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Visual Novel / Reflections on the River

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Reflections on the River is a Visual Novel.
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The king and queen of Nantu, although already possessed of an adopted son, wanted an heir of their own blood, and ten years ago, they sought help from a witch. They were duly granted a baby daughter, and the kingdom has known peace and prosperity ever since. The witch, however, felt cheated of proper payment, demanding the most valuable jewel in the kingdom. The game begins when, having being refused one time too many, the witch seizes one of the royal children instead. The witch — named Zheng — is the player character.

Reflections on the River was released by STARDUST★SODA in 2016 (having been created as part of NaNoRenO). It uses Ren'Py, and is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac. It's free on Itch.io.


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The game contains examples of:

  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Ah Niu, a vegetable seller and criminal contact, is not actually related to Zheng, but describes himself to Shun as a good source of embarrassing childhood stories anyway. However, his comments are actually more than just embarrassing — the very fact that he can tell stories about Zheng's childhood reveals that the Zheng's claim to be magically ageless is a fiction.
  • Ambiguous Gender: The gender of Zheng, the protagonist, isn't specified — the narration uses singular "they", and so does at least one character. The word "witch" probably causes some people to assume female (not necessarily so, especially historically), while on the other side, Zheng can (depending on what path players choose) impersonate a male nobleman without it seeming odd. A questionnaire put out by the developers actually asks what gender players perceived Zheng to be, so the ambiguity is presumably intentional.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: played with:
  • Becoming the Mask: In one of the endings, Huineng, who has been impersonating the ill Princess Yanyu on behalf of her parents, is asked to assume the role permanently after the real Yanyu dies. Huineng is hesitant — she has fallen out with the king and queen, whose priorities and hesitation is to blame for Yanyu's death. However, it's for the good of the kingdom, so she accepts.
  • Big First Choice: The first choice players make is whether to abduct Prince Shun or Princess Yanyu. This sets the game down completely different paths. (However, the result of the choice itself is flipped by the non-chosen character saying Take Me Instead, so you end up going down the path of whichever you didn't select).
  • Body Double: Depending on what route is taken, it may be revealed that the real Princess Yanyu is perpetually ill, and that Zheng has actually just kidnapped a body double named Huineng. By that stage, Huineng is actually getting depressed about being considered so expendable. In one of the endings, however, the real Yanyu dies, and the king and queen have to beg Huineng to assume the role permanently.
  • Caper Rationalization: Zheng is demanding the most valuable jewel in the kingdom, and kidnaps a prince or princess to use as leverage. The way Zheng tells it, however, the jewel was never rightfully the property of the kingdom in the first place — it was created by Zheng in order to help the king and queen have a healthy child, but the royals then broke their word by keeping it. It's a bit more complicated than that, however: firstly, it was actually Zheng's mother who created the jewel; and secondly, the child wasn't healthy (unbeknownst to Zheng) and may need the jewel kept close to stay alive. Exactly who gets the jewel (and what it's used for) depend on player choice.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Zheng in particular, but the other two major characters can each get their own hits in when they feel inclined. They become particularly pointed when critiquing Zheng's not-very-well-thought-out kidnapping of them.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The plot of the game is triggered by the player character, Zheng the Witch, kidnapping a prince or princess to use as leverage (the king having refused to pay the actual agreed price for a witch's service). As even the captives can see, however, it's really just going to make things worse.
    Prince Shun: That did not go as smoothly as it could have. [...] I once believed witches to be quite wise.
    Zheng: What's that supposed to mean?
    Prince Shun: How would kidnapping me help you in any way?
    [...]
    Zheng: Look, I was in a hurry, and I had to think on my feet.
  • Exact Words: The king and queen went to a witch for help in having a strong, healthy child, and interpreted the witch's response as promising one. When the resulting child is sickly, they therefore consider themselves to been cheated. However, what they were actually promised was merely "their greatest desire" — and that wasn't what they said (and perhaps even genuinely thought) it was.
