Review – What Happened
Creating a game centered around mental health can be tricky. Developers have to walk a fine line between being sensitive to the issues present, as well as providing a somewhat enjoyable experience for the player. The Poland-based developer, Genius Slackers, has set out to do just that with their debut game, What Happened. The big question now is whether or not the game has managed to achieve both of those goals.
Arash Negahban of Genius Slackers explains that he got the idea for creating this game when a neighbor of his committed suicide. He couldn’t understand why anyone would do this, so he started looking deeper into it and even reached out to a some mental health professionals. He learned that most people don’t just decide to take their lives one day, but rather it’s the end result of abuses and traumas, many of which the victims keep hidden. After gaining some insight into this disorder, he decided to create a game that would help shed some light on the struggles and suffering that people with this affliction go through.
In What Happened, you play as Stiles, a high schooler with a tragic past. Right from the start you realize our protagonist is far from ok, as he’s seen dropping acid in his school’s bathroom. From there it’s a nonstop psychedelic journey through the dark recesses of his mind as he tries to come to terms with what happened to bring him to this point. It sounds like an interesting premise, and it is, but the problem lies in its execution.
Since Stiles is high on LSD during the course of the game, that means a lot of it has been rendered to mimic the effects of the drug. Large portions of the screen fade in and out of focus while the environments pulsate nonstop. Occasionally the colors start swirling around as well. This might sound like a fun gimmick, but in reality it’s a nightmare.
It was incredibly tough to get through this game. The unrelenting fluctuating visuals made me sick. They actually made me physically ill. I had to keep stopping and taking breaks because I was getting nauseous and eventually it gave me a migraine. Once I got the migraine while looking for clues to unlock a door, I had to call it quits for a whole day.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if this visual style was only present in short sections of the game, but the majority of it is like that. This is another case of a grand idea that just doesn’t translate well to the medium. Trying to search for clues to puzzles or find objects you’ll need to progress is tough enough without the game making you feel like you’re three sheets to the wind.
Sometimes even if a game is really rough in some areas, I’ll be fine pushing through as long as it has a great story. Someday You’ll Return is a prime example. It was rife with bugs when it first released and I had my fair share of difficulties trying to complete it. However, I couldn’t stop playing it because of how compelling the narrative was. While What Happened is another psychological horror game that tackles with the subject of mental health issues, it’s nowhere near as captivating.
The whole game feels like it’s trying to be edgy with its themes of bullying, trauma, depression, and substance abuse. However, it’s about as edgy as a gothic teenager’s poetry about how no one understands them (I might have some personal experience on that matter). While the topic is serious, the game just doesn’t do a good enough job of making you terribly invested in its characters. They’re all hollow stereotypes that one might find in a low budget TV high school drama. There’s not enough time devoted to fleshing out the secondary characters enough to give the emotional impact of what transpired to lead Stiles to his predicament.
This could also be partially due to the terrible voice acting. At first I thought Stiles was simply saying his lines without emotion because of being on drugs. However, there are times he’s obviously getting heated by something going on around him and he just sounds bored. In fact, most of the voice cast sounds completely disinterested throughout the game. Almost like they were told they weren’t getting paid right before they started recording. I’d say it completely kills the tension, but What Happened doesn’t even manage to deliver that.
Unfortunately, along with the wooden voice acting and vomit inducing visuals, What Happened isn’t even a very good horror game. It falls into nearly every one of the tropes that most horror games use to death. It’s mainly a walking sim with its main gimmick being the old “walk into a room, turn around and walk back into the other room, turn around again to find that everything is different” schtick.
Even its sound design is like a page taken from Scary Game 101. The music mostly consists of the same ultra low frequency tones that films and games use to try to manufacture fear. The score is not only forgettable, but will assault your eardrums. It also relies heavily on jump scares. None of these land either, because you’ve either seen them a thousand times before or you’ll be too queasy from the throbbing screen to notice.
I appreciate what Genius Slackers were trying to do by telling such a personal story with sensitive subject matter. However, having someone tripping on LSD for an entire game was not the wisest move. Depicting someone in an altered state of reality or suffering from mental health issues can be very tough to pull off without being offensive. That being said, it has been done before. If you’re looking for an amazing game that treats mental health issues with respect while still being enjoyable, I’d recommend trying Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, GRIS, Celeste, Life is Strange, Röki, or Mosaic instead.
While parts of the game are highly detailed and make good use of the Unreal 4 engine, the decision to make everything shift in and out of focus and pulsate nonstop was horrible.
Your pretty standard walking sim with occasional sections where you’ll have to control Stiles like a doll or run from something. The psychedelic visuals make it difficult to navigate and find what you’re looking for.
Terrible, wooden vocal performances and an unremarkable soundtrack that uses far too much low frequency sounds to manufacture fear.
Playing an entire game as someone under the influence of LSD is awful. It made me physically ill after a while. The subject matter has been covered before and is much more expertly handled in other games.
Final Verdict: 3.0
What Happened is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16GB of RAM.
A copy of What Happened was provided by the publisher.