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Visual novel Goodbye Volcano High tells a deeply human story with dinosaurs

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Image courtesy of KO_OP
Image courtesy of KO_OP

High school coming-of-age dramas and apocalypse narratives are rarely combined, but the thought-provoking and bittersweet visual novel Goodbye Volcano High does just that. It follows Fang, a broody, Nonbinary pterosaur, as they navigate their senior year and prepare for their Battle of the Bands audition. All the while, a disaster looms in the distance; did I mention all the characters are dinosaurs?

The game isn't profoundly revolutionary at its core. It has many of the trappings typical to its genre. The player is prompted with branching dialogue options at regular intervals in the story, each of which can affect Fang's relationships with other characters.

Some of these choices are timed, pressuring a quick decision in the heat of the moment. Others have an extra button prompt, like mashing "A" to stare down a teacher trying to confiscate Fang's phone. These options usually have a "wobbly" border, implying that Fang has to put in some extra effort, which shows a lot about Fang's innermost struggles.

After all, they're a Trans teen with high aspirations in the arts and born to immigrant parents who don't "get it" yet. When the story begins, their mother still uses their deadname and considers music a hobby instead of a viable career.

At this point, readers unfamiliar with anthropomorphic art might gawk at the idea of dinosaurs being immigrants, let alone having heavy Arabic accents. If there are immigrants, does that mean there are dinosaur nations? Dinosaur wars? How is it that a triceratops could be friends with a dromaeosaur?

My advice is, don't get too hung up on it. For the most part, the characters are functionally human, with modern technology like cell phones, cars, cable news, and fridges full of human-style food. Their body configuration is more or less primate, too.

Image courtesy of KO_OP  

Yet ignoring the symbolism of dinosaurs would mean missing something key. It might be telling, for example, that Fang has especially prominent feathers while other pterosaurs, Fang's brother Naser included, do not.

Attentive players might also notice that one of Naser's wings is atrophied and both are scarred, implying that among pterosaurs, they might be considered disabled. This is never explained outright, however.

And isn't it poignant that a coming-of-age story would also depict a looming apocalypse when the real world is evermore in climate chaos? Like the dinosaurs, is humanity an inextricable part of an ending era? And what could that mean for younger generations?

I could go on, but interpretations flourish around anthropomorphic media. Anyway, Volcano High spends no time building scaffolding around why dinosaurs exist in a human-like society.

Instead, it has complete confidence in a vibrant Cretaceous aesthetic taken as it is. That choice sets the game apart from its visual novel peers. It puts it in line with other anthropomorphic media — though in the latter case, it is markedly less concerned with the sensory experience of having dino features.

Ultimately, the game is more interested in the experience of being young and trying to figure oneself out in relation to parents, peers, and, most notably, music.

One of the earliest choices a player makes is between different lines in a song Fang is writing. That choice leads to a tutorial on "playing" the song, essentially a rhythm minigame using a wide range of visual cues.

Players not accustomed to this sort of thing might find themselves overwhelmed at first, but once they get the hang of it, they might also find that they're engaged with the music on a deeper level than if they were to watch and listen. The game repeats this trick throughout the story, with an original, bittersweet soundtrack of ambient pop-punk by Montreal-based composer Dabu and musician Common Holly.

As for the rest of the game's sound, the characters are fully voiced (unless they are texting each other). Fang is voiced by Nonbinary actor Lachlan Watson, who players might recognize from the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Ozioma Akagha, who voiced Alyx Vance in the virtual reality hit Half-Life: Alyx (2020), plays Fang's triceratops friend Trish. An array of other experienced regulars voice the rest.

Goodbye Volcano High is available now for PC, Playstation 4, and Playstation 5. Since its release in August it has won the Tribeca Games Award at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, and was featured in the "Games & Immersive Experience" selection.