Fictional companions and goth concerns.
Switchcraft is a visual novel and match-three game that combines several of my favorite topics: witches, witchcraft and protagonists with cool hair. For a genre whose games are often hastily and sloppily written (not naming names, but if you’ve ever played a narrative-based mobile game angling for microtransactions, you know what I mean), many of Switchcraft’s character arcs were surprisingly satisfying. Even minor characters who didn’t get their own plotline had well-written dialogue options.
The story takes place at Pendle Hill Academy, a.k.a. witch college, and deals in mysterious disappearances, romantic choices and dark visions. The heroine, Bailey Ward, is a freshman with solid credentials for cool: she’s the Boston-born daughter of a drummer and a journalist, wears flannel well and has long, wavy hair with an undercut. Oh, and she can do magic, the coolest quality of all.
I was tempted to write about Bailey – she is someone I want to know – but it almost seems unfair, given her objective coolness, when the game boasts so many minor characters who might need more attention.
As I went through my screenshots, I focused on Ruby Blue: Pendle Hill’s overtly sexual librarian. Ms. Blue’s aesthetics speak volumes: she wears librarian clichés – cardigans and tortoiseshell glasses – with bodycon animal prints, statement jewelry and long, blue nails.
In one scene, Ms. Blue shows Bailey a pair of studded black boots and makes a casual rock reference: “These are my shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather.” If you don’t recognize the line, she’s quoting the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs,” which is inspired by a nineteenth century novella of the same name. The novella centers around sadomasochism and female dominance, and this in turn becomes relevant when Ms. Blue runs for chancellor of the academy. One of her campaign platforms? Including erotica in the library. Whether or not the writers intended to draw that literary connection, it worked for me.
I can’t support all of Ms. Blue’s behavior – she flirts with students, and her campaign for chancellor is suggestive in ways that are not particularly appropriate for someone in an academic position of power. But the game engages with this as well, and student criticism of her “suggestive” campaign strategies leads her to drop out of the race and remain the school’s librarian. But she is good at her job, and in multiple instances, helps Bailey and her Scooby gang find books and information. Kind of like a flashy, amorous Rupert Giles.
I obsessively played Switchcraft for several months until, last week, I completed the storyline. I was upset about completing the game not because I was unhappy with my ending (choices matter, and I stand by mine), but because I wanted to keep playing. In general, I want to keep playing narrative games on my phone when I’m console-less, and I haven’t found many mobile games that provide such satisfying levels of attention to character and story.
Ms. Blue’s literary Venus in Furs reference nested in a musical “Venus in Furs” reference nested in an offhand line of dialogue about outfits is catnip for someone like me, a 60s music nerd who loves outfits. The line would be easy to tap through and ignore; Ms. Blue’s boots are not integral to Bailey’s story. But this is one example of many solid one-liners and pop culture references embedded in Switchcraft’s narrative arcs. And it’s this kind of seemingly casual detail that puts Switchcraft high above its tactically similar counterparts.