Game Review: “An Octave Higher”

I want to share with you an unexpectedly profound novel I read recently. Or was it a novel I’ve watched recently? Or played recently? It’s a visual novel (basically a novel with images and sound) from Indonesian studio Kidalang, and it’s pretty good. At least good enough to make me want to write something about it.

An Octave Higher is set in the city-state empire of Overture, which has figured out how to systematize magic three centuries before the start of the narrative, and has used this to exert outsize political influence over large parts of the world. The setting is reminiscent of a vaguely European city in the industrial age with all the attendant social issues of that era, only it’s more like the magic-industrial age. The plot closely follows three characters, switching between their perspectives every so often: Frederic, a noble, an athlete, and son of a rich businessman who has monopoly over a large part of Overture’s industry; Franz, a senior-year student of ‘magical science’ trying to finish his ridiculous-sounding thesis that his superstar adviser ~heavily encouraged~ him to research; and Elise, a factory worker who lives in a brothel and is due to start servicing customers on her sixteenth birthday. The novel starts off with the characters’ quest to fix a broken piano using magic, which is currently known to be impossible for multiple reasons. At first, their concerns are fairly banal, but as people like to say nowadays, it escalates quickly, with some serious sh*t brewing in the background

So, okay. Again, I liked this novel a lot, especially due to its refreshing setting. Visual novels are still largely a Japanese thing, so as you can imagine, even the best Japanese visual novels tend to be filled to the brim with the same old tropes you’ve seen in anime and manga over and over and over again. This novel largely avoids that. The protagonists’ quirks are believably exercised, and their struggles and flaws are relatable. The novel tackles themes such as class conflict and revolution, whether or not living a full life must be anchored on the possession of certain commodities, the difficulty of having to satisfy as many interests as possible with policymaking, and the amount of responsibility people have to bear for the long-term consequences of their actions. These are political economy issues you don’t normally see in a fantasy novel, made especially interesting because they take place against the backdrop of a magical world. Surprisingly, the story is quite fair to the various points of view that it explores, although the developers did have a ‘true’ path in mind which you may or may not necessarily agree with.

Suffice it to say, the way this novel treats magic is really fascinating. Rather than just ask the reader to believe that people can cast this and that magic spell out of nowhere and treat it as a background detail, the novel goes out of its way to develop and carefully explain how magic works, in a way that reminds me of a high-level programming language. While I won’t go into the details here, the screenshots below contain some exposition:

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Magic in this universe is made up of five traits, each representing both an aspect of someone’s personality as well as an element, and four abilities, which are applied to traits to produce output. Here, ‘courage’ is linked with fire while ‘willpower’ is linked with earth.
More exposition! Abilities are sort of like mathematical functions, so here we see function composition.
More exposition! Abilities are sort of like mathematical functions, so here we see function composition.

There’s even a (completely optional) segment later on in the game where a character explains her cutting-edge research implementing logic gates using magic. To clarify, though, you don’t actually get to work with this magic system yourself – this isn’t an RPG, and none of the choices you can make involve what kind of magic to cast. So this system is entirely for world-building purposes.

The novel goes out of its way to outline how society works and how people live as well, down to details such as what working in a factory in a magical world entails. Despite all the world-building, however, I didn’t feel like the novel got too bogged down in exposition, with the narrative being quite breezy and well-paced. Exposition takes place in context and then something plot-relevant happens before the reader gets too bored, and seemingly irrelevant background details become important later on. The writing is very high-quality – characters all have distinct voices, descriptions use only as many words as needed to set a scene, and the text can be profound, banal, awkward, or hilarious when it needs to be. There are a handful of typos in this game, but nothing that detracts from the writing. There are some nice touches as well – suffice it to say that the developers’ being Indonesian definitely shows.

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This piano is not actually making any sound.

The art style is alright. It isn’t fantastic, but it fits well. There are some inconsistencies in how characters are drawn, and many of the scenes have a bit of a rough quality, but I found it pleasing to the eyes. I can’t really say more, honestly, because I don’t know enough about visual art to make any meaningful comparisons.

The music in the game is composed of various classical pieces, many of which are taken from the Musopen and Set Chopin Free Kickstarter projects that aimed to bring more recordings of classical music into the public domain. I’m not sure if there are any original pieces here (I don’t think so, but I could be wrong), but the pieces are selected tastefully and fit each scene’s moods well. There isn’t a lot of music, though, so expect to hear some tracks repeatedly. Sound effects are nothing special.

Seriously, though, I can’t get over the narrative in this game. It’s not the best ever, but it rarely feels like bullsh*t. Unlike other works that bombard you with epicness and sweep you away while handwaving gaping plot holes, this novel tries to cover all its bases and provide a reason for why everything works the way it does. Of course, even in this fantasy setting, there are still things that can’t be explained.

As a visual novel, this game has multiple points where you have to make a decision, with minor or major changes occurring in the story as a result. This can lead to any one of six different endings, four of which occur about halfway through the story while the other two occur much later. (If it feels like the story ended somewhat abruptly, that’s likely one of the four ‘early’ endings). The developers consider one of the endings the ‘true’ one, and it’s pretty apparent which one it is (because it contains the longest story). I felt that a bit more story could have gone into one of the other endings, even if it’s not the one the developers favored, because it feels rushed compared to its ‘true’ counterpart. But that’s a minor gripe.

If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, and if you feel like supporting game developers in Southeast Asia, pick this up. It’s available for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, iOS and Android. I bought it from the Apple App Store for $7, or around 300 pesos.

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