I couldn’t help feeling intimidated when I started Anamorphine. Before the intro, a written prompt gives you an option that allows you to skip cutscenes, as they contain explicit scenes of depression and substance abuse. It even gives the web address for the International Association for the Study of Pain in case they’re too distressing. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and its daring airport mission, I’ve never played another game that felt the need to warn me about its explicit content so ominously. When previewed, Artifact 5 was outspoken about their game’s depiction of mental health in decline, hoping to raise awareness and influence a positive change for players who may suffer from mental health issues, themselves.
Backed by such a righteous cause, and an opening to make you gulp to yourself in exaggeration, Anamorphine promises to lead you down a dark and unforgiving road. That promise falls quite flat, however, thanks to glaring technical issues (a game breaking bug that delayed this review but was recently rectified) and over-the-top plot developments that evoke humour more than discomfort.
The game is a linear first-person narrative that tells the story of Tyler and his wife, Elena. After moving to Montreal, Elena’s career as a cellist appears to be taking off rather nicely, but somewhere along that bustling career sprouts tragedy. Discovering that tragedy and how it affected both Tyler and Elena is your main goal.
You’ll traverse shifting labyrinths within Tyler’s mind, no seemingly ordinary location safe from the malformations of a surreal dream. The use of something as simple as a bedroom managed to give me pause quite a few times. I enjoyed Anamorphine’s use of transitions in getting to those surreal areas. At certain points the game will take what you’re seeing and frame it as though you were staring at a picture the entire time, making you feel as though you truly were lost in a memory elicited from a photo. Sadly, these seamless transitions are bogged down by horrible load times that take place immediately after emerging from a memory, and they only seemed to get longer the further I progressed.
There is no dialogue in Anamorphine. To tell its story, the game relies solely on shifting landscapes and images of Elena. For something that built itself on a platform of interesting visuals and sound, there is a distinct lack of polish within each environment that degrades the emotions it tries to convey. Graphics aside, Elena is the only person in the game who is animated. Other characters are conceived as bland mannequins that don’t move, which leads me to wonder why Elena’s animations are so unbearably wooden.
There’s a scene involving a downhill bike ride in which Elena becomes injured, but the location, speed, and overall implausibility of the accident are so inconsistent with real-world situations that it immediately shatters any and all sense of immersion. Seeing as how this moment was a pivotal occurrence leading to the crux of Tyler’s anguish, it belittles the seriousness of its outcome to laughable. The orchestrated music accompanying these scenes, however, is surprisingly good and resonant, usually lead by a cello.
There are ideas in Anamorphine that, with more time and development, I feel could have been more impactful, but as it stands right now there are too many deterrents plaguing its emotional gravitas. With themes of alcoholism, depression and suicide being displayed front and center, I think a certain level of cohesion has to be maintained within its presentation, because I didn’t come out of Anamorphine feeling transformed the way I think it wanted me to feel.
But that isn’t to say the game mistreats these themes. Far from it. Although the emotional punch is sorely lacking, the message manages to stand out in the only spoken line of dialogue within the game: seek help. This is one of very few games on the market geared so heavily towards mental health awareness. Even the hub of the game represents a person’s capacity to compartmentalise bad thoughts and memories in order to analyse them objectively. Artifact 5 has the best intentions with Anamorphine, and its existence certainly marks a milestone for games intending to help their players rather than simply entertain. It’s a noble feat that stumbles, but will hopefully set a precedent for future games to come.