The sad irony of Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos, is it comes so very close to standing alone but in a last-minute effort, fully commits to setting up more episodes we’re all but certain never to see.
Let’s back up for a moment though. Dysfunctional Systems is a visual novel following Winter and Cyrus, who play the part of mediators: peace keepers of sorts to the different distant worlds surrounding their own. It’s their job to step in when things become too extreme, and ensure a world doesn’t destroy itself in acts of war.
Learning to Manage Chaos then, is Winter training to learn how exactly someone is capable of keeping a world in check, especially in times of extreme turmoil. If anything though, this is more the story of Winter growing as a person than a mediator, her naivety and innocence being tested as she’s thrown into situations where there is no right decision and not everyone is going to come out alive.
It’s not uncommon for authors to craft ignorant protagonists or side characters so as to have an easy stepping off point for relaying important details to the reader, which characters should likely already know, but Dysfunctional System manages to very rarely fall into that trap of artificial stupidity. Winter feels authentic in her cluelessness about the larger world, being only fourteen but having her heart in the right place. Her actions and ways of thinking are often flawed, but her internal indecision and discomfort of wrestling between what she believes is right and what she’s being told is logical feel very relatable and sincere. She’s been living a life in a pristine society, where the concept of war is difficult to even imagine, so being flung into a far less peaceful and sustainable world comes at more than a small shock.
Cyrus, her mentor, is the counterpoint to Winter’s pleas for peaceful discussion and her fear at wandering into a world she doesn’t understand. He’s calculating and experienced, but also cold and seemingly worn down by the things he’s had to do for the sake of keeping worlds alive. His discussions with Winter are often full of frustration, but the glimpses of understanding that poke through give him the feeling of more than just an old, mean-spirited teacher. He’s smart and recognizes that Winter isn’t prepared for the role of a mediator, but he wants to ensure she gains the experience needed, which even if uncomfortable isn’t anything like what she’ll eventually have to face.
Most of Learning to Manage Chaos takes place between only these two characters, and the back and forth between them is surprisingly compelling. Their dialogues can get heated, but developer Dischan Media does a fantastic job leveraging this between brief moments of humor (such as Winter trying her first bear) to create a very personal, relatable feeling to every interaction. The core plot holds no great weight in all of this, being a tool to spark conversation but without much depth in and of itself, but it’s a short outing that manages a great amount of character development before then closing in a scene that while not perfectly finite, feels complete.
But then the screen comes back and here is where Dysfunctional Systems unfortunately suffers as at the time the first episode was being developed it was still believed future episodes were on the way. The fact is that development has been put on perpetual hiatus, dying after internal troubles caused the project to fall through and any hope of seeing the series completed along with it. This wouldn’t factor in nearly as heavily to Learning to Manage Chaos if it wasn’t for the extended epilogue that comes after the credits. It’s a series of exchanges which don’t exactly propel the plot forward, but leave it in an awkward state of uncompleted development. It disrupts the finality the episode originally ends with, and itself feels rather unpolished, with an abundance of useless dialogue and very limited artwork (most of the epilogue takes place in a sort of text only terminal).
So there’s the clincher. Dysfunctional Systems is an engaging visual novel, with a wonderful art style and a brilliant score, but it’s a story you have to commit at the start to being left hanging with. It’s hard for me to say then if I recommend giving it a chance. I’m caught between my enjoyment of what it is, and disappointment at what it will never become. It’s a weird place to find a game, and it’s not a judgement call I’d be able to make for anyone else.