Lore Distance Relationship, by Naomi “Bez” Norbez
I am I think of the last generation to grow up without deep social relationships in online spaces being a thing, so there’s something a bit strange to me about seeing a game like Lore Distance Relationship offer an affectionate overview of a decade’s worth of living, as mediated through an online game, complete with the slow improvement of graphics and eventual introduction of a phone client (the something that is a bit strange is realizing that I am old). All of this is to say that while I don’t have any experience of the specific nostalgic notes LDR hits, I can certainly recognize how resonant its touchstones will be for lots of folks, and there’s more than enough craft here to make it accessible and enjoyable even for folks outside that audience.
This is a relatively long game that plays out almost entirely within the chat function of an online game about magic dogs that fight monsters – I gather it’s meant to riff off of Neo Pets – and it’s almost entirely in dialogue, since 99% of the time you’re choosing different options for the main character to use to reply to Bee, their best friend in the game. As the blurb says, the game takes you through ten years in its hour-long playtime, and while there are some fun grace-notes around how the game updates in that time, the overwhelming focus is on how the central relationship shifts as the two main characters go from age 8 to 18.
There are heavy themes discussed – there’s prominent trigger warning about domestic abuse – but not, thankfully, depicted: you engage with the aftermath, as the main character and Bee grapple with how to understand what’s happening and hopefully chart a path free. Similarly, I was a bit wary since the blurb flags that there’s some sexual exploration – a tricky thing to manage in any circumstance, but especially so when everyone’s underage for most of the play time – but the game strikes a nice balance of making clear what the characters are up to without getting at all explicit or too uncomfortable.
Indeed, if anything, despite all the traumatic themes and plot points on offer, LDR felt pleasant, and ultimately comforting to me. Bee is a supportive friend (and if you go that direction, romantic partner), and his dad, who gets called in occasionally to offer advice, is invariably respectful and helps set good boundaries; the main character likewise has a loving sister who’s there when things get tough. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely painful and sad moments (reflecting on why the main character chose “StaircaseHaven14” as their username was one of those for me – and both characters suffer some bullying and abuse for their marginalized identities, since the main character is trans and Bee has a disability), but the sweetness of the central relationship ultimately won out.
Partially this may be due to the choices I took – there are a lot of these on offer, as you’re prompted for input after every couple lines of chat, across ten different vignettes separated by a year each. And while most of them are more about emphasizing different aspects of the main character’s personality – especially around self-esteem and ability to open up to Bee – I get the sense that your choices can add up in significant ways (most obviously in how and whether you pursue romance with Bee). I mostly made choices that had the main character trusting Bee and trying to engage with their feelings, rather than bottling them up, which wound up working out really well – possibly the vibe is different if other choices are made.
I think either way, LDR would be effective, though. A good part of the credit here goes to the writing, which treats the situation, and the tender-age characters, with the nuance they require. The dialogue sounds exactly like I’d expect these characters to sound, with shifts over the time and clear differentiation between the two primary voices (the maybe-a-bit-uptight main character uses proper capitalization and punctuation pretty much from the start, but under Bee’s influence eventually loosens up). There’s the very occasional false note – at one point, the eight-year-old protagonist replies to a question with a diffident “Maybe. We’ll see.” – and maybe a few small anachronisms, but LDR overwhelming succeeds in creating a plausible milieu.
Where LDR maybe errs in going too far in creating plausibility is the jankiness of the presentation. Obviously the messy-but-improving-over-time graphics are both a gag in themselves, and a way to mark the passage of time, but I found some of the art actively off-putting (one of those dog-aliens will haunt my nightmares). You primarily move the story forward by clicking a large reload icon, and it’s occasionally replaced by a large picture of a keyboard or a blown-up mouse cursor. But the game window is usually at the top, so need to do a bunch of scrolling, and it took me a while to realize that the graphics are completely static and none of the displayed interface elements actually do anything. There’s also some timed text that I found sometimes went too slow, and sometimes too fast. After I played for 15 minutes, I figured out how the game wanted me to play it, and again, it’s clear that much of this is an intentional throwback to how much the early-mid internet kind of sucked, but it was still a bit annoying.
Anyway, though, this one is all about the relationship between these two characters, which it charts very well. There are lots of touches that I think a very specific target audience will enjoy, but LDR’s resonance goes well beyond just those folks by offering a sympathetic, well-written depiction of a challenging but ultimately hopeful adolescence.