Red Stewart reviews What Happened…
Not since Life is Strange’s “Polarized” has a video game title been so astutely reflective of its experience as What Happened. Developed by Genius Slackers and published by KATNAPPE SP. Z O. O. and Sourena Game Studio, this is a game that literally begins with you flushing a toilet and ends with your character making a drastic decision. Not many games can say that, and few still can say they tried to do it seriously.
And serious they had to. What Happened is a story-driven adventure that tackles mental health issues stemming from depression. It’s a crisis that affects millions of people worldwide, and is only recently starting to get the attention it deserves. As such, it needed to be treated with special care, particularly when placed in a medium whose primary purpose has been to entertain players.
But, in trying to be distinct and careful, I fear the developers may have gone too far in the arthouse direction and not stayed close enough to the core scientific principles that dictate the flow of dysthymic thoughts. As a result, you get a storyline that overstays its welcome, which is a major issue for any product trying to raise awareness. That’s the short answer; if you want the longer one, read on.
Unlike past reviews, there is no way for me to speak about my problems with the narrative without going into spoiler territory. Not only do I have a personal connection to the subject material at hand, but it would be impossible to point out my specific critiques without giving away specific plot details. Because of this, I am going to reiterate my quick review above to those who are possibly interested in this psychological walking simulator: it is very experimental in its presentation and has terrible pacing. If that is fine with you, check it out and do not read anymore. If you believe the extra information will not impede your potential enjoyment and/or want a more introspective analysis of the script, then continue as you wish.
The story revolves around a high schooler named Styles. Styles experienced a tragedy years ago that jumpstarted a chain of events that have crumbled his mental well-being and relationships, and culminated in him being diagnosed with MDD (major depressive disorder). Styles tries to temper this pain with drugs and cutting, actions that only feedback into a positive loop of personal destruction. When we meet him he’s at the lowest end of the pole: his friends have left him, his hallucinations are getting worse, and he is heavily considering taking his own life for good.
The problems begin with this premise- it has too many variables for a one-off game. Depression alone is a difficult enough beast to convey in fictional media because its experience is inherently subjective to the individual undergoing it. Even between multiple people suffering from a similar ailment, their private thoughts, qualms, and discomforts are going to be ever-so different, no matter the common symptoms.
That being said, common symptoms do provide a groundwork. Though a prospective consumer may not be capable of complete empathy, they absolutely can sympathize with someone’s state of distress, especially if given a consistent frame for reference. Style’s familial calamity and his feelings of insecurity are completely relatable to the average joe; we’re all going to be in a situation where we lose someone close to us, and we all go through periods where we feel we’re not good enough. The developers could have built on this to make a small, yet compelling tale about what it means to be a human stuck in a cycle of mental torture.
Alas, they spread themselves too thin with the aforestated additional facets of narcotic abuse and self-harm. How many people will actually know what it’s like to be addicted to a substance? To have this chemical craving screaming in your mind to be tamed with “one more drop”? Movies like Requiem for a Dream spend hours trying to convey just this single inner feeling- you can’t expect a video game to do it ON TOP OF those other problems. In addition to this, they also faltered significantly with the motivations for self-harm: here, it’s presented as an obedient action to Style’s psychosis, when in actuality cutting is done to distract sufferers from their inner turmoil.
I wouldn’t necessarily have had a problem with the uneven thematic material were it not for the fact that the entire game takes place in one of these acid trips of Styles’s. I understand that this was the only way for Genius Slackers to imagine up a fantasy-esque scenario while still existing in the real world, but it just made it harder to feel for Styles given the lack of hard connection. One could also argue that the team was exploiting the harmful, hallucinogenic effects of LSD, but I refuse to jump behind this assertion due to What Happened being an artistic endeavor on their part: if video games are allowed to use war, sexual abuse, crime, and other human vices as part of their freedom of expression, then drug dependence should not be off-limits.
