One of the biggest issues in choice-driven games is the illusion of choice itself. Those who play Telltale’s The Walking Dead might like the story, and perhaps relish in choosing who lives and dies. However, there’s no denying that while a few things may change, the story progresses along the same linear path. Visual novels suffer from this too. Choices never get too wild because there’s a central set of beats to follow. The story needs certain scenes in order to make sense.
Distress isn’t free from these issues, but it does its best to mitigate them. By putting major choices up front, the game allows the player to diverge down different paths quickly, making sure to provide critical information when needed. There is no “correct” path, and your demise is always one or two choices away. Thanks to smart design, meeting your end is almost a slap on the wrist. The Skip Text function can blow through the story to get you back to that fateful choice in mere seconds, and numerous save files lets you keep those unfortunate ends as a badge of honor.
Developed by Javy Gwaltney and the small crew at Light Machine, Distress puts you in the shoes of Demetria, captain of the Swiftsure, and leader of a group of well-worn bounty hunters. If there’s one thing this game puts front and center, it’s how diverse and alive the cast feels. Everyone has their role on the ship, but they have their own personal lives, too. Sara, the ship’s doctor and cook, joined the crew as a stowaway and will soon be married. Nyles, the ship’s tech-wiz, just wants to open an electronics boutique, find a man, and adopt a corgi. The game is up front about the different kinds of people that feature in the story. It’s unafraid to portray them as different, yet equally valid and part of the team.
Though Distress is not particularly long, that it includes this kind of detail is impressive and refreshing. Whether someone’s a person of color, queer, disabled, or something else – there’s room for everyone to fit naturally into the story. This is unobtrusive yet effective storytelling, reminiscent of a similar philosophy Mad Max: Fury Road had for its characters, both big and small. This is the kind of inclusive writing many of us hope to see, but still struggle to come across to this day.
However, while I like how developed the Swiftsure crew is, the adventure they embark on doesn’t live up to the same standard. Taking a job to investigate a distress signal, the crew finds themselves on the space station Nova-8, where there’s a curious disconnect between its shiny, happy citizens, and the very real death and poverty evident everywhere. No one seems to notice the bodies, so to speak, and those who do are rightfully suspicious.
Soon, the group runs across a whole host of problems, from science experiments gone awry, to giant mutant creatures, and a fascist leader, Sanderson, bent on taking over the galaxy. While I enjoy destroying fascists in games, I ultimately found Sanderson to be a disposable villain. No matter how many options the game gave me when I encountered her, none of them gave me the chance to interact in a way that felt satisfying. Her motivation is very basic and straightforward, and her plans feel slapdash. Though whatever you choose ends up having a major effect on the lives of the Swiftsure crew, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was playing through a standalone episode in a longer story arc. The plot felt self-contained and limited as a result. Considering how the rest of the game is focused on story and character development, I found myself a bit disappointed.
The rest of Distress is an effective mix of horror and sci-fi, provided you like slow burns. The sci-fi hits you hard and heavy out of the gate, establishing you in a beautiful neon colored world where the horror element creeps up quietly, grabbing you at just the right moment. Terror takes hold as decisions you make that sound good in the moment quickly come back to bite you. The many gruesome ways the crew can die can be bone-chilling to read. Distress knows when to turn on the juice, and when to keep a steady hand. Both are necessary in producing an effective horror story.
The more I think about Distress, the more I’m thankful it exists, and we have a Kickstarter campaign to thank for that. Launched in 2015, and developed by four people (mastermind Javy Gwaltney, artists Ian Higginbotham and Pat Kain, and audio designer Erandi Hupe), the game’s campaign came at a crossroads. It was around the time when backers were starting to fund bigger games like Shenmue III and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but also the moment when it became clear that, in the world of crowdfunding a budget, not everything goes as planned. The craze has since died down and has undoubtedly left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Yet, for those who still believe in the process, Distress exists as a shining example of the model: this is what can happen when crowdfunding is well utilized.
Oh sure, there were clear changes between the initial pitch and the final product. There were also a lot of delays and changing release dates. But, in a world where game development is still as difficult as ever, and disasters can happen in a team of hundreds of people, I find myself impressed that it’s still possible to get a band of four together and just jam. As it stands, Distress is a window into the choice-driven future I want games to embrace. I love it how personalizes the experience for each route a player takes. More games need this flexibility.
Distress will still be a hard sell to some people. It’s a visual novel. It looks like a mix between Steven Universe and an 80’s cartoon. It’s not something I expected to like as much as I do. It just works – and though it doesn’t eliminate the problems inherent in choice-driven games, there’s a hope that these principles will continue to be refined. While the complaints I have are definitely there (the sound mixing could use some work), I came away from this title with a lot of goodwill. I have no doubt it’ll wind up in my Top 10 at the end of this year.
While I was offered the chance to get a press copy of Distress, this review was ultimately conducted using a copy I purchased from itch.io.