Game Review: Narcissu 1st & 2nd

You are reading an older blog post. Please be aware that the information contained in it may be technologically outdated. This text may not necessarily reflect my current opinions or capabilities.

This review was originally posted to Steam.

April 25th, 2015

Narcissu game splash image, showing the game title and a young girl in anime style looking off into the distance in front of an open summer sky

This is a story of disease and suffering; of medication and adverse effects; of thoracotomy scars and cellular poisons; of the living who cannot help but to die and of the dying who cannot help but to live; of a resting place other than “on 7F” or “at home.”

Usually I would start a review with some sort of story hook, an attempt to use my own words to evoke the kind of atmosphere you can expect from the full experience, something to show you at a glance whether it could really speak to you or whether you would not connect with it at all. In the case of Narcissu 1st & 2nd, I feel that no matter how long I try, I will not be able to top the original summary by Insani (quoted above and throughout this review), the fan translation group that first brought Narcissu to English-speaking audiences. Instead I will just quote their writing where appropriate and just dive straight into the facts myself.

Narcissu and its sequel Narcissu Side 2nd are rather famous kinetic novels (meaning they have no branching story or player choices) with a strong legacy in the VN community. They are known for their use of minimalist visuals, mostly showing backgrounds with no character sprites or even just a gray void, with only very few character CGs inbetween. The soundtrack relies heavily on piano pieces, but also makes use of other instruments in some places, and features two title tracks with Japanese vocals. The engine shows its age in some aspects and does not have a fullscreen mode for example, but apart from that it has everything you'd expect, including save states and a soundtrack menu. As a reader, you have the choice between two different English translations or the original Japanese script, and you can opt to listen to the Japanese voice acting if you so choose.

Imagine what it would be like to have your entire life – your friends, your family, your interests, your loves, your hatreds, your future – all taken away from you in a single instant. Imagine a hard, lumpy bed, a noise-filled ward, the sharp sting of needles entering your flesh at all hours of the day, the indignity of being woken up just as you are about to fall asleep for incessant vital statistics measurements, the doctors whose names you don't know (but that's okay, because they don't remember your name, either; they just remember you as “the non-small cell lung carcinoma in room 6”), and your own name, your very own name, that you have just about forgotten.

Then you might have some clue as to what it is like to be dying in a hospital.

It would be off the mark to describe Narcissu as an “emotional rollercoaster” since the concept would imply lots of ups and downs, but even though Narcissu ends on a bittersweet note of resolution, it is pretty much devoid of “up” moments. VN connoisseurs might note that this places it in the utsuge genre, everyone else seeking more stories like it now has a keyword to search by.

The story is about an unnamed young man who falls terminally ill. After all venues of hope are exhausted, he is moved to the hospice ward of the local hospital, where he meets a girl of about his age who conveys to him the unwritten rules of the inhabitants of the 7th floor, of those who are going to die. The two begin a series of awkward non-interactions that culminate in their decision to reject the dichotomy of dying either in the hospital or at home, which kicks off the main arc of the story.

The way that Narcissu hones in on its themes with every fiber of its being is both its strongest asset and biggest liability. Everything about it, from the background visuals to the character interactions, is teeming with the drabness that you would expect from a story about young people in palliative care, which is not at all a melodramatic “woe is me” caricature of exaggerated sadness and self-pity, but a cold collage of loss and hopelessness rooted in questions that no human should have to ask themselves, such as: What does it even mean to be alive if there can be nothing to look forward to? Both main characters' actions and non-actions need to be viewed through this lens to have any hope of being understood.

In that sense, Narcissu as a piece of literature is more demanding of your sense of empathy than many other games and visual novels: It could easily be misunderstood as a story trying to show “normal” people what it is like to be terminally ill by taking their hands and walking them through the experience, but in actuality it's closer to a slice-of-life story about people who are terminally ill, that asks you to make the necessary mental steps towards those people on your own if you wish to understand them. In short: This story isn't written for you, it's written for its main characters.

One example that I can give without veering too far into story spoilers is Setsumi's attitude towards the protagonist. She initially comes across as standoffish and rude, and there's the tacit expectation of a pivotal moment where she finally starts to open up so the “proper” story can start, but that moment never comes. Where a less patient or empathetic reader might leave the story unsatisfied, we can instead take the opportunity to examine Setsumi's behavior with her medical situation in mind, and ponder the way that human relationships develop. Most of us go through life every day making small passing connections to people, but only once in a while do we meet someone we like enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable around them (which takes courage) in hopes of forging a lasting connection that we can depend on in the future. But what, then, if there quite literally is no future? Suddenly there is no point in opening up to anyone new. Why bother taking the risk of potentially getting hurt if we will not live to see the reward?

The novel doesn't spell these details out to you, it asks you to understand the characters on the basis of their actions. Questions like why having a goal is suddenly such a big deal to the protagonist are left up to interpretation. The combination of strong characterization (which if you've seen my previous VN reviews you already know I am crazy for) and partially unapproachable writing is not for everyone, especially not if you are looking for light entertainment, but there is a lot of substance to it for people willing to make the effort.

In summary, Narcissu is a great visual novel that can be genuinely rewarding to read, but is ill-suited for those of us with short attention spans.

This is a story of so many things.

But most of all …

This is the story

of a girl whose heart was standing still

and a boy whose breath was being stolen away,

both of whom die.


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