Has there been a surge in the popularity of interactive fiction in recent years? There’s definitely an argument to support it, though we don’t have the hard facts and figures to hand.
Safe to say, an increasing number of people are seeing the benefits of making their way through a story in a (generally) laid-back fashion, no need for this ‘git gud’ nonsense and having to maintain things like reaction time. And Across the Grooves is another title in this arguably-not-as-niche-as-it-was genre hoping to give you some relaxing and fun times. With a lot of music to boot.
Taking control of Alice, players are presented with a rounded 30-something woman, with a past behind her and a full personality in the here and now – not a blank slate at all. But by skipping ‘across the grooves’ and listening to different vinyl records, Alice’s past – and so her present – can be altered.
As the devs tell us, it’s less about choosing who you are and more about choosing who you will become. Naturally, with this being an interactive graphic novel, to go into more detail would be ruinous to the story, so let’s leave you tantalised with that for now.
But why vinyl records specifically? “I’m indeed quite passionate about music and vinyl records,” Geoffroy Vincens, Across the Grooves’ writer explains. “I started collecting them in the mid-nineties when I was a teenager, way before streaming platforms and the ubiquitous access to an unlimited catalogue of songs.
“So, I’ve been wanting to talk about this love of recorded music for a while, because I believe that musical tastes might be quite an important building block of one’s personality. And because it’s a setting I know and love, filled with obscure bands of yesteryear, forgotten and rediscovered, with grumpy record shop owners and dusty vinyl trays, with flea markets and pubs and jazz clubs and the invitation of nightlife in the city.”
The understated visual style of Across the Grooves – tying in with the similar styles of Nova-box’s previous outings, Along the Edge and Seers Isle – sets the scene: laid-back, little flourishes of animation used sparingly, and a gorgeous, hand-painted aesthetic to every scene. It sets a tone.
“As French people working on video games, and more broadly as Europeans, we feel a bit like we’re torn between American and Asian influences,” Vincens says. “We wanted to go in another direction, and we took inspiration from our own cultural DNA. I, for example, love the cinema of the nouvelle vague and Spanish filmmakers such as Julio Medem or Almodóvar, and I grew up reading a lot of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée [comics]. I don’t think this kind of cultural baggage has often been used in video games. So, unusual references lead to an unusual art direction, I guess.
“To be honest, I think ours was quite a novel approach back in 2015 when we started working on Along the Edge, but it’s more common nowadays. Off the top of my head, I can think of Gris by Nomada Studio or Night Call, which was penned by our friend Anthony Jauneaud, that rely on these kinds of very personal and local references. I believe it’s a really good thing and a proof of maturity of our medium.”
As for the choices you’re making in the world, Across the Grooves doesn’t opt for a simple branching structure, as lead artist Nicolas Fouqué explains: “The system we use is a little more complex than a pure branching tree.
“We work with a relatively small number of main branches, but they are all then tinged with a multitude of changes that the reader has accumulated over the course of his adventure. In addition, some choices may or may not be available, depending on Alice’s personality at different times in the story.
“Sometimes, the story can even take an automatic turn that is the result of a set of changes that the reader has made to Alice’s personality. We do our best to make the story seem fluid and logical, and if you start over, you may be surprised to discover new scenes and other emotions.”
With Alice’s personality able to change ‘drastically’ through the course of the story, it might mean that the ‘non-traditional’ structure makes more sense – you’re not really going ahead and turning at different paths, but rather reworking and refurbishing what came before.
Lots of micro-decisions cumulatively come together to lead to a very different outcome for our protagonist. “Alice may sometimes be confronted with the same situations from one playthrough to the next,” Vincens says. “But the way she will react to and reflect upon them will be very different, depending on how her decisions moulded her psychologically from the start of the story.”
If this all comes together in as neat a package as it’s looking like it might, Across the Grooves has a lot of potential to help the visual (graphic) novel genre break out even more than it has. For the devs though, it’s more about one thing: “Our expectations are not fundamentally different from all indie developers,” Fouqué says. “That is, to receive love, of course.”
Genre: Visual novel