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Summer camps can be a magical time. They’re often the first time a kid gets to be away from home — and away from parental supervision — for an extended period of time. It’s a test of their independence, but also their ability to adapt to a new social situation by being thrown together with a bunch of new people. It’s almost like a dry run for going away to college or moving out on your own, except in theory it has some form of adult supervision.
This aspect of summer camps is at the core of visual novel Camp W. It tells the story of either Liliandra (“Lil”) or Lysander (“Ly,”) depending on who you choose, a middle school aged kid who is attending a summer camp for the first time. This away-from-home experience is further complicated by Lil / Ly not being human, but instead a witch from the Witching Realm, a dimension full of magic and magical species long cut off from humans. They stumbled on the camp after discovering a strange portal, and having never been allowed to do anything during summers but study, decide to make the best of the situation by pretending to be a normal human camper. This turns out to be harder than anticipated as Lil / Ly is compelled to investigate mysterious happenings around the camp.
Camp W uses the structure of a dating sim visual novel, giving you different options for Lil / Ly to say or do. But instead of leading to a romantic relationship with non-player characters, it’s instead a means for becoming friends with them. For example, you might be prompted by one of the camp counselors to choose what activity you want to participate in, and the prompt also includes the character associated with that selection whose story you’ll advance. So if you choose to do arts and crafts, you’ll get a scene with Sophie, the other new kid at camp this summer, or you might choose to do something with the campus radio station which gives you a scene with super inventor twins Ezzi and Ella.
The more scenes you have with a character, the more you learn about them and subsequently, the better friends they become with Lil / Ly. In order to get everyone’s stories, you need to play the game through multiple times, which, while a trope of dating sims, here feels less like it breaks the immersion of the narrative the way a dating sim can.
Part of this is because friendships and romantic relationships are very different social interactions with different levels of commitment. Deciding on a romantic partner, even a virtual one, takes into account what a person finds interesting or attractive, which adds an emotional element. This emotional attachment makes a single playthrough feel like your own personal canon. But the relationships in Camp W are much more casual, to the point that you still feel like you’re friends with everyone at the camp even if you didn’t spend much time with them.
The other reason this system works differently, yet so well in Camp W, is that your friendship progress with the campers is divorced from the main plot. The activity scenes don’t explicitly tie into the main story, such that being better friends with one character or another doesn’t really alter how things play out. It’s not the sort of game where there are different endings based on your decisions, rather regardless of the scenes you experience, the end game is always going to be the same. It’s the questions of how they got to that point that will be slightly different based on your choices.
While it might not be as ambitious as a game with more varied endings, it feels a lot more in keeping with the tone of a story based on young friendships. For Lil / Ly, the most meaningful choices aren’t in the framing narrative about the magical things going on at the camp, or how they are going to get back home. Instead it’s what they do at camp and who they spend time with that are going to stick with them, which helps them to get the confidence and perspective they need. It’s those sorts of experiences that resonate and help you grow as a person — and that’s true even if you’re a witch.
Camp W was created by Psyop. You can get it on Steam for $12.99 (Windows, and Mac OS). It takes about three hours to finish a first playthrough.