Little Misfortune review
She’s cute. She’s precocious. She carries around glitter wherever she goes. And eight-year-old Misfortune Ramirez Hernandez doesn’t give a flying [email protected]$% about monsters in her closet. From the creators of Fran Bow comes the super cutesy yet grimdark Little Misfortune, Killmonday Games’ poisonously sweet adventure that takes players on a very grown-up journey as our intrepid protagonist explores the wide, scary world outside.
Misfortune is introduced by a mysterious voice. You’ll never see the voice’s owner, but he appears to have some control over Misfortune’s world. For reasons you won’t find out until the end of this interactive story, the voice asks the young heroine if she would like to play a game. It’s an enticing proposition, since the reward for completing the game is “eternal happiness.” And eternal happiness is something that Misfortune would desperately like to have. While she plays in her room as many little girls do, with paper dolls and sparkly unicorns, the bed fort she has set up there is a safe space she retreats into if her parents are yelling too much or have had too much adult “juice” to drink, or when her father hits her mother. It’s where she goes when she’s afraid.
You’ll get these small snippets of truth about her life as you investigate Misfortune’s small suburban house. Drawn in a sweet cartoon style, it sits in a field where you can hear birds chirping and the wind whispering through the trees. Every now and then, you can even hear a cow lowing in the distance. You’ll explore this deceivingly bucolic setting with the WASD or arrow keys and another to interact. And because Misfortune is so cute, there are times when you’ll be prompted by sparkles to sprinkle glitter on some particularly unpleasant item, accompanied by a uplifting tinkling and the sound of bubbles popping. Doing so brightens up the terrible thing, such as a dead bird, and a small animation shows that Misfortune’s own heart brightens as well, but the effect only lasts a little while.
The mood-setting soundwork extends to the original music used throughout the game, like a pop interlude when you turn on Misfortune’s boombox and she starts dancing. Elsewhere a snare drum and the pounding rhythm of a deep bass pulse through the air when she stumbles upon a bar and a drug den.
Drug den? How did we get from a little girl’s bedroom to a drug den? Well, the voice sets a series of missions for Misfortune that at first seem simple enough, like “exit her room,” and “cross the road.” But soon she is venturing into empty houses, a cave, and taking the bus into the big bad city. The cave leads Misfortune even further away from home into a surreal world of vice and iniquity. What might seem like an innocent scene with adorable hamsters takes a turn for the head-scratching when you realize they’re all hanging around outside a rodent nudie bar, replete with a half-naked neon hamster sign lighting up a dark ceiling choked with carrot roots. A little past the bar is what appears to be a meth lab, which to Misfortune looks similar to the “science experiment” her father has in their basement.
Misfortune is quite the character, funny and curious in the face of an awful life. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like her. She seems at once familiar with all this strangeness and yet completely oblivious to it, like when she picks up “mints” from the ground which turn out, of course, to be drugs that send her on a trippy cutscene filled with flying birds, some of them flipping you the actual bird as they fly by.
The voice actress portraying Misfortune is sweet and very funny, her constant stream of oddball observations in an unusual Spanish-sounding accent filling the air. At times the young protagonist will approach the world around her with a wide-eyed naïveté; at others, her abusive upbringing has primed her to spit out curse words, which was always jarring to me coming from an eight-year-old. The disembodied "voice" is dark and fatherly, with just a touch of menace. In general, both actors are strong and engaging, which is important given that they are the only voices in the game.
That whisper of danger weaving throughout the whimsy can describe the entire aesthetic as a whole. Everything seems to be lovely and pink and sparkly. Even the menu screen highlights options with pink sparkles. At times this almost feels like a delightful cartoon that you would watch on a crisp autumn day. But the game does a great job of lulling you into anodyne sweetness only to punch you in the gut with ugliness. Perusing through Misfortune’s diary, you'll see she's scribbled her feelings about an imaginary fox named Benjamin, but also how nervous she felt, for which she's drawn a picture of herself throwing up. “The puke of love. That’s what it is,” she writes. And given that Misfortune’s own vomit is a recurring theme, I found myself repeating her own tagline, “Yikes Forever,” quite often.
That dark surprising underbelly is always there, not far away, echoed by the many animations. Black birds can be seen flying outside the window of Misfortune’s girlish room. When she goes to a fair, she seems small amidst the hanging skeletons, grimacing clowns, and a mysterious fortune teller in the background when a huge pair of striped pants on stilts suddenly walks past her in the foreground. There are a variety of cinematics that pepper the game as well, taking you through forests filled with dead crows dropping from the sky or a ride through a haunted horror house with devilish imagery adorning its walls.