    King Jianyu: All those years ago, we asked for your help and you promised us our greatest desire: a healthy child. Yet look at the results!
    Zheng: Then maybe in your heart, there was an even greater desire. One that turned true while the other didn't.
  • Fake Aristocrat: Street child Huineng becomes Body Double for ill Princess Yanyu. Huineng bluntly calls out on Zheng for being a peasant and generalizing all other low class as selfish, unworthy, and other negative aspects. However, actual royalty, Prince Shun, doesn't call out on Zheng's low class as insults.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The kingdom of Nantu — and probably its neighbours — are inspired by China.
  • Happily Adopted: Prince Shun was adopted into the royal family from a neighbouring kingdom, and seems happy enough with his situation despite having been demoted to Spare to the Throne. However, it's somewhat illusory, and some paths through the game end with him deciding to leave. The king and queen may have given him a life of luxury, but they didn't do it for his sake, and expect unquestioning obedience in return for their "charity". If Shun tells them that they wronged Zheng, they call it treason.
  • In the Hood: Zheng wears one. Upon removing it, Zheng notes that it's "great for dramatic effect, but it sort of impaired my peripheral vision".
  • Legacy Character: It's not actually denied that there have been two witches (namely, Zheng and Zheng's mother), but the timeframe is deliberately misstated — as such, people think that the witch who has shown up demanding payment (Zheng) is the same one who helped the king and queen have a child ten years ago (actually Zheng's mother). This causes an argument if revealed, since it complicates Zheng's claim to the magic jewel which was used. However, Prince Shun eventually decides that even if Zheng didn't create the jewel, it is still more Zheng's property than it is the kingdom's.
  • Lethal Chef: Prince Shun, despite being Zheng's captive, is keen to cook a meal for both of them, having not had much opportunity to try it before. However, he isn't very good at it, resulting in an opportunity to make friends depending on what Zheng says.
    Zheng: Did you always have chewy congee at the palace? Ow! And what's this? Crunchy, too? Is this some kind of congee and clay pot rice fusion?
  • Leeroy Jenkins: In pursuit of the jewel, Zheng sometimes rushes into situations which might be better approached with care.
    Zheng: Come on! I'll grab some smoke bombs and we can kick down the palace door!
    Prince Shun: Hold on. [...] Aren't you in a bit of a rush?
    Zheng: Have I forgotten something?
    Prince Shun: Quite... an astonishing amount, actually.
  • Manifesto-Making Malcontent: Ah Zhu, a fisherman, is known for pushing papers of his opinions at people who just want to buy a fish. Zheng's captive, the bookish Prince Shun, finds a copy of one such paper and is genuinely intrigued and impressed by it, seeing in it a unique philosophical standpoint absent from his formal education. Zheng never explains that Ah Zhu isn't a traditional scholar — but if Zheng and Shun are getting on well, Zheng does go and ask Ah Zhu for part two.
  • Multiple Endings: There are seven different endings, of varying levels of positivity. Three are fairly definitely bad, while the others are more ambiguous, and may vary in perceived happiness depending on how much players actually know about the plot (which isn't fully revealed by any one single route). In more detail:
    • If Zheng kidnaps Princess Yanyu, there's a possible early bad ending if Zheng is unpleasant, since this results in Zheng getting killed by Prince Shun during a rescue. If this is averted, and Yanyu is befriended, it will be revealed that the kidnapped person is actually a double named Huineng, since the real Yanyu is perpetually ill. From here, there are three possible endings: the magic protecting the kingdom is used to heal Yanyu, causing short-term destruction but eventual peace; or, Huineng can't persuade the king and queen to accept Zheng's help, the real Yanyu dies, and Huineng has to assume the role permanently as the kingdom slides into decline; or, Zheng betrays Huineng's help in a failed attempt to grab the jewel, becoming a hunted fugitive.
    • If Zheng kidnaps Prince Shun, there's a possible early bad ending if Zheng is unpleasant, since this results in Zheng getting killed by Princess Yanyu during a rescue. If this is averted, and Shun is befriended, he'll agree to help Zheng recover the jewel. From here, there are two possible endings: Zheng gets hold of the jewel and its magic, leaving the kingdom to collapse as Zheng and Shun flee to Shun's original home; or, Zheng doesn't get the (real) jewel but is persuaded by Shun to let go of the past and focus on the non-magical healing that Zheng is good at anyway.
