by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Horror is More than Monsters
While writing for this site has been a passion of mine for the past ten years, it isnít my day job. That honor goes to teaching high school English. The job has its pros and cons, but the biggest perk is definitely getting to know my students and helping them grow. Itís not all sunshine and rainbows, though. While Iíve seen students of mine achieve their dreams and break through former barriers, Iíve also seen an unfortunate too many suffer from mental illness, bullying, substance abuse, and stress overload. While movies and TV shows have had a longer history trying to address social problems like these, itís one that games have only somewhat recently delved into. These demons are the subject matter of What Happened, a mind-bending narrative experience that I canít stop thinking about.
In my aforementioned decade of reviewing games, Iíve played some truly weird ones, from the wordless Arizona to the Russian-meme inspired Bitardia, and What Happened stands among them in my mental pantheon of the bizarre. While the game deals with very real issues, it does it in a psychedelic way that just wouldnít let my brain relax. As the name would imply, it is the business of the gameís run time to help both the player and high-school-student-protagonist Stiles navigate his own cloudy memory to either come to terms with or forget what heís been through, a terrible gauntlet of heartbreak and pain fueled by bullying, relationship issues, and an unhealthy relationship with acid. This exploration is done via acid-tri-induced out-of-body experiences that have Stiles traveling with his embodied subconscious through memories, both real and imagined.
Something that What Happened does exceptionally well is avoiding the trap of either demonizing or glorifying drug use and addiction. As is the case with most things in life, these sensitive subjects exist in the shades of gray between polar extremes, and Stiles is neither a helpless victim of circumstance or irredeemable jerk. As I learned more about him and his experiences I was ping-ponging between pitying those things out of his control and condemning the poor choices he did make, and it was refreshing to not have the protagonist pigeon-holed into being ďgoodĒ or ďbad.Ē Instead, Stiles ďis,Ē expressing a range of responsibility and maturity levels more accurate to how people really behave.
Beauty and the Uncomely
Stilesí hours-long mental journey is presented via absolutely beautiful visuals that meld the real with the surreal in, perhaps, the most consuming sense of atmosphere Iíve seen this year. The screen effects and environmental tricks used to build the drug-induced slide into repressed memories and pain are absolutely phenomenal. Iíve never done acid and I donít have experience with mental illness, so I canít speak to the accuracy of the depictions, but I can say that the world is presented as hauntingly bizarre, each sound and movement contributing to a feeling of unease and confusion. Furthermore, every single environment is packed with assets and detail. While this kind of thing is to be expected from a larger, AAA experience, itís usually only seen in a smaller-budget game when the setting is isolated to a few areas. What Happened is constantly jumping around, the player character mentally jumping to new locations every few minutes, and each one is absolutely beautiful despite only appearing briefly and seldom being returned to again.
Itís odd, then, then, that the human characters look so bad. Skin looks muddy compared to the crispness of environmental textures, and movement in almost every cutscene is stiff and unnatural. During conversations, charactersí mouths barely move, and they certainly donít match up with any of the words being said. I was playing with the graphics settings on ultra, so thereís no way around it: while the environments are fantastic, the characters look regrettably poor. The voice acting follows suit for most of the secondary characters as well, with a character named Ben, in particular, sounding robotic and disconnected, killing some of the emotional charge in his scenes. Fortunately, Stilesí voice actor delivers a much more convincing performance, most lines of dialogue sounding believably emotive and affecting.
Iíve already mentioned that this is the strangest games Iíve ever played, but it also might be the most aggressively paced. Itís odd; on one hand, the moment to moment gameplay is actually quite slow. As a walking simulator, thereís seldom more to do than look around, walk around an area, or move down a linear path. Yet, at the same time, the game seldom relents with the push forward into new scenes and bizarre experiences. The opening 10 minutes of the game work as a great example, in which Stiles dropped some acid, survived a bathroom flood with a shark, hallucinated about bathroom graffiti, got attacked by a bully, walked through a school filled with invisible students, crawled through a locker that turned into a small tunnel, walked around a dream room that became increasingly covered in butterflies, teleported to a dark hallway in which I had to rip boards off a hole to crawl through and see a destroyed painting of a woman, and became a puppet in an outdoor diorama that I had to control via strings in the third person. Again, this was the first 10 minutes. Things do occasionally let up as far as setting-swaps are concerned, but the forward momentum is never lost. Itís exhausting, but it works, and I was certainly never bored.
What Happened is not the kind of game you want to jump into on a weekend for some light-hearted fun. The game takes its subject matter seriously and delivers an experience thatís not ďfunĒ so much as it is emotionally engaging. Like watching a sad movie, you need to go into What Happened with the right mindset and expectations. If you do, thereís a wonderful journey to be found.
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Beautiful environments, detailed visual and aural effects, an engaging story, a respectful take on touchy subject matter.
Character animations are generally poor, and some of the secondary voice actors donít do as well as Stilesí.