Thursday, July 30, 2020

[Review] The Nightmarish Drug-Trip of ‘What Happened’ Is Soured by Its Tonal Inconsistencies

Rarely is a title as apt as What Happened is for this game. Though it’s missing at least three question marks.

On a positive level, you say ‘what happened?’ because the game takes some inventive and frankly gonzo horror visual steps in depicting its protagonist’s downbeat nightmare acid trip. It’s a shame then, that it’s not quite as consistently adept at handling its examination of a teenager’s mental health.

It would be extremely easy to mock the attempts at empathy and mental health depiction What Happened throws at you, even if it means well. It’s trippy nature does not excuse the often jarring tonal shifts, for instance. What you can’t call What Happened is boring. The game is quite fittingly, a chaotic mess of things happening that you can’t quite help but be entranced by. 

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What Happened begins with our protagonist, high-schooler Stiles, locked in combat with his own mental demons, which leads to him doing acid (apparently not the first time) in the bathroom of his high school. It’s already clear that Stiles is using acid as an escape from bullying, his failed relationship, his broken friendship, and perhaps something darker. Can Stiles get through this trip? He, and you, will have to navigate the ever-changing labyrinth of his mind, solving puzzles and facing up to the reality of his past.

From the off, What Happened leans heavily into its acid trip gone wrong. The swirling blend of reality, past, present, and the surreal get disorientating, and captures the mind space of Stiles’s anxiety and drug-addled brain. Fleeting memories of bad life experiences manifest as twisted nightmares, with deliberately jarring narrative jumps from moment to moment as Stiles’ and the player’s point of view continuously slips in and out of focus, and pulses with color. The game toys with player expectation and perspective in much the same manner as Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear, with the flick of a switch or turn of the head affecting the reality of what stands before you.

This is the most effective aspect of What Happened. It portrays Stiles’ drug trip and anxiety pretty well. Whether by design or by accident, controlling Stiles and interacting with his world aren’t particularly smooth, in fact, it’s often downright unpleasant. That does seem to be the point though, you’re not supposed to enjoy this, you’re supposed to empathize with it. Which is, unfortunately, the cause of What Happened’s biggest problem, its tone.

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I absolutely could understand the developers wanted to instill empathy in the player by showing them how fucked up and unpleasant life is for this suicidal, drug-addicted teen, and there are times it manages to capture that effectively. There are sweet and tender moments where Stiles recalls happier moments and times people did care for him. There’s an inventive scene depicting Stiles’ relationship with his ex-girlfriend via a puppet show. It’s the rare combination of the game doing something a bit silly and making it mean something.

Stiles doesn’t initially come across as a sympathetic character however, which, initially, made it hard to want to help him through this self-inflicted acid nightmare. Yes, his poor mental health clearly causes his self-destructive tendencies, but even with the bullying, the early part of What Happened makes him look like a bit of a self-absorbed prick. That does change as you uncover more about him, but the crux of the story is your empathy for him is supposed to shape the outcome, and again, it may be by design, but it’s a little late in the day to roll back your earlier impression in gameplay terms.

The other contributing factor is how silly the game can be. A bit of levity is absolutely welcome in a game about mental health and drug abuse, but it’s either unintentionally silly or completely out of place with the tone. 

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Having a game open with a distraught teen trying to escape from the world he believes hates him by taking acid doesn’t drive home its tone quite as well as it should when it involves a disembodied voice telling you to ‘enjoy your poo’ in a sing-song voice, and features a psychedelic journey down a toilet bowl. 

The storytelling suffers somewhat due to the choppy, non-sequential delivery (though it does also serve the acid trip effect). Sometimes it just feels like points are made by bludgeoning the player with them as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next, rather than building up genuine empathy and understanding. 

For all its faults, it’s hard to argue against the intent and ambition of What Happened. It doesn’t always get things right, but it clearly has good intentions to deliver an engaging and heartfelt depiction of mental health issues and a nauseatingly effective drug trip. It’s to the credit of the developers that it succeeds on the latter at least, and shows potential in the former.

What Happened review key for PC provided by the publisher.

What Happened is out now on Steam, with a console release yet to be determined.


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