Have you ever found something by complete accident after spending hours trying to figure out what you want to play or do next, only to find a gem that you can’t believe you somehow missed? I spent days pouring over games and each night writing bit by bit about them that I’m working on for my blog. During one of these nights I found an indie visual novel and realized that not only is it perfect for my blog with its 1980s setting and city pop style music but it also happens to be a perfect time to cover it as June is Pride Month.
What is it About?
A Summer’s End is a visual novel released in April 2020 created and published by Oracle and Bone as their first debut project. To date it was only released on PC and is roughly eight hours long in play time.
The story centers around two main protagonists, Michelle and Sam. Two young women who live and work in a 1980s Hong Kong. In a rather hilarious series of unfortunate events that befell Michelle one day after her shoe broke, the two end up meeting by complete chance one summer day. After the first meeting the two slow began to connect over the course of a few weeks eventually finding themselves in a romantic relationship.
Both characters come from completely different backgrounds and worlds.
Michelle is a typical office employee who works day to day with each day feeling like a carbon copy of the last. Work, go home to care for her mother, and back to work. Her main purposes at this point in life is appeasing her mother and peers, setting herself to live up to the intensely high standards expected of her.
Sam owns a video store and lives on her own while she hangs out with her father from time to time as well as her friend/sister not by blood, Cecilia. Unlike Michelle, Sam is far more laid back and has no desire to live up to anyone’s expectations (or at least on the surface). She is far more outspoken and driven to take her life in her own hands. In the beginning parts of the game she comes across as bold and far more open about herself and her actions then Michelle’s stiff and overly polite mannerisms.
In a way, these two would be people you would never expect to meet and fall in love. Coming from opposite ends of the spectrum in current social status, viewpoints, and upbringing. Their newfound relationship from the beginning was fast and it felt like the two women while showing reservations, especially Michelle, leapt in.
The story itself reaching a tense dramatic moment when your choices on what they choose will decide if their relationship will suddenly end due to peer pressure and inner conflict or facing the world wanting to remain together.
I’ll be diving into the story more below if you want to get the spoilers version.
Lets Dive a little into the LGBTQ community in Hong Kong
On the website of Oracle and Bone, they go into great detail about Lesbian or LGBTQ love in general in China. Here are a few key points I read on their blog:
“Historical accounts of lesbian love in Chinese culture were few and hard to find. However, we cannot take the absence of evidence as an absence its existence.…” (LGBTQ History, https://www.asummersend.com/blog/queering-history)
“…It is not entirely presumptive to say that Chinese culture is conservative. Sexuality was a private matter. It was not something to be discussed openly out of politeness. Though attitudes towards women’s independence may have been progressive for its time for a certain group of people, it is not as if such progressive attitudes extended to every region of Southern China and to the topic of LGBT rights.” (LGBTQ History, https://www.asummersend.com/blog/queering-history)
Now to be clear, I am not an expert in the LGBTQ in regards to Hong Kong in the 1980s or in current times. It does seem like the 1980s was for the most part still intolerant of same sex couples or at least publicly not that welcoming. As per what the developers said, in private the attitudes towards the LGBTQ vary. The game itself also making some remarks in how Sam’s and Michelle’s families felt about them being lesbians.
However, in Hong Kong, after doing a bit of light research, there was some progressive change in the last few decades. Now just from the developer’s blog and this is true historically, being in a same sex relationship was for a period of time outlawed when Hong Kong became a British colony. In fact the law was quite strict, as a couple could have faced life in prison if they were caught as the maximum punishment. In the 1960s, the UK overturned the law criminalizing homosexuality and in doing so prompted Hong Kong to begin moving in that direction as well over the next several decades. Finally in the 1990s, the law that criminalized homosexual relationships was overturned.
Its also important to note that while no longer criminalized; marriages between same-sex couples are not legally recognized in Hong Kong and there are currently no laws as of the time of writing this, preventing discrimination against someone per their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet that is something that is being considered according to the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong as their purpose is to implement anti-discrimination legislation. The new chairman, Ricky Chu Man-kin, is currently pushing for more anti-discriminations laws for LGBTQ Hong Kong citizens.
