The idea of existentialism is a concept that a lot of people have been brought into contact with through various forms of media — most notably for us in the gaming sphere, Taro Yoko’s masterpieces in the Nier series.
But how much do you really understand about this philosophical concept — and how might it relate to video games and visual novels? These are the things explored by Summer Loop, the third volume in the My Time With Dee Dee series of visual novels, produced by friend of the site Matt Sainsbury from DigitallyDownloaded.net.
Matt was kind enough to once again provide a copy of the game for me to explore — if you’re interested in trying it for yourself, you can find it right here!
Summer Loop riffs on the idea of beach episodes in anime, manga and other popular media, and the purpose of such sequences — however predictable they might seem to be. While the story stands by itself, much like the previous two My Time With Dee Dee volumes, it assumes that the player-protagonist is already familiar with the eponymous leading lady, her friend Lorin and her sister Nettie — the latter two of whom were introduced in the second “episode”.
As Summer Loop opens, it’s the last day of the summer holidays, and the player-protagonist (who can once again be named, but is again assumed to be male to follow the conventions of the visual novel medium) is invited by Dee Dee to spend a day at the beach. Hoping that this might be his “big chance” to get with the girl he adores so much — or at the very least to see some titties in skimpy swimsuits — he hastily agrees, and it’s from here that things get interesting.
There are a few choices to make in the early moments of the visual novel. Some of these have a profound impact on the story; others are seemingly meaningless. At one point, you’re presented with a question that there’s no way you could possibly know the answer to — but it also quickly becomes clear that you might be able to figure out the answer if you were to, say, play through the game, then start again armed with the knowledge you acquired on that last run.
In order to achieve the “best” of the five endings available in Summer Loop, it’s necessary to do this a few times. In order to justify this from a narrative perspective, there’s something of a Groundhog Day-style situation going on, whereby the events of the game seem to be repeating, and some of the characters (including, in some of the routes, the protagonist) are aware of what’s going on. In order to “beat” the game, it’s necessary to explore all the other possible outcomes for the various situations that unfold over the course of the narrative — doing so will provide you with the various nuggets of information you require to break out of the loop and see things through to a satisfying conclusion.
The existentialism angle comes from an exploration of purpose and attempting to find meaning in your actions. In-world, the character Lorin is writing a dissertation on the subject of existential philosophy, so naturally she provides a convenient way to drop an info dump on the player. But much as the previous two volumes of My Time With Dee Dee explored various angles of media theory and sociological phenomena from a more “practical” perspective, so too does this one.
At various points in the narrative, situations arise where there are seemingly “correct” things to do when thinking from the usual perspective of a visual novel player or protagonist — or indeed, the usual flow of a “beach episode”. But a key question that the game raises in its latter hours is “what if instead of deciding to do something, you simply do nothing?”
This is always an interesting question to explore in an interactive medium such as video games or visual novels, and it’s all too rarely we truly get the option to do so. Most games with a heavy element of “choice” to their structure tend to provide binary options — usually down simplistic moral lines such as “good” and “evil” — but relatively few provide the option for complete inaction as a viable choice. School Days HQ is a good example, since that game’s timed decision points always provide an opportunity to simply not make a decision and see what the consequences might be.
Another related question that the game explores is “why are you doing the things you do?” — is there some sort of perceived purpose behind your actions, or a grand goal you’re trying to achieve? Where did that goal come from? Are you pursuing it because you want to, or because someone or something has made you think that you “should”?
It’s really interesting, because the first couple of times through the game, you’ll really want to get to the bottom of a mystery that raises its head fairly early on. The game makes the whole thing so tantalising that you can’t help but stick your nose in where it doesn’t really belong, but in doing so you’re falling into the trap it cleverly sets: you’re doing something because you were led to believe it was the thing you’re “supposed” to be doing. You’re attempting to find happiness by bringing someone else happiness, whereas from an existentialist perspective you should be focusing on your own actions; you have no greater purpose other than to just exist.
I’ll refrain from spoiling further details for now, because part of the fun of Summer Loop is figuring out exactly what’s going on, whether or not it’s possible to do anything about it and exactly what the meaning behind certain things you keep noticing might actually be. While the core “puzzle” of the whole thing isn’t especially tricky to work out, it’s an enjoyable journey to get to the answer, and some strong characterisation from Dee Dee, Lorin and an unnamed newcomer will keep you invested for the duration.
Out of the three My Time With Dee Dee visual novels released so far, I’d say that this one has personally been my favourite to date. Exploration of existentialism has become rather fashionable in popular media for a reason — it’s fascinating, and quite relatable to a lot of people living in the modern world for one reason or another. This game not only provides a compelling story in the existentialist mould, its “Teach Me, Professor” commentary section also provides an excellent starting point for further reading should you want to explore the philosophy any further.
Well, I guess I’m going to have to track down some Haruhi Suzumiya DVDs, then…
Summer Loop: A My Time With Dee Dee Game is available now on itch.io, and purchasing a copy of the visual novel helps support Digitally Downloaded’s work online. Author Matt Sainsbury was kind enough to provide a copy of the visual novel for the purposes of this article.
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