Anyone well versed in gaming probably knows SWERY. Not in a same way they’d know Hideo Kojima, though, but mention games like Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die and you’ll get an instant notion. Yeah, it’s that guy who makes those totally bonkers games that are still fascinating in their honest crappiness. While waiting for the kickstarted A Good Life, SWERY turns in a minor work. Interestingly, a torturing puzzle-platformer The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is his most integrated game yet. Enveloped in a nightmarish world and a gruesome gameplay gimmick, The Missing manages to tell a surprisingly human story about a young person’s search for identity.
19-years old college student J.J. Macfield goes camping with her best friend Emily. J.J. is a gorgeous, tall blonde while Emily is more of a cute neighbor girl-type and wears a characteristic boater. Coming to a small island near Maine, Emily goes missing. Determined, J.J. goes searching for her but soon the journey turns into a nightmare. From these seeming premises, The Missing plays out as a 2D puzzle-platformer where the body must be literally thrown into the harm’s way. I’ll be honest, when I saw trailer for The Missing a couple of months ago, I thought it’s more akin to some sick torture porn than a credible game. It indeed might appear so if you just take the self-mutilation out of the context (exactly what that hack job trailer did), but that would do the game a grave injustice. What’s the most macabre is that the bloody gimmick actually works in itself.
There are numerous traps and hazards along J.J.’s way but instead of avoiding them, she must deliberately hurt herself by hurling herself at them. Need a wedge to stop rotating cogwheels? Get rid of a limb by cutting yourself to an obstacle and throw the severed body part into the works. Need to make yourself lighter to pass a teetering see-saw? Well, a crawling torso weights less than a full body. How about some platforming through narrow gaps? A severed, long-haired head is remarkably nimble in tight spots. You can also set yourself in fire to burn down obstacles. But fret not. J.J. can undo even the most horrific mutilations by a nifty regeneration ability and is soon back to her long-legged self (I do like the anime character art and illustrations even though rest of the game looks a bit outdated) – until the next obstacle, at least. The game is definitely not for the fainthearted but thankfully, bruised and mutilated J.J. turns into a black and white figure to avoid sights of excessive amounts of gushing red.
I really liked how the puzzle solutions weren’t presented in the narrative. You have to try out everything by yourself, either deliberately or by accident. When J.J. was for the first time hit by a wrecking ball (I tried to jump over it, mind you), her bones crushed and she was thrown to the other top end of the screen, turning it upside down. The play with a flipped game world presents some of the most ingenious but also the most challenging puzzle sequences. Of course, there are a few chases too where J.J. is hunted by a terrifying figure wielding a giant paper knife, a not-so-subtle nod at not only the enveloping suicidal theme but also a cult horror game series Clock Tower, which the game admits by making a clock tower a special place for J.J. and Emily.
Like most indie titles, The Missing is not content with being just a video game. It could easily be just a jest with a hapless and disposable crash test dummy in J.J.’s place, but the game goes for a deeper meaning behind its gruesome façade. It’s the search for identity, a unique take on oneself among a conservative community, where The Missing draws its energy. The narrative is almost entirely told through smart phone messages J.J. recalls during her journey (and more can be unlocked by collecting optional donuts scattered around the levels). The translation from Japanese is fluent and the conversations between the young are believable. SWERY’s love for Twin Peaks shows in some of the dialogues which are recorded by reading the lines backwards and then playing them in reverse for a creepy effect.
The ending keeps waiting for itself behind a couple of false alarms and deliberate spells of SWERY madness. The big revelation at the end is something I could tell almost from a get-go even though the game did a good job in trying to hide it for about two-thirds into the story when the closet is swung open (by a nosy mother, who else?). The way I see it, the key to understand the actual ending is the last escape sequence where the self-hurt gameplay is shaken up to support J.J’s newfound resolve. It all was worth the trouble and pain, taking me about 10 hours to play the game through to its cutting resolution.
At times, the game requires some serious precision platforming to do (and somewhat loose controls won’t help a bit at it) so I’m afraid that players who just aren’t that good at that kind of action won’t reach the ending they’d deserve to see. After all, we western players are used to that important stories in games are experienced by walking through them, and that’s why the narrative experiences are so popular; they don’t require mad playing skills. Well, there are always YouTube playthroughs to view but that’s not exactly the same thing as confronting J.J.’s purgatory firsthand.
It’s bit of a shame, then, that The Missing locks a poignant message behind such a tricky game, built from bricks of pain. On the other hand, all the hardships are there for a reason: to understand J.J. and what she has to go through to accept herself. A unique and powerful experience, I can tell that the game will linger long in the mind after finishing it.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.