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SELF is a text-based adventure game with surreal texts, often providing moments of uncertainty and dreamlike sequences. With a minimalistic art style and track list, SELF aims to capture a ‘Kafkaesque’ mode of storytelling with bullet-hell style mini-games. However, whether it succeeds in executing this effectively is a whole other matter.

Gameplay

SELF is a surreal, interactive fiction game with a branching story leading to several possible endings. Most of the story is from the point of view of a child who’s father, according to them, has been missing for days, but no one around them seems to either remember him or recognise that anything is wrong. Decisions that determine your path through the fragmented, dreamlike narrative are usually presented as situations where you have to either “Face it” or “Avoid it” – “It” I take to be disturbing truths or painful memories, but the game does not make it obvious. You then play a short, repetitive minigame where you are bombarded with red and green objects, touhou-style, and you can “Avoid it” by touching the red objects, or “Face it” by touching the green. The thematic connection between the story and these minigames is tenuous at best, with the objects usually reflecting objects from the scene of the narrative, but mechanically it only functions to make those parts of the story accessed by “Facing it” more difficult to access.

Unfortunately, I did encounter a bug where making a particular decision caused the game to loop back to an earlier part of the story, and until it happened again I seriously considered that it might have been an intentional part of the game.

Story

The line, ‘Wash your teeth’ might well have been the first red flag for SELF. The fact that the game was translated from Chinese was the next – while this shouldn’t have been a cause of worry, my previous experience with Rain City had shown that even a game with a completely literal story without any subtext or even social commentary can suffer terribly from a bad translation.

Any story with a deliberately slippery relationship with reality must have a pretty stellar grasp on the English language in order to pull it off. SELF describes itself as ‘Kafkaesque’, and this is fair – the story is dreamlike and surreal, with scenes often melting into the next without warning, and there is a pervasive paranoid feeling, as though society and the world is out to get you, or at least, to stop you finding your father, which is the protagonist’s main objective. The problem is that the writing is not competent enough to support such a difficult (to write as well as to read) and metaphorical kind of storytelling. Even putting the frequent grammatical errors aside, the story is told mostly in short, awkwardly-phrased sentences that lack much immersive detail, and describes events that are strange but seemingly without purpose except to serve as random dream-imagery. To its credit, though, the language is never flowery or pretentious.

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Dialogue between characters is over-long and confusing; the lack of consistency in tone and characterization as well as the lack of markers make it almost impossible to tell who is speaking sometimes. Because this is a game, even having the character’s name appear at the top of the screen during their speech would have made things a lot easier.

There were some nice ideas. The hospital sequence, where according to a rule everyone has to wear crying-face masks, was thematically strong and genuinely creepy, and some of the dialogue hit on the right combination of bizarre and comic to make it enjoyable, but these moments were far and few between.

The endings, of which there are several, come just as abruptly as the change in scenes, and I honestly cannot tell what makes them “endings” apart from the fact that those are the points in the narrative where the story stops and the credits start. There is no revelation, no tying up. I should say though that, partly due to the previously mentioned story loop bug, I haven’t seen every ending, so perhaps there is a “true” ending that explains all the others? I can’t say I feel motivated to find out.

Graphics / Art Direction

You read the story over an image of a glass plaque nailed down, within a fake-retro monitor screen. The glass cracks as you progress through the story, showing the path you have taken. As for the retro monitor, I have no idea what that was for, except perhaps from adding to the sense of being boxed in by authority that runs though the game’s story.

The minigames use simple, monochromatic pixel art reminiscent of Undertale’s battle sequences and are fine, but could have used at least a bit of animation to liven them up.

Music / Sound Design

The dedicated soundtrack button on the main menu which allows you to hear the entire soundtrack before even playing the game gave me the impression that the developers wanted to put the music forward beyond just being a background for SELF’s story, and while there wasn’t a whole lot to interest me, it has an uncomplicated aesthetic appeal – as well as a remarkably long track list. I thought the music choices were sometimes unsuited to the tone of the story it was covering – well, whenever the story had a consistent enough tone for it to be unsuited to – but if anything this added to the weird, illogical nature of the story.

Final score: 52%

I wish there were more art-games and interactive fiction like SELF that try to explore unusual modes of storytelling, but the quality of the writing is key, and in this case it wasn’t up to scratch. I noticed that the localization was done by a company called Yeehe, which is a general localization service for video games. For such a text-heavy game, I think a dedicated literary translator would have been necessary to ensure that surreal and metaphorical elements and nuances (if they exist in the original prose) would not be undone by a thoughtless translation.

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Posted by Matthew Sandstrom