My Friend Is A Raven might be a hard sell, were there any sale. But since it’s free, we can all worry far less about pondering whether a simple, short and peculiar game is worth our time.
This is, on the most mercenary level, a fifteen minute game in which you walk to the right four times, to find all four endings. Barely interactive along the way, you pick from four possible iterations of available actions, and then see how a conversation plays out differently as a result. Catch a dead rat or don’t, work out what you can do with the ink or do not, then see what change it causes.
But My Friend Is A Raven is a game about its aesthetic over its interaction. In a fantastically obtuse use of the Unreal engine, it renders a 2D side-scrolling monochrome pencil sketch so elaborately that my top-end PC struggled to run it at the top settings. It’s really striking, the scribbled art vivid and incredibly well lit, and then I eventually realised: oh, this is in 3D! It’s just pretending to be 2D. This loon has built a three-dimensional apartment, and its surrounding street, and then presented it as a two-dimensional world.
It’s so very effective, making what would otherwise be just walking rightward, into something visually interesting at every moment. It’s a frenzied pencil sketch come to life, which gives voice to its maybe-post-apocalyptic scenario, in which… have ravens ended the world?
Your goal is very simply to pick up some seed and take it to the balcony, to offer to a raven. Why is something you’ll only really get to grips with when you manage to find time for ending 3 of 4. But how is the key behind the other three endings, as you negotiate with this barely spoken reality.
I love that so much about Raven – its backstory, its reasoning, is all so esoteric and vaguely hinted at that it’s an open invitation to imbue with your own imagination. It’s of course just a whisper-thin vignette, possible to play through from start to finish in two minutes if you’re rushing, and yet I’m thinking about its tale far more than many, many full-length games.
It helps that its smattering of writing is solid prose. It helps even more that the acoustics are so splendid. A great creepy soundtrack along with some fantastic use of background effects allows everything to feel far more sinister. But the real hero is the art, and the extraordinary way in which it is presented.
I dearly wish there had been the sense to allow a click to jump to the end of a line of gradually appearing text. On the forth time through having to wait for lines thrice read to appear is a proper pain. (A top tip in that respect – if you run the game on a lower graphics setting, that text can appear more quickly.) And bearing in mind the extraordinary effort that went into the art here, it does seem a shame that there couldn’t have been some variety in the text, different lines written for the same actions, so the game doesn’t read identically each time until its final conversation. That would have made a massive difference.
However, being free has a remarkable way of forgiving all sorts of issues, and allows Raven to exist as an aesthetic curio. And I’ll take that. It also makes me very excited for the lone developer behind Two Star Games’ next game, My Beautiful Paper Smile, which comes out later this year.