I mentioned a psychosis before. That psychosis is depicted as a clone of Styles’s that frequently berates and taunts him for his past, present, and future actions/indecisions. In theory, it’s one of the best creations of What Happened due to it representing what every person with depression experiences: innate hate. Both literally and figuratively, there is a voice in our heads that constantly questions why we did what we did and punishes us for even the smallest of mishaps. Accidentally messing up your order to the barista, having to cancel plans with people, or even getting one problem wrong on a test can trigger the wrath of this vociferous entity.
Unfortunately, several problems arise with this manifestation. One, is the voice acting (which I’ll speak more at length later); two, its dialogue gets very repetitive very quickly. To be fair, this was always going to be a dilemma as it’s a tough situation; these thoughts feel fresh each time they spring up in our heads, but the truth is they are essentially repeating the same thing. I suppose adding more variety to the converses would have yielded crisper results: that is, going the Frasier route and substituting common sentences with more intellectually-sounding phrases might have made these exchanges more enticing and/or distressing to listen to. The writers could have also had the two Styleses react to more than just the same three topics of classmates, ex-friends, and family. When we’re in this state of repressed anger and anguish, we take it out on everyday stimuli, not just our primary catalysts.
Three, and most importantly, it’s not depicted as an entirely negative thing. Let’s be clear: having an auditory persona regularly challenging your ability to do anything logical is a horrifying thing that no one should ever have to live with. We will all make mistakes in life- learning not dwell on them or feel intense remorse is a key part of becoming an adult.
In What Happened, this pessimistic Styles is obviously a terrible “human being,” but there are many times during the game where you will have to listen to him in order to get through a section. For example, one scene has you move past lockers with shadowy hands lashing out of them ala the Wallmasters from Ocarina of Time. It’s impossible to successfully navigate past them without being grasped, and so the only way to escape their clutches is to listen to where the voice tells you to turn. Another part sees a giant shark swimming through the hallways. The only way to avoid it? Heed the directions of anti-Styles.
The term ludonarrative dissonance was coined to describe gameplay systems that were at odds with story intent. Not only does that apply here, but it’s quite unfortunate given that there clearly were good intentions from the devs. However, the way they went about implementing these ideas has turned a 100 percent adverse singleton into an on-again, off-again helpful sprite.
I realize I haven’t really haven’t been talking about the actual story. The reason for that is because of the way the plot is presented: a fragmented collection of emotions and memories under the psychedelic impact of window pane. To those who played Call of Duty: Black Ops, you may recall the penultimate chapter wherein Alex finds himself wandering through a building whilst experiencing mnemonic chaos. Imagine that applied to an entire video game and you have What Happened. Every perspective of time blends together into one collage, and so you’re frequently getting glimpses of the past and nonce, interrupted by bursts into another realm full of trippy visuals that highlight Styles’s delusions. It’s an experimental take on conventional storytelling that yields mixed results. On the one hand, you definitely get the gist of what happened, who Styles is, and what he wants, but on the other, there is no hard character arc for him. Every time he seems to be making progress or on the verge of an epiphany, some rehashed element from his history comes back, reignites the demented twin, and sends you on a retread of hopelessness.
You may be thinking that this makes for an accurate portrayal of depression- that it can feel like an endless cycle. There are two points of contention to this. One, as I said before, subjectivity plays a part in the perception of depression; some people make progress, others stay in a state of futility, and still more go through alternating phases of happy and sad. And I can tell you that, based on his dialogue (technically monologues?), Styles falls into the first category of being someone who wants to get out. Because of this, his alternating progressive/regressive character arc comes off as frustrating. You can’t help someone who pulls back their hand at the last minute- that’s not how AA works, and it’s not how even the most kind-hearted person can work. This ties into point number two, which is gamer incentive. As a player, I have to have some reason for putting my character through a harrowing journey- if Styles’s relapses fail to give intrinsic motives, and you’re not going to provide extrinsic rewards, then why am I doing anything?
