Thoughts on "Goodbye, Volcano High", a game by OK_OP
2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. The end of the world. Memes and jokes spread throughout the internet, movies were imagined and made about weather anomalies happening in places thought to be impossible, and you just had to take it all in as it all - whether in jest or in dread. Needless to say, I survived. We survived. And we dubbed graduating class of 2013 "the survivors of the apocalypse".
It's been a long time since then, moreso that I would like to admit. And throughout the years, I've always been keen on reading more unique stories and discovering interesting spins on the typical interactive narrative games genre. So, with a couple of friends who are part of the Playstation ecosystem while I haven't owned a PS system since the 2nd, I watched whatever they call their media day and they played a trailer that just caught my eye. The music was jamming, the colors and art direction was bright yet still mellow, dinosaurs are rad, and it was just a nice little teaser overall. I knew it was something I wanted to check out as soon as it launched.
"Goodbye Volcano High" is a game by OK_OP, a game studio that lists in their Steam description "KO_OP is a worker-owned game studio founded in 2012". This is their third game they released, the first one being GNOG, a poke-and-prod puzzle game, and the second being "Depanneur Nocturne", a poke-and-prod adventure game. This game came out on August 29, 2023.
I have a lot of thoughts about this game, and honestly I didn't know whether I wanted to do a full review or do in-depth analysis or even a critique. But all this time thinking just means that I'm not doing, which is a common thing for me to do, and I want to change. So, this time around I'm just gonna swing. I will, however, add that stipulations that this is spoiler-free and that this is just all my personal opinions after being a fan of these kinds of games ever since I read my first visual novel in 2008.
Technically speaking, I think they have a great engine and system on their hands. They do a lot of the little things really well - sensing the hesitation in your choices then locking it out when you reselect the option, seeing the choices represent things like a wavering fogginess to burning anger to bubbling joy, and I think to be the most impactful of it all requiring you to hold two extra inputs to making a really hard decision. Just by this the choices feel more impactful, and you get a gauge of each option visually rather than the traditional way of reading a list of options and sometimes trying to guess the tone and result (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 1 and LA Noire). Add to this the standard of timed and not-timed events and you got yourself a nice balance of stress and relaxed choices that make the game part feel satisfying.
Add to this the visual aspects and how they render scenes, characters, emotions, and events, it makes for a game that just functions impressively well. Despite some hiccups where you can see a little bit behind the scenes, like objects loading in too slow or the music and lines cutting off too soon, it does make it feel like you are watching animation or a cartoon rather than seeing PNG cutouts move across the screen as you read. When it works, which is about 98% of the time, it is immersive and great. But that buggy 2% does take you out of it, it only just a little. I personally forgive them since it is their first published game, and, once they work it out which I hope they do, it will make so much of a difference for anything else they put out. How they blend the rhythm gameplay and their other D&D-like bits into everything is nothing short of amazing, and if they just fixed some little kinks it can make a flawless experience.
Speaking of the rhythm gameplay, I really enjoyed it though it may be hard or inaccessible to some. How it works is you have to manage three things at the same time as they appear on screen: a directional input where you hold a direction as notes appear, a button input where you have to time your press as a guide overlaps, and a dual "slam" input where you have to time two inputs at the same time. It adds a realism as a musician because you are trying to do multiple things at the same time - chords, strumming, singing, ect. But not everyone has those musician skills. There is a switch in the options to make the timing input easier, but I have not tried it. Nor have I tried to fail songs to see if it actually changes the story. While I love playing the minigame, it may pose a challenge to some who are not musically-inclined, but rather coordinationally-inclined. I do wish that there is a way to replay just the music parts, but sadly it's all contained in a playthrough.
Now, here comes the meat of it all: the story.
To sum the premise as briefly as I can: you follow along a non-binary teen named Fang through her last year as a high school senior along with her friends (old and new) and brother. She is trying to push her band along to greatness, while everyone else is trying to navigate their own lives and thinking about what you commonly think about as a high school senior - the future.
Oh, and a giant meteor/astroid/giant space rock is approaching, threatening to end all life on the planet.
As you can guess, this is a teen/YA drama about confronting anxiety about future ambitions, the tensions that come from challenging those emotions, and the idea of living life in the moment. There’s also talks of identity, camaraderie among friends, confronting a secret crush that may or may not have the ability to go horribly wrong, the feeling of impending doom and whether to be a doomer or try to maintain optimism, and that rocky relationship between parents with certain expectations and their kids who just want to be accepted by who they truly are.
This is a lot to tackle for a 6-7 hour experience. The big question is: did they do it well?
