An adventurous young woman decides to take control of her own life and make something happen
For some time now, the makers of mass market entertainment have been rediscovering fairytales, banking on these stories’ perennial appeal to make imaginative new TV shows, movies, games and novels. This month, casual game developer MoaCube brings us Cinders, a stylish role-playing-game/interactive novel based on the original Cinderella story. While thus far, interactive novels have been more popular in Japan than the U.S., once American audiences get a load of titles like Cinders, that audience is bound to grow.
As MoaCube describes it, Cinders starts with the Cinderella story as we know it, then ditches the “passive protagonist and banal morals…in sake of a more serious approach.” Traditionally, Cinderella’s an impossibly virtuous, infuriatingly (to modern women) submissive character, willing to suffer endlessly at the hands of her cruel stepmother and the stepmother’s selfish daughters. In this contemporary re-telling, Cinderella (who’s here called “Cinders”) has considerably more spunk than that, and although she does act as a servant to her stepmother/sisters, she still manages to retain a strong sense of individuality and strength. Not only that, but she actively plans to do something to improve her situation; just the kind of heroine today’s women and girls most understand and connect with.
The first thing that hits you when you launch Cinders, is that it’s unbelievably beautiful. The backgrounds and characters are all done by Polish artist Gracjana Zieli?ska, and their detail and color are really quite striking. (Fans of the hidden object game Phantasmat will immediately recognize Zieli?ska’s distinctive style.) Things like the menu and the map used to move among locations are done through a flat, paper cut-out sort of approach, while the rest of the game is done in a full-color, fully rendered style reminiscent of the best children’s book illustration. Which isn’t to say that Cinders is made for children. In many ways, it’s far too mature for them.
For one thing, being an interactive novel, there’s tons of text. None of the dialog is accompanied by voice lines, so getting through the story means you need to be a good reader. For another, the themes addressed in the story are really pretty serious. The death of a parent, sibling rivalry, politics, emotional abuse…it’s heavy stuff. Cinders and her stepsisters suffer one humiliation after another at the hands of Lady Carmosa (Cinders’ step-monster—er…mother) and react accordingly. In this version of the story, the stepsisters are beautiful rather than ugly, but they’re still utterly miserable; one because she’s repeatedly tried (and failed) to live up to Lady Carmosa’s expectations; the other because she’s considered the default loser of the family. Both girls take their anger and frustration out on Cinders by insulting her and ordering her around. This time however, the way Cinders reacts to such treatment is entirely up to you.
Interactive novels allow you to advance the dialog at your own pace by clicking, and now and then present you with decisions that advance the plot in one way or another. (The obvious analogy is the old “choose your own adventure” books we all read as kids.) In Cinders, not only do your decisions affect how events in the story unfold—they affect the person Cinders ultimately becomes. For instance, when your sisters are mean to you, you can either try to placate and/or sympathize with them, or you can increase their animosity toward you by telling them to go jump in a lake. Every decision is meaningful—as evidenced by the fact that I often found myself hesitating in the face of a decision, fearful I might make the wrong choice.
The good news is, if you make the wrong choice, you can correct it. The game lets you make as many saves as you want, so you can save right before making a choice and if the outcome isn’t what want, re-load the save and start again at the pre-decision point. Every time a decision has a direct effect on the story, a flower icon appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen letting you know. This lets you note these points and watch for changes should you make different decisions on subsequent playthroughs. Which brings us to the best thing about Cinders. Once you’re done, you’ll find you’re eager to immediately play it again, just to see what other outcomes you can achieve. With four different unlockable endings, Cinders offers a ton of replay value.
I have a feeling that in the very near future, Cinders, and other interactive novels/role-playing-games like it, will be making significant inroads in the casual arena. This particular genre offers the beauty, storytelling and interesting choices players love about adventures and hidden object titles, sans the puzzle solving and repetitive item hunting inherent to those games. If you’ve never experienced an interactive novel, Cinders is an exceptional example of the genre, and the perfect title with which to start.