Throughout my time writing for PC Gamer, there was always one peculiar fact looming over one of Future's most profitable magazines. Their cross stitch publications were doing better. Battle lines were drawn, between PC gaming and weaving tiny xs into patterned cloth. Lunchtimes could get ugly. If only there had been the uniting force of Cross Stitch Casper back then.
The free, brief point and click adventure begins with a lovely idea - a cross stitch design, animated to tell a story. Cute. Although that's the only cute thing about a peculiarly dark tale.
This is the story of a young boy called Casper, growing up in a cruel home with a drunken father, on the day a debt collector arrives at the door. And it doesn't get cheerier. The game itself is played very simply - a basic inventory application adventure with no challenging puzzles, but it ambles along amiably enough, with enough involvement to feel worthwhile. Everything is logical, and the writing from young Casper's perspective succeeds at being heartbreakingly naive.
Halfway through the game you play as another character, but this time there's almost no characterisation, beyond "cross about a thing". Which probably reveals the real issue with Casper. It's immediately easy to sympathise with a suffering child, but adults require more nuance, and that's certainly what the game lacks.
This wouldn't matter were it not to be dealing with quite such hefty topics, in quite such a heavy-handed way. The game's a tragedy, but it feels like it's tragedy because it was more fun to write it that way, rather than as a desire to communicate anything. By the end of the half hour it lasts, it starts to feel like Calvin flying the plane into the train into the earthquake into the gas leak in the farmhouse. Not because it has purpose, but because it would be horrible eh?
So that's tasteless, but that's not the issue. It's more that it seems to undermine itself, and the neatly awkward tone with which it began. Maybe it's no different than the oh-no-not-that-as-well endless horror of a Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones, but condensed into half an hour it loses any sense of drama. I'm left with the impression that Cross Stitch Casper was about seeing how horrid a story they could tell, rather than feeling a desire to tell a sad story.
The cross stitch motif works well, however. The animations are loyal to the form, and the world is well suggested through what are by necessity just a very few pixels. And of course such a genteel and homely format works effectively as a background for a tragic tale of domestic cruelty. Which only further makes me lament that this wasn't a smarter affair, something that wanted to do more than watch the plane, train and farmhouse explode at the same time.
It's free, rather importantly, so you should absolutely check it out for yourself and decide if I'm being overly pernickity on this occasion. Certainly others have found it much more affecting. The format itself merits your attention.