Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Potato Peace, by ronynn

It took me many years to figure out exactly how I felt about horror as a genre. I really enjoy some parts of it – ancient curses, hidden secrets, vampires and werewolves and ghosts all spooky in themselves but also metaphorically representing aspects of the human condition! – whereas there are other parts I find pretty unpleasant – gore, traumatic violence, bad things happening to nice people. After running through a bunch of different theories (maybe I just like certain subgenres? Maybe I’m getting squeamish in my old age?) I think I’ve landed on the explanation: I like the trappings of horror, but not the substance. My ideal horror movie is something like the Francis Ford Coppola Dracula: sure, there’s blood and madness and everyone on a ship gets torn apart, but that’s mostly superficial, the movie’s basically a – well, I was going to say “romcom”, except that would imply that its tortured romance and slapstick comedy were harmoniously integrated, which is not at all the case. But the point being that rather than dealing with the core themes of horror – man’s inhumanity to man, the terrifying threat of dangers that can strike without warning, etc. – it’s concerns mostly lie elsewhere, with the horror tropes sprinkled on top for flavor. And that’s okay by me!

I suspect something similar is going on with Potato Peace, a politics-themed visual novel with no actual politics in it. This isn’t because it’s set in a fantasy world – admittedly, the setup where people and slightly-svelter Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Heads coexist in an advanced society is pretty out there, but of course there are lots of opportunities to dig into real-world dynamics with that kind of frame. Nor is it because the game’s pitched as a comedy; plenty of political satire out there, after all, not all of it dark. It’s because as hard as I tried to figure out what was at stake in the narrative, I felt stymied: while the investigator protagonist has an opportunity to bring down a possibly-corrupt mayor and make a rousing speech straight out of the West Wing, the context for the action and the motivations of the various characters go largely unexplained.

The main way this plays out is in the relationship between the two populations (man and potato-man). There’s a thread of the investigation that brings you into contact with an activist type who implies that potatoes don’t have the same rights as humans, but this isn’t really specified, and the most powerful character in the game – that mayor – is himself a potato. It could be that there’s stratification within the potato-American community; well-dressed jacket potatoes taking advantage of the grievances of ordinary spuds, say. But without more detail the worldbuilding – and thus my engagement – felt thin.

Exciting gameplay or clever wordplay can help make up for a lackluster theme, of course, but here I found those aspects were similarly of middling effectiveness. The game is mostly linear until the final sequence (helpfully, it flags this to players, which makes replays easier); there are a few choices along the way, but they generally reduce to “advance the plot” / “advance the plot zanily”. The finale, meanwhile, has razor-thin margins between crushing defeat and overwhelming success; in my first playthrough, I went on with my climactic oration a bit too long, and the crowd turned on me for piling the rhetoric on too thick, but when I replayed and made the opposite choice, everything turned up roses. Meanwhile, on the writing front, the jokes often felt strained – there are some okay ones about things piling up “like a mountain of fries”, but I was hoping for something more like “in the land of the potatoes, the one-eyed man is king”, y’know? And these two strands occasionally combine when the prose makes the available choices unclear, as in this bit:

Will you stand idly by and watch as chaos reigns, or will you rise up and fight for the peace and harmony that once united humans and potatoes alike?

Attempt to intervene and debate the mayor.

Rally the town against the mayor’s tyranny.

Er, both of those seem like rising up and fighting for peace?

Possibly I’m giving Potato Peace too hard of a time; I work in a politics-adjacent field so I’m probably more disappointed by the lack of substance than the average player (I’m also probably way more disappointed by the lack of a Dan Quayle joke than the average player). In its favor, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the author does describe it as a testbed for a visual novel engine. Judged as a jokey technical proof-of-concept it probably does better; whatever hacks were used to make Ink look like RenPy were pretty well done, to my eye.* Still, regardless of the attention paid to coding, I wish a bit more effort had gone into sharpening the language and clarifying the conflicts the story presents – I didn’t need to see details of impeachment procedure or a run-down of the state of civil rights law in Potatotown USA, but knowing what wide impacts my actions had would have felt the story feel more political, even if it is just a paprika-sprinkle on top of a mound of starch.

*Actually, speaking of visuals, while there’s no mention of their source they sure seemed “AI”-generated to me – there were characters with inconsistent numbers of fingers on each hand, background writing was oddly-aligned and out of focus, there’s a non-Euclidean pie lattice… I know there are a variety of opinions about AI art, but speaking personally, it bums me out and I especially really hate having to second-guess what I’m seeing to try to figure out whether or not a person drew it. Again, I know there are different opinions on this, but I think it would benefit everybody if there were a really strong norm of disclosing the use of such tools so players can know what they’re seeing.