I feel bad for anyone who isn’t still fascinated with balloons. It might mean you’ve lost your innocence, your childish wonder at the originally incomprehensible. Just fill this flexible bag with a gas, such as helium or air, and watch it expand, float, fly. Even now, I sometimes can’t understand it, and this probably plays into my fear of planes, big hulking machines of metal soaring through the sky and staying there for hours. A good chunk of media that I love heavily features balloons of all shapes, colors, and sizes, such as Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, The Red Balloon, which I first watched in my high school French class, the robot’s best friend in Doki Doki Universe, and the balloons that debuff your characters in Suikoden, curable only by using a Needle. That’s only to name a few; I’m sure more balloons exist in my mind, floating just out of memory’s reach.
Balloon Diaspora, clearly by its name alone, is about balloons–hot air balloons, to be specific–but only in terms of plot. It’s really more about chatting with locals, strange stick figure folk whose culture is instantly foreign. I mean, they hunt for seagulls with fishing poles to begin with. But yeah, you, who I ended up naming K, arrived in a broken hot air balloon basket–which could be a reference to the strangeness that we know as Oz–and is looking to patch it up. K needs six pieces of cloth to patch the balloon up, and exiles from a place called the Balloon Archipelago are willing to help, for a little help in return. Fetch quests and dialogue trees abound; it’s like a JRPG minus the combat and boom anime babes.
Look, it all boils down to this: Balloon Diaspora is a series of interesting choices. Not right, not wrong, just choices–yours, whoever you believe yourself to be. My version of K came from across the Gusty Sea and was a very reserved, secretive, and compliant adventurer; I gave up little and went along with a lot. The game continuously asks questions that carry weight, but no tangible consequences. It evokes emotional agency and is an extremely effective way of empowering the player in a short period of time. Often in games where you are given a list of choices, it is easy to see them separates into different categories at a glance: friendly, unfriendly, neutral. Not here. I found myself hesitating at nearly every question tossed K’s way, thinking over the answers, considering all the options. One conversation resulted in only negative responses, and I had to determine which way was more in line with my thinking…and no, I wasn’t pleased with the pick.
Visually, Balloon Diaspora is a dark place. A void with little life, though what life lives there does stand out. The trees are unique, the non-playable characters, while similar in structure, do stand apart, and I love the way the camera zooms and turns as you point and click to maneuver through the levels. Color pops up now and then, used effectively. Equally sparse though is the soundtrack; sparse, but delightful. A somber, beautiful piano-driven piece plays as you travel from location to location in a friend’s balloon basket, and some text at the corner of the screen tells you that you can skip ahead any time you want. I never did. It’s too pretty not to hear. Other than that, I can’t recall too many other music pieces standing out as I searched around for a really good joke to trade for cloth.
The creators of Balloon Diaspora also have another game out, currently still in the works–the episodic Kentucky Route Zero. It looks atmospheric and astounding, heavy on the narrative, but I think I am growing weary of the episodic format. Life is Strange and Telltale’s Game of Thrones both seem really cool too, but I’d now rather wait until the entire season is done and can be played in a single sitting–or as close together as I like. That said, I’ll keep Kentucky Route Zero in mind for down the road and continue to look at balloons in childlike wonder.
If you want to give Balloon Diaspora a try, it’s free to download over here.