If you’re used to playing all of your Originally English visual novels in the Ren’Py format, you’re going to be in for a surprise when you load up Adam “dechorus” Thompson’s atmospheric visual short story Decorus Carcer (Beautiful Prison). When I loaded up the file, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The first thing I noticed was a file named Tetris. Interest piqued. I’ve always preferred Pacman to Tetris, but, hey, who am I to complain about a medieval/fantasy Tetris adventure? Armed with artwork from Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia and music from various Internet corners, Mr. Thompson programmed this game & its engine from scratch over two years.
Unfortunately, people who strictly use Mac or Linux won’t be able to play this story, because it was developed in Microsoft XNA. After install screen after install screen, the game finally loaded up – full screen, without warning (alt+enter for windowed mode). You’re treated to an animated opener, with Ken Burns-style zooming away from a castle or a fortress in the distance, while colorful grass sways at the bottom of the screen. The opening text failed to leave an impression on me. It was just flavoring that very indirectly introduced the game’s setting, if you squint hard enough.
I made the mistake of hitting Escape, thinking it would minimize the program. The game won’t ask you if you’re sure you want to quit; it just closes. Not a bad thing if you’re early in the game, but if you’re close to the middle, you’ll be frustrated. There’s no main menu, and no saving & loading feature. You can’t skip anything that you’ve already seen. Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, this game has zero to do with any old school arcade games.
Another bug that I ran into happened when Hadrian (more on him, later) was complaining about wanting to check his letters before Hope (more on her, later) arrived. I’ll admit that I couldn’t find where the mail box was. I was clicking all over the room, listening to Hadrian’s descriptions and complaints about being too slow. I liked the point and click interactivity. What I didn’t like was when I hit my Enter key, expecting it to advance the text, when it suddenly zoomed through the story. Dialogue between Hadrian and Hope raced across the screen, music came on, and suddenly, there were the credits. Odd.
The music and the artwork strengthened the game’s medieval/fantasy setting immensely. The sprites are static, but my imagination was strong enough not to care about that. The characters’ speech go in and out from old time to modern, and there’s a mention of Hadrian’s place being his apartment with a landlord, but that’s the fantasy element for you. The game has a gritty look, but the story was unexpectedly a lot lighter than its dark appearance.
The game play revolves around Hadrian, a troubled engineer who’s lacking confidence in his writing, so much so that he’s ran into some writer’s block with a play he’s writing, called Beautiful Prison. He gets a letter from his friend Hope’s little sister Hana, wanting to know how his story’s going and wishing him well. She even mentions that she and her sister like him a whole lot. Hadrian just might feel the same way for Hope, depending on how you want the story to play out.
I didn’t get the best grasp on who Hadrian and Hope were, but I didn’t mind that. Decorus Carcer makes its readers into an audience for a cute, fledgling romance, one that’s still playing with the idea of crossing that fluffy line between friends and something else. The other focus with the story is how Hope helps Hadrian completely formulate his story. He talks about things that a lot of artists, not just writers, can relate to. Actually, come to think of it, even people just taking pictures on their cellphone can relate to not being completely in the moment when they’re focused on capturing the scene. Their conversations get pretty philosophical.
The final scene provides an honest look into the struggles of the writing process. I wished that the menu choices that were already read could have been crossed out after reading them, or erased. As more topics are added, the menu just keeps vertically expanding. It broke part of the feel of the scene for me.
Despite that, I liked Decorus Carcer overall. I think it’s worth a look. It’s not a story that has a whole lot happening. That’s the point. It’s a snapshot into the life of a man overcoming writer block, whether it’s through the love of a girl or by some other means. If romance isn’t your thing, you might enjoy it for its philosophies, and vice versa.
Check it out and download it from its LemmaSoft thread here.