It is exceedingly rare for anyone to accidentally stumble into the creation of something truly meaningful or inspired. Most significant works of art are born of deliberate attempts to create significant works of art. In general, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the amount of effort that goes into a project and that’s project’s quality. But, inevitably, someone will pour their heart into an attempted magnum opus, only to discover too late that their idea really wasn’t worth their time or energy. RETSNOM is one such game. It’s the digital manifestation of pretentiousness: a theoretically enticing convergence of deep gameplay and metaphorical storytelling, all of which utterly fails to connect on any level.
The title alone is indicative of the amount of subtlety that RETSNOM (read it backwards) is working with. Ironically though, what exactly it’s being unsubtle about isn’t really clear. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story that so misunderstands the concept of symbolism. The cutscenes drone on about duality, introspection, and anything else that a mirror can represent, and while reflections form the central pillar of the gameplay, they don’t do so in any way that’s relevant to the didactic spiel, and neither does the narrative.
The actual plot is about a man who inexplicably travels forward in time and attempts to retrieve a vaccine to save his present-day daughter from a zombie infection. From that tenuous starting point, the plot spirals into nonsense. Characters are killed and replaced by other versions of themselves for no reason, and the lab that the entire game takes place in becomes an unreal landscape where platforms float in nothingness and take the form of Space Invaders sprites. That second point could be forgiven, except that the setting’s incomprehensible nature is acknowledged as potentially an attempt to deter zombies, shattering any possibility of it being merely an abstraction to facilitate gameplay.
The most problematic narrative element, however, is that the protagonist’s actions are constantly being labelled selfish and catastrophic. His search for the vaccine is framed as a theft that will doom future generations, as if a vaccine only consists of a single irreplaceable syringe. This “dilemma” is the moral centre of the plot, and it makes no goddamn sense. It doesn’t help that some intended significance and internal logic was undoubtedly lost in the game’s NES-quality translation. There are entire lines of dialogue in RETSNOM that I could not decipher the original meaning of. But even if I fully understood everything the game showed me, that still wouldn’t redeem its flat characters, tired premise, and dreary, heavy-handed prose.
As for the gameplay, it’s a 2D platformer in which the world can be distorted by placing mirrors at the player’s position. The mirrors flip their contents along either the X or Y axis once that ability is unlocked, and one group of levels sees reflected areas slowly disappear (flimsily justified as a foggy mirror). Multiple mirrors can overlap, allowing for some extremely unorthodox jumping puzzles and terrain manipulation, and the game’s 61 levels sufficiently exhaust all applications of the mechanic. The system certainly sounds intriguing; too bad it’s practically impenetrable.
The developer, Somi, may very well be a genius level designer, but only if the level design’s effect on the player is discounted. While players will eventually learn a handful of valuable techniques (e.g. carving out a safety net by vertically flipping the bottom corner of a structure), only the exceptionally perceptive will be able to consistently operate the game’s mechanics effectively. The first few levels are fairly straightforward, featuring movement-based conundrums in the vein of FEZ (move platforms to reassemble a ladder or bridge a gap, for example). From there, the puzzles go off the deep end, requiring unreasonably precise combinations of overlapping mirrors, as well as esoteric solutions like redirecting zombies to activate switches.
There are innumerable reasons why the reflection mechanic doesn’t work, but the greatest culprits are its unmanageable range and limited control. The mirrors affect a 9x9 grid with the player at the centre –81 spaces that are going to change position. That is way too much information for the human mind to manipulate, especially when asked to do so multiple times with intersecting results. Furthermore, the fact that mirrors always applied in a 9x9 grid means that the only scale the player can perform at is “large and inexact,” even though many level solutions require perfection down to the grid space.
RETSNOM frequently asks too much of its audience, but that’s only a symptom; the disease is that the gameplay is untenable. As promising as the mechanics sound, there is no version of them that is both engaging and intuitive. The interface that indicates how a mirror will affect the environment is passable, but with so much information to convey visually, that’s the best it could hope for. Giving the player finer control or smaller range would make the puzzles even more complex or not complex enough, respectively, while giving them control independent of their own position would eliminate any challenge. The only definitively positive change that could be made is loosening up the slightly stiff controls, but that’s the least of this game’s problems.
If the obvious lack of second opinions going into development didn’t do it, RETSNOM’s aesthetics will betray its one-person design team. The simple pixel art is adequate but bland, although the featureless humanoid enemies are legitimately creepy (at least until they’re explicitly called zombies – the most overdone and thus least scary creatures in fiction). Furthermore, the soundtrack is made up entirely of public domain works – all appropriately bleak, if occasionally overwrought. The only thing the game does completely right is its sound design; the zombies have a surprisingly unnerving roar, and scenes where the music disappears to expose the sound effects can be impressively atmospheric.
The “restart level” button in RETSNOM causes the protagonist to commit suicide by slamming his head on the floor repeatedly. At first it’s shocking, but eventually it becomes unintentionally hilarious. After sealing myself in an inescapable cube for the twentieth time while attempting to find a solution that required either exact foreknowledge or 15 minutes of fiddling with unintuitive reflections, I could not think of a more perfect representation of my mood. I feel bad for Somi. There’s so much visible heart and ingenuity in this product, but its fundamentally flawed mechanics and absurd, dismal story leave in my mind only the animation of a man hysterically bashing his own head in.