Being creative is a difficult burden to bear.
Regardless of how that creativity manifests itself once a person realizes they can create something unique and interesting they’re immediately put under the watchful eye of two critical forces: the public and themselves. The public is the most innocuous as it comes at creativity from the strict viewpoint of consumption. Most people are invested in creative people because we like what they create and want more of it. On the other hand, from the point of view for that creative person, using their talent may be the last thing they want to do in life. Mostly because practicing said talent comes as the expense of damn near everything else.
It’s one of the reasons I love the film Whiplash so much (And screw La La Land. This should’ve won Best Picture in 2014 WELLLL before that was even an afterthought). Being great, or just good enough to get attention, takes a level of obsession that flies in the face of comprehension. Either you’re willing to go that far or you’re not and in the middle of that decision is a minefield of self-deprecation, doubt and anxiety that keeps most people right at the fingertips of greatness.
It’s that space where The Lion’s Song has chosen to operate. Developed by Mi’pu’mi in the growing market of European visual novel developers, The Lion’s Song is an anthology series following several young people of talent in pre-World War 2 Austria. And we begin with a young violinist in Episode 1 – Silence.
Having recently taken the Austrian high culture scene by storm, the young composer and violinist Wilma is stuck in a rut. She has had little contact with her family in the Bohemian countryside, shares a physical and dependent relationship with her manager Arthur, and has trouble finishing her next concert. While her personal issues are tricky, her musical issues are easy enough to address as her manager convinces her to spend some time in the Alps alone. From there, Wilma must struggle with her inner doubts and fears as she completes her next great work.
I have a great personal affinity for stories of creativity, talent, and the cost of both: hence my mention of Whiplash at the start. The Lion’s Song hits many positive points for me and stands as one of the best artistic experiences in visual novels. A great deal of that is thanks to the atmosphere that borrows more from horror than anything else. Wilma’s cabin in the mountains is small and uncomfortable: her writing quarters cramped and restricting. It’s pure claustrophobia and even watching her sit still for long periods of time can play tricks on the reader: making you want to move around just to shake off the unsettling air.
What makes matters worse is that her solitude only makes her self-deprecation worse: amplifying her doubts to schizophrenic levels and sending her spiraling into episodes of depression and panic. It is harrowing to read and, from my observations and personal experience, true to form. As much as fans like to imagine it’s easy to be creative, the truth is that the creative process is usually ugly and can be extremely dark. Capturing that darkness is essential to the story and keeps the audience firmly in place while it winds the tension as tight as possible. It’s master use of atmosphere and I cannot praise it enough.
However, the dread and pressure would be nothing without a moment of respite and this is where I feel Episode 1 stumbles. The moments themselves aren’t bad. Either Wilma will go outside to her porch for a moment to listen to the storm around her and catch her breath, or she will spend a few moments talking to a man who dialed her telephone by accident and struck a small friendship with her. These moments all provide threads of inspiration to weave through Wilma and help her form her next composition. However, they don’t offer much in the way of introspection and, simply put, I have no idea WHY Wilma wants to keep composing music.
She clearly misses her home, and regardless of whether she’ll fully admit it to herself or not, she does at least acknowledge her status as her manager’s meal ticket. We don’t dig any further however and this is something a single scene could’ve fixed. Maybe the first moment she realized she wanted to live this life or when someone else saw that talent in her would’ve been more than enough to establish some sense of pathos. But it never comes, and because of this it’s a shame to say I feel like I barely know her.
There is a bit of meta irony here that doesn’t change my opinion, but I would like to see executed in other media. See, it’s kind of hypocritical to want to know more about a fictional creative mind as the flesh-and-blood creative minds disappear into their work the same way Wilma does with her composition. That is easily one of the darker interpretations of Wilma’s story: how the audience, both in the story and out, enables this painful crucible that leads to great creative work. It’s a topic I’ve touched on when discussing The Crown and it deserves much more consideration: especially with games with this narrative focus.
Unfortunately, that’s how I WISH it was handled: not how it was handled. That vision still requires a good grasp of who Wilma is and that starts with the basic question of WHY she’s doing this to herself. While we do want her to succeed, we never get the why so it can make a few members of the audience cold around the middle sections where she is clearly suffering and we never get an answer. The sheer force of the presentation has to carry us the rest of the way and it takes what could have been an incredible climax to just a good one.
That’s not bad overall. I cannot say I walked away from Episode 1 not impressed with their vision and capabilities. But it only plays at the edges of the waters it walks towards. There is so much richer earth to dig into with this particular topic, but for what we get it is very good.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation of this title is in a class of its own. While I’m not here to knock the anime stylistic standards of our genre, this is a game that needed a unique look and feel to deliver on its themes. Not only do the 16-bit graphics help with that, but the color scheme takes it to another level. The sepia palette can be warm and inviting when it needs to, but also oppressive and cold during the tenser moments that make this title. However, it’s the final scene in the Wiener Musikverein where the presentation gets the shine the most. It’s a grand scene that makes Wilma appear simultaneously small and larger than life.
