Summer in Mara should be so good. Its pitch is top tier! Take the day-to-day management and care of Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, couple that with Wind Waker ocean exploration, and layer on a story about unlocking ancient mysteries and reintroducing human kindness to a world of incredible characters. You have what should be a perfect recipe for success. And it is, mostly! Everything works. All the right design decisions are there and that should be enough! Sadly, the game’s occasionally messy writing weakens some of its greatest strengths.
Writing for kids is really hard. You have to keep two things in mind: simple language and the incredibly short attention spans of kids. Keeping language approachable, while making sure the action and characters are complex and interesting enough to keep kids engaged is difficult. The best kids media, Avatar: The Last Airbender for example, toes an even thinner line by adding on layers of meaning and interpretation for adults. I can see Summer in Mara almost walking this line, but awkward dialogue gets in the way.
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As you disembark your boat for the first time, having arrived at the game’s second island, you meet two uh… Hm. Blob men. We’ll go with Blob Men. They’re named Caleb and Noho. The two are merchants who used to travel the seas, but have since settled on the game’s hub island. That’s a major theme in Summer of Mara.
Caleb is a quiet but mostly friendly businessman; he’ll help you out when he can, but don’t expect to hear more than one or two words per conversation. Noho, on the other hand, tells anecdote after anecdote, words spilling in response to what should be basic questions. This is a really fun dynamic! However, there are moments where that conversational flow breaks. Koa, the player character, will say a line that doesn’t actually read as a response to either Caleb or Noho, and the tone shifts unexpectedly. While this isn’t game-breaking, a child could struggle to follow the flow here.
This isn’t just a flow issue, though. There are points where the morals being pushed are also obfuscated by messy dialogue. Much of the early game is focused on Koa learning how to be polite, having been raised in almost complete isolation. The conversations around this topic are, at times, ham-fisted and, at other times, confusing. I can point to several moments where I would argue Koa is pretty polite, but characters act as if she just spat in their faces. As this particular lesson is taught and reinforced, however, the awkwardness does seem to lessen.
Weird spots aside, I think Summer in Mara’s writing is pretty good. At one point, a joke I later learned was submitted by a Kickstarter backer did outshine everything I’d seen in the game up to that point. There are these letters scattered throughout the game, you see. They’re tied to the backs of various crabs (you can also feed and pet other crabs; it owns). And each of the letters was submitted by Kickstarter backers. My personal favorite so far was “Mess with the crabbo and you get the stabbo. -Signed V & K.” These are really cute touches that go to show just how invested folks already are in this game’s promise.
Summer in Mara feels warm. It has so much heart. I want this game to do well because it has been a genuine salve for my brain, but I think it would have benefited from a small second writing pass to clean things up. Speaking of cleaning up, I need to get back to finding the trash folks have thrown around these various islands so I can figure out if this recycling quest is broken or if I’m just turning in the wrong kind of trash? Who knows. All I know is that I’ll continue to enjoy what time I’m spending in Mara.