Lore Distance Relationship is a Twine game by Naomi “Bez” Norbez. (Spoilers follow.)
The protagonist is a transgender girl, Kayla, who creates an account on the Neopets-like site, Ruffians, and accesses it regularly as she grows older. She makes an online friend, Bee, who is of the same age as her, and who also logs in regularly. The story revolves around their online relationship as framed by the messages they exchange, both in character, when they roleplay as their Ruffians, and out of character, when they discuss aspects of their offline lives. At several points, their relationship is validated, or at least given more validation, when they meet up in real life, first at a Ruffians convention, and then at Bee’s birthday party. Kayla also has a sister, Rachel, who constantly looks out for her and protects her from their abusive mother. Their relationship, too, is central to the story, though I would argue from the title, “Lore Distance Relationship”, that it takes a backseat to that between Kayla and Bee.
Your friendly captain used to play Neopets (whenever there was internet connection at sea), so many references were appreciated. I loved the verisimilitude of the create-a-Ruffian screen, the map of Ruffians (Ruffia?), the paintbrushes and the exclusivity of colours, the item rarities, the plushies, the battledome, the user lookups, the site competitions, the content updates, and of course, the awfulness of the mobile app. The author neglected one defining aspect of Neopets, though, which was the brutal censorship. You used to need to reread your messages over and over to find the incriminating word that triggered the fail-to-send auto-notification, which was usually stupidly off (e.g. you couldn’t say “grape” because it contains the word “rape”). Good times indeed.
Rachel seems somewhat liberal for a mentor. She doesn’t warn Kayla about the possibility that Bee could be impersonating as a child to steal personal information about her (something that was in fact quite common on Neopets), especially since Bee’s first question to Kayla was “how old are you?”. Bee even made it a point to note that their birthdays are on the same day, which immediately made me suspicious. Then, Rachel offers to cover up for Kayla, to whom she suggests opening another window on the browser so their mother will not notice that Kayla is not doing homework. Later on, Rachel also concocts a story about the two of them going to the park to hide their attendance at the Ruffian convention from their mother. These last two incidents, however, are justified eventually when it is revealed that their mother is abusive. I think this justification is a strong one, since it legitimises the somewhat questionable acts of Rachel and reframes them as brave and ultimately necessary, even if brutal. In the case of going behind their mother’s back, both online and at the convention, it’s when the player realises that their mother is not trying to protect but exert power over them that her point of view is undermined, and that of Rachel and Kayla is strengthened, particularly since Kayla is a victim of bullying, and desperately needs a friend.
The voice-acting for Rachel, done by the author himself, is lively and passionate. Most prominent in her tone is her concern for her sister, whom it is clear she cares deeply about. I was struck by the marked absence of voice-acting for Kayla, which I initially attributed to Kayla’s muteness, a theory supported by the inordinate amount of time she spends on Ruffians — she’s likely to go online a lot if she finds it difficult to interact with others. This difficulty is confirmed later, but for a different reason: she is bullied because of her transgender status. It may be the case, therefore, that there is no voice-acting for Kayla because Kayla is the player, who experiences Ruffians from her point of view.
Bee is a difficult character to qualify. In the first place, before her identity is validated by the real life meetup, the player is unsure if she is an older person impersonating as a child, so all her messages are treated with suspicion (that was the case for me, at least). Even when this lens is removed later, I found it hard to divest myself of the impression that she is actually a mature person who is conscious of, and finds joy in, the silliness of roleplaying. Many of her roleplaying lines are genuinely funny because they can be read ironically (“Let us combine our powers to be more awesome.”). Even outside roleplaying, a line like “how did u get a lavender Ruffaroar? I WANT ONE!!!!!!!” could very well have been written by a teenager, possibly even an adult (“possibly” might be an understatement). And of course, regarding real life issues, she demonstrates a surprising amount of maturity. Not only does she offer to listen to and help Kayla, she also asks for permission to share Kayla’s story with her father, so that she can give better advice (“do you mind if I ask my dad for advice on this”). More importantly, when Kayla comes out to her later, she is completely accepting of her identity.
I don’t think there are any contradictions here — children can be just as mature in some ways as they are immature in others (e.g. Bee spelling Pennsylvania as “Pencilvania”). I like the fact that Bee turns out to be exactly the person she claimed to be (no pun intended), which is realistic, too — all her words, like the words of most children, can be taken at face value. And as common as impersonation is, it’s just as likely for pure, earnest friendships to form online. I do wish the author acknowledged the double-sided nature of such relationships, so as to add a little more complexity, but as the story stands, it’s true to reality. Most children, after all, don’t question what they see.
I mentioned earlier that the meetup validates Kayla and Bee’s relationship. I think this was an excellent choice in terms of writing, particularly because it negates the awkwardness of expression by Bee when she tries to comfort Kayla later. When Bee says things like “ilu” (I love you), both the characters and the player know that these aren’t just empty words that she presses a few buttons to generate — if they were, Bee and Kayla wouldn’t have gone the extra mile to meet up in real life. I especially like the fact that Kayla recognises and acknowledges this awkwardness, but ultimately knows that Bee’s intentions are there, even if her messages aren’t the best at representing them.
The UI is outstanding. The font is legible, the font size generous, with text presented in small, manageable chunks, usually one line at a time. Text delays are kept to a minimum and used only when necessary. The keyboard sounds are pleasant and complement the voice-acting, adding dimension to the game. The overall layout is clean, accessible and modern.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: You’ve guessed it, neopolitan. #onceaneopian