In that sense, perhaps she was like Sleeping Beauty – not just the singular Sleeping Beauty, but every single incarnation of the character, from Charles Perrault’s Belle to the Briar Rose of the Brothers Grimm. Though Sleeping Beauty had touched thousands of spindles across thousands upon thousands of retellings, reworkings, and reimaginings, she never strayed from her preordained course, and could never learn from her past mistakes. Sleeping Beauty had no will of her own, after all.
Samantha could relate to that. She often felt she herself had so little control her own life she may as well have been a figment, a construct, a hazy and ephemeral imagining, pushed hither and thither by invisible hands.
Samantha is depressed. She’s been depressed for a long time, almost as long as she can remember, but it’s slowly been getting worse. She thought Lillian was her friend, her best friend. Perhaps she even thought of her as more than that. Why, then, did their relationship have to fall apart? Was it really her fault? She didn’t do anything wrong. At least, she didn’t intend to. Now, three months later, Samantha finally has her chance. Forced together on their geography field trip to the Lake District, will she finally be able to repair her relationship with Lillian – or will it collapse all over again?
As you are reading an article on this blog, I will presume that you are familiar with VNs and by proxy, how they are received in the western sphere. In recent months you may have felt the winds of change rustling past – glance behind you and catch sight of beloved titles once seen as impossible coming to Steam via successful KickStarter campaigns; Steins;gate making its way to the small(er) screen. It certainly is an exciting time for the medium where it feels like anything could happen, yet that in itself has become something of a double-edged sword. As interest in the medium grows ever-larger, so do the number of people coming together, driven by the desire to create works of their own. With so many tools available online that certainly is a laudable effort, as what’s truly valued here is that they can tell a story that is worth telling, leaving you entranced from beginning to end… Or at least, that’s how it should be. The reality could not be more different, leaving Steam drowning in Frankensteinian messes which are rarely written by someone with an excellent – let alone competent – grasp of English. Errors are rife and tolerance is low which leads to what ought to be a rich experience lulling into a seemingly irreparable stagnancy. In light of all this you can perhaps understand my trepidation regarding EVNs despite it being a growing field, and why I can’t help but feel more than a little wary whenever another is released. Yet here I am, about to review one.
How did I get here, you may very well be asking yourself.
While idly scrolling through my twitter feed several months back, Asphyxia‘s arresting cover caught my eye. I couldn’t help but feel vaguely affronted upon learning that it was an EVN, surely it didn’t posses the cajoles to pull off such an ambitious reference (Tokyo Ghoul‘s unearned confidence in referencing the Pietà during promotional material for its second season came to mind)? A cursory glance at its synopsis and character biographies puzzled me further still. Romantic poets… reimagined as teenage girls? Living in the modern age, no less? Oh dear. Possessing a fondness for the period I felt a faint stirring of curiosity but still held back. It was an EVN, after all. But as the release date drew closer it refused to leave my mind, so to get a taste for the author’s writing I downloaded Lily of the Valley. Despite going in with absolutely zero expectations I not only finished it feeling pleasantly surprised, but reasonably impressed. It proved to be a compelling tale of a man coping with loss while living a monotonous life, tellingly opening with him attending his mother’s funeral.
Within such a heavily narrative-driven medium, one element which I often tend to take issue with is its often perfunctory handling of emotions, rarely elaborating on what truly ails a character besides the usual tropes which we tend to forgive just because it’s the medium and that’s how things are. Allowances can be made. Yet Asphyxia makes for a thoroughly refreshing read as not once does it refrain from plumbing the abyssal depths of Samantha’s depression, elaborating on her emotions in a manner which not only feels achingly sincere to anyone who has found themselves in a similar situation, but suggests a confidence on the writer’s behalf. Many may find her rambles to be uncomfortably pervasive, hitting perhaps a little too close to home but this is what transforms Asphyxia into such an remarkable work: it feels genuine.
Our story wastes no time with diving into the throes of Samantha’s all-consuming depressive mindset, caustic jibes and self-deprecatory comments serving as a protective barrier; all ‘oh, it’s all right, I’m fine really’s when anyone gets too close. But of course, she’s not fooling anyone, frustrating friend and foe alike with her inability to change as the heavy coils of melancholia tightly grip her heart. She stumbles through life in a daze, close relationships fracturing as self-destructive behaviour increases. While sluggishly pulling on her clothes tears fall, without warning. Nails are bitten down to the quick. Her clothes are forever rumpled and she finds it impossible to sleep. Unlike other works which would skirt around such intense personal affectations, merely putting it all down to a character arc which will eventually be grown out of, Samantha has always been like this. And maybe, she always will. It all tellingly comes to a head during a geography field trip to the Lake District (following a night where she manically shears most of her hair off), opening in media res in which she finds herself in proximity to one of the many sources of her melancholia: Lillian Wordsworth.
To say that our protagonist feels inferior to her classmate would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that her existence serves to accentuate Sam’s flaws which as you can imagine, for an overly self-critical character leads to her furthering the distance between them. Her uniform is meticulous, not a hair out of place in contrast to Sam’s rumpled socks and dishevelled mane. While Sam adores Lillian the feeling is not exactly mutual… Especially as Asphyxia opens with a noticeable rift in the former friends’ relationship. Lillian is curt, hurling malicious words Sam’s way yet she hangs on every syllable “more precious than pearls”. The relationship presented between them is an intimate and claustrophobic depiction of an all-consuming first love, Sam unhealthily clinging to Lillian and placing her on an unrealistically high pedestal. So besotted is she that she would have thanked Lillian for spitting on her, so starved is she for affection that she turns to others for validation in a way that is achingly poignant. Thankfully, unlike other works which would only indulge in her emotions (exalting them, even) not once does Asphyxia glorify such self-destructive behaviour. It is portrayed for what it is: unhealthy and essentially the worst thing for her. Sam morosely thinks that there is no point in living if Lillian does not love her. When others chide her for such thoughts you can’t help but be on their side.
