There have been many games character suffering from an illness of some kind, like Angela from Silent Hill 2, Alice from American McGee’s Alice or Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Building a game around psychosis, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression can be difficult because you want to treat the subject matter with the attention and respect it deserves. When done right, the game can be used as a tool to educate others on the crippling effects of such ailments. In that regard, Artifact 5’s Anamorphine provides the player with a first-hand look at the impact depression can have on someone and their significant other.
Tyler and Elena appear to have it made. After Elena is hired by a symphonic orchestra in Montreal, the couple moves into a new apartment and prepare to enjoy their new life together. Played from Tyler’s perspective, Anamorphine is a walking simulator (the term used without derogatory subtext) set exclusively inside their apartment, where scene shifting occurs through the clever use of creative dynamic level design to create a surreal and psychologically driven atmosphere. Beginning with mundane exploration, you witness Tyler and Elena get comfortable in their new home as they enjoy their hobbies, like Tyler’s photography and Elena’s musical skills. Nothing is what it seems because you’re constantly and seamlessly warping around the apartment. Until now, I was unaware that the Unity engine was capable of performing the fantastic transitions seen here, many involving camera tricks or nifty bleeding effects as you hit unseen marks and cues.
All this makes for a heavy What Dreams May Come vibe. The constantly shifting apartment, the existence of an otherworldly hub that connects different memories in Tyler and Elena’s life together, and the alien-like landscapes formed from objects plucked from their day to day lives give the story a feeling of a dream state, which helps separate Anamorphine from similar experiences, like Gone Home and Dear Esther. This method of amorphous design plays really well against the last two-thirds of the game after a traumatic event causes a dramatic shift in Tyler and Elena's relationship as a result of depression, plunging the dream into an ongoing nightmare. The effect of that event is reflected through the morphing and eventual degradation of their home, though not in a visceral way like in PT or Silent Hill 4: The Room. The changes are far more personal than that. Anamorphine wants you to see how depression can change someone’s outlook and attitude and how it affects their relationships with other people. Our homes are an extension of our mental state and as Tyler and Elena experience hardship together, so too does their sanctuary.
Navigating the apartment and triggering transitions is easy because you only have movement and camera controls, leaving the game to do all of the heavy liftings. Interactivity is limited to hunting down glowing personal items that trigger the next story scene and open new passageways simply by staring at the item until it stops glowing. A bicycle helmet, a piece of sheet music, or a beer bottle might not seem significant at first but by the end of the story, their importance and connection to Tyler and Elena will have made sense. Beyond these moments of light interaction, Anamorphine doesn’t ask a whole lot. There are no complex puzzles to solve, dialog trees to mull over, monsters to fight, or people to convince. The inability to talk or interact directly with someone, especially during their worse bouts of depression, instills a feeling of sadness and helplessness that is bolstered by an omnipresent somber soundtrack featuring the cello, the world’s most sad-sounding instrument. It reminds me of those moments in Depression Quest when prompted to make a decision in which those that might a positive impact are blocked out.
Anamorphine guides the player along a poignant and meaningful tale of mental illness, though its effectiveness as a piece of interactive fiction is hampered by inconsistent framerate, too many lengthy load times, and stuttering. The first few times the game “tricks” you are really neat. I thought it's cool to walk through the entirety of the apartment only to pass through a door and find yourself back at the starting point with visible signs that time has passed. I also liked the time when you’d walk up to something only to stop and discover that the 3D environment has turned into a 2D portrait before your very eyes. Eventually, you begin to notice when these surprises occur because the game locks up for a second or two before the transition occurs. These freezes are also a prelude to the many, many, many load screens that mark the start of a new scene. There’s a load screen every time you enter the hub space (which is often) and others that inexplicably occur from time to time during transitions. Topping it all off are the framerate drops that happen whenever there’s a lot going on screen and during the handful-but-still-too-many bicycle sequences in which you steer through desert canyons that have really bad collision detection and camera issues. The frequency of these problems kill the immersion and emotional drama the game works so hard to develop over time.
I was really intrigued by Anamorphine when I got to try a hands-on demo at the 2017 PlayStation Experience show in Anaheim. It uses unique visual effects to tell a story that’s rooted in a relatable subject matter. Sadly, the PlayStation 4 version still feels like that game I played eight months ago. Many of the game’s more powerful and meaningful moments fall flat because of constant technical problems that made it difficult to immerse myself in the experience Anamorphine creates. PlayStation VR support has been promised for a later date, though I worry what (if any) additional issues that would be compounded with the addition on its not-quite-as-good-as-PC limitations. A sincere and genuine attempt to tell a story about the impact of depression, Anamorphine as a delivery vehicle for addressing mental illness is constantly undermined by its engine troubles.
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.