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Review

Visual Novel Cinders Ditches The Pumpkins and Singing Mice In Favor of a Smart, Savvy Leading Lady


There are few things I love more in a game than player-controlled branching storylines (okay, rocket launchers, too, but that’s a different article). It’s one thing to consider the moral implications of a character’s actions in a book or movie, but the emotional punch increases exponentially when you’re the one choosing those actions. When you’ve got your hand on the trigger, the choice becomes less about how you want the story to play about, and more about what values you personally adhere to.

This sort of introspective experience is heavily present in Cinders, a new visual novel by indie developer MoaCube. The game asks the player two fundamental questions: How do you define independence, and what are you willing to do to get it? In a somewhat brilliant move, these questions are posed within the unlikely framework of a mature, pensive retelling of Cinderella. According to the devs, the moral of the original story is “be a good girl and learn to take abuse quietly, then maybe you’ll find a rich husband.” I can’t argue there, though you could also say that the tale is a fable about reaping what you sow. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, so long as you stick it out long enough. Thankfully, neither of these themes are to be found here.

Cinders is my first foray into the territory of the visual novel, a genre that has yet to catch on in the Western market (though it does have a niche following with roots in the anime/manga scene). Think of an RPG. Now remove all of the combat, exploring, and sweet, sweet loot. Pare it down to nothing but the dialogue. That’s a visual novel. It’s an interesting style of storytelling, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book with subtly animated images and a soundtrack. I’m more inclined to call it “interactive fiction” rather than a “game,” but as I understand those are fightin’ words for visual novel fans, I’ll bow to convention here.

All the modern incarnations of Cinderella I’ve seen — the conspicuous Disney version, the character from Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into The Woods, even Drew Barrymore’s spirited heroine from Ever After — are saintly, compliant characters. The two latter versions give her a bit more spark, a bit more backbone, but she still doesn’t aspire to anything more than what she is. Her end reward — a prince, a palace, and a heavy dose of comeuppance for her stepfamily — isn’t something that she expects or works toward, but rather something that’s handed to her. Cinderella is always portrayed as a good, kind, hard-working girl who bites her tongue and does as she’s told, despite being treated horribly. The audience is on her side because we like her and feel sorry for her, not because she’s actually got any goals for us to cheer on.

Not so with Cinders. This young woman has been dealt an awful hand, no doubt, but she’s not leaving her future up to fate. Though it’s up to the player to decide how her story turns out, Cinders’ paths are ones of her own making. I had a revelation about the archetypal story early on in the game, when I was posed with the choice of getting up early to do some extra chores (and thus garner some favor) or staying in bed and reading a book. My first inclination was to do the chores. I mean, that’s the least amount of trouble, right? We all know her stepmother’s going to come down hard if she catches Cinders reading. But then I thought about it. How does the story change if Cinderella does fight back, if she realizes that she doesn’t owe her stepmother anything and that she doesn’t have to put up with her any longer? Does that make her a less sympathetic character, and if so, why? If a protagonist gets angry and refuses to obey, does that make her any less deserving of a happy ending?

I went with reading the book.

Philosophical themes of this sort are woven throughout the game, and I have to compliment the devs on crafting a unique version of a well-worn story. There is a prince, of course, and a ball, too, but they are presented as options, rather than a definitive end goal, and Cinders’ motives for wanting to go to the ball in the first place are as varied as anything else in the game. Cinders is not a cut-and-dry morality tale, but rather a story about a woman trying hard to make a better life for herself. One of the game’s more inspired choices is to let the player pick between potential fairy godmothers (one of whom is decidedly more flesh-and-blood than the other). Nobody’s handing Cinders any favors for free. Everything has a price, and Cinders knows full well that all her choices come with consequences. I liked that, and I also liked that Cinders was a decidedly flawed character. She could be impulsive, foolish, arrogant, and downright snarky. I have to admit, there was something satisfying about finally getting to tell off the stepsisters — though their motivations, too, fell into solidly nuanced gray areas.

