What would you do if you discovered that you were destined to become a violent psychopath? In my case, some would argue that such a portent came far too late, but a) I’ll mercilessly throttle those people later, and b) we were talking about YOU. The question isn’t strictly hypothetical, either, as it’s the basis of indie developer Jon Oldblood’s unique narrative adventure, Masochisia. It’s a very rough and raw experience, both in terms of its disturbing psychological exploration and its bare-bones gameplay, but there’s nothing else quite like it, even among the growing ranks of choice-driven story games. It’s a shame, though, that the feeling of actual player agency is so limited in what could have been a genuinely complex emotional experience.
To be perfectly blunt, Masochisia is not an enjoyable game. That’s not meant as a criticism, merely a statement of intent. For one thing, it’s not really much of a “game” at all (even the developer himself uses quotes to describe it as such). Yes, you do wander through hand-painted environments and even pick up the odd item and solve the occasional puzzle. But this is mere window dressing: the environments are largely non-interactive, serving mainly to fill in the gaps between points A and B – and often from B to A and back again several times – while the very few inventory items you’ll acquire are blatantly visible and have one specific use each when the time is obviously right. The puzzles, meanwhile, are so infrequent (I counted three, tops, even with the most generous definition of “puzzle”) that you’ll largely forget about them in between, their riddle-based clues cropping up only when you need to solve them to proceed past the immediate obstacle.
So no, Masochisia is far less a game and more a linear story experience, which isn’t that unusual these days. What is unusual is that its story is not meant to entertain (at least in the conventional sense), but to challenge and provoke. This is a dark, macabre game that wants to make you feel uncomfortable. Its disclaimer at the beginning warns of “pervasive language, violence, and oppressive themes”, and it ain’t whistlin’ Dixie. In fact, really that caution just scratches the surface. Unlike many games with an “M” rating that rather immaturely revel in an abundance of gratuitous swearing and gore, Masochisia is a very adult game about the psychological impact of child abuse and the question of fate vs. self-determination. According to Oldblood it’s at least semi-autobiographical, though I can only hope for his sake that he took a bit of creative liberty to embellish the protagonist’s descent into madness.
You play as a boy named Hamilton – maybe. It soon becomes painfully clear (quite literally) that nothing in Masochisia is what it seems as your tenuous grasp of reality begins to slip away. But the basic framework remains, regardless of the details. I can’t say much without spoiling important plot points, but the bottom line is that you are the tragic offspring (not-so-affectionately referred to as “worthless creation”, “freak” and “stain”, among the more printable of labels bestowed on you) of two highly abusive parents – the father a misguided religious zealot whose unbearable cruelty is tempered only slightly by his own story of loss, and a beaten-down (and beaten-on) mother who’s abandoned all responsibility to her sons and become a complicit enabler in her husband’s wickedness. Behind his blood-spattered door is a brother who would give Hannibal Lecter a run for his money and is symbolic of everything you might become if you give into the cycle of hatred that threatens to envelop you too.
As you begin to explore, you’ll come across a few other key participants in the story, some of them purely human and some of them not, whether the antlered grizzly bear standing guard at a forest shrine, a demonic-looking messenger who fancies himself an angel, or a faceless little girl who never speaks yet manages to resonate with you emotionally simply by virtue of her soothing presence. There’s also a mysterious “gray man” who appears periodically to induce moments of terror for no evident reason. As the narrative unfolds, it all points to one truth: you are destined to become a killer – not out of hostile intent but out of righteous duty as a hand of God, your sacrifices purging all from sin. But are you a killer? Do you really have it in you to fulfill this “legacy of blood and tears”? Can you change your seemingly irresistible fate?
