Content warning: discussion of bodies, mutilation and graphic violence
Sometimes we play big budget AAA games despite their selves – and despite ourselves.
We play them despite the significant issues many of these games have with regards to their narrative storytelling, their politics and their development practices. Red Dead Redemption 2’s red face or Rockstar’s apocalyptic approach to its workers, Spiderman’s police love-in, God of War’s inability to confront its misogyny, Tomb Raider’s colonialism and Far Cry 5’s… well, everything – for some of us these issues are enough on their own to either stop playing these games or to not even touch them.
But then, many of us play these games regardless – recognising their issues, we make a note and move on, we keep enjoying the usually excellent interactions these games provide, we continue, because a game is a sum of its parts. Big AAA blockbusters are aimed at the big markets – so these games are usually polished to the n-th degree and provide many parts, widening their appeal as far as possible.
Some of us, on the other hand, may not be able to move past some of these parts because they hit too close to home, because they are so egregious or ever-present that we cannot ignore them despite the fluid animations, the great gun play, the smart enemy design and etc. – despite these other, mechanical parts often being stellar.
Waypoint refused to cover Kingdom Come Deliverance, for example, and I certainly know people who have boycotted RDR 2 due to the labour issues around the game – and all power to them. It’s hard for me to boycott a game on a platform that I do not have, but if it comes to PC, I personally don’t know if I would pick it up – it would be difficult for me to enjoy its many well-crafted parts in the face of the flagrant labour abuses that took to create them. That’s not necessarily a judgement on the people who enjoy it regardless, it is just a matter of personal preference.
With all this in mind, I want to inverse this line of thinking.
Recently, Swery released The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, a relatively smaller, 6-ish hour game developed by his new indie studio White Owls. In short, you play as J.J., searching for Emily, her friend/lover (let’s be honest, lover) lost on a mysterious, Twin Peaksian island.
As puzzle platformers go, the mechanics are fine – the genre is not usually my cup of tea so I had to fight the controls a bit. I had to fight the puzzle design also, and look up walkthroughs in a few spots because I was eager to get to the next story beat. I groaned a few times as the auto save often starts you at the beginning of the level. It is not buggy – but it is definitely not a “polished” experience. The mechanics can feel a bit clunky, and I was certainly frustrated a few times by the end.
But, despite these issues, everyone should play The Missing. If we can ignore bad politics of AAA games and enjoy their mechanics, we should do the inverse with indie games that have something important to say.
<<a few small spoilers about the central mechanic of the game now>>
I do mean play, not watch. The game’s mechanics revolve around J.J.’s body – she is able to lose limbs, catch fire or get electrocuted and remain alive because you can heal her with a press of a button. Thus, most of the puzzles involve the player mutilating the protagonist to progress to the next stage.
It’s rare that a game elicits such a powerful response, even by the time you are fully invested into a character, but it did so instantly here by virtue of its mechanics. Rather than flipping a switch that widens a tight opening, I have to cut off J.J.’s legs to fit through it, as she screams, as her flesh and bone are torn apart, only to be renewed, and torn apart, again, and again, and again.
Watching the game will not give you the same experience, because as J.J.’s body is mutilated, so is your emotional state – it is impossible not to be worn down by the endless suffering that you, as the player, enact on the protagonist. While the characterisation of J.J. is somewhat open at the beginning, you sympathise with her immediately purely because of what you do to her.
The game goes on, you learn more about her, and you sympathise even more, and your heart breaks as you left stick her into a barbed fence just so you can pick up her arm and throw it at a collectible, just so it falls, just so you can collect it. Paradoxically, the collectibles in the game progress side stories via unlocking texts on J.J.’s phone, so if you are intrigued by who she is and her relationships, you often have to mutilate her just to get to the collectibles, to know more.
This is a powerful, emotional game, by virtue of the way it makes you feel when you interact with its mechanics, rather than the mechanics themselves. This is as unique as Nier: Automata’s fusion of mechanics, interface and storytelling, or Celeste’s blending of text and sub-text in its story and mechanics. The argument can even be made that what would normally be considered the clunkiness of The Missing, specifically the subpar auto-save and the slow animations, actually adds to the emotional connection between the player and the protagonist by making each mutilation, each death, and each restart more meaningful.
And I haven’t even talked about the ending yet! And I won’t, at least not really – it is not my place to examine it, analyse it, pick it apart, comment on its structure or evaluate its impact. I can just say that I felt… so many things, that Swery is a beautiful human being, and that people must experience it for themselves, within the context of actually playing through the entire game. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Because if we play AAA games to enjoy polished mechanics while ignoring some of their terrible politics, we should play and celebrate games like The Missing for their beauty, for their humanity, for their politics – while ignoring the at times frustrating mechanics.