My answer: they did do it, and I felt they did really try their best with it. With such complexities that are indeed a part of life and are indeed part of the normal high school senior experience (except the doomer and world-ending part*)(*Addendum, now that I think about it at least in modern times perhaps the doomer and world-ending parts are now part of that experience), OK_OP tackled it in a way where some moments felt realistic and impactful. But there are moments where it does feel it falls short, whether it be through that game systems itself or it being written in a way where it makes since only in that bubble.
For example, there’s a huge campfire scene near the end that’s supposed to be a small resolution point and a culmination of some of the choices you make in-game. Tension and conflict happen at a certain point and everyone splits off into certain pairs. Depending on who you hung out with and the choices you make, you are presented some solo time with certain people to comfort them. The moments in itself are nice and touching. But, as far as I tried, you cannot comfort everyone since some choices you made require you to be with one or the other.
After expending all your options, everyone meets back at the campfire and it is all good. Everyone has made it through the rough patch. Everyone is now chill, no bad blood between folks, and story progress can be made.
Now, there’s a lot of good moments throughout the whole game. The strength of the story comes from these 1 on 1 moments with characters, where you get all these fun, maybe awkward, maybe tension-filled moments. But where it falls short is just how linear the whole over-arching story is designed. There is always the same beginning, the same middle parts, and the same end. Which may sound normal at first, but hear me out. In a game where you get to make choices and dialogue options, you would expect it to have some real bearing on the ending at the very least. But it really doesn’t.
This is the biggest weakness of the game, how the choices you make does not amount to the conclusion in an impactful way. The way which the whole game experience ends does not feel as impactful as it deserves. I loved the ending in the moment to be fair, but after all it was said and done, you are dropped back into the home screen and all that was running through my mind was “huh, I guess that’s it then”. Compared to something of similar systems like Telltale’s “The Walked Dead” in the end of season 1 (also a linear ending) where I was thinking about it for days, here it fizzled like a firework sparkler. No real epilogue (but it did have a nice "anime OVA styled" photo montage), no questions answered. It ended where it ended, and that was that.
Perhaps that’s by design too. It mirrors life in all its unexpectedness and cruelness, and our adversary against it through our human nature and condition. Whatever interpretation I or you choose to believe and, much like the ambiguity of the asteroid ending all life or completely whiffing, this ending can be hit or a miss. For me, it was a miss. But again, I do appreciate the effort and all the work that led up to the final pitch.
There are also other paths you can choose to pursuit to learn more about other characters and what their deal is, but the replayability isn’t there. There is no “viewing collected CG/Photos”. There is no quick skip dialogue button. There is no easy way to infer what choices lead to you meeting certain characters in a location. There is no replay moments or songs events. There is only one save file. It is hard to replay, to be honest. I would love to replay it once more but me mashing the advance text button and not being able to skip some game parts is really a bummer and makes me want to play anything else. It’s a real shame because I really love each and every character, they are wonderfully and smartly written. But to deal with this part of the system with none of what makes a modern visual novel or interactive narrative game have for accessible replayability just makes me a tad sad and frustrated.
One of my favorite dialogs is between Fang and Naomi, with Fang awkwardly rambling on why she plays music and Naomi summing it all up with the word "flow". Her exact words is that flow and being in flow is "doing exactly what you were meant to do". In the little moments, "Goodbye Volcano High" just flows really well, like a prime-time teen drama in all its little moments. But in big picture, in the grand scheme of things, all those ebbs and waves of little moments just end up crashing against each other compounding into rough seas. Don't get me wrong, it's still a pretty beautiful experience to behold. But I do wish it could have been a harmonious wave subsiding gently towards the sand. But again, sometimes that's just how life goes, right?
This showing from OK-OP gives me great hopes on their next project, whatever it may be. They showed a lot of great ideas, what their strengths are as a team, and some technically impressive stuff for an interactive narrative game. While "Goodbye Volcano High" is not perfect, it does show a lot of beauty in many ways to where it had me reminiscing about my own high school senior experience - the awkwardness and confusion about one's self, the anxiety about the future, the camaraderie among band and friends, and heck even the strength to confess to a crush.
While I enjoyed my time with this game, it's hard for me to recommend it to everyone. You have to be ok and have empathy for these characters at this time of their life - entering into their next chapter towards adulthood. If you can do that, and have no problems with anthropomorphic characters, then I would think you'd like this game. If not, there has never been a better time to be playing video games, and life is too short to force yourself through one. Even if you don't have the threat of a meteor ending all life as we know it, live your life like you do.
As they say and with me being inspired by all the Millennial/Gen-Z influence in this game: be rootin, be tootin, and by god be shooting. But most of all... be kind.