What better way to lighten up your day with themes of substance abuse, fragmented families and dreamscapes where ‘the monster is always lurking’? Well, that’s all covered in a heartbeat with Lydia, and in terms of runtime, you’ll be finished by the time you’ve finished this paragraph.
When it comes to videogames, I like to take a step back and join in whenever I’m ready to commit to a story. If it’s told well, I’ll be lapping up a good arc at any given opportunity, though I save these narratives mostly for TV and film. Unless I’m playing Death Stranding or another playthrough of Heavy Rain, gaming is my escapism from most adult themes that I’d rather see in something a bit more passive or perhaps, not approach at all.
With Lydia, by Nakana, it’s a tough subject. You play the title character starting as a 5-year old, through to adulthood. There’s a menacing undercurrent of a monster that loiters in her cupboard, and it’s only through tackling head-on with her teddy companion that she can address her issues, only, they stay with her even as a grown-up. We all have our baggage and it never really goes away with age, but you handle it differently, and in some respects, Lydia does that, albeit very very briefly.
The themes covered include abandonment, relationships, and fitting in. There’s also a lot of guilt shared, and that perhaps is one of the worst emotions one can feel. It’s a hell of a lot to pin on one person, let alone a child. These issues are severe subjects, and the game does draw your attention to this. Coincidently, there’s an option to make a donation to Fragile Childhood from the title screen which I did. It’s not something I would typically consider, but it if makes a difference, why not?
Anyhoo, with all these themes, you’d expect a dark, mature presentation. While that’s an accurate description – the ambience in the game is excellent, it is massively let down by the audio. Rather than have the characters read their dialogue, they make repeated, garbled sounds that cheapen the feel of the game entirely. If there wasn’t scope for voice talent, that’s fine – just remove these sounds. The dialogue in itself is pretty good and would easily carry the story forward. Unfortunately, this story is very swift, and you’ll likely finish it within an hour or so (at least, from memory).
You don’t have a say in how the game pans out. There are some dialogue options, but they have zero effect to the end and feels somewhat surplus to the game. Equally, the gameplay is moving Lydia from left to right until you see a pop-up informing you to press the A button to appear, you do this, then walk to the next place. Forget about any clunky cursor option, you move Lydia with the joystick, but as you can’t see what to interact with, you have to waddle about until there’s a point of interest.
In some respects then, why bother with Lydia if there’s minimal gameplay, irritating audio and it’s over too quick? The subject matter isn’t enough for gamers to play, why don’t they skip the game and donate elsewhere? Well, because it’s worth experiencing the environments, even if they are brief. They cover some severe issues that can affect more people than we could care to imagine, and the exchanges between the characters are quite powerful. I wish I could mute the conversations, but the background ambience is so powerful at creating an unnerving feeling that you have to grit your teeth and put up with it.
The characters are quite crude, but there’s something I like about them. While the animations are slightly off, the characters stand out against some stunning backgrounds that are digitally painted(?) with the bleakest of palettes, and this truly evokes a mood of impending threat and dare I say, doom cloud. Though there isn’t any real light relief – there isn’t the time – Lydia doesn’t bring you down with bouts of melancholy, but equally, you won’t be running to the nearest person to tell them this is the most uplifting game you’ve played.
You could say it’s a point and click adventure; only it isn’t. It’s story lead, and even with the interactions, it’s not like a typical LucasArts game with a verb wheel and dialogue options that impact a reaction from an NPC – Lydia is wholeheartedly a linear game and takes the player from A to B with no C or any other detours. In some respects, I was quite disappointed once I completed the game as I had hoped it would last much longer. Again, the themes are very mature, and these conclusions aren’t always a happy ending. Still, you’d hope that there would be a bit more interactive elements or the ability to dive a little deeper into the story without being ejected so abruptly.