I suppose that’s one of the limitations with a video game format, but it’s not like gaming is a new medium- these constraints were well-known beforehand, and for Genius Slackers to miss the boat on this is disheartening. They had the right idea, and I can’t fault them for wanting to do as much good as possible, but Styles’s circular injudiciousness doesn’t mesh well with basic gaming parameters.
What makes this worse is the sly implementation of choice. Throughout What Happened you’re apparently given the ability to change Styles’s behavior and guide him towards a happier finale. It sounds good in theory, and I love when game choices are less blatant- none of that painfully obviously, black/white, good/bad nonsense pioneered by Bethesda and BioWare. The problem here is that the vast majority of the title is not only linear, but has you following orders from the anti-Styles for the sake of successfully advancing. And so, I wasn’t even aware that you had the option to do some decisions differently, making it a little too subtle. As a result, I received the worst ending, which had Styles commit suicide, accompanied by a title card informing me (non-verbatim) “maybe if you had cared, things would be different for Styles.”
The sad truth is I did not care for Styles, and while there were severe story flaws (outlined above), the bigger issue was the pacing. About two hours into What Happened, it takes a huge dive, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because of how redundant the narrative/writing gets or the lack of true exploration value (more on that below), but even the many scenery changes failed to charge up my excitement for the rest of Styles’s odyssey. I found myself spending the next four hours doing what I could to slog my way to the finish line- this is a game that really should’ve been wrapped up under three hours, and honestly there were a few beats in the story where I felt it could’ve actually concluded without stretching on for another chunk of time. So yeah, I was pretty disappointed.
The graphics, luckily, are very palatable for the most part. There’s a reason the Unreal Engine remains so popular among independent developers- it gives their world access to AAA specs. Like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, What Happened opts for a photorealistic schematic, and I was blown away by the quality of the texturing. Every single item, let me repeat, every single item was superbly composed to the point where there was no blurriness upon closer inspection. The stalls from a bathroom, the carbonated wood of tree trunks, heck even the freaking skin on characters are constructs that could be broadcast in 1440p and still look damn good.
I’ve complained in the past that video games artisans often spend hours designing an area only for it to not be utilized much in the final product- why do this when 90 percent of the player base won’t care for your efforts? With What Happened, though, we finally have an instance of time invested being in-sync with gameplay. Locations you are only temporarily in (a forest lit by moonlight) don’t have much detail compared to places where you spent an exorbitant amount of time. The most prominent example of the latter is the school: it’s three stories tall and packed with browsable classrooms. The corridors themselves are decked with paraphernalia reminiscent of high school life; in retrospect, it’s ironic that I started off this review comparing What Happened to Life is Strange as the academic decor is very similar between their two secondary educational institutions: bulletins, senioritis displays, banners, crumpled up papers, it’s all there.
The real conceptual feat, however, are the interiors of the aforestated learning spaces. Styles is required to enter different ones depending on where the narrative takes him, and each one is so distinct that I’m underselling it by using a descriptor as simple as “distinct”. We’ve all taken multiple subjects at school, and classrooms can be very personalized depending on the teacher.
Such is the case here- all of them are little customized hubs that not only fit the topic of the year, but also whatever personality the instructor evidently had. Some are adorned with motivational posters that incorporate puns into their educational adverts, while others feel more standardized and bookish, reflecting a serious professor. Geography classes have globes, art rooms easels and brushes, science rooms beakers and test tubes, and desks all around are full of notebooks, writing utensils, and etchings. I am seriously underselling just how in-depth everything was- even books on shelves weren’t just generic rectangular shapes but labeled textbooks and famous novels! Every inch of the walls was adorned with a piece of scholastic minutiae, and the floors were hard to navigate because of the strategic placement of tables and chairs. I wish I had jotted down more notes because it was all terrific. And because I was required to return to these locales multiple times, I got to appreciate the effort put into their construction.
