classroom, yeah, just roll with it. Then, all of a sudden, the two start talking about in dire, ominous terms. And vague. They bring up that ‘it’s time’ and that ‘someone could get hurt’, but that ‘I know what I’m doing’, and ‘I have to do this’. What they’re actually talking about isn’t actually made explicit. Sepia Tears seems to work on the assumption that if Main Character Mark knows a thing, it’s enough to mention to the player that Mark knows the thing, not what the thing is.

I want to say ‘of course’, but I don’t even remember what this was about.

Mark runs into the purple-haired girl (‘Myra’) again, and decides to go on a date with her. The date ends on the top of a hill at midnight, during winter, where she delivers some cryptic sad words and then disappears. The game then smash-cuts to Mark in this bed, the morning of the next day. Not only is it never shown how he manages to make it home, the game actually calls out that it doesn’t make any sense.

‘Haha, isn’t this wacky and strange? Anyway, let’s do some more fourth-wall breaking!’

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and a sizeable application of generosity, I can say that Sepia Tears do sort of work towards a resolution. With enough time and inclination, I could probably untangle and explain most major character motivations. The main problem is that all the actual in-game explanation is back-loaded: done after the fact, as an info dump near the end, or (in some cases) in an optional menu item that only unlocks after you complete the game once. So there’s a story there, such as it is, but it’s not that you have to work to see it: you have to struggle. Expect a good 75% of the game to evoke a sense of ‘I barely understand who these people are and why anything that happens here matters’.

Sepia Tears is a transcribed daydream. And that might sound like praise, but at this point I hope you understand that it isn’t. There’s a reason the daydream method worked for Dali: transcribing the weirdery of the subconscious into visual form leads to interesting results. But there’s nothing more boring and hopeless than reading someone else’s written transcription of a dream. It never makes any sense; it literally cannot, because the person doing the transcribing does not have the capacity to reason out which leaps of logic are normal and which ones are dream-logic-fueled. That’s what dreams do. It’s like playing a hedge maze, except you’re blindfolded, and the maze is always spinning. And on fire. And the maze represents puberty.

A lot could be forgiven if the rest of the game made up for itself. But, I mean, you can probably tell where this sentence is going. When it’s not impossibly vague and hard to parse, Sepia Tears is either breaking the fourth wall, poking fun at its own VN nature, or laughing at its own sense of ‘random’ humor. This game really likes its references.

Oh, you were maybe hoping for fresh and fun references?

Haha, do you get it! Because that’s a thing that happens in visual novels! And *this* is a visual novel!

You’d figure this kind of dead air could be used for world building, maybe, or character development. But all the world building that I’ve seen happen is a ten-minute segment wherein one character explains why it’s totally not weird for an American city to have a single cherry tree on the most scenic hill in the middle of town (‘because a local-born bigshot CEO is a Japanophile’), and character building never goes much further than ‘Lukas is an anime nerd, Rin is a anime and video games nerd, and Lillian is a bookish nerd’.

Oh, and the extent of gameplay? It’s like, five binary choices. That’s it, that’s your player influence. And of those five, at least two of the choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And two other choices aren’t actually choices at all: you can either pick the right option, or you can try again. For instance: in a scene where Lukas insults Rin over something dumb or other, she menacingly tells him to ‘genuflect’, which is totally a word that 12-year-olds with an otherwise standard American vocabulary use all the time. You can advise Lukas to accede or you can rile him up to resist her, but if you pick the last option she kills you dead and you get to start over.

The screen goes to black, you hear slashing knife sounds, and then the words ‘BAD END’ appear.

The final choice is like this too. You can chase your love or you can give up, but if you try to give up the game literally tells you that ‘love is not a choice’. Worse still, it’s a maze of choices where all but one path end at a loss… that then automatically puts you back at the start. It doesn’t matter. And worst of all, you actually literally cannot ‘win’ the first time around: you have to ‘lose’ once, continue, and then take the correct path. Which means that if you took the correct path the first time around…

I’ll let the game cast judgment on itself, here.

Final thoughts

Hey, suddenly we’re in the final paragraph! Normally I try to have smoother segues for this, but I think Sepia Tears would approve in this case.

What more can I say? It’s… it’s not a good game. I don’t know if I should be surprised, given that it’s free, but I try to hold even my free entertainment up to some quality standards. And Sepia Tears just does not reach those. At its absolute zenith, it’s slightly chuckle-worthy — I can think of one or two moments that made me laugh, a little. For the rest, it’s a frustrating journey through a half-completed story that mixes dream logic with fourth-wall-breaking to achieve absolutely nothing of value, fast.

The real tragedy here is that the story elements here aren’t even necessarily bad. Sepia Tears contains narrative ideas that, in the hands of a competent writer or writing team, could be spun into something halfway interesting. The protagonist struggling with past heartbreak, slowly preparing to move on and try again… but still so focused on seeing what he wants there to be that can’t see what really is there. Throw in a better-developed Side Characters Romance with actual cues and buildup, and figure out a role for the little sister character, and you’re set. But, and I’m saying this in the least personal-attack-sounding way possible, Sepia Tears was not handled by a competent team. And (as much as I hate to say it) the result shows. It might be free, but I still recommend you wait for the Steam sale on this one.

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Jarenth is slowly coming to terms with the idea that referencing Sakura games in critical review is a thing he does now. Mourn the passing of something professional and beautiful on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

4 comments

  1. I just realised what VNADS is building towards. One day, at an unknown point in the future, Jarenth will release his own visual novel. And it will be glorious.

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