Kafka On The Holodeck

HIGH The branching narrative’s room for speculation.

LOW Being unable to skip through text in replayed sections.

WTF So which character is real here?

Every eye is a node, an important choice made by me. My pathway can be seen in the spreading crack.

In text-based adventure SELF, this line is essentially used as a progression device, and when displayed, narrative branches are shown with the player’s current position on them. In this regard, the experience hints at completionism with multiple endings, but it’s really about what it shows through its narrative divergences, making SELF stand out.

SELF puts the player in the shoes of a boy looking for his vanished father. The player wakes up on a Sunday morning to his mother knocking on the door, and from this conversation forward, dialogue options become central to the story’s dualistic approach. The player can choose to directly confront the grim reality of a missing father – for example, by asking the mother about the dad’s whereabouts – or avoid the pain completely by choosing more neutral dialogue options like asking about what’s for dinner.

Later on, the boy will find himself conversing with shady figures, and this again results in SELF‘s central choices of ‘facing’ or ‘avoiding’ the subject, now literally made into a gameplay device heavily impacting the story’s direction.

Regardless of the player’s intended decision, a choice must be made in a minigame. Once initiated, the boy is represented as a small face in a designated area. Avoidable red and green items fly into the space. Touching red items shrinks the area to the point where the player’s face is crushed by the boundaries, ending the minigame. Green items make it grow back to its normal size, which ends the game when a time limit passes.

The gamification of a narrative choice here works off since the inner conflict of the boy is simulated as a ‘winning or losing’ matter. The more skill-demanding green route would be the conventional objective, but getting to different endings means ‘losing’ is required. The crux of it is whether the boy wants to win the minigame and thus face his father’s absence, when the truth might be tragic?

As such, these ‘face it or avoid it’ sequences amount to picking different branches on the narrative tree referenced at the start of this review. Checking my progress on it, I could track key branches and later choose differently to get to another ending — there are several and a convenient ‘chapter select’ tool is available.

Exploring all the paths is highly recommended as it rewards the player with vital information about the story. Without spoiling too much, the different areas the boy visits in search of his father each lend their own perspectives on the boy’s situation. While loose ends are never explicitly tied, the endings themselves do a wonderful job in giving the player just enough information to speculate about them.

Additionally, there are eight ‘memory’ pieces well-hidden within the diverging narrative paths. They often require specific dialogue options, but the reward is text in which the father-son relationship is given more context. I liked the depth they added, but tracking them down can be a pain since it requires a little too much time and effort to unlock them all. 

Unfortunately, not all of the narrative feels as fleshed out as these central elements. Some dialogue options lead to sluggish sequences in which ten text boxes deal with the question of whether or not to pick up a phone or open a door, only to ignore the player’s choice in the end. The lack of a ‘skip’ button during replays is also annoying.

Rough edges like this and others hint to its status as a small-budget indie, but SELF remains a solid text experience and I found that its narrative stuck with me long after finishing all possible routes. However, as I alluded to at the start, this game isn’t really about finding all the endings — each branch on its own provides a unique look on contemporary society and an individual’s weakness… or strength.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: SELF was developed by doBell and published by indienova. It’s currently available for Nintendo Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and played on Switch. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: SELF has been rated M by the ESRB and contains Drug Reference and Strong Language. The visuals and sounds aren’t alarming in any way (although some sequences show guns). Some violence or criminal activity is implied, for example through police sirens or breaking glass, but none are explicit in visual or audio.

Colorblind modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: It’s a text-based game without any important audio cues. The text (see above) cannot be resized. This title is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: There are no remappable controls and no control diagram. With the left joystick the player can navigate menus, dialogue options and the narrative tree, as well as move in the minigame. Other controls are the ‘x’ button to skip sequences and the ‘a’ button to proceed text. The main controls are also shown whenever relevant.

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