Arts video game review

Walking in weary shoes

The elegantly crafted first-person narrative Anamorphine sheds light on coping with loss

Developed by Artifact 5
Rating T for Teen
Available on HTC Vive, Oculus, PS4, PS VR, and Windows

A broken cello in the closet, a seemingly endless pile of musty takeout boxes, a boarded up window — the first moments of Anamorphine are anything but straightforward. From the point of view of the game’s protagonist, a photographer named Tyler, we recount the memories that led to this desolate scene. As a first-person narrative experience, Anamorphine is immersive — though it took me a while to get the hang of the game’s keyboard-and-mouse controls, I was completely invested in Tyler’s struggles as well as those of his wife, Elena, who is a cello player. After an accident leaves Elena’s arm injured, the couple’s life becomes increasingly difficult, and the player accompanies Tyler as he deals with the aftermath. The game has no dialogue and is driven forward by a sweeping soundtrack and delicately rendered visuals.

The first part of the game’s story is linear, with Tyler moving through his memories with Elena. In most scenes, the player traverses the couple’s apartment, seeing the changes through time. To progress, the player can collect objects that have emotional significance to Tyler, and the scene is frozen as a photo in a museum-like palace that seems to symbolize Tyler’s mind. Each memory has its own “exhibit,” and the player can walk back through and see the objects that they observed previously before moving on to the next scene. I found this mechanic elegant but also occasionally dissatisfying when happy memories were cut short. I wanted more happy memories for Tyler and Elena, but that also demonstrates the developers’ ability to create such sympathetic characters without any dialogue.

As part of the memory scenes, there are sequences that seem to represent the emotions of the characters.  When Elena plays music, the player is transported to a surreal meadow filled with brightly-colored foliage. Elena’s resonant cello solo swells as Tyler walks up to massive, lily-like flowers, his presence helping them bloom. Throughout the game, Tyler struggles with alcoholism, and the player is transported to a bike in the desert, helping him navigate the dunes and apparitions of frightening memories. The mechanics of the bike rides were quite difficult at times, and my struggles with the keyboard occasionally took away from my attention to plot-relevant details. At the beginning of each desert scene, Tyler’s bike is surrounded in a circle of empty beer bottles — there is only one path the player can take. These dream-like scenes are filled with feeling — I found myself almost moved to tears seeing how the music garden changed near the end of the game and how the circle of beer bottles trapping Tyler in the desert only grew larger and larger.

As Tyler and Elena’s lives become more stressful, the apartment morphs into an overwhelming surrealist mishmash of furniture and objects. Bottles fill the room, the kitchen table moves to the ceiling, and the lights drip a glowing fluid.  Both Elena and Tyler deal with mental illness, and the game uses surrealism as a visual metaphor for their mental and emotional states. As the player looks up and walks around, there seems to be an unending array of rooms in the apartment, and the game becomes disorienting and confusing. It feels like Tyler is attempting to make sense of the sadness and despair in his life, and small details from early on in the game definitely come back to haunt the player as we make our way back to the harrowing scene at the game’s beginning.

Given its heavy subject matter, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Anamorphine’s developers consulted a psychologist when developing the game, as it does include some content that could be disturbing and overwhelming for players. The game has an option to warn players when sensitive content could be displayed and gives them the choice to skip the scene. I did not skip any of the game’s material, but had I not played with a friend, I probably would have. Anamorphine is best played with someone to scream in anguish at, and to share in your pain as you share in Tyler’s.

Through its surrealism and hyperrealism, Anamorphine redefines the emotional capacity of the video game.  Walking in Tyler’s shoes, the player confronts fear, loss, and heartbreak in a narrative steeped in feeling and the realities of  human life. Hauntingly beautiful and heart wrenching, Anamorphine is an experience I won’t soon forget.