Peripatetic. Orientation. Discourse.
The very first decision you’ll make at the beginning of Goodbye Volcano High is to hold on, or to let go. You will have almost no context for the question, its consequences uncertain, and you will spend the entire game working back towards that very moment as the story begins again after you choose. You won’t be able to change the decision once you reach it again. And making big decisions without any context is kind of what graduating high school is all about, I think, but this is just the first of many moments that prods the player to consider alongside its characters whether any of this matters when you can’t change the outcome anyways. So, hold on to the yearbook for the last class of the titular Volcano High – and everything it represents – or, let it go?
Goodbye Volcano High’s premise is like a mad lib of a videogame. It’s a gay dinosaur high school apocalypse musical visual novel set in the final year of life on Pangaea. Despite its Sony backing and perhaps belied by Ko-Op’s branding as a bastion for marginalized developers, Goodbye Volcano High appears to have suffered from development hell. You may notice this when you’re playing. It feels like things could’ve used another editing pass. Details and threads are picked up and dropped with little continuity. Scenes are mentioned that don’t appear in the game or were perhaps lost somewhere among its branching paths. The frame of a bigger picture is here, but the canvas is much, much smaller.
Comparing the animation in scenes that appear both in its 2020 reveal trailer and the final product, it’s obvious that three years of something bad happened to Goodbye Volcano High. And that’s unfortunate, because:
1) With its spotlight in Sony’s showcases, it’s not hard to imagine how pressure for mainstream appeal may have shaped Goodbye Volcano High even more than the pandemic, and all that in addition to a series of harassment campaigns targeting the game for being made by – and being about – queer people at the end of the world.
2) Goodbye Volcano High is still almost very good.
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Fang and their bandmates, all humanoid, teenage dinosaurs, return to Volcano High for their senior year. On its surface, Goodbye Volcano High indulges in the humor, angst and predictable moments of contention and growth among childhood friends stumbling together and apart as they try to figure out what to do next. But also, there’s an asteroid in the sky, and it may hit Earth next summer.
This undeniably silly premise of dinosaurs in high school interjects something beyond comedic potential into Goodbye Volcano High. It’s the certainty for players that this is going to end amongst the uncertainty of its cast that the game finds its emotional core. Everyone’s trajectory is reshaped by this new orbit. Fang, the goth singer songwriter, writes through the uncertainty with music. Reed, the stoner drummer, processes his acceptance of looming death and destruction through his tabletop campaign. Trish, the nerdy guitarist, redoubles her college prep in a responsibility-driven denial that things couldn’t go off course.
And while its art direction is uninspiring and commitment to 2D animation something that backfired in execution, the bigger ideas behind blending writing, visuals and interactivity are at times stunning. When the news first arrives, Fang drowns in Tweets, doom scrolling as posts float around their bedroom on screen. Fake Twitter is an important part of the game as absurdity is a valuable response to meaninglessness. With IRL memes and discourses finding their dinosaur counterparts, everyone posts through it. Care for carnivore/herbivore discourse while you await destruction?
Perhaps Goodbye Volcano High’s strongest feature is how interactive elements further the narrative aims of the first-person perspective. Dialogue boxes will break in half like expectations shattered, text shrinks as if uttered with sunken shoulders, curiosities bounce around and confessions and honesty require your focus and commitment (in the form of an effortful, vision-narrowing button combo). Text may even altogether change, as a spoken “I’m fine” morphs into Fang asking themself “Am I really ok?” once the option is highlighted by the player.
The near fully voiced acted, cinematic presentation even lends something to gameplay beyond an air of attempted prestige, as timing becomes incorporated in the flow of conversation. I felt inside the mind of an anxious teen as dialog options bounced around to different buttons on the controller, glitching out while Fang was overwhelmed or swirling around with anger. I was delightfully, achingly shocked when vulnerable responses were erased by static and replaced with the grayed-out text of Fang’s denials, unable to engage with those thoughts anymore. And I didn’t say anything as their best friend stormed out of the room, over a dozen text boxes ranging from hurt to reconciliation filling the screen for just the handful of seconds it took for her to walk out the door.
And Goodbye Volcano High delivers on its other major premise. Its soundtrack captures Fang’s mood and adds to their characterization and development. Canadian singer songwriter Common Holly collaborates with Dwarf Fortress composer Dabu on the original soundtrack as Fang’s voice. Fang’s VA, Lachlan Watson, backs Common Holly’s Brigitte Naggar on the band’s in-game performances, and the vocal shift is surprisingly seamless, resulting in something of an album that is in line with the current cohort of angsty queer Zoomer music, rather than pastiche or caricature. “Reunion” evokes the apocalyptic lyrics and synth-y alt rock/dream pop fusion of Phoebe Bridgers. “Won’t Forget” bears more than passing resemblance to Pinkshift’s showstopping vocal ballad “in a breath” and “Don’t Call” is just a bop. I’ve been listening to it in repeat writing this column.
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Goodbye Volcano High is quite explicitly about the pandemic-era experiences of graduating high schoolers, who I needed no convincing had it the worst of anyone in 2020. While the initial lockdown interrupted my final semesters of undergrad, I’m still glad it didn’t happen when I was in high school and still believed in something, hadn’t yet been shaken out of that temporality. With the asteroid visible in the night sky, everything from yearbook pictures to cliche teenage emo lyrics like “we’re never gonna grow up” are suddenly tinged with, for some, a longing for normalcy rooted in a hope (if not a belief) that things will just work out, and for others, rage fomented in losing what they’ve found for themselves.
But the meteor is also just a meteor. Or an asteroid, technically. An existential threat, a void of meaning that demands a reevaluation of the things we’ve found purpose in, whether school or a punk festival. While apocalypse fic is a bastion for ideology, often a metaphor for the times, there’s a refreshing ambivalence in Goodbye Volcano High’s apocalypse. Like viral evolution, cosmic orbits are not moralistic, but we’ll still make meaning out of our experiences of them. Even the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction.
Autumn Wright is an essayist. They do criticism on games and other media. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.