I don’t know what I was expecting from Cinders, developer MoaCube’s visual novelization of the classic story. It’s advertised as “a mature take on the Cinderella fairy tale”. If by “mature” they mean “angst-y” then, sure, it’s mature, but the approach does nothing for the story, nor does it add anything interesting that we are not already familiar with when it comes to ye’ ole Cinderella. Though the writing was good enough to keep me going and the characters were charming-ish, I came out of the experience feeling blasé and, well, bored. It’s the same reason I fall asleep instantly when A Christmas Carol is on during the holidays. Sure, the story might be good, but I’ve seen it, read it, and watched plays of it hundreds of times. I was hoping for a re-imagining, but, unfortunately, Cinders is ultimately a retelling.
If you haven’t already guessed, Cinders stars Cinders, the red-headed, wisecracking, punk version of Cinderella. Again, after playing through the game, I’m not entirely sure what the developers mean by “mature” (or we might have two entirely different definitions) unless they are pointing at Cinders’ less than elegant tongue when it comes to communicating with others. She’s got a fire inside her and she, unlike the classic version of Cinderella, is not afraid to show it. Cinders talks back to her evil stepmom and annoying-as-all-get-out stepsisters stands up for herself when she feels like she needs to, has no problem letting a naughty cuss word slip out every now and then, and takes her fate into her own hands rather than wait for a white man to help her. As far as Cinders goes, she could not be more different than the original version. Given the fairy tale paints Cinderella as the typical damsel in distress archetype, it’s refreshing to see Cinders have her own agency.
Sadly, save for a few plot points and devices that have been changed, Cinders’ character is the biggest difference between the game and tale.
For the most part, all of the story beats from Cinderella are in the game. Cinders’ father is still a beacon of positivity in her life; her stepmother still sucks; the stepsisters continue to be nasty toward her, though, to the game’s credit, it does a more nuanced job at showing their relationship, and there’s a big ball that Cinders is dying to go to. Though there are differences — namely Cinders’ fate is no longer beholden to a man fitting a slipper on her foot, it’s largely well-trodden territory. Even with some of the changes in its storytelling, I was able to guess what my options for Cinders would be well before the end.
Worse yet, the changes they did make to the story were never interesting, except for the relationship between Cinders and her stepsisters. As much as the writing tried to show the stepmother as a nefarious mastermind who is deeply embedded in criminal activity, when I learned what she was actually up to, I couldn’t help but say, “Wait….. that’s it?”. Toward the end of the story, when I was offered three choices, I was taken aback by how simplistic they were. Cinders provides a lot of decision points throughout the game, some of which affect how other characters see you, while others affect how Cinders views the world. Some of my favorite decisions affected my relationship with the stepsisters in what felt like earnest ways, and in the end, it was as if we never had those conversations.
At the start of the game, the stepsisters, Gloria and Sofia, are one-dimensional bullies determined to make Cinders’ life even worse. As the story progressed, I learned that Gloria and Sofia are products of their environment, that Gloria’s mean streaks and Sofia’s use of biting humor are means to cope with lifelong disenfranchisement. Gloria is callous because she has spent all of her waking moments trying to emulate her mother for a droplet of approval rather than become her own woman. On the other hand, Sofia uses humor and sarcasm as a defense mechanism to deflect others from her lack of self-esteem. They’re complex, broken, and wonderfully realized, and I had many conversations with them that I treasured, like when I made Gloria see that she can choose who she wants to be, or when I cracked Sofia’s comedy and started to see how deeply sad she was. These were big moments for me in my playthrough because they showed that I could make a connection with my virtual stepsisters. So, you can guess how disappointed I was at the end of the game when Gloria and Sofia revert back to their original selves and act as if our conversations never made an impact.
Cinders spends most of its time rehashing a story I have seen and heard many times over, and the time it does spend trying to do something different — either through the story or by offering the player some narrative freedom — it fails to stick the landing and actually make any meaningful changes. I went into the game hoping for a risque rendition of an old fairy tale, and what I got was a milquetoast story that never felt truly distinctive.
Though Cinders would like to be a mature version of the Cinderella fairy tale, it fails to separate itself from the original and ends up rehashing a story we've all heard before.