He said this in a news article published by Yahoo News in May 2019:
“Instead of focusing on abstract and ideological debates that we can never easily come to an agreement on, let’s make small progress in tackling discrimination at the workplace, schools and public facilities.”
(Ting, V. (2019, May 18). Hong Kong LGBT community calls on government to follow Taiwan’s lead on legalizing same-sex marriage, but equality watchdog rejects move. https://ph.news.yahoo.com/hong-kong-lgbt-community-calls-023818175.html)
While his push for a full law to allow same sex marriage or sweeping changes may be a huge challenge with the current government, the other plan is to end discriminations so those with the LGBTQ community can live and work with the law able to protect them.
Besides a level of political pushing for protecting the LTBTQ, the arts have also been embracing the community in several ways. In the 1980s-1990s Hong Kong began having an LGBTQ film festival celebrating, films, actors, and actresses called the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. It is currently regarded as the oldest film festival for LGBTQ movies in Asia. .
So on a case by case basis, the government does seem to be more progressive but not having these laws in place to protect the LGBTQ does host its own problems.
The Oracle and Bone’s blog also has a wealth of information on the subject as well if you are interested as well as learning more about Hong Kong in the 1980s.
A Rundown on the Gameplay
If you ever played any visual novel online or purchased on Steam, itch.io, etc. Then the mechanics are pretty much the same. The focus is not on any game mechanic but rather its a medium of telling a story with minor dialogue choices provided to the player from time to time. Like many visual novels its pretty hands off as you read through the dialogue and let the story unfold. You mainly choose whatever Michelle says to the characters in a couple of instances but besides that, the gameplay aspect is little to nonexistent as is the case with most visual novels.
There is a very obvious branching path but that’s the only time I really felt that my input made a real impact in the story in my first playthrough.
From a graphical or artistic perspective, the game is stunning. All the character and locations were hand drawn and you can see how with the editing, the scenery of the neon lights, and locations in how they really pop off the screen.
Everything has this sort of dreamlike effect with pops of neon and pastel colors. A hallmark of 1980s style which was always over the top and very striking with the choice of color palettes and presentation. It does lend itself to create distinct tone with the story. As in some parts Michelle is overwhelmed by her surroundings with all the sights and sounds of the city when she ventures into parts she has yet been to before. Obviously metaphorical as it is part of Michelle’s journey into having a relationship with another woman, as the part of town she goes to where Sam lives is a mish-mash of stores, clubs and a little off the beaten path.
Lets Talk about the Music
The music is one of the best parts of the game. The soundtrack features pretty prominent artists including Timecop1983, Stevia Sphere, and Crystal Cola. All who make vaporwave, citypop, retro funk, and 1980s inspired music. Some of the tracks are also originals created by Oracle and Bone in-house.
Each track is a blend of slow dreamy music that makes the night time environments of Hong Kong’s glowing lights all the more mysterious as well as fun, airy, tropical sounding melodies that are thrown in especially at certain points of the story. Finally you get that funky techno dance music when the characters are hanging out in the hustle and bustle of the city. Fully capturing being a moving city in the middle of summer.
I adore the soundtrack to ever last note! I highly recommend as your playing to take a few moments to listen to the music, its heaven for the ears.
More About the Developers
Oracle and Bone are a two person team based in Vancouver, Canada with a mission statement to “create original and heartfelt interactive stories”.
According to their website, Charissa So handled the programming, writing the story, sound design, and music. While Tida Kietsungden was in charge of the of the majority of the artwork including the environments, characters and concept work as well as the user interface design.
Their goal for A Summer’s End was to portray a thoughtful and authentic story of a lesbian relationship but as they continued to research and develop the story, the scope of the game got larger as they soon wanted to also what it meant to live in Asia (or in this case Hong Kong) in the 1980s. The political and culture landscape of the time was also something they wanted to capture according to their blog.
