Dark and disturbing -- all the more so for it having been based on real events -- Masochisia is not escapist entertainment. Nor is it exactly violent in the way video games usually portray violence, yet pain is the central motif: enduring it, causing it, enjoying it, and being compelled by it. Masochisia is less like a video game and more akin to a very twisted animated story book for adults.
There are two ways of looking at Masochisia, actually: the story, the writing, and the presentation, and secondarily the game play. The story -- without spoiling too much -- is about a serial killer’s gradual descent into madness, both at the hands of a bipolar mother and sadistic father, and equally at the behest of an escalating chorus of voices and characters in his own head. At some point, pain from physical and mental torture morphs from something to survive into something to self-inflict and then to send out into the world and innocent -- and sometimes, not innocent --victims.
It’s the kind of story that we’ve seen in film, but almost never in games, because it does not have anything like a clearly innocent protagonist or a defensible moral center. Everyone in the story is broken in significant ways. We can accept Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft inflicting violence because she is clearly the heroine of the story and therefore “good,” even if her actions in the moment are objectively violent. Games rarely venture into stories as uncomfortably amoral as that in Masochisia.
The graphical style of Masochisia is unique, very much like a picture book, albeit one with grotesque characters with distorted features and stylized forests and houses. There are layers of moving visual anomalies and effects that make things appear out of focus, jerky or film grainy, add to the off kilter feel. There isn’t a lot of music, but the sound design is appropriate in it's ability to disturb and induce tension. The extremely narrow focus of the visual field adds a claustrophobic feel but is equally annoying, especially on a large monitor.
In terms of game play, there is pretty minimal interaction with the world. Panning to the right or left, clicking on dialogue choices or directional arrows and the occasional inventory object is as far as the interactivity goes. Basically, players make choices as to dialogue and apply the appropriate inventory item at specific times, like giving the father his medicine or using a weapon.
While the story is horrific and the writing occasionally has an almost Biblical, poetic cadence, it also comes off as stilted and unnatural, with dialogue choices that often feel ponderous and overwrought. After all, this is not a true “gothic” horror story, where over-the-top language is appropriate, but a tale that has pretensions of psychological truth, twisted as it might be in the mind of the main character.
Over and over through this game’s 90 minute length, I kept thinking that it didn’t need to be a game at all, that it would have been far more impactful as an animated, voiced story. After all, the dialogue choices were ultimately relatively meaningless in gameplay terms, and there are even places where making the “wrong” choice locks the player out of certain areas for the remainder of the story.
There is no doubt that many players will find Masochisia’s story and characters repugnant, and rightly so. It can’t be emphasized too strongly that, despite the storybook-looking art, this is a game for adults with strong stomachs. Games rarely go down the path that Masochisia takes, and the developer Jon Oldblood is to be applauded for taking gamers into a really dark corner of experience. In the end, Masochisia is not a very successful game no matter how unflinchingly or creatively it examines its subject matter.