I tend to switch off when a reviewer complains about a game ‘not being a true game’. It’s usually from someone with a bee in their bonnet about visual novels or walking simulators when the distinction doesn’t really matter. These genres have their audiences, and a lack of interaction is often the point. Besides, they clearly are games: they deliver something that couldn’t be achieved in another medium, and that’s good enough to earn its right.
But I’m a hypocrite. A Sketchbook About Her Sun isn’t a game. At least, there are two ways of ‘playing’ it, and the best way is without any interactions at all. A Sketchbook About Her Sun is something that absolutely could have been delivered in another medium – specifically, a music video, or sequence of music videos – so, by my own criteria, that doesn’t really make it a game.
The important thing is, as long as you are aware of this fact, it doesn’t matter. Purchase and play A Sketchbook About Her Sun with the full knowledge that it’s the equivalent of switching channels to MTV for thirty minutes (if MTV was still about playing music), then there’s enough here to recommend it.
Our first thought was that A Sketchbook About Her Sun was going to be a visual novel. Not quite. It starts with the main character, Lucia, who has escaped a long-term relationship and is now living in a remote, small town. She is taking the opportunity to brush up on her painting in the sketchbook of the title. However, her mind keeps wandering to the relationship she left behind, and the many emotions that came with it.
We write as if we’re confident of the backstory in A Sketchbook About Her Sun, but we’re not. A lot of the narrative is left for the viewer to piece together from watercolour paintings that form the game’s backdrop, from the music that soundtracks the visuals, and a poem that you can read at the end of each sequence. But much of it is left to the imagination.
What story there is doesn’t particularly develop. A Sketchbook About Her Sun is more a mood, as the main character’s emotions swing like a pendulum. We ride that pendulum through regret, loneliness, freedom and relief, as the main character dallies over whether to return to her ex (the Sun of the title, often literally represented as one). It takes some calibration: you have to realise and accept that the story’s not going to go anywhere or do anything remarkable.
There are ten sequences, all in different locations – under a tree, in the road, looking into a mirror as she brushes her teeth – and they each soundtrack a song from Red Ribbon’s 2020 album, Planet X. You sense that this was A Sketchbook About Her Sun’s initial purpose: to turn that album into a multimedia experience, and it grew from there.
We’re not music journalists, so forgive us for our lack of knowledge in the area, but Red Ribbon’s album is fantastic and you can see why this project sprung forth from it. It sits somewhere between the scuzz-rock of The Raveonettes, and the emotional highs (plus knack for harmonies) of Wolf Alice. We skipped straight to Spotify to save three tracks to various playlists, and my wife asked me to leave it playing through a second time. We can’t give higher recommendations than that. Tracks like Way, High and Score (there’s a love for monosyllabic titles here) are real standouts, and – while they don’t explicitly call out moments on the screen – they match the general plaintive mood.
We were less taken with the poetry, however. As mentioned earlier, there are two ways to play A Sketchbook About Her Sun. The first is to interact. As the song progresses, you are given two words or phrases to choose from. You might be picking from ‘Space’ or ‘Distant’, before the music continues and then you’re picking from ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Defeat’. There will be five or six choices in a song, before your word choices are crowbarred into an end-of-sequence poem.
We weren’t taken with the mechanic at all. The choices feel completely arbitrary. There’s no inkling of the surrounding sentence or couplet, so you’re choosing words based on, well, whatever you fancy. Without any weight behind the decision, we found ourselves picking the left-hand word every time, emerging with a complete lack of investment in the poem that followed.
The poem, perhaps because it has to accommodate so many different permutations, also doesn’t register. They are vague and slightly artless, never landing on poignancy or anything clever. They have a floaty, ‘could mean anything’ outline that we’d expect from the contents of a fortune cookie. We found ourselves ignoring them, punching A to move onto the next section.
Which leads us to the second way of playing A Sketchbook About Her Sun. An achievement suggests playing the game without making any choices or interactions at all. It’s possible to experience A Sketchbook About Her Sun by only pressing A to progress from one song to another, and this is the format where it flourishes. The music becomes the focus, the poems effectively don’t appear, and everything transitions from a mediocre (or lacking) game to moody, effective music video. We were there for the transition.
There is an almighty caveat to purchasing A Sketchbook About Her Sun. It is a thirty minute-long music video to an album. The interactions that it offers – and there are only a few – all detract from the experience. But arrive with that knowledge, perhaps as a fan of the band Red Ribbon or a prospective fan, and you may consider it £4.19 well-spent. It’s certainly 1000G for leaving a controller on a table.
You can buy A Sketchbook About Her Sun from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S