I love visual novels, and I specifically love Pixelberry’s Choices: Stories You Play. While a lot of the games under the visual novel banner do fall under the romance category — and hey, I demonstrably love a game with smooching involved — some of my favorite titles cross genre boundaries, mixing romance mechanics with fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and horror.
It’s the last one that sticks out to me the most, as someone who is notoriously a scaredy cat, and also as someone who loves romance games. The It Lives series from Choices, which includes two horror games that each follow different sets of characters but deal with similar mysterious evil forces in eerie nature settings, is one of my favorites, period, and as Halloween season rolls around, I find myself thinking about the series more and more.
The first entry in the series, It Lives in the Woods, follows a group of estranged friends in their senior year of high school. A terrible accident in the woods drove them apart when they were children, and they now find themselves drifting back together when one of their old friends wanders into the woods and goes missing. The second, It Lives Beneath, follows a different set of characters in a different town. This time, the evil force comes from the depths of the town’s lake.
Each of these stories heavily features romantic storylines — your customizable main character can romance almost everyone in each respective friend group — but they both also craft a tight mystery with some genuinely scary moments. Because of the episodic nature of the app, the pacing plays out wonderfully. A chapter that starts off as a fun reprieve from the drama may end in a bloody showdown, while a seemingly tense episode could actually offer the most downtime. Both games build up the mystery before brilliantly revealing a plot twist when the stakes are the highest.
But the brilliance of the It Lives series is that it ties the romantic visual novel aspect seamlessly into the horror aspect. There is just as much focus on building up relationships with these characters as there is on solving the mystery and defeating the evil at hand. To blow off some steam after a particularly tense encounter, I had my main character in It Lives in the Woods go smash some bottles and have a heart-to-heart with resident goth girl Ava. The town’s annual carnival in It Lives Beneath lets you spend time with your whole crew.
Spending extra time with characters boosts their Nerve score, which is a mechanic introduced in this particular series that determines a character’s endgame fate. That said, a lot of these special scenes require in-app currency to unlock. You can collect this currency, called Diamonds, just from playing the game, but getting a lot of them at once usually requires an actual purchase. I’m so motivated to save my friends and boost their Nerve scores — and find out more about the mystery — that I don’t mind using Diamonds to do it. All this time spent cultivating my relationships with the other characters — not just the ones I’m romancing! — makes me want to keep them alive even more. By the time the intense, critical choices come around, I would do a hell of a lot for these characters.
Depending on your choices and the characters’ final Nerve scores, their fates play out differently. In the most devastating cases, no one makes it out alive, and the deaths are pretty damn gruesome — though if you make the right choices (or shell out enough Diamonds), you may save your friends just yet. But be warned: Saving everyone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a satisfying ending.
Nearly three years after it concluded, I’m still thinking about the ending of It Lives in the Woods. I managed to save all my friends, but when faced with the last, pivotal choice, I picked what I thought would be the better option. It was the one I felt was right in the moment, but when the ending played out, I was left with a lingering sense of melancholy. Reading other players’ decisions, it appears that both endings had separate yet parallel senses of bittersweetness — but did I pick the right one? It lingers with me after all this time. At the very least, though, I managed to save my close friends.
Choices: Stories You Play is available for download on Google Play or the app store.