Strange, unsettling, and wonderfully emotional.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories opens with two messages: a statement that this game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are and a warning that this game contains explicit content, including extreme violence, sexual topics, and depictions of suicide. These messages were the only things I knew about The Missing when I started playing and its raw and gory nature immediately made a strong first impression. It was shocking and disturbing, but not without purpose. Beneath the bloody, visceral surface is a touching narrative about what it means to be alive and find your place in the world.
J.J. is a college girl who is nearly killed by a lightning strike while searching for her missing friend Emily. Determined not to die before finding her friend, J.J. discovers she can regenerate her body, returning to life and undoing the damage she sustained. J.J. isn’t immortal; she can still die if she takes too many hits before regenerating. She may die eventually, but she can lose limbs, break her spine, burn to a crisp, and even be completely decapitated and still walk away no worse for wear. This is the most unsettling part of playing The Missing as J.J can still clearly feel pain. Dismemberment is a key part of solving most of the puzzles you encounter, and J.J.’s agonizing screams are heard as her bones shatter and her flesh is torn apart. J.J.’s search for Emily is a harrowing trial that doesn’t offer many chances to relax from the heavy, dark tone.
All of this is in service of the story, which considering the poor voice acting is thankfully told mostly through text messages that provide context through backstory. Though you catch glimpses of Emily and have a few conversations with a stuffed animal companion, the majority of The Missing’s narrative is told through chat histories that appear on J.J.’s phone throughout. The most important conversations are J.J.’s troubled relationship with her mother and her supportive friendship with Emily. J.J.’s mother is cold, controlling, and unaccepting, leaving her daughter with a lot of emotional baggage that Emily must help carry. The conflict told in the text messages slowly reveals more context over the course of the story, ultimately culminating in the emotional conclusion to J.J.’s search for her missing friend. The story is without a doubt the main draw of The Missing and it’s beautifully woven into the adventure, crafting an emotional journey that gives purpose to the pain its heroine is suffering through.
Though the story is the main attraction, the underlying puzzle platforming is also well done. As unsettling as dismemberment as a game mechanic may be, it allows for unique puzzles that force you to sacrifice the mobility of an intact body for other unorthodox utilities. Severed limbs can be used as weights in physics puzzles and J.J.’s body can be set aflame to provide light or burn through plants. J.J.’s severed head can roll through spaces too thin for her body to fit through, and breaking her spine can (somehow) reverse gravity. Not every puzzle is a winner - a handful are outright frustrating - but having to unlearn my instincts to avoid damage ended up being more fun than I expected. After beating the game, I started playing again and had a blast finding the hidden collectibles that unlock concept art, alternate costumes, and text message conversations with J.J.’s other friends that reveal more of her personality.
In many ways, The Missing feels like an experiment in what kind of stories a game can tell, and it can be tough to get into. If the graphic subject matter doesn’t turn you away, then the rigid controls and poor performance on Switch might. But despite the rough edges I loved journeying across the eponymous island of memories to learn J.J.’s story while solving puzzles and crossing obstacles in ways I’ve rarely had to think about before. It’s a game that touched me on a personal level and one I’ll be thinking of for a long time to come.