These questions lie at the heart of the choices available to you throughout the game. Unfortunately, it seems that the choice really isn’t yours, except in how you respond to circumstances beyond your actual control. You can either fight the temptation every step of the way, lustily embrace a life of unfettered pain and destruction, or try to walk a wobbly line in between. If there’s a way to truly assert your independence, however, I wasn’t able to find it – though I do have one possible theory that would be so annoying to pursue that I don’t plan to replay yet again to find out. I’m glad that Oldblood didn’t cop out with a binary good vs. bad dichotomy, but all too often I felt like the decisions were not really my own, just a choice between the lesser of two evils. To a certain extent, that’s entirely appropriate for the victims of child abuse. But as someone who came from an abusive home myself, I know first-hand that there ARE other choices between gleefully doing wrong and simply feeling bad about the wrong you do anyway.
Part of the problem is the accelerated nature of a three-hour story game. As Hamilton, you suffer some incredibly nasty verbal tirades and one intensely brutal physical punishment (entirely blacked out, leaving only the sounds of savagery and your imagination to fill in the horrifying blanks). It’s awful stuff, and will make you instantly sympathize with the child protagonist. And yet the actual choices, both in regular dialogue and for significant actions, often seem a bridge too far. Many times I found that neither of the options (occasionally there are three, but often only two) really reflected my own attitude towards the situation, but rather an expectation that I should extrapolate a lifetime of such conditions and role-play my behaviour accordingly. That’s not an unreasonable assumption, as there’s obviously no way to convincingly condense many years of suffering into a few minutes of gameplay. But I do think that more subtlety and less presumption of an unknown past would have eased players more smoothly into the sense that hope has given way to despair, and that desperation might lead to some most unpleasant consequences if not soon diverted.
Really Masochisia would have worked better had it maintained focus on the natural impact of abuse on the child psyche, because it’s such a rich resource to explore all on its own. But that was not the story Oldblood wanted to tell – or at least, not the only one. Arguably the bigger part of the narrative is the effect of mental illness in the midst of such a harrowing ordeal. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but here they are inextricably linked, which clouds the issues rather than crystalizes them. The result is that the game feels like a mishmash of surreal visions, cryptic exchanges, and intentionally inscrutable scenarios. Instead of feeling like someone grappling with their own conscience and the potential consequences of unspeakable impulses, you’re left wondering what’s real, what’s not, and whether any of it is supposed to make sense.
This idea is underscored between the game’s six acts by visits to a doctor’s office, where a silhouetted psychiatrist asks questions that challenge the validity of the story you’re clearly recounting in flashback. But even in playing out your childhood tale there is little attempt to conceal the delirium. You’ll regularly converse with a voice inside your own head, endure horrific visions that bathe the screen in hazy red, and even suffer some flash scares that cause you to panic. Such moments are accompanied by the entire screen pulsing and pounding with your accelerated heartbeat and heavy panting. Fortunately, precisely when needed you are given access to pills to calm yourself and even needles with which to prick yourself back into rational awareness. As resistant as I am to medication in real life, I tried to refrain in Masochisia as well, but the overwhelming aesthetic cacophony eventually drove me to it so I could continue on in peace. Again, I’m sure the feeling of “make it stop!” is entirely the point, but for a “game” I’m not convinced of the value of making the experience quite that intolerable. Whether there’s any actual value in persevering I can’t say for sure (see annoying theory above).
What does all this have to do with child abuse? Nothing, except that the conditions of abuse grease the skids to succumbing to one’s demented delusions. And therein lies the disconnect with the notion of free will. Child abuse is not a choice, obviously, but one’s response to it is, however emotionally damaged the victim. Mental illness offers no such freedom. I thought the combination of psychiatric sessions between flashbacks and the medication offered in times of need would help balance the scales back in favour of true player agency in Masochisia, but if anything the opposite seemed to be true. The fact is, you’re going clinically nuts, you’re committed to doing “terrible things” and there’s really nothing you can do to stop becoming a monster, only put up varying degrees of impotent resistance.
Did I mention this game was dark?