Besides some details on their backgrounds and this game, I couldn’t find much else on the two developers online. This is their first project under their new studio name and to date, I didn’t see that they worked on any major projects before A Summer’s End.
Would I Recommend it?
To be honest, I am someone who enjoys Visual Novels. I can see so many people who love this genre of video games absolutely enjoying A Summer’s End. Its a riveting drama and romance told with excellent art and music. I completely recommend it to VN fans as well as those who love a good story and are willing to give it a try.
I do have a couple of comments and criticisms. First it is a bit disappointing there is no voice acting. Not a major issue but I know its something people in the VN community like to see as an option and more VNs are doing this. Even just some audio cues from the characters as a means of immersion into the story would have been a nice touch. But the music definitely makes up for it. This is my own nick-pick but its subjective and will depend on your preferences for a visual novel.
Also as another note, there are sex scenes in the game. They are not as explicit as others I’ve seen but there is some nudity and imagery of the two characters having sex. So if you’re someone who is not into sex scenes or nudity, you may want to skip this one. So to sum it up, this game is in NSFW territory. I personally have no problems with sexual content, but I know for some its not their thing so please keep that in mind.
Now for this next part, I will be deep diving into my thoughts on the story and characters so this is your spoiler warning.
Lets start with Michelle.
Michelle is clearly a shy, sheltered, and closed-off person. In the beginning of the story, she talks of how her father died suddenly when she was a teenager, leaving her and mom alone. From the first 30-45 minutes, the player learns that her mom is very controlling over Michelle due to her own fears after losing her husband or maybe just her inability to let her daughter grow and eventually move on. If she lets her daughter move on, she risks being alone which seems to be a trigger for her issues.
The dialogue left clues to how the death affected both of them. Michelle commented when seeing all of the photos with Sam and her family were numerous compared to hers. She said after her father died, her mother didn’t take anymore photos and things they did together stopped.
We never get the full story of Michelle’s mom and father’s relationship but its clear that whatever they had or for whatever reason, it changed Michelle’s mother indefinitely and this would have negative effects on her relationship with her daughter going forward.
In this case, she stopped capturing all the special moments of her daughter growing up and becoming an adult. Perhaps depression or intense, prolonged shock, it seemed to have impacted them severely. Her mother is almost never seen outside of their apartment while her daughter is out working. She even berates Michelle for coming home late despite her daughter now being an adult and doesn’t have to follow the same rules a child has, almost like she still sees Michelle as a teenager all those years ago when her husband passed away.
As for her life outside of the house, Michelle works mainly because she just has too and not for her own pleasure or ambitions. After her father died, she did well academically and work-wise mainly for her mom. In my opinion it was after his death, that she seemed to have lost direction in her life. Michelle was doing what she had to do and not truly living a life she wanted. It also seemed as if she really didn’t have any friends besides her coworkers and mother. Overall her background was from a very traditionalist viewpoint and lifestyle that, while Michelle has fully adapted too, it became clear to the player that she was feeling somewhat caged by her own life.
The writer did a great job not making the mom a “villain” or just the bad guy because tradition said so. Yes she does follow the tropes of being a stern and cold person who would be an antagonist but there is real underling trauma that plays a much bigger role. After her mom learned of Michelle having a female partner she didn’t know how to react due to the shock. Michelle was heartbroken by her reaction so she moved in with Sam and they didn’t communicate for an extended period of time. She only saw her mother again when a hospital called her to let her know that she suddenly collapsed in the street due to illness.
It becomes super obvious when in the end of the story, after Michelle’s mother became hospitalized, that all her mom really cared about was her daughter just being there in her life.
While in the hospital, she even struck up a light conversation with Sam who she knew full well to be her daughter’s lover. There was no angry outburst of her daughter’s choice of a partner, no angry rants at Sam. She only asked Sam about her background and profession. That was it.
Its not a complete embrace of her daughter’s sexuality but her mom clearly cared more about her daughter and their relationship then her traditionist viewpoints on sexual orientation. Or at the very least, is willing to be open minded in some respects.
