Unreal Life’s ethereal beauty masks a dark undertone that pervades this ‘point and click’ titles gripping and personal narrative.
You assume the role of Hal, a young girl who is suffering from amnesia. Waking up on the side of the road and being greeted by 195 – a talking traffic light of all things – Hal undertakes a deeply personal quest to reunite with Miss Sakura; an individual of presumably quite some importance to her.
The game’s mysterious premise, absurd, yet loveable cast, and excellent art direction had me hooked from the first click.
The first thing I noticed when starting up Unreal Life for the first time was the beautifully simple art direction that this game utilises. The muted – yet vibrant – colour contrast creates a beautifully eerie atmosphere that reflects the narrative’s much darker subtext.
Each character’s design is wonderfully memorable: a talking traffic light, human-like penguin and actual “working” worker ants. The sprite work is innately charming, and the consistent quality across the art direction helped me buy into the game’s – frankly – absurd characters.
The game’s art direction also lends itself incredibly well to establishing quick changes in mood. A quick palette shift from blue to red helps the players see the shift in Hal’s mood, and when the game “breaks” -as the screen glitches and shows images in disturbingly fast flashes – there is an intensity that kept me hooked throughout the roughly 7 hours of playtime.
The importance of simplicity:
Unreal Life’s ambitious design is complimented by what I’d consider a very “safe” gameplay loop. The point and click system used here doesn’t take many risks, which is okay when the visual design and narrative themes are so interesting.
As Hal looks to figure out what exactly has happened in her past, she discovers she has the ability to view past events through the lens of inanimate objects. When Hal touches certain objects, she can navigate between past and present timelines and this mechanic is what enables the player to move the story forward. Later, Hal discovers the ability to track thoughts, based on what Hal has heard, touched and read. Recalling these thoughts helps solve the game’s many puzzles – which never veer towards complex- but the discoveries often provide enough incentive, despite the lack of challenge.
Hal also collects various items throughout the game which can be used to engage with the world and characters in different ways. The absence of sign-posting or markers when questing is welcome, and made me take the time to appreciate the game’s beautiful world and actually think about solutions to progress.
Thankfully, the game’s puzzles do see a gradual increase in difficulty as the narrative builds towards its crescendo, and finding the best ending was a satisfying challenge.
Ode to memento:
Memento, a neo-noir mystery thriller from the 2000’s, is one of my favourite movies. The film follows Leonard, an amnesiac who tattoos himself to keep track of information he discovers. My love for Memento and the style of non-linear, drip-fed storytelling made Unreal Life’s mysterious and dark narrative instantly appealing to me.
Hal’s quest to find Miss Sakura is dark and full of emotion, but never too hopeless due to the loveable ensemble of characters that join Hal on her journey.
The developing bond between Hal and 195 is touching, and the absurdist ensemble does well to bring light to an otherwise dark and depressing world that Hal occupies.
Where Unreal Life also shares similarities with Memento is in how the narrative isn’t ever directly spelled out to the player in a clear order. Each newly discovered memory points towards another theory about Hal’s past, but the game leaves the onus on the player to piece everything together. I loved this, as I spent the whole game firmly wearing my detective hat and regularly developing my own theories about Hal’s past.
This set-up also allowed for revelatory moments in the narrative to hit me extra hard. Going back after getting my first ending and discovering other endings, based on different branching choices, was incredibly satisfying.
Unreal Life is an absolute triumph when it comes to atmosphere and non-linear storytelling. The game’s impressive pixel design, loveable cast of characters and simple gameplay loop all work in conjunction to provide a thoroughly satisfying experience.
Yes, sometimes the game’s puzzles felt a tad obtuse and the gameplay isn’t anything special, but these minor gripes didn’t take away from the absolute joy I had on this emotional journey with Hal and my new favourite talking traffic light.