So strong is the writing that each of the girls’ approaches and intensely defined beliefs are believable, verging on incredibly frustration in a manner which certainly does feel true-to-life. Lillian stiffly says that she must be cruel to be kind, admitting that she cannot possibly understand Sam while feeling perplexed at her inability to change. She could change, so why can’t Sam? She may be given answers but they are ones she can’t understand. The divide is clear and there is no unification of souls; wires are crossed and there is little change of them ever untangling. Even if you do happen to be familiar with the characters’ historical counterparts a sense of inevitability hangs heavy over the narrative, sadness pervading every line, destruction lurking behind joyous moments. Given their relationship perhaps the reader already knows deep within their hearts where it will end, even if you are on Lillian’s so-called ‘good’ ending. Perhaps Sam will finally break free of the invisible force she feels that dictates her actions without the reader’s “strange and mysterious” gaze. Perhaps it will only serve to keep her trapped in such a vicious cycle, never allowing her the chance to break free. It is during this trip where you can’t help but feel that there is far more at stake than whether Sam and Lillian become friends again. Eventually you start to wonder if it’s a matter of life or death; recuperation or stagnancy.
On a broader thematic scale Asphyxia is romantic to the core, all loathing for the city in its ugly grey tones and longing for the easy comforts of the country. London is portrayed as being a frigid landscape where nature’s blessings cannot grow naturally, amounting to little more than commodities to be sold. The dialogue screen reflects this with snowdrops and frozen fields, almost garish in contrast to the lush countryside. An idealistic view of the future with Sam and Lillian living together in the countryside comes across as improbable as soon as it’s suggested, the frozen landscape above sadly telling.
Having a familiarity with the figures that the characters are based on, I found myself mostly bemused at even the most throwaway comments, sometimes sad at their implications. The girls scoffing about Sam getting caught up in a deeply unhappy marriage had she lived countless years ago ago echoes Samuel’s unhappy marriage with Edith, placing another in-game relationship in sharp contrast. Even the more outlandish comments are very much grounded in reality (yes, Byron really did keep a bear). Having that familiarity will absolutely enhance your enjoyment, but at the same time it is perfectly fine to go into it without that background knowledge for it is does very much prove to be its own thing. In the Notes section ebi-hime has also included relevant biographical information for one’s perusal. While she calls Asphyxia an “edutainment game disguised as a girls’ love story”, I must commend her for managing to convincingly incorporate the period, its literary figures, and thematic elements into a VN that is not only accessible, but at the moment criminally ignored.
Given that I spent the body of this review commenting on its relentlessly heavy nature, for it can be wickedly funny, having earned many a wry smile from your blogger. Asphyxia is at its most entertaining whenever the snarky Georgia Byron-chan appears, all pointed teeth and thigh high stockings causing misery wherever she goes. The banter shines between her and Roberta, their interactions filled with barbs and gleeful one-upmanship. I would have gladly read their playful bickering for hours. She really is a whirlwind, every line quotable and I’m relieved that Byron’s vibrancy and witticisms were kept intact without ever feeling out of place (I totally wanted to fill this review with her quotes but I would be here all day – a fact which she would no doubt smirk about). The work also excels in self-depreciating humour.
While I do wish that it was a much longer work (it takes about three – four hours to complete, more or less depending on your reading speed and penchant for screencapping), each ending did leave on the perfect note. Unlike Lily of the Valley it is very much left up to the reader what ultimately happens to Sam so nothing is tied up neatly. I appreciate how none of the issues are completely resolved, each ending leaving Sam as arguably depressed as she was entering the novel. Deep melancholies are rarely resolved so easily. But at the same time you can’t help but want to drag Sam out of her own head and goodness, you know things are bad when even a teacher feels the need to intervene. With Sam buried so deeply inside herself everyone else can see where she’s heading. It would not be an exaggeration to say that such a seemingly innocuous field trip will change her course, but I can only hope that it is for the better.
In terms of production values the music was very pretty (one choral piece, especially); art classical looking and very much in line with the narrative. However, I did find some stylistic quirks odd such as Percy’s winged backpack but that is more of a personal nitpick. A few more CGs would also have been nice.
Make no bones about it, Asphyxia does not earn the paltry recommendation of ‘it’s good for an EVN’: it is a good VN, period. Its refusal to shy away from serious subject matter may be a deterrent for some (especially those that prefer their GL stories to be all fuwafuwa kawaiikochans playing nice), but those who are willing to read something more introspective and navel-gazey will find a work which I can only describe as authentic and given the medium’s artificial trimmings, welcome. Sam & co. plumbing the depths of their fraught relationships while on the cusp of adulthood is more personal than you’ll often find, realistic actions and words instead of mechanical clichés. It brings to mind those rare confessional moments where nights stretch on and for one hopelessly naïve moment, you do wish it could last forever.
If more EVNs were like this there wouldn’t be such an aversion to the genre. Is it really too much to ask for writers with some semblance of confidence in their craft? Writers whose experience of literature does not fall within the dubious spectrum of YA fiction and awkwardly translated VNs? As the medium grows all the more popular in the western sphere, I for one will quietly welcome the increase if it means that we will finally have more quality works such as Asphyxia. It’s about time.