When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.

The Day I Became a Bird – Ingrid Chabbert (author), Guridi (illustrator)

The Day I Became a Bird CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy falls in love with Sylvia, a girl who loves birds. He decides the obvious solution is to dress up as a bird.

The premise of this intrigued me, though I also wondered how well it would handle it. Early childhood love is often handled very badly. Boys are encouraged to treat girls poorly to get their attention, and when girls report it, it’s dismissed with, “He’s only doing that because he likes you.” That’s a pretty terrible message to put across, that it doesn’t matter if someone hits you, or destroys your stuff, as long as they like you.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t go there. The boy is instead a quiet and sensitive child, who wants to appeal to Sylvia’s interests. At no point is it suggested that Sylvia should stop being so interested in birds. The boy wants to be part of that, rather than trying to change her. He also doesn’t feel he’s entitled to attention for dressing up as a bird. He’s hoping she’ll like it, but he waits to see if she reacts rather than pressing the issue.

I also liked that he doesn’t need to be a bird in the end. There was the potential for suggesting that the only way to find love is changing yourself, but it doesn’t really go there. It’s clear to all involved that he’s wearing a costume for a short time, rather than this being a permanent attempt to be someone else.

Pencil sketches make up the majority of the artwork. These act as a simple and expressive way of telling the story. The bird costume itself is huge, and looks both carefully made and uncomfortable to wear. I liked how it slowly begins to fall apart, as being worn for normal school activities takes its toll. Some additional bird art, such as a scientific diagram of a bird, and bird identification pictures, are included as part of showing Sylvia’s interests.

This is a gentle story, that encourages taking an interest in someone else’s passions. The bird focus is likely to appeal to young bird lovers, and it could be tied in with dressing up activities.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Gone Home

Gone Home CoverDeveloper: The Fullbright Company
First Release: 15th August, 2013
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Katie returns home after touring Europe, only to find the house is empty. She has to piece together where everyone has gone from the clues left behind.

Though Katie is the character controlled by the player, this is primarily about her sister Sam. Finding notes and other objects triggers journal entries, written as though they were letters to Katie. Sam is a teenaged lesbian in the 1990s, and her story touches on dealing with her parents and finding her place in the world. In addition, Katie finds out more about her parents and the previous owner of the house.

There aren’t really any puzzles in the game, as it’s focused on story and exploration. It doesn’t get more complicated than finding a combination to open a lock.

I enjoyed the story. The voice acting was good, and it avoided a lot of the negative tropes that come with lesbian characters. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t a horror game, based on the way it’d been described to me. This is firmly based in the reality of family relationships.

The atmosphere in the house is well done. Floorboards creak whilst a storm rages outside. These things are on random timers, giving them an organic feel. There’s attention to detail with the rooms, making sure they have the expected everyday objects. Each family member has their own style, which shows in the things they own. That said, the realism of the house also means there isn’t anything very surprising around the corner.

I grew up in the 1990s, but in a very different environment to Sam. The whole angle of the feminist punk movement was new to me. The game has music (on cassettes that can be played), fanzines and badges for the bands. The commentary mode includes some thoughts from Corin Tucker, the singer from Heavens to Betsy. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary in general, so it’s worth playing a second time with it activated.

Accessibility is reasonable. The game has options to remove head movement, and has a crosshair in the centre by default. This helps reduce motion sickness issues. Subtitles and text overlays for notes are also options. There are a few flickering lights in places, but the flickers are short and don’t create a strong strobe effect.

This is an interesting game about growing up and relationships. The emotional narrative and attention to detail stood out as strengths. The short playtime could be an issue for gamers on a budget. There are themes of anti-gay prejudice in the main storyline, and child abuse is implied in the side narratives, though none of that is very graphic.

The Storm – Akiko Miyakoshi

The Storm CoverFirst Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy plans to go to the beach with his parents the next day, but a storm is approaching. As he sleeps through the storm, he dreams of a giant airship blowing it away… but will the storm still be there when he wakes up?

The art is what makes this book. It has detailed charcoal pictures filling the pages. Most of the art is black and white, apart from a hint of blue near the end. The feeling of the characters is captured perfectly. I especially liked the boy’s cat, who appears in many of the scenes (including joining him in his airship dream).

In terms of story, it’s a very simple one. I felt the balance wasn’t quite there, as a lot of time is spent on storm preparations. The airship dream is the standout part, but it feels like it’s over before it really gets going.

This is a gentle story about the power of imagination, and aspects like the airship and the cat are appealing. I’m not convinced about how well it’ll hold interest after a first read, but it’s certainly a very beautiful book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]