Sumire is a beautiful game, and I mean that in every sense it’s possible to interpret that phrase. It looks wonderful, it sounds amazing, it tells a delightful story through some exquisitely written dialogue… and it will grab hold of your heartstrings and tug like there’s no tomorrow until you are an emotional wreck of a human being.
I knew the game was going to be something special when I had the good fortune to try its demo in the Steam Game Festival back in February of 2021. And I was delighted to discover, upon playing the full version, that the final product not only met, but exceeded my expectations considerably. This game is an absolute work of art, and should be considered an absolute must-play if you have the slightest interest in narrative-centric games.
But let’s back up a moment for those who are as yet unfamiliar with Sumire, because gushing, effusive praise is nothing without context, after all.
In Sumire, you take on the role of the eponymous heroine, a young girl who lives alone with her mother in a traditional Japanese-style house on the outskirts of a small town. Sumire has been having a rough time of it of late; not only did her beloved grandmother die recently, but her family is also falling apart; as we join the story, it’s not long after her father walked out, leaving her mother grief-stricken and barely able to function.
Being of an age where she’s just starting to figure a few things out about the world — most notably with regard to defining the sort of person she wants to be, and in matters of the heart — Sumire is naturally feeling somewhat cast adrift at how suddenly she’s having to grow up. She’s having to deal with complex issues that she doesn’t quite understand, and she wants nothing more than to be able to enjoy her childhood in peace. But life, regrettably, doesn’t work like that.
She’s thrown a lifeline when she discovers a strange glowing seed, and plants it in the hope that the birth of a new life might bring her some degree of joy. She’s especially surprised to discover when she awakens the following morning that not only has the plant grown to full maturity overnight, but its flower can fly and talk — and seems curiously concerned about her wellbeing.
The flower reveals early on that they only have a single day to live, and politely requests that Sumire show them a “perfect day”. To the flower, that means running through a list of things that have been weighing heavily on Sumire’s mind, and attempting to reach some sort of “closure” on each of them.
The flower knows that Sumire is filled with a sense of guilt and regret over all the things she’s wanted to say and do for a long time, but has never had the courage to follow through on. And, now that those words left unsaid have, in her eyes, led to seemingly irreversible tragedy — the death of her grandmother; the absence of her father; the loss of her best friend; the fact she may never be able to tell the boy she likes how she really feels — the flower wants to show her that it is possible to take control of even the most desperate situation and grow as a person from your experiences.
What then follows is a side-scrolling adventure game in which you take control of Sumire on the journey through her “perfect day”. As you proceed from Sumire’s house on the far-right edge of the game world to the town and beyond on the left, you’ll encounter various characters and creatures — many of whom have interesting and surprising things to say.
Sumire as a whole is bathed in a sense of magical, spiritual mystery inspired somewhat by Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Throughout the game, she has the opportunity to commune with things that one would not normally be able to communicate with, ranging from the creatures of the forest to seemingly inanimate objects such as rocks, statues and scarecrows. Every one of them has something to share with our heroine — and most of them have their own sense of regret over things they’ve left undone too long, or words they’ve never said to those who are important to them.
A key part of Sumire is deciding how our heroine responds to these various distractions from her own journey. You’re free to completely ignore them if you so desire, but engaging with them allows Sumire the opportunity to accumulate positive or negative karma according to how she behaves. In some cases, these seem like straightforward decisions — do something obviously helpful, get good karma; refuse to help or deliberately stand in the way, get bad karma — but in others there are some intriguing moral quandaries to ponder.
I’ll save the details of these for you to discover for yourself, since part of the joy of Sumire is stumbling across these situations and muddling through them yourself. But suffice to say for now that there are several situations throughout Sumire where what might seem like the optimal way to “solve” a situation is not necessarily the same as resolving it like a “good person” would.
And there’s no going back, either; in keeping with Sumire’s core concept of dealing with regret and things left unsaid, once you’ve done something — or perhaps not done something — there’s no reloading and trying again. If you do something you end up wishing you hadn’t, you just have to deal with it and the consequences that come thereafter. Sometimes you (and Sumire) will be the only one aware of such consequences — but that’s as important a part of the experience as a whole as the more explicitly stated parts of the narrative.
One of the most memorable instances of this in my own playthrough of the game was where my own clumsiness and haste to react in the heat of a particularly emotional scene meant that a particular character didn’t show up again for the rest of the game. None of the other characters mentioned this; it was as if our absent friend had simply disappeared completely, erased from existence. But I knew. And I know that Sumire knew, even though she never said anything else on the subject. It was just part of her journey for her to quietly file away in her mind, ready to reflect on later. And we both had mixed feelings on the matter, for various reasons.
Sumire’s main journey is one of growth — of working her way carefully through her list, attempting to understand each of the core issues that are weighing down her mind, along with why they are troubling her so. Her journey to figure things out causes her to think about things she has, up until this point, perhaps believed without question — or that she’s assumed would always be the case.
The subject matter tackled along the way covers topics such as how people change — and not always for the better — as they mature; how we each deal with loss; how we struggle to define ourselves in a world that sometimes seems like it’s resisting our every attempt to do so; and how we sometimes put up a front to the world that is completely at odds with how we’re really feeling.
Sumire’s not the only one with a story to tell in all of these regards, and that’s what makes a lot of the game’s narrative so emotionally resonant to experience. Everyone is struggling in their own way, even if it might not appear to be obvious at first. Everyone has regrets; everyone has situations that they might want to resolve but, in some cases, have left too long for them to ever feel like they will be able to “fix” properly.
Sumire is filled with wonderfully subtle touches that emphasise this feeling of struggling through life. The fact that the game world is represented as being wrapped around a cylinder or sphere of sorts, coupled with the positioning of Sumire’s sprite on the screen, means that it always looks like she’s walking “uphill”, regardless of which direction she’s going. Our heroine’s constantly melancholic expression reminds us that she’s suffering alone in silence, even when standing among her peers. And there’s a constant sense that nothing is quite as it seems — particularly with all the unexpected “characters” you encounter!
What Sumire the character shows us, though, is that it’s never really too late to face these struggles head-on — and that it’s inevitably better to confront them directly rather than simply letting them fester. Sometimes this means stepping well out of your comfort zone in order to say or do things that you’ve never done before — but in many cases the regret you’ll feel from never taking that risk is far worse than any setback you might suffer from being brave. Because if you’ve been brave and proactive, you’ve at least tried to take things in a positive direction; doing nothing is always an option, but it ultimately doesn’t get you anywhere in the long term.
Sumire is a delightful, heartfelt, honest and genuinely emotional narrative experience. At about three hours long, it’s a game best enjoyed in a single sitting — though it’s also worth noting that the game is very replayable to see how different choices along the way play out, and indeed how the whole thing concludes if Sumire finishes her day having favoured a particular type of karma. Is being a “good person” always the answer? Is Sumire herself justified in doing bad things after how she’s suffered? And what’s with all the crows?
And if any of the limited-press houses are reading? This game needs a beautiful physical release. It deserves it. Please make it happen.
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