Wondering what could have been is, I think, one of those inherently human things. “What would my life be life right now if I had that thing differently? What if I had applied for that job, or declined that invitation?” Or maybe even just something like “What if I’d chosen eggs instead of waffles this morning?”—who knows what the butterfly-effect consequences could be? Across the Grooves is an interactive comic book that sets out to explore those ideas, with a healthy dose of music trivia to go with it.
Alice lives a fairly normal, comfortable life in Bordeaux, France. She’s in a long-term, stable relationship with a man called Jean-Baptiste, and she works 9 to 5 in a bank earning a decent living. She’s happy. But is this the life a younger Alice would have envisioned? Once upon a time, she was taking her steps toward the wild ride of the music industry, in love with an enigmatic record collector called Ulysse. Then, a few years ago, Ulysse left Alice out of the blue, setting her on the path to her current life—comfortable, if maybe not exciting.
That all changes one day when a mysterious delivery arrives at Alice’s home one day—no return address, though clearly from Ulysse, based on the handwriting—containing nothing but an unmarked white label vinyl record. Between her own curiosity and the fact that it’s her only clue as to what’s going on, Alice listens to the record, and finds herself falling into a dreamlike vision of her last memories of Ulysse, who says some odd things about how Alice wasn’t meant to listen to it, and how she needs to try relive every little detail of this moment exactly as she remembers it.
When Alice wakes up, everything seems normal—until she has dinner her sister and brother-in-law, who have no idea who this “Jean-Baptise” guy is. She happens to run into him in the street soon afterwards, but he acts like they’ve never met before. It seems this mysterious white label is somehow able to change the past—a heavy burden for anyone to bear, and only further complicated by the way it’s been dropped into Alice’s life.
And so she sets out on a journey to try to track down Ulysse to get some answers, though he’s not an easy man to find. Alice’s quest takes her across Europe, to France and London, Glasgow and Prague, through a string of second-hand record stores and the oddball collectors who run them, with the constant lure of the white label’s powers and someone at her heels who’ll stop at nothing to get it back.
That’s a fascinating premise in itself, and Across the Grooves manages to weave a captivating story around it, with all the twists and turns you’d expect (and some genuine surprises, to boot). But the real strength isn’t the mystery or the way it sets up enlightening little detours down the history of the vinyl industry, enjoyable though those are; it’s the story of Alice getting a second chance to find her place in the world, after thinking she’d already found it.
As an interactive graphic novel, how the story of Across the Grooves plays out depends largely on the decisions you make at various junctures. Sometimes they’re fairly little things that can nonetheless have a big impact, like choosing which of two different stores to visit that could both offer potential leads. Sometimes the choices are heavier—like deciding whether or not to use the record again, knowing full well the consequences that can come with it.
Depending on how you approach the various dilemmas and decisions Alice faces over the course of the game, you’ll land up on one of a few very different answers to that question. Maybe the Alice from the start, living in comfort with a stable job and a happy relationship, is who she was meant to be all along. Maybe she’s the Alice who she was with Ulysse, carefree and always looking for an adventure. Maybe she’s a different Alice entirely. Across the Grooves is a story about figuring that out—and while the time-travelling record may be the catalyst for Alice asking those questions, it’s also not necessarily the thing that allows her to be who she wants (or is meant) to be.
The art style and presentation is a crucial part of the storytelling in Across the Grooves, arguably even more so than the writing. The dialogue is frequently poetic and engrossing in its own right, but at other times can come across a bit disjointed. By contrant, the artwork is consistently mesmerising; the art style is deliberately sketchlike and rough, with lots of sharp angles and bold lines that give every scene a dynamic feel. The whole game is made up of still images, and yet the world it builds feels like it’s constantly in motion. Colour palettes shift from mundane to vibrant to psychedelic as the mood demands, pulling you along Alice’s journey through the same.
The score does the same, as you’d expect (or at least hope) from a game that makes music its central motif. The soundtrack always sits just below the surface, always driving the tone of a scene—adapting to your choices as necessary—without ever stealing the focus. It’s the rhythm section holding the whole thing together. But there are also moments when the soundtrack does get to take centre stage, most notably during the flashback sequences; here, the music pulls to the foreground and story beats unfold through vocals—branching paths included.
It’s in these moments that Across the Grooves really pulls everything together beautifully: story, interactivity, art, and music all coalesce in perfect unity. High Fidelity with a dose of time travel and occult mystery sure makes a curious elevator pitch, and while Across the Grooves lives up to that idea, there’s so much more to it. This is a beautiful, thoughtful story that cleverly blurs the lines between different forms of media to ask that most human of questions: “What if?”
Across the Grooves is developed and published byNova-box. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC. (The Switch version is not available in New Zealand.)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.