The visuals are helped by one of the best original soundtracks I’ve heard to date. The group responsible for the sound direction is called Dynamedion and their credits includes orchestral work not only on this title, but also the new Hitman, Mortal Kombat X and Total War: Warhammer. Their work here exceeds expectations as they focus on a minimalistic score that is integral to the story itself and starts off as simply as you can imagine with the basic melody in the menu track. From there, each choice you make unlocks a different piece of the concert and adds to the melody. Ultimately, your choices dictate the tone of the finale piece: giving you four different variations of an amazing orchestral soundtrack.
We’ll talk more about that mechanic in another paragraph, but it’s a brilliant direction to take the score and gives each ending its own unique feel. My favorite variant is perhaps Concert for the Ages as it fully realizes all the other variations for one triumphant moment that feels more than earned once you get it. The other variations bring something different to the game and truly elevates the presentation to a level few in this genre can match. It’s all very well done and worth the price of admission on its own.
Technically, this game is solid, but not flawless. Mi’pu’mi employs the Molecule engine and when I first played the game, I experienced a few hard crashes when I tried to switch in and out of the game. The crashing issues have been patched and I have to hand it to the developer because they have done their best to keep on top of any technical issues. Molecule also relies strictly on quick saves and loads with no dedicated manual save and load system. This may seem like a tiny nitpick, but it’ll actually come into play in the next paragraph. Ultimately, the engine still needs polish but the developers are on it: making it stable, but maybe not exemplary.
The only area I can really nitpick is the choice structure. Your choices are a combination of dialogue options and Point-and-Click options with your environment. The idea is that everything around you can help form the symphony at the end of the game, however it’s undercut slightly by the fact that you can undercut every choice you make over the course of the game in the final few options. For example, in my first playthrough I focused a lot of Wilma’s home in Bohemia and the fact that she misses her family. However, when given the option to dedicate the symphony to the manager, I clicked that out of total confusion just to see what the Hell would happen.
After all, it should have completely wrecked the progress I had been making up to that point and in many ways, it did by changing the tone of my composition to one focused on Wilma’s family to one focused on her lover. For me, it makes the choice structure more experimental than I like. Clearly, it’s encouraging several different paths to the different musical variations of the game’s endings, but if it wanted to do that the easiest way to accomplish an experimental approach to choices would be to include a manual save and load system. I know why it’s done: to encourage as many replays as possible. However, cutting out a few options OR adding a manual system here would’ve been a small, but significant improvement.
Episode 1 of The Lion’s Song is free on Steam and mobile platforms. All other episodes are $3.99 and the Season Pass is $9.99. Now, the first episode only last about an hour. Collecting the different variations stretches it out to four hours total, but this is a still a quick experience compared to the twenty-plus hour monsters we’ve been covering here lately on VNs Now. With only a handful of serious nitpicks, I would recommend at least Episode 1 to everyone, but you should know going in that your stay won’t be very long.
The Lion’s Song is on an interesting path here. Strengths and weaknesses aside, it doesn’t change the reality that Wilma’s story is over. The next two episodes have their own protagonists, although since the game takes place in Vienna we may feel her presence from time to time. As I write this, we are up to Episode 3 in the anthology so it may well be that the only reminder of Wilma we get is her music. If so, first don’t spoil the game. Secondly, it would fit perfectly into the theme of the series.
In this world, your gift is your curse. However that gift manifest itself, if you choose to develop and invest in it, it will eat away at you in ways you cannot imagine. For a lot of talented people though, it’s worth it. It’s worth every bad night and broken relationship. And while Episode 1 doesn’t dig into the exact rationale, that moment of Wilma on stage, making her larger than life, goes a long way in providing some clarity. In that moment, she creates something that will long outlive her and echo through the ages (hence the title) and regardless of if that’s a goal or not, to actually achieve something that monumental is enough to drive most people to the brink of the abyss and beyond.
The Lion’s Song Episode 1 is a beautiful testament to the talented and what they go through to share those talents with the rest of the world. I cannot wait to play Episodes 2 and 3 and see where Mi’pu’mi takes this anthology next. Hopefully, they have dug even deeper into these characters to show what drives them beyond just a singular moment. Even if they don’t though, all it does is take a potential great series and leave us with a very good one.
So that was The Lion’s Song. I’m looking forward to playing the rest of the anthology and seeing where this concept goes. But for now, I am still struck by the lack of titles in the visual novel realm that follows through on the theme of creativity and the burdens that come with it. Hopefully that’ll change, but for now a few titles that come close:
- The World End Economica Trilogy has a larger scope than the Lion’s Song thanks to its economic background and current event themes. However, at the core is a very intelligent boy with massive ambitions who is driven to trade stocks because that’s what he’s good at. It’s one of my favorite visual novels of all time for a reason: check it out if you haven’t.
- Ironically enough, Backstage Pass fits the bill here. It doesn’t have the same claustrophobic atmosphere and definitely not the same philosophical focus, but each of the romantic targets for Sian (the protagonist), and to an extension Sian herself, has to deal with the complications of wanting to live a normal life AND what their creativity demands of them. It’s just something to consider if you want to see another take on this.