Sometimes I just want a good story. I also want to pay the price of "absolutely nothing." That seems reasonable, right? Well, no, but that doesn't mean I can't come away pleased at finding something that fits both of those criteria. Such is the case with Stories and Smoke, a short and completely free visual novel that I saw and decided to give a shot. Simply: I'm rather glad I did.
You play as a felinekin (anthropomorphic cat) bard who willingly chooses to enter a cave to perform a ritual. On the other side of a smoky chasm, there's another person who simply goes by "The Other." The ritual you're performing is simple: you and The Other need to work out who will leave the cave to be welcomed back into the community, and who will stay behind and live the rest of their life in the cave. The question, of course, is why you're there and if you even deserve to leave. Only you can decide the answer to those questions though.
Stories and Smoke works in vagueness and uses that to its advantage. You're never really exactly sure who The Other is. Are they your lover? Best friend? A rival? The game isn't telling, and it's a story you'll be working out in your own head, filling in the gaps as you go along. Maybe you think they need to stay in the cave so you can go free, or maybe you'll try to convince them that they should be the one who leaves.
Between conversations you'll get to look around the cave a bit, finding items that have meaning to your character. Like the conversations themselves, this meaning is mostly decided on by the player. Finding a knife is one thing, but is it a knife you used for murder? Just to scare someone? Does it actually belong to The Other? There's plenty of options and dialogue choices that can lead to some interesting outcomes, but even more important is the aforementioned vagueness that lets you fill in the gaps how you choose.
It only took me about 20 minutes to finish Stories and Smoke and in that time it managed to tell a story that manages to feel both vaster than many open-world games while having a small scale to make it feel really personal. The writing is really pulling overtime here, and it does such a fantastic job being captivating and wonderful. Of course, it's not like there's anything else to really hold the game up.
Stories and Smoke is best compared to a visual novel, but even in that respect, it's a bit clunky. You can move around the world by holding down numbers on your keyboard, though the game never tells you this so my first few minutes were spent awkwardly pressing every button and trying to figure out why nothing was happening. A very simple pop-up box saying "you need to hold the button down" would do wonders here. After that, moving around is easy enough, and that's all you really need to do gameplay-wise.
Thankfully, some great art and soundtrack make the time in the cave that much better. The characters are expressive, and while they may only have one pose, that pose tells you all you need to know about them right away. The shaman straight up looks ashamed that you're here, the ghost of your master looks smug in that way you've seen cats look like they own the world. It's simple yet super effective at getting the point across.
While it may not have much in the realm of gameplay, I really loved the time I spent with Stories and Smoke. The writing is top-notch, and it manages to tell a better story than most games can dream of. Also, it's free, so even if that sounds like it's vaguely your thing then it's worth trying out. You have nothing to lose, besides 20 minutes. Trust me, you weren't going to get much else done during that time anyway.
TechRaptor covered Stories and Smoke on PC using a copy freely downloaded by the reviewer.