A journey through a child’s nightmares where you’ll wonder when the happy ending is coming.
Text-based adventures are a dying breed. It is rare in this day and age to find that well-worn genre creeping back onto systems, but when they do sprout up, they tend to bring something wholly unique and interesting to the table to make up for their archaic design. SELF is a story of sadness, fear, and neglect. Bouncing between dreams and reality, the protagonist is on the hunt for his missing father but has a lot to overcome along the way. In a fragmented, storytelling style, you must piece this tale back together in order to fully understand what has gone on in this sequence of events, but be warned: not everything is as it seems.
You begin your journey completely in the dark, not just through the art style and aesthetic, but as a game mechanic. It becomes apparent quickly that you are a younger child, and that something isn’t quite right. You question your mother on the whereabouts of your father, and she responds by blowing off the question. You can tell something is being hidden from you, and as a curious boy, you need to know what is happening. From here, you begin to reach branching paths that offer multiple endings and memories to be uncovered. Due to how the story unfolds, you will have to play through various sections repeatedly to reach different conclusions. This format of storytelling is one that can be found across differing narrative-focused genres. Even as curious as I was, wanting to aid this child in his search, I couldn’t help but feel like tapping through the same scenes trying to find the right answer just hampered the immersion and my sympathies. Usually, the paths seem quite obvious as you’re generally only given two options, but sometimes you need to correctly get through a sequence of events, and due to the oddball nature of these dreamscapes, it can be completely random. I just wanted to find this kid’s father but felt like I needed to find a guide to make the experience more pleasant.
Between the story portions and dialogue choices, you will find yourself completing mini games to make some of your major decisions. These mini games instantly remind me of Undertale’s combat sequences, where you control a small group of pixels in a tight square and avoid obstacles and projectiles that come your way. These obstacles are either green or red and signify whether you will face your fears or avoid them. Taking both routes is necessary for a completionist’s sake, but only the “Face It” path has you actually doing anything more substantive. With that being said, the only difference is the length of time you take in the sequence. If you run into the red objects, the session ends quickly; it’s easier to just avoid your problems, right? However, hitting the green objects will have you maneuvering across the square for a minute or two, while avoiding the red objects that close in on you. Even with its similarities to Undertale, this is by no means as chaotic or difficult as Toby Fox’s bullet-hell style mini game. Evasion and precision are pretty easy, and as a break-up from the story portions, this felt like more of an annoyance than an interesting way to make a choice, especially when I wanted to get on to the next bit of story during repeated playthroughs.
The puzzles offer a much more interesting diversion. Since they are mostly environmental- based, you will have to deduce what SELF is asking of you on the fly, with little direction. Dialogue prior to the sequence breaks is your only friend, as you are trying to solve each distinctive puzzle. As you are presented with each problem, clicking about to try to understand what is needed from you will become commonplace, but each puzzle never took long enough to get to the point of frustration; the simplistic design doesn’t offer a lot for you to trial and error your way through. I enjoyed every one, as each was different from the last, didn’t ask a lot of the player, and contributed to the creepiness factor in a unique way.
The way in which this world is presented to you is quite distinctive. Beyond the darkness throughout, you have a utilization of old-looking text and screens reminiscent of the former Macintosh days. Most of this journey feels like you’re simply peering into a screen watching the events unfold. Pixelated graphics and simplistic design emphasize this old-fashioned feel, making for an ambiance that I truly appreciated. A somber soundtrack filled with piano tunes finishes off a product that looks, feels, and sounds right, but just doesn’t culminate into something I can recommend for everyone.
SELF is a story that I wanted to engross myself in more than anything. I felt for this child and wanted to do everything I could to help them. The game had me hooked in that way, but unfortunately, it squandered that enthusiasm away through some questionable storytelling devices and lackluster mini game sections. As purely a story experience, this is one I can recommend, if you can get through the broken-up design choice, but for those looking for anything else outside of a sorrowful and sinister puzzler, this is probably one you can leave behind.