If Found @ phone, PC, Switch

01/11/2020 GDLP

Emoji summary: 💫🇮🇪🥺

Spoilers: whole story

 

I should write about this game while it’s still fresh in my eyes; sketch out a glazed, blurry review through happy tears and appreciation for the way I’ve spent my time tonight. A few hours ago, I loaded up DREAMFEEL’s ‘If Found’ and I played it from start to finish. Now, I need a lie down. I want to climb under my new fleece sheets, pull the cover over my head, bring my phone brightness down-down-low and speak with my boyfriend on the phone from under my blanket-tent. The game has left me feeling needy but good, hand-squeeze-excited; and I could hide and chat but I should write about it while I can still see art like colourful electric ghosts in the air when I blink. If Found came out this summer on phone and PC but it was just ported to Nintendo Switch and that’s the version I went with. And, yeah, that excitement I’ve been left with - like, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game as careful as this one. Never as trans, gay, working class or Irish either. I want to give as much as I got, capture it now, so let me start with a rundown of the story which is set between Achill island in County Mayo and space…

    No, I know. We flit between two storylines in this one, two modes plaited together that each have hints of the other written within. The space scenes are fast glimpses of an heroic astronaut named Cassiopeia as she rushes to locate the anomaly that could bring on the end of the world. She’s like a laidback science cowboy out near Planet X. But while she’s cool out there, it’s a different story on Earth and a different end of the world altogether. Mid-twenties Kasio has come home from studying in Dublin, back to her Mam’s over Christmas while she waits to hear if she’s got funding for a PhD. She’s hoping to do something astronomical because it seems to be all she’s ever cared about, the stars. Though this isn’t a safe place for her to wait it out. There are ups and downs and lower moments again as Kasio’s Mam and her brother Fergal present two characters who are, respectively, confused and disgusted that she’s trans. They make out that anything weird should be done in private, not out in the open where everyone can see and make comments. Kasio leaves just as soon as she arrives and ends up being taken in by friends - three lads who are squatting in a house up the hill so they can record an album. Colum, Jack and Shans. Colum and Jack are dating, and she watches telly and hangs with Shans. We watch her follow their lead and begin to relax into herself but it is a short healing that all falls apart when Shans makes a move on Kasio in an awkward, fast way. She freaks, he freaks at her rejection; he bails, the band breaks up; and the four of them fall out as a consequence. It is so hard to watch knowing that Kasio has nothing else now. Her time back home on Achill is so much to bear. Failed attempts to reach out to one another, to speak with love, to clarify, understand, come back, sink in, start over. It floods and floods her head. 

    The final phase of the game is like a ramped up painful Fantasia. Everything becomes charged with this gutting sense that something is about to give but we don’t know which way it will go. And you know the way space is a part of this too? Bleak, lonely scenes on the island are punctuated with high volume drama near Jupiter. It’s almost a relief to nip across the universe for a second because, for astronaut Cassiopeia at least, everything’s in hand. Even when things are tough, it’s fine for her. It always is in action movies, isn’t it - the hero saves the day. The space storyline is like a control in an experiment, stabilisers for the game and poor Kasio who can’t control the way these other people feel about her. She needs to take back some control so she builds her own world: she lets everybody go. It’s the only decision she can really take into her own hands at this point. And after yet another falling out with her family on a snowy Christmas day, she returns to the squat after the others have moved out of it and hides from them all. Kasio tries to survive but her body deteriorates in the cold, and as the end of the world comes swiftly, her mind takes leave in a fever dream where she’s flying across space and back again to Ireland to make sure everything’s okay down here. It’s as though that fever dream has been cut up and divvied out across the rest of the story so that the player can help her bear the weight of its meaning when it crash lands here in the finale. The score rises, the images before us shiver and fit, and eventually she is found, roused by her Mam who finally sees what they have all pushed her to. She holds her and then she calls Kasio by her name for the first time. 

    I cried a quick sob as I caught my breath during their reunion, and that was before - like a dessert at the end of the game - we got to do some character building. During the story, Kasio has only ever been an outline and to close it all down, the player can choose from different hairstyles, colours, clothes, accessories, eyes, smiles and a flag to hang behind her. Pride flag, trans pride flag, Irish flag and so on. And then that’s it. Now, we’re on the same page.

    My trans friends are expected to metabolise so much pain they sometimes feel swollen with it, and I recognised so many of these experiences through Kasio and her surroundings. Like only feeling freedom in the dark anonymity of a busy gig, when daylight-time feels too visible and unsafe. Or the way others implore their problems onto you because they think you’re a person who speaks through problems every day, without ever thinking to ask if you’re ready to hear about it (like Shans and Kasio’s stiff conversations in the morning and on the beach). Too personal, too fast. The comments that people think are off-hand but always held onto, like ‘I must have raised you wrong,’ and ‘You’re making life difficult for yourself.’ This game was led by trans developers so there was no gap, no imitation. When I started writing this review, I said the game felt careful by which I mean every edge feels smoothed like sea glass; like this whole shape was felt, drafted, worked and saved. The top layer of the story is the headline of the game but below that summit, there is writing that creates characters who are just as full of joy and trouble; art and music that bend and wane with the mood; and metaphors in the squat, broken house, astronaut side quest, and the erasing mechanism that hovers between the world of characters and players. In order to pass through the scenes, sometimes it is just a case of hitting A to read through lines, but mostly we rub everything out. The cursor is a white rubber that we swipe back and forth across the screen to reveal more or less, and move forward in time. At first it felt like I was playing pass the parcel and ripping back the next layer of newspaper to make the bundle smaller, to play more of the game and get closer to its middle. At times, the erasure seemed like a sort of therapy, like Kasio was releasing herself from the past and the present too, just as it ended - never precious. Some things felt good to destroy as I pulled across them and others were hard to let go of. It was like a very central way of having to process every moment of the story up close. And as the game goes on, the rubber gets smaller and smaller and it takes longer to disappear things on the screen. It is as though Kasio is losing the headspace and energy to keep up with this constant battle; and through the failing mechanism, the player has to literally feel how she’s losing this fight she never asked for. It feels pretty powerful, and I think this set-up is what helped me cry.