Though I think MoaCube should be applauded for their narrative ambitions, this isn’t a game for everybody. You won’t be required to do anything more than click your left mouse button to see new text, and even the possibility of unlocking trophies for discovering new story paths probably won’t hold the attention of gamers accustomed to a faster, more action-packed style of storytelling. And while I enjoyed the themes and plot twists, much of the phrasing reflects the dev team’s non-native English skills — which is fine and forgivable, but it’s something you should go in knowing, especially since this is a game entirely based around reading. If you’re already a visual novel fan, I can imagine that this one will be a real treat. The artwork is lovely, the music is effectively theatrical, and there are hundreds of story options to choose from. Despite its imperfections, I admire Cinders for its determined attempt to recast one of the most passive characters in all of folklore as an intelligent, self-sufficient heroine. In that much, the game succeeds.

You can purchase Cinders or check out the demo through the MoaCube website.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • Jen Roberts

    Definitely going to check Cinders out. But have you really not read Fables (the comic) and its interesting take on Cindy as a spy/femme fatale who runs a shoe store as a cover? She comes from the same background, and she’s realized how unfulfilling all of that was. A lot of the classic “princess” characters get interesting updates. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=52903659 Charlotte Van Zee

    While the concept of this seems interesting, I can’t help but eye roll at the developers summary of the original moral ”be a good girl and learn to take abuse quietly, then maybe you’ll find a rich husband.”  Cinderella wasn’t supposed to go to the ball.  Her stepmother teased with the opportunity to go (something that Cinderella was entitled to do as a member of the upper class and as a single female), and then changed her mind at the last minute.  It is at this point where the fairy godmother shows up and says “You want to go to the ball” and if the moral of Cinderella really was “shut up and take abuse and you’ll be rewarded” then Cinderella would have stayed home.  What does she do?  She goes against her stepmother, shows up at ball, enchants the prince blahblahblah.  If anything, the moral is fortune favors the bold. 

  • http://otherscribbles.com Becky Chambers

    Oh my goodness, yes I have, and I completely forgot about Cindy. Thanks for jogging my memory. :)

  • http://twitter.com/loerwyn Kathryn

    If we’re going for good depictions of Cinderella, I’m going to have to throw in a recommendation for Jim C. Hines’ The Stepsister Scheme and its sequels. LGBT friendly, feminist friendly, girl friendly. It’s girl power distilled into three kick-ass princesses, the main protagonist being a slightly new take on Cinderella. It’s worth it alone for its fairly unique (AFAIK) take on Sleeping Beauty, too.

    Also of note is Malinda Lo’s Ash, a lesbian take on Cinderella.

    But Cinders does sound interesting, and it sounds like a good use of the visual novel style (something, as you noted, the West seems to have oddly overlooked)

  • Jen Roberts

     I thought that seemed odd! ^_^

    Not for people in general; I mean, not everyone has heard of EVERYTHING. It just seemed like something you’d referenced before or that was right up your alley, at least. My brain is fried, so I can’t recall if you’ve mentioned Fables before or not.

  • http://twitter.com/KateDrewThis Katharine Tapley

    I just played the demo. I dig it. 

  • http://twitter.com/KateDrewThis Katharine Tapley

     Love Cindy in “Fables”. I also like Gregory MacGuire’s take on the story in “Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister”.

  • Anonymous

    Marissa Meyer’s Cinder is another interesting take. She’s good and kind, sure, but she’s not a doormat. Also, she’s a cyborg. It may be worth waiting until the second novel in the series is out, but I couldn’t put the first one down.

  • Anonymous

     The tale as told by the Grimms is a bit of an “F you, Imma do what I want when you’re not looking,” based one too.

  • Alaina Granter

    I take it you’re not familiar with ‘Just Ella’ by Margaret Peterson Haddix. She’s tutored in how to be a proper lady by someone else, and according to her, she’d remade her mother’s wedding dress for the ball and paid a coachman what she could afford just to drive her the last 50 feet to and from the gate. She planned to find a rich nobleman or someone who would pay her to tutor her children so she could get out of there, and had to leave by midnight so she could scrub the cellar as ordered. She gets in trouble for doing ‘unmaidenly’ things like making the fire in her own room, can’t embroider at all, and gets thrown in prison for trying to break up with the prince. 

  • Anonymous

    I really can’t be bothered with people dismissing source material based on a completely simplistic and misleading appraisal: the only way that moral could apply is to one of the toothless modern iterations of the fairytale. Even the Disney version wasn’t as simple as that.

