I haven’t played too many games that dealt with mental illness before attending PlayStation Experience this year. I’d certainly heard of Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and was surprised to learn that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice used Norse mythology to tell a story about a woman’s struggle with psychosis. Mental health is a mature subject, one that needs to be treated with care if used as a material for a genre typically associated with big explosions, burly men, and questionable armor design. My moment with Anamorphine, a first-person puzzle game developed by Artifact 5, was fascinating because of how it put me in the shoes of Tyler, a man suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress.
The demo lightly touched upon the central story: Tyler, the voiceless protagonist, suffers from traumatic denial after an accident causes his wife Elena to lose her musical livelihood, thereby sending her into depression. I wasn’t entirely sure what Tyler’s role in the game was considering the demo had me exploring disparate snapshots of the couple’s life together in between scenes of strange landscapes and surreal worlds. The game’s official website implies that by taking this journey, Tyler might be able to cure Elena’s depression.
Anamorphine doesn’t have objectives, collectibles, or enemies to fight. Instead, you’ll explore a series diverse environments (such as Tyler’s small but intimate apartment or sprawling hills marked by large, alien plants) connected by unseen triggers that initiate unique camera effects and scene transitions. There was one sequence that put Tyler on the balcony of an empty concert theater. As I explored the space, I turned around and found the previously empty seats suddenly occupied by life size drawing mannequins. When I made my way down to the stage, the statues took on different poses when I wasn’t looking. On stage sat another mannequin getting ready to play the cello. Just before I could reach it, I suddenly found myself walking into a wall as all ambient sound effects were harshly cut off. Reorienting myself, I discovered that the concert hall had been rendered as a framed 2D portrait on the wall of Tyler’s apartment.
Situations like the one described above are a result of camera tricks designed to give Tyler’s journey a dream-like experience. The lack of any dialog, on screen game text, and reticle made it a little difficult to walk around and explore, especially when trying to find the right trigger to start the next scene. I had asked about VR support and was told one of the biggest challenge is how to keep the impact of transitions like the one I described above without making the player sick. With so many different and jarring shifts involved with the game, I can see the multiple camera angles that change without the player’s direct input being an issue. Ultimately, Anamorphine doesn’t need VR to be a good game, it’s a bonus. While the busy and noisy convention hall didn’t seem like the best venue to play a visually driven narrative about depression, it nonetheless captured my attention and left me wanting more.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.