What makes all this even more amazing is how naturally the environments adapt to unnatural phenomena. The poison in Style’s system warps reality around him, consequently transforming the vistas around you into dreams from an inebriated surrealist. The school gym court freezes over like the Centre of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, the principal’s office is overgrown with dense vegetation, and the school foyer is drowned with water as though flooded like in Genesis. It’s very easy to imagine up crazy scenarios, it’s another to successfully implement them into a world without it coming across as silly. That luckily wasn’t the case here.
Another major side effect of Style’s intoxication are the blurring of pigments, and boy does it lead to some fascinating visuals. If there’s one thing What Happened does objectively great, it’s intense colored lighting. I’m sure we’ve all played a game or two that decided to throw us into a spiral of viscera through conflating illustrations and mashed-up hues; but in trying to be “cool” and “out-there” the developers left us with a headache. This is because not every piece of chroma works well with the other- you can’t throw a bunch of paint onto a canvas and expect it to look “pretty” just because the individual dyes looks good on their own. The same applies for illumination: balancing the RGB model is key to any aspiring digital artist- going too heavy on either end of the spectrum, blue or red, will tire the eyes.
And yet, Styles will happen upon any crazy color under the sun and it…works. I walked into a chamber with flashing rainbows, and then another with a green tint as though I was inside The Matrix. Some venues were pearly white, others pitch dark, and still more that wavered in a midpoint between the two extremes. What a dazzling title!
All that being said, there are a couple of downsides to the graphical splendour. Hair looks terrible, as though an artist plucked strands of papier-mâché, stained them, and tossed them on top of everyone’s scalps. It would’ve been fine if it matched the art-style, but here it’s at complete odds. And because it’s at complete odds, there’s an uncanny look to the characters’s facial expressions courtesy of the stringy eyebrows. Not helping this are the floppy arm animations, which make Styles move like a zombie half-asleep. Secondly, while colors are used well, the lion’s share of the actual lighting is purely static, meaning you don’t get much in the way of dynamic changes.
Sound is up next, and here I have to go back to being negative, starting with the voice acting. I hinted at my thoughts before, but now is the time to flesh them out: Styles is terrible. Both personas are played by the same actor, Amir Ali Ashraf Kashani, and he drops the balls hard. There’s no pain in his voice, no anguish, no agony, just pure resignation. What? Even at the very end of the line you will still hear people suffer. Even if we take the stereotypical image of depression which is someone curled up on the foot of a bed, deadened to the world around them, this does not equate to being vocally neutral. It’s like he was doing a lineread out of pure boredom.
His taunts as anti-Styles are just as emotionally-stunted. It lacks the subtly terrorizing, condescending, skin biting tension that this mental menace should possess. I said beforehand that including more dialogue digressions would have helped with the repetition, but given how bad Kashani’s performance is, I’m starting to doubt that.
The other characters are better off. Style’s ex-girlfriend, Rose/Maya (note- apparently two different characters, but in-game they look and sound the same, making the dissimilarity confusing), played by Rozhan Hoseini and Lisa Suliteanu respectively, is excellent- you truly get a sense that she actually cared for her former beloved when he began this descent into madness. Her lapses into disdainful rhetoric (caused by Styles’s corrupted recollections of her) are just as good.
Ben (Conner Evans), Style’s former BFF, is as good as Maya/Rose, but my biggest gripe with him was that he sounded too old for a high school student.
Finally, Styles’s parents (Mehdi Yadegari and Hamideh Rayeji) are also given a few lines here or there, but they don’t stand out and feel like atypical suburbanites from the ’50s, though I acknowledge that this was possibly what Genius Slackers was going for.
The SFX lacks sufficient polish. Footsteps sound fine enough, but they don’t correspond to your movements at all, instead opting for two settings: one to play when you’re walking, and one for when you’re running. I noticed this case of auditory duality when I experimented with other actions like shuffling locks and opening/closing cabinet flaps- there were always two variations, no matter how hard/soft you pressed the key or how fast/slow you closed the cover. Combine this with the inconsistent lip-syncing and you have a lazy sound set-up.
