This week, Yahtzee reviews The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.
So I think we should call these last two weeks something; something like "Games by Auteur Developers whose Titles I Had to Double-Check to Make Sure I'd Written Them Down Properly Fortnight", or perhaps we could just call it "Not Finished with Red Dead Redemption 2 Yet Week". But I was interested to play, deep breath... The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories because it was a new game by SWERY, he of Deadly Premonition and, lately, of D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die. Yeah, you remember that; that episodic game with Kinect controls and the cat that was a sexy woman. Although, I'm not sure we can technically call it "episodic", because the prerequisite for an episodic game is that it has to have some fucking episodes come out; guess it did turn out pretty overoptimistic to call it "Season 1", eh, SWERY? Still, lesson's learned, so this time, SWERY's decided to make an indie 2D platformer. Blimey, not so much "scaling back" as "completely descaling, gutting, and selling to a fishmonger".
J.J. Macfield and The Island of Doctor Moreau is SWERY's take on the genre of "arty, 2D, scary-world, keep-moving-right-until-we-tell-you-to-stop indie platform games", as epitomized by the likes of Limbo and Inside, except instead of a small child with a big head, you're a schoolgirl with a stupid hairdo, because it's a Japanese developer, I guess. Japan has this weird thing... named SWERY-- Sorry, I couldn't resist. Japan has this weird thing where every imaginable theme and genre of fiction has to be explored through the medium of "schoolgirl". Horror, comedy, giant robots, porn, detective drama, bullet hell shooter, porn again; you name it, Japan's got a schoolgirl version. I can't think of any equivalent for this in any other country; it'd be like if every kind of game or TV show made in Canada had a version with Mounties in it.
But I know what you're thinking, interested viewer: "Japanese schoolgirls? Arty keep-moving-right platformer? This sounds all rather by-the-numbers, and not at all like the imagination that brought us Sexy-Lady-Who-is-a-Cat!" Well, don't worry; J.J. Macfield and the Chamber of Secrets certainly has SWERY's unique blend of warped Americana, inconsistent emotional tone, and sudden hideous violence.
At the beginning of the game, the main character is struck by lightning and dies, and then, under the supervision of a moose in a lab coat, must slowly and painfully regenerate with a noise like my dad eating lobster before descending into a fit of sobbing as the title appears and an upbeat love ballad plays. Sorry I doubted you, SWERY, you fucking lunatic! But let's contextualize this as best we fucking can; the protagonist got struck by lightning while searching for her missing girlfriend who she went camping with on the titular island and, after acquiring unexplained regeneration powers, must continue making progress rightwards, largely by inflicting a series of horrifically traumatic injuries upon her nubile, characteristically-undernourished Japanese schoolgirl body.
Remember that game, NeverDead? No, I'm not surprised you don't; came and went like a dose of the squirts, that one. It was that action shooter about an immortal bloke who could lose all his limbs and his torso and keep fighting. I remember saying at the time that the concept didn't work very well in an action game because however unmoved a person might be by the loss of all their arms and legs, it's only making it exponentially harder to turn the situation around, but it might work with something puzzle-y, or explorative; doing the Samus Aran Morph Ball trick, but with severed heads.
J.J. Macfield and the Nibble-Nobble Noo-Noo is basically what I meant: you put yourself into states known only to the furtive night terrors of air crash investigators to access specific areas and solve puzzles. So as well as flinging body parts onto things for justifiable reasons, probably, there are puzzles where J.J. needs to transfer fire to something, so of course, she sets herself alight; she's in a forest full of dried twigs, but hey, if you've got regeneration powers... It's like when you buy a really expensive pizza cutter, but you don't eat pizza that often, so you start using it on sandwiches.
Also, you can subject her to particularly hideous spine-mangling injuries to make the world turn upside-down. Now, it's not that that doesn't make 100% perfect sense, nor the constant bone-splintering sound effects like she's trying to talk through a mouthful of dice; it's that these basic processes are always drawn out so long that the game moves at a very sluggish pace. You've got to mangle and un-mangle yourself over and over again for the puzzles, and un-mangling always takes about half an hour of extreme self-chiropracty. And when you are mangled, you can only move at a snail's pace, falling over every two steps and banging your head on the floor; it was only funny the first 19 or 20 times. But don't take my word for the game being too slow, because after you finish the game, you unlock "Double Speed Mode", which means that it was considered a reward. Ooh, you were this close to a revelation there, weren't you, SWERY? "My game's more fun when you play it at double-speed? It'll have to be a super-special bonus unlock, then!"
The puzzles are straightforward enough; there was one at a bowling alley that I didn't like much, 'cos it used somewhat arbitrary logic that didn't even involve maiming myself. But let's stop picking at the sprouts and jam our fork right down the middle of this Beef Wellington. J.J. Macfield and the Hendersons is an arty game, and there's a tendency in video game discussion, I think, for the conversation to abruptly end at that point. "Oh, this game's a bit surreal and inscrutable? That's because it's an 'arty game'." "Oh, well that explains it." But isn't art supposed to be about conveying a specific idea, or message? The message of J.J. Macfield and The Thing on the Doorstep feels confused; SWERY lays some cards on the table right at the start with a little opening text saying something like, "No one should feel bad for being who they are! I'm SWERY, and I'm one of the good ones!", and that, plus the fact we're searching for our girlfriend, makes me think it's a metaphor for coming to terms with your sexuality. But in that case, what's all the "tearing all your arms and legs off" business about? Is that a metaphor for scissoring during that time of the m-- That was the new worst thing I've ever written.
Maybe it's not so much the injuries as the regeneration that's the point; oh, sure, love feels painful now, while you're young, but soon you'll realize how superficial it all was after you grow up and become dead inside like the rest of us. But what does the stabby-chase-monster represent? Societal disapproval? Self-loathing? How much we hate waiting for a hairdresser appointment? Probably the second one, 'cos in one of SWERY's trademark massively-inappropriate lurching shifts of tone, we also bring in teen suicide, and then at the very end, something happens that makes me think - And here, I'm going to spoil something, so if you don't want to hear it, mute the video or cover your ears! Quick, quick! Here it comes! - it might have been about transgenderism all along.
I think the presentation confuses the message somewhat; it turns into a sort of Rorschach test of an arty game. SWERY approaches the themes the same way he approaches Americana: as an outsider with a possibly overly-romantic view of the subject. Well, I don't know much about SWERY personally; I'm assuming he's not a suicidal teenage lesbian. "Maybe he identifies as one, Yahtz! Don't be oppressive!" How dare you oppress me! I identify as someone who isn't oppressive!
- Don't get me started on camping holidays: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Obviously as a straight dude I can't say the game won't speak to someone who has issues with sexual identity or privately dreams about ripping their own legs off
- Love means never having to cut your eyes out with scissors