    To be honest, I thought it was going to be another flatgame comic book but it seems like an enhancement of the genre. Like, instead of stop-start moments in an even row, If Found felt fluid instead; it pulled me through all of its dialogue like it had a nervous hand around my wrist, like, I’m sorry we have to go but come on, it’ll be okay. It is just pressing A sometimes to keep reading but between the rubber cursor, the language you’re clicking through with its accompanying glossary, the art the game is shaped by, and every piece of tangled growth it works to share, I felt it or I felt for it. I really want to give time to the art in this game as well - partly to honour it and partly to set the course for myself in the reviews I write going on from this. I sidestep writing about visuals in games so often when mentioning them doesn’t quite fit in with whatever the story is I want to write, and also because I find that art can sometimes become invisible to me in games in a weird way. I think hyperreal digital design reaches a level where it closes the gap between art and life so well that it actually sits closer to life than art, for me at least. The world of the game has absorbed the art it’s made from, and it’s hard to pull it back out for review. For context, I am playing Death Stranding at the moment and so going from that to this was like an undressing where I could better see traditional, material art again; lily pads floating on the surface.

    I really enjoyed the way this game looked; when it was washed with the colours of the Trans flag in pink, white and blue, or when it showed stars through see-through bodies, and those milky way marbled skies that hung like slow, sad vapourware. There are two related but distinct styles to suit the two landscapes we spend time in. And down on Achill, there was a constant anxious line, and I say anxious in both its affect and what seems like its process too. Anxious with a lightness. It’s the sort of flimsy, weak look you get in drawing by holding the very top of the pencil, pen or brush to just about make the lines you need to make, to just about get them down. It clearly suits Kasio’s state. We see her stood at the top of the staircase in the squat huddled in a blanket, scared, and drawn in slight outlines that quiver on the screen. The personality of the art style matches these island scenes so well. I like that when we rub things out in her journal, there are small flakes left across the page; and I like how the brush style for the rubber changes depending on the scene. There was something else as well in the way the current image and the next one could sometimes both be seen at once through de-collage as the rubbing revealed the future scene below remnants of the current one. That’s when it reminded me most of pass the parcel as I mentioned earlier, ripping big diagonals across the screen. The joint-up images you could pause on mid-rub looked so cool so often that it speaks to the quality of the artwork being destroyed. And sometimes the cursor would mean rubbing out was adding in. There was rain on rain, and also crowds on crowds where the art built up an abstract grunginess through layering. I was glad the style let itself become abstract so often, too. Characters at the same table but a distanced noisy space between them to illustrate an awkward silence; or the maddening shapes, scribbling and dissolving asteroid mess in the final sequence of the game to speed through heartbreak. 

    The art didn’t disappear in this game. It was more tangible for me than other games because it’s the kind of art I recognise - the stuff we all know really, pen and paper on a page. I have a question about it though. So, there is a windy scene towards the end where Kasio is stood on a beach speaking to an old woman who right now is showing her more kindness than her own family. Each character is drawn as usual, and their heads float next to dialogue bubbles, but the backgrounds they speak alongside are different. They are static watercolours of the landscape, and you can even see the texture of watercolour paper poking through with small bumps where ink has collected. With the shaky drawings and the texture of the paper like that, I am left wondering if all of this is digital or have some parts been scanned in? Like, is some of this bannisters in pink biro on cheap pens? I hope so. Please say yes. Because all I’ve done this year is secretly hold onto the opinion that all digital exhibitions are lifeless and this would give me some standing to point at If Found as a digital exhibition that is actually good. Not that exhibitions have to be exclusively traditional art, and not that DREAMFEEL need fine art validation. I’m fully aware I am abiding by my own logic here but the art world is certainly less creative in how it translates its objects and ideas into digital forms. And look here, someone’s (potentially) done it: considered artworks held together by a generous story, art backlit on a screen, shared, magical, controlled by the player through extensive metaphors, and packaged as a game they can experience on phone, computer and Switch from the comfort of their own homes. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, an answer I can wave around to continue my personal agenda that games are the most enlightened form of art. ANYWAY. 

    I’m really glad I played it. DREAMFEEL sent me a download code for the phone version earlier this summer but it’s stayed unopened between other apps this whole time for no real reason. The Switch port reminded me it was something I wanted to know, and it felt right to play it on a moody autumn evening instead. It is a good entry game for many, especially because you can’t do anything wrong, can’t lose. I have been trying to understand the narrative significance of the accountant in the story who Cassiopeia visits on Earth but I’m going to have to ask the developers for an answer on that one, because I didn’t get it… but I also don’t mind, and I hope Kasio is doing okay.

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