  • The Perfectionist: Prince Shun tends this way. When cooking, for example, he's actually distressed to find that although most of the pieces of radish he sliced are exactly equal, there's one on the end which isn't. Zheng, who never bothers to even try, is bemused.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: If players go down the appropriate route, it turns out that Prince Shun had actually found and disarmed the traps supposedly keeping him prisoner (which Zheng had pretended were undetectable magical wards). Being able to observe and study Zheng's work is preferable to him than returning to his boring, pointless life as Spare to the Throne.
  • Schrödinger's Gun: It can look like this, since certain facts (regarding the nature and origin of the jewel, for example) which are given in one route contradict those given in another. It's actually not the case, however, and there is a coherent truth — but no one route ever shows it to you all at once. The apparent contradictory facts are just lies that didn't happen to get exposed in the path you took, and there will always be some no matter which way you go.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Zheng tends to assume that the prince and princess are like this, and that they'll have trouble coping with the simple surroundings of their captivity. It's partly true — they're both "like small children" when allowed to go with Zheng to the market, for example, and Prince Shun doesn't understand the worth of money (thinking that a few gold coins are mere pocket change when they're actually so rare Zheng has never even seen one). However, neither is at all hesitant to work and do chores — Prince Shun because it's an opportunity to try things he's usually not allowed to do for himself (like cooking) and Princess Yanyu because she's actually a servant pretending to be Yanyu.
  • Smoke Out: One of Zheng's favourite moves. Zheng presents it as magic, but it's actually chemistry.
  • Spare to the Throne: Prince Shun, who was adopted essentially for that purpose. The king and queen weren't sure that they'd ever be able to have children of their own, so arranged to adopt a prince from an allied kingdom — but now they do have their own child, and Shun became the backup. He doesn't hold any grudges against the new heir, but he does feel useless and unappreciated, as he's not allowed to ever do anything useful — he just has to hang around in idleness until they're sure he won't be needed.
  • Spoiled Brat: Princess Yanyu is like this at first, being disdainful of Zheng's "peasant" accommodation and lack of deference. (Of course, the fact that Zheng just kidnapped her probably contributes to her lack of politeness, too.) She becomes less haughty when it's revealed that she's not really Princess Yanyu at all, but rather a double.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Players can have Zheng be either friendly or distant to whichever of the royal children are being held captive. These choices influence the captives' attitude towards Zheng, and can result in them coming around to Zheng's point of view. Should this happen, they decline rescue when it shows up; otherwise, Zheng is killed. Zheng finds this puzzling.
    Zheng: Why aren't you skipping all the way back home to the palace? [...] I'm starting to really think that the princess was right, and that there really is something wrong with you! I kidnapped you, remember? I'm the bad guy here.
  • Story Branching: The game starts out with a Big First Choice, and continues to branch within each path. Different routes reveal different things, and no matter which one you go down, you'll only get a partial picture of the overall plot. For example, players who take Yanyu's route never learn that Zheng didn't actually create the jewel, while players who take Shun's route never learn that "Yanyu" is actually a stand-in. To learn everyone's secrets, you need multiple play-throughs.
  • Take Me Instead: When Zheng moves to abduct one of the royal children in retaliation for not being paid, players decide which one to target, but regardless of choice, the other will try to intercede. They're successful, so players always get the opposite to their selection.
  • Unwanted Rescue: Unless players choose the wrong options, Prince Shun or Princess Yanyu (whichever was kidnapped) declines to be rescued from Zheng. In Shun's case, it's because he's actually quite pleased to get away from what he finds to be a boring, pointless life as Spare to the Throne. With Yanyu, it's a bit more complicated: she's actually a Body Double for the real Yanyu, and although she'd hoped to be rescued, the fact that so little effort is put into the search convinces her that she's considered expendable, and she doesn't want to go on with it.
  • Villain Protagonist: Played with. Zheng, a witch, looks set to fill the villain's role in a fairy tale, making demands of the king and queen and kidnapping a royal child after being thrice denied. However, Zheng's "demand" is actually nothing more than that the king keep his word and return Zheng's property. The whole abduction plot was more spur-of-the-moment desperation than calculated scheme, and Zheng doesn't really make a very good hostage-taker, being more snarky than nasty. If players make Zheng too selfish and unfriendly, it leads to negative endings.

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