Interactive Improv Improved
There's a word in Dutch that has no real translation into English. The word "Gezellig" could be described as 'having a good time', "cozy", or even "enjoyable". It means most of these things altogether, but is hard to explain in another language. You can say a lot of things about the new comedic indie game Once Upon A Jester. It's a short rhythm game, in which improv is the central theme. But above all I got the feeling that the development of the game and the team that worked on it was incredibly 'Gezellig'. While it may come across as clunky at times, there's so much heart and joy poured into this game that shouldn't be missed if you're looking for a truly wholesome experience.
In the game you play as Jester who, along with his best friend Sok, decides to participate in "The Royal Theatrical Spectacle". This contest, organized by Princess Kirstina, sees theater groups competing for 15 flower bouquets in three different towns in order to play a show for the king himself. Jester and Sok however see this as a great opportunity to steal the royal diamond, the most sparkly object in all the land. It's up to the player to perform improv shows based on themes that the townsfolk will enjoy that particular day. After designing a poster, you'll perform the show and have to participate in little rhythmic minigames to interact with Sok on stage.
The gameplay is admittedly very simple. You walk around town, talk to the inhabitants and learn more about what they want. It's these characters and writing that provides the incredible charm that makes Once Upon A Jester stand out so much. The dialogue ranges from puns, comments on the absurdity of the world as well as the changes that Jester and his friends go through on their journey. This makes every little background character super memorable from the walking tree Boom Stam looking for his roots, to the three little ice cream boys, the fisherman by the sea, Jan the Wizard, and Mayor Kletsmajoor. As you can tell by the names, these characters are very very Dutch and being a Dutchy myself, it was a joy to behold all the quirky little puns that the team translated into English as well as the design of the world. This includes town names like Dorp Town (Town Town), Woud Woods (Wood Woods) and Zeehaven Harbour (Seaharbour Harbour), plus other little details like characteristic Dutch lanterns and all of the background chatter during songs and the overworld.
Music is also such an important aspect of the game. At times it is almost akin to something like the animated show 'Over the Garden Wall', where characters burst out into short comedic songs about how they're feeling or what is happening. The dry and direct delivery of characters like Jester and Sok stands in stark contrast with the elaborate monologues which makes the world feel very abstract, but also welcoming and comfortable. This ties back masterfully into the feeling of actually performing improv theater. While there's only a handful of shows, the decisions you make along the way change the outcome of every performance. This makes the game feel surprisingly refreshing, even when putting on "Statue Sok" for the fourth time. The same can also be said for the voice acting. While the on-screen text is always perfectly readable, every character and interaction is fully voiced by the development team. You can often hear that the team went with the first take and if you ask me,it works great. You hear the laughter when lines are mispronounced or when particular accents or puns were voiced. It is almost as if you're in the room with the team and they’re making it up as they go along.
Seeing Dutch culture portrayed in (international) games is still a rarity but it was a joy to see how well Bonte Avond has transitioned Dutch culture and in particular its humor into an interactive title. The dry and direct responses from the characters are unmistakably Dutch. And yes, there’s obviously a personal connection between me and that particular topic. But even disregarding that, the game feels so honest and is super confident in what it is, similar to how an improv actor performs on stage. The game doesn't skip a beat in its short but sweet runtime and I think that makes for a genuine experience that I haven't had in quite some time. It may just be one of the best titles to play along with someone who isn't too familiar with games. The humor, low stakes and easy to understand gameplay makes for a great introduction into interactive media.
A small nitpick I have is that videos in the Switch version could be optimized just a little. The end credits and one great cut-away gag were undercut by choppy performance on the system. And while the replayability of the shows is pretty varied, I would have loved to see two more shows with some creative set-pieces.
Other than that, Once Upon A Jester feels absolutely gezellig. From the live-performed songs to the funny writing and memorable characters, Jester and Sok's journey is one I would heartily recommend and makes my Dutch heart incredibly proud.