Beeswing's immediate surface-level appeal is an artstyle that, more often than not, is not just analogue but handcrafted: pencil sketches, watercolors, cutouts, messy clay figures, along with acoustic guitar and toy piano, bring a heartfelt rendering of a childhood village to life in a way that is immediately, intimately familiar, and yet in the realm of video games, strange and bold. Yet there's a darker text to this game that aborts the risk of it being twee: sweet memories are complicated not just by the slightly bitter perspective of adulthood, but by the reality of social isolation, increasingly a fact of rural and metropolitan life. Wandering the town of Beeswing and the nearby city, interacting its inhabitants, we are constantly reminded of this fact, through conversations and vingettes (some of which are gated by somewhat obscure requirements) that range from the silly to the deeply sad.
That said, there's an unfortunate contrast between Beeswing's visual style, which speaks to the hand of a master (I've played some of King-Spooner's earlier games and they all look like apprentice work compared to this) and its writing. The game leans heavily on the latter (and the contrast between the two) to deliver its themes, but it's sort of a weak link. It's not so much that it's heavy-handed but that it often delivers mishmash of ideas, some less developed than others. The running theme of isolation gives way to hoary anxieties around morality, or characters get on the writer's own soapbox, like when a rant about the fallacy of the death of the author is placed in the mouth of a character who has no real business delivering it. It's not that these ideas couldn't possibly cohere, but that the game does little to illuminate their connectedness, or perhaps relies too heavily on mere juxtaposition.
Perhaps, given the cutout and collage-like nature of Beeswing's construction, it's appropriate that juxtaposition is its primary method elsewhere. Yet there's an anxiety I have about this game and others like it: often, when I encounter works in this space that name symptoms but not the disease, I'm tempted to go on a Situationist warpath and denounce them left and right. I kind of doubt that would be fruitful (and in any case I'm the kind of guy who's going to insist you'll learn the most about these things by reading directly about them than by consuming better art or art criticism, which is not, of course, to say the latter are useless or irrelevant), but the point is that there are real connections between the things Beeswing leaves hanging somewhat too far apart, and that there are risks involved in leaving them implicit. Showing is not ipso facto more elegant than telling; it can even be a bit clumsy, as I think is the case here. Moreover, one can paradoxically be comforted, rather than challenged, in the presence of a work of art that seemingly "gets it," and the risk is all the greater the more sensually beautiful the work. Then again, so profound is the antimony at the heart of the relationship between art and life in our divided society that I could make an equal and opposite case that "ugly," "radical" art too often merely flatters the sensibilities of its audience—but I'd best leave that for a review of Cruelty Squad and, for now, stop here.
As a P.S. to this admittedly perhaps slightly too cynical review (it really is a beautiful game with a big heart in the right place), I'll say that while it is true that my own preference leans heavily towards games that show by allowing the player to do, Beeswing (being rather text-heavy) is definitely not that sort of game, and my comments are the result of considering it on its own terms.

Reviewed on Apr 25, 2023


5 months ago

On "naming the symptoms and not the disease": I think of works like Beeswing and agitprop-adjacent games in general as the snack between meals, something that is not textually challenging or confrontational while still alluding to a confrontation that must occur. A nudge in the right direction, or a palette cleanser for denser works. And just like snacks, they run the risk of being used as a substitute for meals entirely if presented in large enough quantities. As much as I rail against aesthetics I have to admit that I'm far more likely to trust that a work is knowingly/purposefully insufficient if it looks as good as Beeswing does, especially if it's short.
This Liz Ryerson tweet encapsulates my thoughts on Cruelty Squad to a tee.

5 months ago

@Parma, that's a good way of looking at it.
and lol