The story captured a pivotal moment in Michelle’s life. Not just her newfound romantic relationship but also finally she and her mom can truly begin healing from their trauma of losing Michelle’s dad so abruptly.
Next is Sam:
Sam is the classic ambitious, young person living life on her own terms. She has her own place, is gutsy, and wants to do what she loved for a living. She is also way more extroverted then Michelle. Sam also has a love for cinema, music, and all things in terms of pop culture. She’s the definition of a person living life in the fast pace of the city. Fully engrossed in the lifestyle. Even her apartment for visual context making it clear how Sam was full with life as compared to Michelle’s sterile and neat home, Sam’s was bursting with personality and clutter.
Unlike Michelle who never explored any means of her sexuality until the beginning of the in game story, Sam became aware of her interest in women at an early age, having had a relationship with another female student when she was 16.
While Sam accepts her sexual orientation and her is open about her feelings especially to Michelle, she also expressed how she laments about it, as she feels she’s letting her late mother down. She can never truly know how her mother would have felt about her daughter being gay but Sam longs to live up to the greatness she felt her mother was as she was a talented opera singer as well as a loving wife and mother. Sam being gay meant in her eyes, she wouldn’t be like her mom which made Sam have some self-loathing especially in her situation with a family that was less then pleased at the time with her relationships with other women when she was a teen. Growing up in a household with only her dad and brother and not to mention the attitude towards same-sex relationships at the time, it was no wonder she was having difficulties in her home life
It got to the point where Sam was living on the streets or in hotels away from home as she could not longer stand being around her dad and brother.
Her saving grace after leaving home was a woman named Cecilia. She would appear many times in the story and she was in many ways like a mother/sister figure in Sam’s life. Cecilia also seemed never bothered by Sam’s sexual orientation which could have also been a big part why Sam and her clicked so well as friends. Thanks to her, Sam was able to learn how to be independent and gain the confidence to be herself. During this time, her dad and Sam have reconciled their differences.
Overall Sam is a free spirit and go-getter but with a longing for acceptance and to live up to her mother’s expectations. She doesn’t care about what her peers or what society says, its only her late mother and herself is what she truly wants to live up too.
Sam’s and Michelle’s relationship:
One thing I really like is how the story telling felt natural. The relationship happened in a was that didn’t feel all that super forced or contrived. Yet it still had an air of cliché with how the initially met. Michele needed her shoe repaired after having broke her heel on the way to work and it just happened Sam’s dad ran the cobbler shop that Michelle’s Boss recommended. They both had no choice but to hang out and talk as she waited for her shoes to be repaired. It kind of felt like a rom-com almost. Yet, even in the real world, people have met or bonded in other quirky ways so for me personally it does not come across as too silly. Eventually other instances of either one or the other seeking them out or by pure chance began them down a path that only fuels their mutual attraction to each other.
I read some reviews that felt their relationship was too rushed and I also in some ways agree but disagree. I look at Sam’s and Michelle’s relationship was there was instant sexual attraction between them (thought Michelle would not admit to that) with them slowly becoming more interested in each other as they began to get to know each other. Michelle learns to see beyond Sam’s rough exterior and uncouth behavior to realize she was in fact an intelligent and driven person. While Sam’s sees past Michelle’s fridge façade to see she was a passionate person underneath her unemotional armor. It does come across as fast which yes that’s true but I would argue that may have been the intention of the writer.
When two people really like each other they tend to fall hard and fast first and then discover each other later. This is not always the case in the real world but in Sam’s and Michelle’s situation that is how it comes across.
Is it a bit dramatic, yes but its not melodrama. There is a real reason why Michelle would be unsure of herself as being a relationship with a woman would go against what she was raised to believe. For Sam to accept herself and to deal with a world that doesn’t accept her creates real tension that is believable to the player (or at least in my experience when playing the game). Sam and Michelle don’t feel exaggerated and come across like real people with real baggage. That is what sells the story overall.
