Few games choose to tackle such a potentially difficult to convey subject matter as the concept of creativity and the intangible nature of inspiration; and with good reason: the potential to come off as pretentious, or, perhaps even worse, never truly getting to the heart of the matter is great. These themes, coupled with the fact that these are subjects that just won’t resonate with many players, means that for most developers, it's simply not worth the effort. With The Lion’s Song, devs Mi'pu'mi Games have mostly sidestepped those pitfalls and created a thoughtful and intriguing adventure that’s worth a look despite its flaws, especially if its themes are appealing to gamers.
Originally released with its opening episode, ‘Silence,' in 2016, The Lion’s Song has since seen the addition of a second and third part (‘Anthology’ and ‘Derivation,' respectively). This month finally saw the release of the fourth and last episode, completing the story, and allowing players to experience the game in its entirety for the first time.
All four episodes are set in Austria around the turn of the 20th century, when the world’s creative elite seemed, for a time, to be convening. In each of the first three chapters, we follow the journey of one of three characters as they reach a particularly formative point in their lives. The fourth installment plays a little differently. But we’ll get to that.
Players take control of these characters in the manner of a classic point-and-click adventure, complete with pre-rendered areas containing items which the player must interact with to further the story. And these areas and the game’s overall aesthetic is lovely. It employs a pixel-art style, with detailed backgrounds and simple animation, sprite-based characters. The twist is in the color palette, which uses a limited range of sepia tones to evoke the era convincingly and with a subtle quaintness, I found charming. Even the end credits scene, which has the development team digitized as characters in an in-game bar, is incredibly cute.
When I draw comparisons with the point-and-click adventure genre, I’m comparatively talking about the general look and the means of interacting with the world. Other characteristics of that genre, such as elaborate and often fiendishly difficult puzzles, and large casts of memorable characters to interact with are not present. This game is much more in the vein of the numerous recent adventure series by Telltale Games, where only superficial interactions, rather than torturous puzzles, are required to further the story. The thinking behind this approach is that it allows the player to focus more on the story and its themes. And it’s true that being stuck on a hard to conquer puzzle for an extended duration can sometimes get in the way of the flow of a good story.
In part one of The Lion’s Song, we meet Wilma, a grad student, and budding musician whose prodigious talent and remarkable compositions are beginning to catch the ear of the patrons of the Musikverein, a prestigious Viennese establishment run by Wilma’s dashing mentor, Arthur, for whom she harbors romantic feelings. He nurtures Wilma’s talent but struggles to contain his enthusiasm for the magic she can create and doesn’t always seem to understand her creativity isn’t a faucet that can be opened and closed at will. But when he suggests Wilma retreats to his remote cabin in the Alps to relax and get away from the pressures of the city, she jumps at the chance.
It isn’t long after Wilma arrives at the cabin, though, before a massive storm interrupts. Then, Arthur calls and drops a bombshell: he’s booked her for a performance with the likes of Schoenberg, Mahler, and Berg. In just one week. That’s all the time she has to break through her severe writer's block and finish her composition.
Most of ‘Silence’ takes place in this Alpine cabin, where you help Wilma find inspiration within her severely limited environment. There are some well-executed moments here, as you interact with items that cause a mini musical cue, allowing Wilma to add more lines to her composition. As she sleeps, the player is privy to her dreams, and more accurately, her nightmares, as she struggles to cope with the extreme pressure she’s under. The way the game illustrates her anxiety is the highlight and shows a deftness of touch which is characteristic of The Lion's Song as a whole.
In ‘Anthology,' Franz, an aspiring painter, struggles to gain recognition for his work and attempts to enter into Vienna’s artistic elite. Similar themes are explored again here, as Franz’s natural talent, and desire to join the upper echelons of the art world alongside the likes of Gustav Klimt are undermined by the personal doubts and mental demons holding him back. I found Franz a little less compelling than Wilma, and I was less invested in his journey, but this second episode nonetheless felt more fleshed out than the first, with a broader scope making it feel like a complete experience. I particularly enjoyed the map of period Vienna as you travel around meeting characters.
For me, the third part of the game felt like the weakest of the four. It follows mathematician Emma Recniczek as she tried to gain acceptance into the male-dominated mathematics community. Here, the way the developers treat the subject of gender inequality lacks the skillful touch present in the other chapters, with the somewhat clumsy narrative having Emma dress like a man to enter a secret mathematical society to get her work heard. It’s predictable, making an already slight story feel even less tangible.
I won’t say too much about the fourth and final chapter, ‘Closure’ as to even go into its concepts too deeply could potentially spoil the experience. Suffice to say its name is fitting, in that it attempts to pull together the disparate strands of story into a neat package, and I feel it does a pretty decent job of it, too.
Tying each chapter together is another way The Lion’s Song feels inspired by Telltale’s games. Each chapter ends with a tally of your decisions, along with stats of how other players decided. These decisions are supposed to affect other segments of the game’s timeline, although I didn’t see much evidence of that.
These inescapable comparisons with Telltale’s work, regrettably, aren’t all that favorable. As mentioned earlier, The Lion’s Song doesn’t offer much in the way of meaningful interaction, feeling more like an interactive novel most of the time. Such a narrative approach needn’t be a problem if you get the other elements just right. Telltale’s trick is that their well-written dialogue and strong characters make up for their games’ lack of traditional gameplay, creating a cinematic experience that seldom feels lacking. Here the lack of gameplay only serves to highlight the lightweight story and often thinly-written characters, leading to sections that seem less than satisfying.
Also, for a game where creativity is the main theme, the music isn’t all that great. The near-constant repetition of Wilma's Composition throughout the first episode is almost engaging, but the style sounds entirely wrong for the game's setting, and the studio has recorded it with jarring synth-orchestra. The game is low-budget, so it’s understandable, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. The game is also quite short, breezing past if you’re a fast reader, so bear that in mind, too.
If you’re looking for an adventure that tackles some left-field themes in a gentle, thought-provoking way, The Lion’s Song does this reasonably well, at least for the most part. It just lacks a bit of the depth of the games it mimics, and a bit of polish too, which leaves it feeling less like the must-play for fans of the genre I was hoping for.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.