Childhood memories and nostalgia are two literary devices that can shape a narrative and a character's backstory. Games like Marie's Room, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Gone Home all draw upon experiences from the protagonists' youth, and explores what life was like in a particular space. Where the Bees Make Honey aims to build upon narrative games by incorporating fun puzzle elements into its design, but ultimately, it falls short.
Where the Bees Make Honey focuses on a young woman named Sunny, who is working overtime in a call center. She finds the work dehumanizing, as customers tend to treat her poorly. In between calls, she reminisces about her childhood, when things were more fun and she was more sure of herself. When a breaker is tripped, Sunny goes downstairs to fix it. A flash occurs, and when she goes back up to her office, she finds a forest filled with colorful fauna. This forest leads her to different memories of her childhood. At this point, Where the Bees Make Honey changes perspective from first person to a third person platformer. The rest of it progresses in a bizarre fever dream with a painfully slow pace, even though the game itself is actually short (around 74 minutes, according to my playthrough.) As Sunny's childhood self, we progress from level to level, learning little to nothing about her actual childhood.
What first drew me into Where the Bees Make Honey was the concept of exploring childhood, as I loved games like Marie's Room and Edith Finch. But when Where the Bees Make Honey first opened up, what struck me was the art style. It was extremely detailed and realistic, featuring a masterful use of lighting, and was fairly impressive. That is, until I saw Sunny's character model, which seemed oddly flat compared to the scenery. When we make the transition to Sunny's childhood, the difference in art style becomes more jarring. The environments and levels are colorful and bright, evoking feelings of nostalgia. But Sunny's childhood character model creeped me out. She has wide, unblinking and bulbous eyes that looked ready to pop out of her head. You can argue that the change in art style is supposed to represent what life is like as an adult versus as a child. As a child, you're more optimistic, so the world around you is colorful and cartoonish. When you grow up, that world becomes colder and darker, since you gain a sense of realism. But this difference isn't explained, and interrupts the player's immersion in the story.
Gameplay is divided into a strange assortment of levels. In the platformer levels, your goal is to obtain all the honeycomb charms in order to progress to the next area. The player has to rotate the environment around in order to obtain all the honeycombs. Other levels explore memories, like when Sunny got lost in a grocery store, rode her bike, went trick or treating, or was... fearless? I'll circle back to that in a bit. In these levels you may be obtaining honeycombs, or you may just be simply trying to get to the end of the segment. Sometimes it's unclear where to go or what you're supposed to be doing. Although the puzzles themselves are fun and creative, the poor level design makes it difficult to anticipate what's next and is confusing to the player.
What makes the levels even worse are the shoddy, difficult controls. The character tends to list to one side, even though you're holding down the keys to point her in the correct direction. In the rabbit level, things get unbelievably worse. The camera won't focus correctly and makes sudden, jittery movements as you turn corners. The rabbit moves pretty fast and the controls are terribly sensitive. When you are controlling the rabbit, and the rabbit jumps and lands, he'll slide around on the surface like he's on ice, although it's clearly spring. This was incredibly frustrating, to say the least.
But even the strange design choices, poor level design and buggy controls were nothing compared to the narrative, which absolutely lacked any kind of direction or connection to its intended themes of childhood nostalgia. In each of these levels, which represent certain memories, I thought that we would explore how each of them shaped Sunny's personality, or helped me to understand why Sunny wanted to return to childhood. But each of these levels made strange choices. The rabbit level was the most glaringly bad example of this. While our narrative voice is Sunny, for some reason in this level we switch to her mother's perspective, and play as a mother rabbit trying to find her baby. While I get the parallels in the story, I don't understand the random change in narrative voice. And when I get to the end of this brutally awful level, I get no understanding of how this event shaped Sunny's personality, or feelings of nostalgia.
As we move to the monster truck level, the writing gets even worse. Sunny opens up by saying how she wishes she was as "fearless" as she was when she was a kid. Monster truck, fearlessness? Oh, what a great metaphor! I was eager for her to expand on that, possibly by telling me stories of doing dangerous stunts as a kid. Nope. Instead Sunny complains about her colleagues, and how they live life by the status quo, which is bad, but she doesn't quite explain why. Towards the end of the level, she makes a statement along the lines of how her coworkers should "understand another person's perspective," while failing to realize the irony of that statement. Then, as we continue through the end of the level, Sunny randomly laments, "I'm not someone who is just finding themselves. I'm also a woman. I nurture. And therefore I should matter." This sexist declaration wouldn't be so glaringly bad if the writers had bothered to demonstrate how Sunny nurtures. But she literally just finished trash-talking her colleagues, showing that she doesn't have a lot of empathy or understanding for others. So where is this coming from?
This whole game centers around Sunny's desperate desire to return to childhood. When I got to the end of this cringefest, I expected Where the Bees Make Honey to give me a satisfying ending. I watched as Sunny, suddenly surrounded by childhood photos, sat on the ground of her office and talked out loud to literally no one about the past. She talks about how she was so sure of herself as a child, and how her memories shape who she is today. However, she hates who she is today, so that's confusing to say the least. Then she says "I haven't become that yet." After this confusing series of contradictions, I was then shifted back to first person perspective, lying on the floor of the office as a call came in. You are given the choice to answer it, or not. By accident, I selected to answer it, and had to listen to Sunny greet a customer through tears. This angered me. Giving the player a choice in the ending only works when the player has a motivation to choose either or. Sunny clearly has no motivation to keep working at her job, or if she did, it was never described. Why was I given a choice? To randomly spice things up at the end of a terribly dreary game? This is my biggest issue with Where The Bees Make Honey: it's a narrative game. The narrative should be the strongest element by far, but it completely fell through.
Despite its numerous flaws, Where The Bees Make Honey does have some good elements, albeit small. As I mentioned before, the environments and art style are fairly good (save for some weird choices), but I also enjoyed the voice-acting. Sunny's voice actor, who is also one of the game's writers, has a warm, bright voice that brought a lot of power into her role. For as terrible as the writing was, and how oddly mean Sunny could be at times, I did want her to be happy. It broke my heart at the end when she answered the phone and started crying. I've worked in a call center before, and I know what it feels like to be the emotional punching bag for every customer having a bad day. I wanted Sunny to break free of her toxic, soul-sucking work environment, and I was remorseful that I had made such a big mistake.
Where The Bees Make Honey game didn't have to be a failure. It absolutely had the potential to expand upon narrative games that are pretty much just walking simulators. Underneath the poor level design and even poorer storytelling, there is a colorful world filled with cute little puzzles and smooth voice acting. Honestly, it feels like the developers either ran out of time or money to work on the game. Either that, or they completely lost interest in the story, and decided that releasing the game was better than scrapping it. I don't know that for sure, but I do know this: you are better off spending your money on Edith Finch.
Chloe reviewed Where the Bees Make Honey using a Steam code provided by the developer. The game is also available for PS4, Xbox One, and will release on the Switch this September.