The music is an improvement. The composer (whose name I could not find) succeeds at matching his compositions with whatever mood Styles’s erratic personality takes him to. While I did find the atmospheric arrangements to be more evocative than the direct set-piece ones (largely due to the latter being bromidic rehashes of melodies heard in other action games), neither was distracting. And I honestly almost found myself tearing up during the poignant scenes due to the beautiful orchestral beats.
Speaking of action, we can finally talk about the gameplay. Well, this is a walking simulator, so on the outset there’s not too much going on- Styles can either amble or jog through environments, and there will be times where you will have to do one or the other. What Happened was presented to me under the horror genre, but it’s honestly more akin to a psychological title that veers between the dramatic and thriller subsects. There are instances where it can get scary, but this feeling quickly wears off, and the vast majority of the time you’re just wandering through exotic locales for the sake of advancing the plot.
Exploration does yield some extra tidbits about Styles presented through journal entries. And while they are nice and, in some cases, introspective about adolescent frustration, they don’t tell you anything significantly different from what you get through the primary script, which is disappointing. The one thing walking sims hypothetically have, above other genres, is the freedom of unadulterated reconnaissance into their settings for the purposes of uncovering extra information. Firewatch and Gone Home were both astute examples of this, and I wish I could have listed What Happened alongside them, but it was a missed opportunity. In spite of their size, most rooms only have one diary page or postcard, making it pointless to pull open any other drawers once you find one stationary. Why not include vellums that disclose ancillary details about the side characters? Ben and Maya/Rose are hardly fleshed out- heck Styles’s father, the man who is the impetus for this whole adventure, is only in two scenes! There was so much more content Genius Slackers could have added, especially since you’ll have to reenter the same suites again and again.
There are some puzzles thrown in for good measure, and a couple of chase sequences to add some quick thrills, but you’re mostly just going to be following a predetermined, linear path down acid lane. One of the more interesting sections involves having to avoid the aforementioned shadow hands as they haphazardly spring out of nowhere- succumbing to them sends you into various Limbos ala the Nihilanth’s rifts from Half-Life 1, but these guys merely appear thrice in the entire runtime. And on the question of missed potential, Genius Slackers actually implemented a decent physics engine that’s barely used!
But I don’t want to get too off-topic with “what could have beens,” so I’ll end the gameplay section on a critique of a major design flaw that I did not even think was possible in this day and age- the lack of an options menu when playing.
Let me clarify something- whenever you boot back up your file, it opens up with Styles waking up in a cavern. He then has the power to go through one of three doors: new game, continue, and, what do you know, options!
Having it on the main menu is fine, but why the heck is ONLY there? We can only see the effects of changing the brightness, sound levels, and other features in real time. How does it make any sense to not give prospective consumers this staple of the gaming industry? A huge, outdated drawback.
So in conclusion, what do you get with What Happened? You get an indie company’s attempt at undertaking the depiction of dysthymia in a video game. It was always going to be a challenge, and they do a few things right: from personifying the voice in our heads to interloping memories with contemporary thoughts. But sadly, this is hurt by a story that traipses haphazardly to the finish line and integrates choices under a hypocritical banner of linearity and submissiveness to the evil Styles.
Styles himself has a receding arc that impairs player incentive to continue forth, the sound architecture is lackluster, and you aren’t compensated for exploration. Sure, everything looks magnificent courtesy of the Unreal Engine, but What Happened is ultimately all style and little substance (pun intended).
Genius Slackers is not the first to portray mental illness in a computer game, and they certainly won’t be the last, but hopefully the good and bad will be taken from their efforts.
+ Graphical texturing
+ Coloured lighting
+ Reexplorable environment
+ Suicide hotlines listed at end
– Terrible pacing
– Mediocre sound/bad lead performance
– Overstuffed story
Rating – 4/10