The tradition of the Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, is well established in literature and readers have enjoyed tales of protagonists reaching maturity and independence for centuries. The immersive nature of video games makes them a perfect fit to continue this legacy, as the player embodies the character’s development. This can be as grand as the increased powers of the typical Metroidvania or RPG, or as intimate as a visual novel’s textual narration.
In The Girl of Glass, developer Markus with Friends has delicately blended several traditional gaming genres to tell a touching and inspirational story of one fragile girl’s journey. But do these different genres fit together to produce a beautiful stained glass image, or are they a cracked and broken mirror?
The titular Girl of Glass is Kristal, a young girl we first meet as an underappreciated helper in a strange circus filled with unusual characters. Naive and nervous, her glass body perfectly represents her fragility and innocence. The circus is a refuge from the tyrannical rule of the Eagle, a terrifying leader whose followers threaten the safety and sanctuary of the circus. As the game builds, we discover that Kristal has hidden potential that can help turn the tide of resistance against the Eagle and usher in a new age of freedom. It’s a fairly standard video game backstory with an unassuming character slowly becoming aware of their destiny, and fits perfectly with the coming of age tradition. As the story progresses, though, it becomes surprisingly dark and philosophical.
Aesthetically, The Girl of Glass is an absolute delight. The static backgrounds and character designs are beautifully detailed and colourful, with a hint of animated masters Studio Ghibli. The clarity of the design is particularly welcome too, as point and click adventures are too often cluttered with overly busy screens leading to frustrating pixel hunting. While dialogue is text-based, there is voiced narration which helps to develop the modern fairy tale atmosphere.
The story is developed and delivered through point and click adventure sections, as you talk to characters, find objects, and solve puzzles to move forward. The conversations here are largely well-written and take in some interestingly philosophical issues, ranging from the power of the individual to carry out their will, to the horrors carried out in the name of capitalism. There is a powerful underlying narrative about the individual establishing themselves against the defining cultural drivers of justice, industry, and religion – with the game’s boss fights taking us through these aspects.
The point and click puzzling is relatively simple, with none of the bizarre leaps in logic that are so common in the genre and the focus clearly set on developing the narrative. Each area has a character you can talk to for hints so there is no danger of getting stuck and frustrated.
It is therefore a really jarring tonal shift when you enter into the strategy combat parts of the game. While these take place on a familiar turn-based, grid system, they are extremely punishing and feel very different to the gentle nature of the rest of the game’s exploration. While this is probably deliberate and the effect is interesting, there will be many players who will bounce off this mode and not get to fully enjoy the rest of the game.
Combat is not optional, and the difficulty levels only change the number of hit points you can lose before being defeated (dictating how many stars you receive for achievement purposes) rather than changing damage levels or actual challenge. As later battles become more intricate and rely on using the full range of abilities and powers that you unlock, there is the potential for some really frustrating roadblocks. Given the length of these battles, having to retry the whole thing (plus the lengthy conversation beforehand in several cases) feels overly punishing. I finished the game, but think that an easier story-focused option would increase the potential audience.
Combat relies on traditional element-based attacks, with individual energy bars for abilities. Manipulating space on the battlegrid is the key, and anticipating your enemy’s moves in order to neutralise their powerful attacks is essential. When this works it’s a great system, and pulling off a series of successful moves is really rewarding. However, it is too easy to make mistakes and find yourself irrevocably damaged and needing to restart. With battles being long-winded affairs, especially boss fights, this gets repetitive fast.
As well as the tonal dissonance between the gentle point and click adventure and the punishing strategy battles, there is an inconsistent tone in the narrative and writing. Some of this may be a translation issue, but the sudden shift from fairy tale to swearing felt forced and didn’t fit with the overall aesthetic for me. I did, however, enjoy the more philosophical aspects of the game. Literally fighting against monsters that represent the horrors of capitalism and oppression opens up some deep conversations about the role of these forces in controlling Kristal’s life. There were some nice nods to the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard here.