I mentioned this before in a review, but it’s high time we discussed ‘tone’ and how it applies to visual novels. Tone in fiction is something that isn’t often taught or thought of, but is crucial to creating an effective story. It shapes not only the world the story inhabits, but also the execution and style of the characters in that world. For practical application, please consider the following passage of dialogue;
“Cassandra, I was involved in politics when you were chasing boys and waving pom-poms, and I’ll be involved in politics when your daughters are chasing boys and waving pom-poms. You may not like me, but you will not patronize me. Do you understand?”
“I think I do, Senator Monti.”
“Good. We both have different ideas of what’s best for this state, but that doesn’t mean we cannot find areas of agreement from time to time. I know you think of me as some cold woman, but I can be flexible as long as we are on equal footing. Separation of powers seems like such a basic civics lesson, but you wouldn’t be the first governor to forget it. So, you stay on your floor of the Capitol and I’ll stay on mine. That way, we remain equals.”
While this segment excludes any atmospheric or physical descriptions, the tone of the conversation carries a few important clues of what’s going on. There are only a few places that logically make sense for this conversation to happen and only so many ways both the Governor and the Senator can look for it to keep the world logical. Hell, some of you who are more creative have probably already attached political ideologies to these two and try to place an issue on the table that would make sense in context. So now let’s try a to expand the thought experiment…don’t worry, I’m heading somewhere with this. Take this conversation and imagine it’s coming from two women who look like something this:
I could feel the mental whiplash from here.
Consistency in tone is…difficult for more visual novelists out there. Some of that is due to the very issue I just mapped out here: the visuals not matching the narrative. That is the easy cognitive dissonance issue to fix: either redesign the characters or change the color palette depending on what mood you’re trying to set. When it comes to narrative cognitive dissonance, it becomes a serious problem because then the reader doesn’t know what type of story they’re supposed to be reading.
That segues perfectly into the topic of today’s conversation: Locked Souls. This demo fits perfectly into the narrative cognitive dissonance I was just discussing because, simply put; I have no idea what in the blue Hell I’m supposed to be reading. The goal of this feature isn’t so much to put a like or dislike on it, because frankly I’m too confused to do either. More so, it’s an attempt to sort said confusion and try to find who this story actively appeals to in order to nail down some sense of tone. Whether or not this will be successful is anyone’s guess, but that’s never stopped me from trying before so here we go!
First, let’s start where the developer believes they’re starting at: the synopsis.
Locked Souls tells the story of Luke, a hapless individual wracked with debt who finds himself taking a job as a prison guard at a seemingly innocuous prison. Only, very quickly on his first night does he find himself roped into something far more sinister than he ever could have imagined.
Okay, so with that in mind, many of you probably put together an idea of what the tone of this game would be. Grim, oppressive and with the protagonist constantly on his back foot as he tries to make it out of the situation alive. It isn’t the most original premise on the face of the planet, but it is one open to some solid drama and tense psychological warfare to truly invest the reader. The premise by itself sounds like it has a lot of potential…too bad it all of that gets muddled in the first thirty minutes.
At the start of the game we meet a cheery female guard named May who proceeds to give you the grand tour of the prison and introduce the key inmates for the game: also all female. I could go in-depth here but you’ve seen their personalities in pretty much every harem anime that has ever existed. Yeah, for the majority of the first part of the game, it sets itself up as a typical harem romp and Luke’s haplessness is less a threat to his life and more symptomatic of the generic harem protagonist. The problem with that is that while it sticks to harem convention and characters, it really wants its gritty prison story as well.
Throughout the campy introductory sequence, there are bits of dialogue sprinkled in to remind you that yes; these girls are actually dangerous. This especially hits home when Luke is told while touring the cafeteria not to allow any inmates out with plastic utensils because they could make weapons out of them. This moment is immediately offset with Luke being a moron, but it has the side effect of dosing this hazy harem wannabee with the reality of death. In a high school setting, Luke’s haplessness could lead to him getting embarrassed at the absolute worst. In PRISON, his haplessness can get him killed.
That moment is accentuated when the inmates capture Luke to apparently rape him. It’s a moment led up to with attempted jumps scares and diving fully into the darker tone the synopsis hints at, but that small bit of buildup leads to a scene that falls completely flat. I don’t know whether that is due to the wasted buildup or that this wasn’t just leading to some fake out in order to reveal the actual master plan at work. Regardless, the power comes back on and the girls shove him out of their cell before they can do whatever they were planning on doing to him. Since he is so milquetoast, they are able to intimidate him into silence. From there, you’re allowed to interact with each of the women in question during Luke’s day-to-day: a process that, again, bounces between two completely different stories in a wild attempt to merge the two.
It all comes down to the nature of both stories the game wants to tell. You can’t take the inmates seriously as a threat because the game wants you to like them, but at the same time you cannot like them because the game wants you to see them as a threat. It’s an absolutely maddening sit because you never know if you should be amused by Luke’s weaknesses or be afraid for his survival.
Even now from the auspicious confines of my luxurious VNs Now HQ, I cannot tell you for sure HOW you’re supposed to take this game. The demo simply doesn’t accomplish the most basic element of storytelling: establishing a tone for the story to take place in. In an attempt to be both a light-hearted, harem-style game and a dark, dramatic thriller it fails at both. The only thing I really took away from it is its intended audience…and boy is that one a kick to the head.
Let me ask you a question; who would actually want to be Luke? In most of these harem tales, the protagonist is supposed to be a reflection of the audience to allow them to escape into some sort of romantic and/or sexual fantasy. Because it tried to merge that type of narrative into this game, I can’t help but feel the developers of Locked Souls found something about Luke appealing enough to have the audience identify with him. So, what is it?
Luke is, to put it plainly; pathetic. He is clearly not fit for this job and in any sane world he wouldn’t have got it in the first place. He is emotionally and psychologically frail, notably physically weaker than the inmates he’s supposed to guard, and nearly gets himself and others killed because of his lack of a spine. Luke is constantly humiliated by his coworkers and by the inmates that treat him like some toy they can play with until they get bored. None of this is presented as a matter of life or death, but rather a matter of Luke’s personal pride repeatedly getting slapped around for the thrill of the women around him. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Luke is being sexually dominated and, funny enough, we’ve seen this set up before. The demos for The Menagerie, Ladykiller in a Bind and Seeds of Chaos all had some element of sexual domination with the protagonist usually being the plaything of someone else. Locked Souls seemingly gleams from that dynamic to build its ‘relationships’: for lack of a better word. The kick here is that the other games I mentioned are pornography. Locked Souls is not, so all of this information is less of a path to an end goal and more like…fanservice.
So, along with the misshapen story that is trying to force two distinct plots that don’t work together to work together, we now have this undercurrent of humiliation and female sexual dominance being used as fanservice. Examining all of that could easily be another one thousand words plus, but the overall point is that it’s a Frankenstein monster of pure Id trying to keep its balance as it stands up. A particularly morbid piece of my mind is interested in seeing the final product, if only to see if it manages to hold itself upright for longer than a minute. However, because the end goal may well be to see a relationship form somehow out of this mess, I have to give it a pass.
At the very least, if the developers can decide what tone they want their game to have, it might be effective. They can have a schlocky harem story set in a prison or a dark, sexualized thriller. No matter how hard they try, they cannot have both. Once they settle that, maybe this thing has a path to survival. But for now? Well, there’s that cognitive dissonance thing I talked about earlier. If you want to check out the Locked Souls demo yourself, you can find it on its Itch.Io page. JP3: OUT.