Sometimes I really should do more research into the games I review before selecting them, because oh boy is this one a doozy. Originally released in 2013, Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos is the first episode as part of a visual novel series envisioned by its developers, Dischan. Following the success of the first installment, the company held a Kickstarter for three additional episodes of Dysfunctional Systems, including a prequel episode, a far longer second episode, and a climactic third episode to wrap everything up. Unfortunately, things went wrong, and the series went dark in 2015, and it was not until 2017 that episode 0, Dysfunctional Systems: Orientation was released, with development on the second episode restarting afterwards. That should have dissuaded me from reviewing this game, but it didn’t!
Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Dischan Media
Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos is a brief little visual novel that focuses on Winter Harrison, a 14-year-old girl who recently begun her career as a mediator, a person who travels into alternate universes in an attempt to manage the chaos within them. The story specifically centers around her second assignment, where she is told to mediate a world by the name of Sule, accompanied by an experienced mediator named Cyrus.
After arriving, the two begin exploring this world, using their limited intel in order to discover the source of chaos within this world through investigation and a slight incorporation of the world’s culture and norms, while engaging with locals. It’s actually a pretty compelling process, one that gives way to a lot of worldbuilding for Sule, describing its international tensions, economical situation, and current scientific advancements, thereby painting a fairly vivid picture of the world given the story’s short run time. However, the short run time is the major detractor to the story, as the game feels the need to tell a complete storyline centering around this world within the span of just under 3 hours. Basically resulting in an hour of worldbuilding, an hour of conflict solving, and an hour or resolution.
This format really does make Sule that less interesting of a setting, especially because the game needs to manage this along with introducing basically everything about the greater setting. The whole story begins in media res, offering the player little barring in the story, immediate understanding of what is going on, and much of a reason to really care about the characters’ plights, as said plights are not very clear in the game itself. Instead, I do not think it is made obvious that Winter and Cyrus come from a utopian society until about an hour in, and the reason for why exactly the mediators exist is never really stated. In fact, very little about Winter’s world is directly stated or explained.
I know that there are various regions each with their own dialects and presumably ethnicities, that the world is strictly non-violent, and that they are capable of immense technological feats, yet nothing is ever really directly explained. Plus, unlike Sule, there is not codex entry about this world despite the fact that Winter, and by extension the player, are meant to be familiar with this world. Things get especially confusing when Winter returns to her home world at the end of the story, only for various previously unmentioned and completely unseen characters to make their appearance before an ending that comes out of nowhere and 20 minutes after the game’s opening/credits sequence.
From my description thus far, Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos seems like a slightly unfortunate title for this game, with its confusing mythos and such, but it does have its finer aspects. For one, the characters of Winter and Cyrus are well written, with Winter capturing a series of subtleties of a teenage character, and show her trying to balance herself as a good person while trying to understand a world that is far more complex than what she was taught in her schooling. She is both brash and reluctant, yet is still able to maintain an open mind and learn from her surroundings. Meanwhile, Cyrus contrasts her nicely, being stubborn and set in his ways, confident in his decision and very much centered around what he values, rather than what the society around him values.
The world of Sule is surprisingly grounded for an alternate world, featuring a more serious and thoughtful approach to the intricacies that come with international tensions. Allowing the climate of the setting to feel real, if a bit technologically inconsistent, right down to the major conflict that is causing chaos in this world. One that managed to be pretty poignant, immensely serious for the first installment of a series, and very effective at grabbing my attention. Then again, it was very dark and morose, and I tend to gravitate to those things a bit too eagerly. The story also features a branching path near the middle, offering different perspectives in which the story can play out.
Unfortunately, despite seemingly like part of a detailed dialog tree, the game really just splits off into two paths, one of violence and one of non-violence, and the event that happen in each are almost disappointingly similar. In an apparent attempt to alleviate this approach, the scripts for both outcomes are completely different, following a similar series of beats, but offering a different perspective that, while not very important, does add some additional detail and complexity to the world while rewarding players for successfully having a 14-year-old girl outsmart a disheveled man in his 30s.
Visually, the game is rather impressive for a visual novel of its caliber. Characters each have a distinct and fairly memorable design that focuses on a collection of a few fairly simple physical traits. Every sprite and background features detailed painterly shading and shows a real level of care and craftsmanship from the artist. While the game’s earthy color scheme gives the game a more reserved and grounded look, adding to its more serious tone, while never feeling boring in its design, as the level of effort placed in creating its fairly mundane looking setting is evident to see.
Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos is a promising if a little rough start to what could become an interesting visual novel series. Which is wherein my biggest problems with it lie. While the game is interesting and compelling in multiple regards, there are enough fumbling to make me hesitant to offer the title much praise, especially considering its detrimental brevity. It is a good base for a sequel, but with its development being tumultuous as far as I can tell, whether or not that will ever truly happen is not entirely certain.