There’s nothing quite like a piece of great music to take you back to a place in your past. It’s a simple enough trick of nostalgia, whether it be a chart-topping pop song you now class to those who ask as a ‘guilty pleasure’, or the first time you heard Bob Dylan or Queen and your tastes began to take shape. The first time you cried at a song or lyrics you subconsciously overhear when a significant moment in your life occurs. It can be smells or colours, but the music is something you can hold. You can carry those memories with you at all times, because the music allows you to fall back into a time of your life you perhaps may have forgotten otherwise. Nova-box’s sterling interactive novel Across The Grooves aims to explore this idea, and in doing so has crafted one of the more essential narrative experiences so far this year.
Your protagonist is Alice, a 30-something living in the center of Bordeaux with her long term boyfriend Jean-Baptiste. Living perhaps an idyllic but humdrum day to day life, her world is turn upside down with the arrival of a vinyl record from her ex-boyfriend Ulysse in the post. With no message, no markings or any idea of what the record could be, Alice plugs in her headphones and begins to listen to the music. In doing so, she’s transported back to the past, to her time with Ulyssee and forced to relive events she thought long gone. Upon removing the headphones, she discovers her reality has completely changed. Jean-Baptiste doesn’t recognise her, their mututal friends have no idea who he is and Alice is left to pick up the pieces of her broken reality, shattered by whatever she heard on the record.
That’s about where we begin Across The Grooves, a story which spans far across Europe in order for Alice to uncover the truth of what’s happened to her reality. As the tale weaves in and out of various realities in order to find her way back to her normal life, it’s up to you to decide her fate through various dialogue choices, through the music of the record which, you soon learn has a fair few people wanting it for themselves.
It’s a cool concept, right? It’s what made Across The Grooves stand out to me when I discovered the game back in August of last year. I’m a sucker for a narrative driven story but that Alice’s parallel universes were connected through the music she heard on the record made me stand up and take notice. The originality to tell a tale such as this through video games is an example, as if it was ever needed, that the industry has come a long way in the past seven years.
As you can probably tell from the screenshots and the trailer above, Across The Grooves is stunning to look at. Hand-drawn images fill the screen and burst colour and works as a beautiful backdrop to Alice’s journey. The images are static, so don’t expect any kind of animation, the focus is purely on story and your choices, choices that can affect Alice’s personality throughout, altering her mood and determination throughout. Each slight reaction to your choices are noted at the top centre of the screen, with four individual states; The Spiral (a generic choice, perhaps the more natural path), The Lightning (a moment of anger Alice portrays by force of will and a relentless quest for answers), The Flower (a more peaceful and understanding tone, taken by Alice to calm the people she meets or diffuse a situation) and The Skull (Alice has had it up to HERE and that choice was perhaps a little too forward?).
The decisions made are fully up to you, and as the game wants to point out early on, there’s no way to lose at Across The Grooves. You can decide what kind of person you want Alice to be as she explores the history of the record throughout the game, but certain moments will call for Alice to be far more guarded and restrained, whilst others will require a far more sensitive approach. Of course, you can replay the game as often as you like, making alternative choices that will change your story rather dramatically. There are easy and far more difficult choices, but knowing you can- if you so choose – replay Alice’s story at anytime to see those ramifications softens the blow somewhat.
In my first playthrough I was careful not to be too forceful with people. I was immediately sucked into wanting to know exactly what the record was, where it came from and why so many were after its powers. How did Alice come into possession of the vinyl in the first place? I was careful not to deviate off a particular path I had been setting up from the beginning. Without spoiling anything the relationship between her and her ex-boyfriend Ulysse plays a major role throughout, and I was drawn in to their story and how Alice, despite having a comfortable if boring job and a solid relationship with Jean-Baptitse, was quite clearly never over how she felt for Ulysse. He’s a fascinating character I want to spend more time with.
You meet a revolving door of characters throughout, most of whom are on your side in your quest for answers. It’s difficult to go too far into how and why without spoiling certain crucial moments, but certain characters you meet along the way are hugely important to allowing Alice to grab onto any semblance of reality she can find. This idea of knowing she’s not in her real reality allows her to also be somewhat wreckless and well let’s just say, if you want to take certain characters you meet along the way to bed, that’s most definitely an option that is presented to you. Alice’s sexuality is explored in certain moments and is handled with care to an extent, but it certainly felt a little off when she is hit on by a woman and accepts her advances purely because she ‘kissed a girl in college once’. Seemed a bit of a shame for this possible moment of solid representation to be undermined by the straight woman perceiving she can just turn her sexuality on and off like it doesn’t particularly mean anything to her.
Still, this was a minor misstep in an otherwise beautifully written narrative that had me hooked in from the beginning and didn’t let go. I finished my first playthrough in two sittings, my second playthrough in one. It’s certainly not a long game and I would have loved to spend a little longer with these characters, as well written as a majority of them are. Certain characters come and go with little impact but the central focus is always Alice, and her trajectory from the beginning of the game to the end is what I believe the kids call a ‘glow up’. It’s quite remarkable it’s even the same person but then, with so many realities running through her, is she the same person at the end? It’s an idea you explore with Alice the deeper she falls into the rabbit hole, and it’s so damn engaging.
I imagine it goes without saying that the soundtrack to Across The Grooves is gorgeous and ethereal. With original songs written from the perspective of Alice as she listens to these mysterious songs on the record, you can make choices within them to determine the following lyrics and how they weave into Alice’s story and where she’ll unknowingly find herself next. Alice is a lover of music, and so is damn near all the characters which will allow you to go deep into their knowledge with the Lexicon, a treasure trove of information that is added to whenever the dialogue mentions a phrase or band you may need explaining or may not have heard of. As you can see below, the brief descriptions of artists, music phrases, genres or writers are there to refer to at any time, and also recommends albums or songs to check out once you’re done with the game. A really neat touch.
It’s no secret that developers Nova-box are huge music fans, with constant references to real life artists and their music, despite never hearing a note. At any time throughout the game you can read back any text you may have missed if you found yourself getting a bit lost in the music or staring at the art, or if you just need to check something.
I’m purposely being vague when it comes to the story because I wouldn’t want to ruin certain moments for you that will stay with me and stand out. In a similar way to Night In The Woods or your favourite TellTale game, you want those moments to be yours. As your journey takes you through some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and the artwork continues to blow you away throughout, there’s a magic to experiencing it all through Alice’s eyes and how decision you make, no matter how small you think it may be at the time, has a drastic affect on another reality and who remains in each of them from Alice’s life. To find them all requires replaying the game, but nothing should stop you if you want to see Alice’s full story (and unlock endgame achievements, which naturally can only be filled 100% if you play the games through a few times and follow particular threads)
Across The Grooves lives up my expectation and then some, which is a huge relief. It’s not like I thought it wasn’t going to, but I had built the game up in my head and I knew from seeing that first trailer it was going to be something I could quite easily fall into. It’s one of those games I never really knew I needed until it came along and thankfully, exploring the story of Alice through her headphones was as cleansing and as wondrous as I had hoped it would be. The music is wonderful, the art style is remarkable and the story wants me to keep going back and discovering what may happen if I chose the left option instead of the right. Did I do right by that character? Was I listening correctly when I made *that* choice? Across the Grooves is stacked full of decisions that leave question marks on your conscience.
Narrative driven video games have seen a real golden age this generation, now we can place Across The Grooves next to the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch as essential representations of a genre that constantly surprises me.
Like a great piece of music, I’m excited to revisit Across The Grooves over and over again.
Get into the Grooves…..(sorry)
Across The Grooves launches June 17th on Nintendo Switch (review version) and Steam.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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