I picked up The Almost Gone last week as a quick puzzle-y snack game to get into while waiting for the new Paper Mario. The promotional footage appealed to me with a simplistic stripped-down presentation and excellent color schemes. I thought, “if it doesn’t really excite me, it will at least be a calm aesthetic bubble bath of visuals before the Origami King releases.” What I was not expecting was a deep emotional narrative to unravel beneath the surface of such a simple-looking game.
Our setting is the dilapidated ruins of a person’s life. The places we explore feel as if they’ve been abandoned for ages, yet also like everyone just left a few moments ago. The narrator is a young adult who grew up in a chaotic family home with, let’s just say, less-than-perfect parents. Her father is a verbally-abusive controlling neglectful workaholic architect and her mother is a mentally-damaged victim who spends more time escaping into literature than engaging with her family. This is all conveyed through the state of the abandoned rooms and the narrator’s commentary via text-box.
The first level of the game has us exploring the abandoned home our narrator was raised in, looking for solutions to lock and key puzzles, and learning about the state of this family’s daily life. As any other point-and-click adventure game, the core feature of gameplay is the pointing and the clicking. The game’s Fez-like rotate-the-world mechanic allows us to explore our main character’s home as a three-dimensional space with depth, hidden secrets, and maze-like layouts.
I would say the majority of my time playing this game was spent shuffling throughout these locations, not looking for new solutions, but where I left the old ones. It’s key-hunting in the same way you search for your lost car keys ten minutes before you have to go to work, except if it was a somewhat enjoyable experience. It’s a lot of fun to explore these homes, search for clues, and come to learn the layout better. The pleasant aesthetic visuals and atmospheric music make it enjoyable to traverse through the levels without the dreaded “WHAT DO I DO?!” frustration popping in.
For the most part, the puzzles are not that complicated. I only contacted my resident gaming expert, Google, one time for a solution, and it turned out I didn’t even need the answer. I had just forgotten the doorknob had a “1” written beneath a secret hatch.
It is by no means a challenging game, but it is functional enough that you need to rack your brain for at least a few moments and click every clickable area.
Pro Tip: Just kinda look around.
The biggest trouble is finding all of the secrets. Even in the glorious year of 2020, we cannot avoid the tried and true method of clicking every single pixel looking for clues. The solutions aren’t complicated once you have all the items and hints, so if you’re confused just have a look around, because you’re probably missing something. Inspect all of your items as well. Sometimes there are little secrets on them the game doesn’t reveal for you, or, if you’re like me, you might have just forgotten in the two minutes since you first saw it.
If you’re really struggling and lack patience or the humility to turn to google, sometimes the puzzles can just be brute-forced open by trying a bunch of different combinations and codes.
The Gameplay is not the true appeal of this experience, it just requires the player to engage with the levels in a meticulous way to better communicate the narrative. You poke and prod through every nook and cranny of these locations because, for every new clue and text box, the game is revealing to you more about the inhabitants of these spaces.
I find it very impressive how in this short two-hour game I feel like I learned more about these people than I would have in a movie of the same length, and there isn’t even a single character model (Unless you count the beefcake statues on display in the hospital level).
This ability to convey messages through the revealing of hidden information as instigated by the exploration of the player is a very interesting way to convey a narrative. We never see any of these events take place, but we know these unseen unheard people so well by the end of the game. We understand their relationships, psychology, and history by just poking around their homes while they’re gone like some kind of kinky voyeuristic burglar.
Despite being such a quiet meditative game it still engages the player emotionally at times. It’s so gentle and serene in presentation, making all of the little moments of discomfort and surprise more effective. The game lulls you into a false sense of security then takes it away, like a child having their blanket stolen. This matches how the narrator can’t feel safe and comfortable in their own living space. We explore this abandoned lonely chaotic pseudo-home so our feelings match how our main character felt while living their daily life. This is game design at it’s most empathetic.
The rest of this review is spoiler-heavy. You have been warned. (Play the game and come back if you like)
In the third chapter of the game, you venture back in time to the childhood setting of the narrator’s father, putting the neglect the narrator faced into context against the abuse the father had to endure. In the first level, we empathize with our main character’s troubled childhood and naturally place the father into the “bad guy” category. After getting the first-hand account of the father’s traumatic childhood and the un-freakin-healthy coping methods he had as a kid, it’s clear that he really was trying his best in their home to be a better father than his own. While he is obviously not a good healthy man, the amount of mental scarring he is overcoming proves he was at least doing his best. Does this excuse the verbal abuse and neglect? No, but it puts his background into enough context to see him as a damaged man with broken psychology instead of the monster the narrator believed him to be.
I also found it fitting that the family is a lineage of architects who build homes for people and we learns this while we explore broken buildings falling apart from neglect. The homes where these people lived are now falling apart in the same way the families within them did. The grandfather actually built a structure that collapsed and killed people, fittingly he built a home-life for his son that severely damaged him.
I will say that I do have one minor critique of the game, and it is when we flashback to the father’s childhood bedroom. Some vague muffling fight noises can be heard through the walls. At that moment a text box pops up saying, “So here is where my father would listen to his parents fighting, and learn to copy their behavior so many years later.” I found this frustrating. I was very much enjoying piecing together the themes and patterns in your narrative, Happy Volcano. Coming in and explaining to me what I was already thinking is a little frustrating. Just like how I don’t want hints while I’m figuring out your game puzzles, I don’t want hints while deciphering the puzzle-like narrative and themes.
The game never gets explicit about what is actually happening to the main character in the story but there are some clear hints. They “don’t remember the last time they were thirsty,” and “forgot what food tasted like.” Also, there are no indications that this game is a representation of a person physically walking through any of these spaces. The narrative is presented as if seeing things from a disembodied floating observational eye but with arbitrary movement restrictions.
The game is essentially someone’s life flashing before their eyes before death, but by touring the key places of the main character’s life instead of the scenes. In the game’s 4th chapter, the terrible mental hospital the narrator’s mother is said to have been taken to, there are hints that in reality, the main character was the one placed here. There are a few suggestions, like her drawings on the walls, that hint the main character was placed in a psychiatric ward, and likely died in that place.
The Almost Gone is a meticulously crafted exploration of the homes and psychologies of mentally damaged people through the perspective of a disembodied victim of these circumstances. I highly recommend this game for its narrative experience, even though the gameplay does feel a bit shoehorned in. A shoehorn is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need help putting a shoe on, and this is definitely a shoe I’d recommend.