The artwork itself isn’t nearly as grim, at least upon first inspection, though each screen is bordered in black to ever-remind you of encroaching darkness. Rolling green meadows give way to lush forest and babbling creek whose serenity belie the emergent horrors around them. But the landscape gets much more ominous when you venture further into the valley to find the gargoyle-filled cemetery and old church ruins, the skies mirroring the deepening mood as pinky-orange dusk gives way to overcast purples and gray when the rain begins to fall. Inside the gothic-style secluded family home, grotesque portraits line the walls, while stuffed dead birds and headless statues adorn the parlour. It’s all presented in a fairly basic but striking painterly style, the screen finely interlaced, as if viewing the action through a monitor for some reason. The appearance resembles a graphic novel more than a typical video game, a feeling supported by the caricatures populating this distorted world.
There is no voice acting in Masochisia, which is understandable for an indie developer but a bit disappointing as I’d have loved to see some actors chew the scenery with such juicy roles. The soundtrack is a solid blend of eerie music ranging from sweet, sad strings and synths to discordant notes with light female vocals and whispers to suitably tense tones when the action flares up. There are a variety of ambient effects, like a fire crackling and grandfather clock ticking, but in keeping with the surreal nature of the game, none of them seem to be authentic sounds but rather manufactured approximations. Even the crows cawing in the woods sound more artificial than natural. It’s an interesting choice that perhaps reinforces the notion of a not-entirely-reliable narrator, though occasionally it’s overdone, such as the deafening tire swing groaning in the back yard.
With so many non-traditional elements on display, it should come as no surprise that even the interface is unusual here. There just aren’t very many first-person side-scrolling games. You can play with either keyboard or mouse to sloooowly scroll across a screen, simply clicking the available directional indicators at the edges to proceed. This gets old fairly quickly, particularly with all the backtracking and occasional aimless wandering required. There are north-south paths as well, which come into play in the increasingly irritating labyrinthine forest area. Hotspots highlight automatically when you pass by them, but you couldn’t help but see them anyway, as apart from people and buildings you’ll rarely find anything interactive except for the small handful of inventory items that stand out like a sore thumb (not an inappropriate analogy when you see what they are). Once acquired, these items sit waiting until you need them in a small pop-up window at the bottom of the screen. There’s no mixing and matching involved, just some blatantly obvious drag-and-drop uses in the environment when the time is right.
At least, they SHOULD sit there waiting. On my first playthrough, one such item disappeared after I futilely tried using it where it didn’t belong. At the time I assumed it was simply a disposable object, only to find out much later – at least three-quarters of the way through the game – that I would indeed need it to finish. I had intended to replay the game anyway to try different choices the second time around, but the aborted first attempt did nothing to fuel my enthusiasm for a replay. The only other puzzles in the game involve paying attention to clearly telegraphed clues when the time comes, though they won’t be repeated if you happen to miss them.
I’m reluctant to share the one other way in which Masochisia functions outside the box, so if you like sneaky surprises, you’d best skip ahead a paragraph. For those less… uhh, adventurous, there are three points during the game where a character-related document is dropped onto your desktop unannounced, urging you to read it. I love the idea, even though the notes really don’t add anything pertinent to the story, but I’ll admit to feeling at least a momentary resentment that such liberties were taken that I didn’t consent to. Then again, given all the atrocious things I saw and did myself along the way, a few unauthorized notes barely register on the scale of cardinal misdeeds.
If all this sounds depressing as hell, then some of you have clearly gotten the point. But if it sounds sadistically compelling, the rest of you have as well. There will probably be very little middle ground with Masochisia. It is relentlessly bleak, often disturbing, and challenging to process emotionally. And in the absence of any substantial gameplay between the story beats, that’s essentially all there is. I really wish it hadn’t so fundamentally muddled the issues of child abuse and mental illness, as the combination feels more counter-productive than complementary. Nevertheless, it’s a bold, entirely unapologetic examination of important themes that are all too often ignored in the name of “fun” entertainment. This time the choice IS yours: welcome your fate or turn away before it’s too late.
Relentlessly, unapologetically bleak, Masochisia trades gameplay for light exploration and a story with only two player-driven shades: dark and darker.