Anamorphine is a is a “narrative experience”, more art than game – a walking simulator. These might sound like loaded statements, but they’re facts, not opinion. For transparency’s sake, I’ll say up front that I generally enjoy this type of game. Toeing the line of what counts as a video game isn’t really anything new for the genre, but Anamorphine stands firmly on the border between “game” and “experience”. Relying on visual presentation over all else, it is a story to wade through and nothing more. Whether or not you’re willing to put up with the leanest of gameplay elements alongside a ton of design issues – all for a decent narrative payoff – is up to you.
The personal baggage you carry into this “experience” will likely affect your interpretation of its story, more so than with similar titles. If you can relate to Anamorphine’s themes of tragedy, failure, depression, and coping, then it’s possible to forgive how miserable it is to actually play. Because it isn’t fun, and it isn’t just miserable because the story is meant to be. There’s a point where only so much can go wrong in your execution of such limited content before the good is unraveled by the bad.
Anamorphine’s concepts and their visual representation reflect an enormous amount of care about its subject matter; if only that same level of care went into the actual development of the game, we would have something worth playing. Instead, we have a fascinating story struggling around in a prison of its own design, and considering it’s theming, the irony is palpable.
Anamorphine’s design is so basic, in fact, that the problems presented in actual gameplay threaten to strip the experience of its value. The controls are as simple as simple can get: you move, you look. There is no action button. You walk around, stare at objects, follow pathways, and nothing more. There are musical cues and gateways into new areas, but nothing is triggered by anything more than moving in the correct direction. The closest thing you’ll get to variety in Anamorphine is changes in your walking speed or instances where you’re riding a bike, where the controls only get a little more slippery – and, in my experience, go from average, to frustrating, to downright broken.
Issues with frame drops and tons of stuttering between loading screens make Anamorphine’s pacing too choppy to accomplish the dreamlike flow it sets out to follow. Strangely, some of the more complex visuals, like doorways between areas where you can view the upcoming environment à la Portal, never presented any technical problems. But simply walking around the apartment and freezing up, or getting stuck in doorways, and general lag in parts that by no means were graphically taxing broke the journey up all too frequently. A few hiccups here and there are common in any game, but Anamorphine’s frame drops, coupled with jarring loading screens between larger areas, really make for what feels like an unfinished experience.
For every beautiful scene and set piece, there are equally clumsy design aspects that make it difficult to tell if this game is even complete. Unpolished doesn’t begin to describe Anamorphine’s menus. I don’t think it’s picky of me to call these the ugliest option screens I’ve seen in years – it’s as if someone forgot to design them at all. On top of looking the way they do, they’re clunky and often did not register my inputs with either keyboard or controller. Such weird quality of life issues are among the thousand cuts that threaten to kill this game. But it’s clear from the outset that Anamorphine is banking on its narrative to breathe every ounce of life into the project. The presentation, however, is so wildly disparate between thoughtfully designed areas and painfully boring segments that it’s difficult to stay focused on that story.
It’s like Anamorphine wants to break its own kneecaps, sometimes literally. There are entire segments where walking becomes so tedious that it feels like the game itself is glitching out. I fully understand the pacing slows for reasons related to the story, but after encountering so many technical issues, the line between art and accident is blurred. In a game where all you do is literally move, where progress is choppy and the risk of getting stuck on or inside objects becomes a constant threat to the continuation, it’s hard to tell what’s done on purpose, and what’s simply messy game design.
I am 100% willing to embrace a game with minimal controls. I’m willing to give up every semblance of gameplay outside of exploration if the story is good enough. Anamorphine is still a video game though, and if it can’t get the basic-basics down, then it’s failing to use the medium to properly present its art. As a video game, it had one job, and it nearly fails. Sure, I completed it, but not without constant technical issues interrupting the experience. It could tell the greatest story ever, but the experience feels pointless when it’s already barebone elements literally hold you back from playing the game.
I understand portions of Anamorphine’s gameplay are consciously paced to reflect the narrative tension, and serve to illustrate the protagonist’s depressed mental state. Conceptually, it’s interesting, but it eventually devolves into a heavy-handed metaphor that goes too far. This plodding pace eventually shifts from “interesting idea” to “okay, we get it” territory, and it’s all so forced. The level to which the developers take these elements makes finishing the game a chore. And when areas begin to repeat, as visually beautiful as they can be, you eventually want to just get on with things.
For example, there are dream sequences in which the protagonist is riding a bicycle through the desert, and every time I saw a gateway into those dunes I groaned. The first time around it’s fine, though it completely overstays its welcome – and then does so again multiple times. You ride and ride and ride… and ride, with little variation in landscape, and with zero direction. Understanding this is a dream sequence means these design choices are open for interpretation, but in regards to how it plays out, these portions are straight up miserable. I’m beginning to wonder just how much I actually enjoy dream sequences; they have a lot of potential in imaginative hands, but totally bomb when done wrong. In Anamorphine, they often serve as narrative bridges between the scenes you explore. These bridges are entirely too frequent, and always boring to cross.