  • Anonymous

    I remember reading Just Ella! I loved that book so much.

  • Anonymous

    I believe ‘visual novel’ is unfortunately usually a euphemism for ‘porn game’. But this one actually looks pretty good. Kudos for doing something more interesting with the genre.

  • Anonymous

    Hm, not in my experience. The japanese are actually pretty forthright about what games are porn or not – they’re called “erogames” or “ecchi dating sims” – even if a few tend to toe the line. Most full ‘visual novel’ games I’ve run into were aimed at women and tended to be tasteful… With exceptions of course.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TRBMHETW4YERAYHADTHTOXHZUE Nova

    A Westernized visual novel? DO WAAAANT! 

  • http://twitter.com/renvrant Renee

    Played it though, and I have to second the recommendation, for anyone still waffling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=660346207 Amanda Meyer

    Ella Enchanted is my favorite version of the Cinderella tale; between developing the relationship between the Prince and Ella so that it makes sense and the strength of her personality, the book really creates a 3-D Cinders who works hard to shape her own destiny. They massacred the book in the movie though, so beware.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    You know fairy godmothers don’t magically grant wishes in real life, right? If she went to the ball dressed in rags and impressed the prince with her swagger then you’d be right, but she needed a magic guardian to doll her up disney-princess style (don’t even say that disney princess shit is good for girls’ self image,) to do it. The moral was more like “confidence and independence come from materialism and superficiality.” The prince thought she was beautiful, not confident or smart (nor would a medieval prince typically want such things, nor would he likely be choosing a bride for anything but political reasons, BUT I DIGRESS,) princess stories are usually ones of distraught women being helped by men instead of helping themselves.

  • Darth Cumin

    1. “… the choice becomes less about how you want the story to play about, and more about what values you personally adhere to.”

    I think there’s an inter-connection there…

    2. “Think of an RPG. Now remove all of the combat, exploring, and sweet,
    sweet loot. Pare it down to nothing but the dialogue. That’s a visual
    novel. It’s an interesting style of storytelling, much like a Choose
    Your Own Adventure book with subtly animated images and a soundtrack. ”

    A very simplistic way to dichotomize the genres, although the point is taken.

    What if there’d be 3-rd option: A fully 3D RPG, with an option to skip combat whenever you want, option to fast/instant travel to already discovered locations, all while getting random loots from the skipped combats, so you could dress your char the way you like. That’s not just any RPG, nor any visual novel. I call that a GRPC -> game that respects player’s choices…

    3. “How does the story change if Cinderella does fight back, if she
    realizes that she doesn’t owe her stepmother anything and that she
    doesn’t have to put up with her any longer? Does that make her a less
    sympathetic character, and if so, why? If a protagonist gets angry and
    refuses to obey, does that make her any less deserving of a happy
    ending?”

    That’s exactly the reason why quality, masterpiece games present players with Choices, and don’t force them to play predefined roles. ‘Play the good guy, obey the rules and you’ll be rewarded’ – bah! Not even children buy that anymore. I’m not saying the opposite is better, all I mean is let the player choose who they want to be – savior, conqueror, anonymous etc.

    If a game developer doesn’t offer diverse choices to the players, that means players are not respected. Graphics is good, gameplay is nice, but in the end it is the Choices that make the difference between a great game and ‘just another hack’n slash’…

  • Darth Cumin

    As long as they don’t lose their delicacy, kindness (when necessary, not naive) and grace, I’m totally for kick-ass princesses, with girl-meets-girl romance options…

  • Lydia

    When I played this game, I felt the feminist tones were over the top and too in-your-face. Every other line kind was something like “I’m strong and independent.” “I make my own decisions.” “I don’t wait around.” “Why can’t she be strong, beautiful, smart, AND a good wife and mother?” Not even halfway through, I was thinking “Ok! I get it! That’s the point of the story!” I’d rather the story *showed* these aspects of the women instead of outright telling me over and over in case I didn’t catch it the first 100 times.But until I read your entry, I didn’t know the creators didn’t speak English natively. I think the writing could be improved but considering English wasn’t their first language, my opinion has changed somewhat and I have to admit this is a fairly impressive attempt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.burkhart.31 John Burkhart

    Zork is Interactive Fiction. (So is “Planetfall”). Visual novels are just that. ;)