Genre: Narrative Adventure
In some circles, independent games get a bad reputation. They can be questionable in quality and content, and there are a few indie developers who have certainly shown a mean streak when it comes to dealing with their creations. Mix in the fact that support for a game can pretty much cease to exist once a team starts on their next project, leaving fans of their original effort neglected. One of the benefits to these games, though, is that ideas and themes can be played with that larger and more prominent companies may not be comfortable playing around with.
When I stumbled onto Newfound Courage, I hadn’t realized that it was being developed by one person, Curtis Campion, with the help of some friends and fellow creators. His goal with the game was to make “a game that he would want his teenage self to play” for a number of reasons, the primary selling point being that his game would feature a strong homosexual lead character who has to deal with coming into his own. He would act as an audience surrogate for others going through the same feelings and emotions but also as a source of inspiration for those who don’t get to see people like that in heroic roles without having to constantly be sexualized through speech or actions.
While this makes me a surefire member of the target demographic for the game, I had concerns knowing very little walking into Newfound Courage. Appealing to a minority audience is fantastic- clearly, I think more developers should do it (or do it better than they are)- but you also run the risk of alienating people if you become too heavy-handed or too narrow in scope, sending a great message to those you made the game for but not many others. I like the look and appearance of the game from what I could see before playing, though, so I decided to take a chance on it in honor of my Pride Month theme for writing and gaming this June.
Alex is a young man who has been through a lot in his short time in the world. Through a series of unfortunate events, a secret about him puts him and those he cares about in jeopardy and he ends up having to leave home, braving the wilderness to find a place that he can call his own; to start anew.
He finds himself in Silverpine, a small village with a host of interesting people with their own tales to tell. Getting to know these folks for a bit of time, he’s become close with a young man named Jake, breaking him from his introverted manner. As time goes by, he begins to realize that he may have feelings beyond friendship for his friend, though, and that could cause more problems that could send him off alone again.
Amidst these budding feelings, though, there seems to be another situation arising that could spell trouble for everyone in Silverpine. In the center of town lies The Vault, a library and home to information and artifacts dating back to a long-dead civilization. Through the throes of kismet, Alex finds himself at the forefront of the rising trouble and is one of the only people with enough knowledge and ability to confront it head-on. Will he be able to help the townsfolk who have come to accept and love him while dealing with his emotions regarding both his past and his romantic feelings for his best friend- or will his past and emotions prove too much for him to handle, keeping him from rising to the challenge?
The beauty of the ‘narrative adventure’ genre is that the mechanics are very simple, most likely to focus on the story rather than complicating the interface of the game for the player. Newfound Courage does not have a lot of mechanics to speak of.
Controlling the protagonist, you maneuver through the environment from place to place, carrying out the plot and picking up important items and interacting with the environment using the designated key. While there are a couple of specific mechanics that pop up- one that’s a bit reminiscent of an early puzzle from Final Fantasy VI, for example- most of the game is comprised of Alex exploring the town of Silverpine and talking to all of its inhabitants, looking through the world around him.
As he explores, there are a number of tools to help keep him on track. Any time a new objective pops up, Alex will scribble in his notebook, adding updates that the player can check if they get lost or need a reminder on how to continue after a long hiatus away from the game. The player is also given the ability to save whenever they would like, making this an easy game to pick up for half an hour and then walk away from if need be. There aren’t a ton of side quests to embark on as the game progresses, but if you are willing to explore a bit, you will find some really interesting lore relating to Silverpine and the world of Newfound Courage that is worth going out of the way for.
The Good, The Bad, And…
At the head of the elements that a game like Newfound Courage should nail, the story should be solid and interesting. What Mr. Campion has achieved in the narrative surrounding Alex and the residents of Silverpine is woven a tale that encompasses many different versions of loss and yearning. In his goals in the press notes, he mentions that he wanted to create a story with a gay character that was relatable and would be a positive and wholesome (read “non-sexual”) protagonist. While Alex and Jake have conversations about Alex’s feelings, they hit all of the more resonant notes without venturing into the territory that many other games do while handling characters like him. It also isn’t the only story that plays out over the course of the game, and all of them are engaging despite never taking the limelight for too long. The game certainly left an impression.
Is there anything wrong with Newfound Courage? Not particularly. It’s not an incredibly long game, only spanning three or four hours, so it can be finished in a sitting or two. The game has a quirky tone that is paced out well and doesn’t take its emotional shifts for granted by shoving them inappropriately amidst its jokes. Not to compare it whole-heartedly to this game, but it feels like a snippet from Mother 3 but creates a world all its own that could easily spark more stories and games. It may not leave a lasting impression with every player, but so far as this one- it certainly has me thinking about it still after a couple of weeks of rumination and other games.
Looking at the game, it’s easy to compare it to plenty of other games using the retro pixel art look. While are some nice set pieces and tableaus achieved through the graphic design of Newfound Courage, the overall presentation is simple and serviceable. I certainly remember some locations and the feeling they gave through their visuals. Overall, the art falls squarely into the good nostalgic range that it tends to with these games.
The music in the game, however, is phenomenal. The composer, Jessica Kelly, lends her talents to drive home some weighty topic material and Newfound Courage is all the better for it. While the town theme can get a bit long-winded (you do hear it a lot while running back and forth), the moments that the player witnesses between Silverpine’s inhabitants feel strong and pertinent thanks to the subtleties of the compositions laid under them. The soundtrack is certainly something I’ll be making an effort to listen to in my free time, something that can’t be said for all indie efforts like this.
The narrative adventure genre is a niche in and of itself that seems to have been growing steadily in the indie gaming community. Games like To The Moon, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Finding Paradise have been helping pave the trail for games like Newfound Courage to gain a foothold for the past few years. While Newfound Courage is easy to compare to those pieces, though, it does carve a few creative spaces out for itself. The world is interesting, even if you don’t get to explore much of it in the grand scheme of things, and the characters and plot are interesting without getting too over-the-top in most cases.
Where it stands out is that while it doesn’t have the meteoric emotional impact that some of its ancestors have achieved, the game takes chances to push out of its original mission statement and relate a variety of stories to a number of types of people. Yes, the game centers around Alex and his struggles, romantic and otherwise, but it devotes some uncomfortable scenes to really drive home some points that people who have dealt with many obstacles: sexual identity, loss (on a number of levels), and finding one’s place in the world. The stories are all touching, and while the game is a freshman effort, it’s a really good one that only makes a few minor steps off-trail in dialogue. In all honesty, if you want a short emotional tale that may not leave you devastated but will leave you contemplative, Newfound Courage is worth the time and investment.