A large portion of the game revolves around Misfortune following the voice’s lead and searching for eternal happiness. This pursuit is interrupted about halfway through when it appears that Benjamin the fox has stolen her elusive prize. From then on, the voice and Misfortune seek the fox out, though the former says he doesn’t like or trust the fox. It’s hard to know who to trust, because the fox does leave cryptic runes behind and sets bear traps that would be easy for Misfortune to trip into. But is the voice any more trustworthy? While he does police Misfortune’s bad language, his motives are not entirely clear either. And to add even further to the mystery, posters of missing children begin to pop up on town boards with increasing frequency.
Misfortune wonders a bit about the missing children, but the fear of being abducted isn’t enough to stop her quest. Nor does she ever lose her chipperness in the face of increasing dreadfulness around her. This sunniness can verge on callousness, however – a sad thing to hear in someone so young. She speaks calmly of the fact that she was unplanned and that the only reason her mom didn’t abort her was because abortion was illegal. And, she says, her dad’s friend had a shotgun and the daughter thought it was a toy, and oh, by the way, she killed both her parents with it. When you see a friendly child’s swimming pool, Misfortune says it’s warm because of all the peeing she does in it or her dad puking in it. Treating the horrors she experiences as normal is surely a defense mechanism, but at times the horribleness is so over-the-top that it can feel like you’re being hit over the head with Misfortune’s misfortune, and often it sneaks close to, if not quite over the line into tastelessness.
While she may not have much influence over the terrible factors in her life, the mysterious voice presents Misfortune with a series of decisions to make. Before leaving the house, you’ll have to pick whether to take a unicorn or a pet rock. The voice says there are no wrong choices, but encourages you to choose wisely, as it will affect tasks you face in the future. Sometimes the short-term impact of a decision is easy to see (whether you played with a puppy or let it loose from its leash, for example). Others times, such as when the voice asks you questions about morality (like whether you like to steal or lie), it’s not easy to tell what the consequence will be without replaying the game.
There are also a few puzzles sprinkled throughout. Hotspots will occasionally pop up when you can interact with things or observe them, but you don’t have to open an inventory, as acquired items will automatically be used in places that need them. If you don’t have an object you need, the voice will occasionally make one automatically appear, like if you need a ticket or a shovel. At times it’s all a little too easy. It might often feel as if you’re on autopilot, and you actually are whenever Misfortune moves forward all on her own to progress during particular scenes. There are some minigames too, like a jigsaw puzzle that aside from some odd controls are pretty simple. There’s a sneaking session as well that really just involves you advancing when someone’s turned around, and you’ll also have to aim in a rudimentary slingshot puzzle.
As you progress, the world around Misfortune becomes more surreal and seedy. When visiting a park, she encounters a drunken seagull in a sandpit, surrounded by empty booze bottles, and when she takes the bus into the city, the people around her all wear masks of smiling rictuses, advertised as a cheap way to mask your true feelings. These masked adults, sometimes moving swiftly across the screen, sent shivers down my spine.
My own feelings about the game are almost as inscrutable. Little Misfortune looks cutesy, and even the klepto fox made me think of Dora the Explorer (Swiper, no swiping!). But then the protagonist would drop an F-bomb, and the voice would dole out facts about menstruation in great detail to the child, and I’d sit agasp at the screen wondering what would happen next to this very young but also very old eight-year-old. There is some respite from the nastiness, oddly enough, at a scary faire called Phantasmagoria, where Misfortune plays carnival games and can win tickets and get prizes. The real horror, most times, is reserved for Misfortune’s actual life.
Though there’s apparently only one final outcome, there’s a twist at the end that made me want to play again. Would different choices have mattered or made a difference throughout? Despite the nastiness of Misfortune’s life, over the course of nearly four hours she always approached it as if there were beauty to be found and fun to be had. While the tone seesawed between sweet and macabre, sometimes tipping into the notably crude, there’s strong emotion behind it that had me welling up and wishing that life was better for the titular heroine, due in large part to the strength of the voice acting, the whimsical artwork, and the script’s good humor. After all, there’s always a bright side: You may be having a bad day, but at least you’re not staring face-down in your own puke. And if you are, take a cue from Misfortune and take some glitter and sprinkle a little on, as it can cover a multitude of sins. Playing this game may not lead you to your own personal eternal happiness, but it may add a little welcome sparkle to an otherwise drab day.
Don’t be fooled by the glitter and sparkles: Little Misfortune is a surprisingly dark but very engaging grown-up tale about a little girl trying to find beauty in life’s ugliness.