Even with all of the directionless fluidity of a dream, with visual metaphors thrown about, they were consistently the least imaginative portions of the game. Long roads through yellow sands, mountains, cacti – everything that composes the dream is drawn from the protagonist Tyler’s memories (as indicated through photos found throughout the game), but it’s as if he could only remember the most basic parts of his surroundings. The fact that you’re stuck tooling around the dunes on at least four occasions makes them more of a nightmare – which of course, you can easily argue that’s the point. We’re dealing with a mental health narrative, so evoking stress in the player through that kind of repetition is potentially an effective way of drawing them into Tyler’s headspace. That’s still being generous, given the amount of time spent in these dreams, and none of it excuses the gameplay.
Despite all of this, Anamorphine deserves praise for approaching the mature themes presented throughout its story. It is consistently sophisticated in presenting complex mental health issues, through set pieces that reflect the protagonist’s personal state. It’s abundantly clear that the developers have a good grasp of their content matter and are capable of piecing together satisfactory visual representations of it. Between the excellent audio cues and deeply personalized environments you explore, there’s enough “world” to really tell Elena and Tyler’s story.
While their wordless tale has it’s obtuse moments – as any game like this will – it at least provides enough visual bait to make you stop and think about what’s being presented. Anamorphine is just vague enough in what it tells you about the character’s lives to where it isn’t obnoxious, unlike other games that try the same approach but fail. A few images get beaten over your head, but when all you have to work with is the visuals, that’s perfectly fine. Those moments are never frequent enough to cheapen the story too much. Even when the imagery runs the risk of breaching mental health stereotypes, everything is at least pretty tastefully executed.
Anamorphine can get relentlessly heavy, but that’s for the best. None of this comes without warning; the game has multiple modes where you can skip cutscenes as to not trigger any personal reaction to it’s more upsetting imagery. In regards to warming you up to these themes, Anamorphine is actually paced quite nicely, in spite of how often the physical controls muck up the speed of things. It’s hard to miss what’s going on; the story itself is far from complex, but instead serves as an emotional journey.
At its core, Anamorphine is unabashedly tragic. The player is given plenty of reason to care about the characters, with beautifully rendered moments early on painting an endearing picture of two vibrant individuals. Watching their decline is genuinely upsetting; the strength of Anamorphine’s visual creativity absolutely builds you up to break you down.
In that sense, it succeeds as a narrative about brutal reality, even when exploring surreal landscapes and dream sequences. The balancing act between what’s real in the protagonist’s life and how he perceives it in his mind is dynamic enough to save Anamorphine from its downfalls. It is difficult to say without spoiling just what makes Anamorphine’s story so impactful, but it is through total dedication to its blunt depictions of mental anguish that the game stands apart from other walking simulators. Because of this commitment to exploring its themes through such a severe lens, it never strays into any place that feels disrespectful or inappropriate. It’s a fairly humorless game, as it probably should be.
If you are at all concerned about how Anamorphine explores depression or deals with the outcome of mental health struggles, you can at least go into it knowing it’s fully devoted to taking the topics seriously. Whether or not you agree with how accurately the developers have visually represented these ideas is dependent on your own experiences with them, of course. Personally, I found nothing in Anamorphine’s story that insensitively or inaccurately portrayed those who struggle with such issues. It touches on a lot of behavioral aspects of handling any number of illnesses; substance abuse, personal care issues, and suicidal ideation are all explored. As someone with a chronic illness myself, some of the images in Anamorphine were almost too real; the discomfort of recognizing something in yourself through a game like this isn’t particularly pleasant, but it is an impressive feat from a design perspective.
If you’ve ever been too sick to clean your apartment, or too tired to get out of bed for days on end, then you’ll find plenty of relatable moments in this game. In spite of everything that makes Anamorphine’s world a pain to explore, the developers have crafted an all-too-real diorama of depression and it’s complexities.
I said at the beginning of this review that Anamorphine isn’t fun, and I stand by that. It isn’t meant to be… but it also isn’t, for reasons it doesn’t set out to accomplish. The few pleasurable experiences the protagonist has that the player gets to enjoy are ultimately stomped out by his demons. Ironically, Anamorphine’s quality as an actual video game reflects its own narrative. I understand it’s hard to make a game – and Anamorphine’s positive elements truly feel like a genuine effort – but the bad optimization, disparity in creative highs-and-lows, and general bugginess is depressing in and of itself. It is a $20 Steam game with a $30 story, and dollar store game design.
If that disparity is something you can overlook, give it a shot. If not, then here’s a tip from a walking simulator pro: going to YouTube and pressing the play button provides literally the same amount of entertainment value, for free. I get no joy out of saying that, but this is one instance where credit goes where credit is due. Narrative-driven experiences are a perfectly acceptable game design model, unless the actual game portion is undercooked, as with the case of Anamorphine. Here we find a captivating story, worth your while if you wish to explore its themes – whether or not that narrative really works to the best of its mediums potential is debatable.