Finally lets talk about the two endings:
For the main ending of the story, Sam acknowledges that now they have to accept the complicated road they are on. A lesbian couple in a unaccepting time and world. They sit side by side in the end knowing its not a pretty world out there for them but they want to face it together and despite it all, they are happy. They will have comments made at them and may even face hostility but she and Michelle will cross that bridge as they fully want to keep growing their relationship.
The story ends on a note of optimism as Michelle’s mother are beginning to repair their relationship and Sam and Michelle accept their own. Ending in the beginning of new-found love with only the player to imagine how it would have turned out.
As for the second ending, Michelle after having spent the night with Sam freaks out and while spending time with a man from her workplace, spots Sam after having left her a few nights prior. If the player decides not to pursue Sam, Michelle ends up on a different path. Sam disappears from her life and Michelle eventually marries a man. She moves to America with her daughter. While at the airport awaiting their one-way flight, she sees Sam with another woman but Michelle puts it out of her mind as she was ready to move on with her life with her daughter, mother, and husband as well as his family.
Its a somber but low-key ending that felt like a bit of a cop out. I was kind of hoping for maybe a little more drama or something else to happen but its basically Michelle deciding to end the relationship completely and moving on with her life without questioning herself. I read that some people felt this ending was not necessary. I kind of agree with them, its didn’t really need to exist and I think the main ending is not only fine on its own but also a great ending overall to the story.
(End of Spoilers)
The Future of A Summer’s End
The game came out fairly recently but the developers stated on their website that they plan to expand on the game but making it available on other platforms and in other languages. The biggest update would be adding Cantonese voice acting which seems to still be in the planning phase as there has been no official update news letter on it yet.
There was also the “Adult Patch” added as a free optional download if you want to add adult content, aka nudity and sex scenes including in your playthrough.
At this time, there is no way to download the music and a digital copy does not seem to be out yet which is a real shame as the music is gorgeous. There is a definite mix of vaporwave and low-fi hip-hop mixed with Citypop. I found myself sometimes leaving the music to play and stopped playing the game. On their discussion page for the game on Steam, they answered the reoccurring question about the music with this statement:
“Yes, we received a lot of feedback on the OST. We are in discussions about hopefully releasing an OST of the music featured in A Summer’s End. We will definitely post an update once we have more information.“
So it does sound like its in the works which I’m very much looking forward too.
Update: As of August 2020, a digital soundtrack was made available on Steam.
A Summer’s End wanted to share a story of two people in a time where you would never even hear about two people of the same sex falling in love did just that while still expressing the struggles to live up to the values that their peers and families expected of them. The developers achieved that by creating a wonderful yet grounded drama.
Overall for a roughly 8 hours experience, you’re getting a compelling story that grabs you after the first hour and keeps you wanting to know what happens to our two main protagonists. As well as learning more about the complicated pasts of both women.
The graphics and artwork are breathtaking. The style of the clothing and locations captures the sleek and recognizable look of the 1980s. Even for someone who is an American with not much knowledge on Hong Kong in the period, its hard to miss. Especially with the clothing. Some of the characters had on jackets with shoulder pads which is a hallmark look of the decade for women, not to mention the color scheme of the locations and outfits.
If you’re someone who loves visuals novels or are looking for a solid LGBTQ themed story in a video game format, I definitely recommend A Summer’s End-Hong Kong 1986. You can tell just from the art, the music, and the entire package given to the player, this was a labor a love which are the games I live and breath for in this blog.
Please share your thoughts on the game and either on Twitter or leave a comment on my blog.
The game is for sale on Steam and Itch.io for $14.99 USD or your regional equivalent.
I do wish the developers the best of luck and I greatly look forward to their next project.
References and Citations
https://www.asummersend.com/ (Developer’s Blog)
https://www.asummersend.com/blog/music (Post about musical choices and inspiration by developers)
https://www.asummersend.com/blog/queering-history (Developer’s post on LGBTQ history in Hong Kong)
https://ph.news.yahoo.com/hong-kong-lgbt-community-calls-023818175.html (News article about Equal Opportunities Commission)