Review – Unreal Life
The idea of loneliness is one that comes with many faces and dimensions throughout the world. It can assume the form of isolation from humanity, locked away by choice or by force from the rest of the civilization. It can look like being in a crowded room, thrumming with life, but having no one to connect with, no one who can see you on the same level that you see yourself. It can even be for someone in a happy relationship, having a loving and supportive family, but still aching with a missing piece that doesn’t have a name or a location. We all strive to find our place in this world, whether in the physical or the digital, and it’s what drives all of us to seek out where we finally feel whole. It’s this aspect that drives the central story of hako life’s Unreal Life, a pixel art indie piece, and it’s compelling to take you on a fascinating, surreal journey about memory, loss and identity.
You begin the game as Hal, a young girl who appears in a nightdress, awakening on a lonely street beneath a sentient traffic light. The light, called Unit 195, is able to connect to you through your body’s electromagnetic field and will follow you (in a sense) wherever you go. Devoid of memories or purpose, Hal quickly realizes that she can see the “memories” of an object just by touching it, though how long ago or how important that memory is seems abstract.
An early discovery gives Hal a name: Miss Sakura, a woman who seemed to care about Hal and whom Hal feels an indescribable hunger to find. Hal, with Unit 195 in tow, sets off on a bizarre adventure through lands, dimensions and time to discover where Miss Sakura is, and to hopefully find someone who can tell Hal who she is. The journal Hal carries, written in an unknown language, is of no help, and the growing suspicion that something happened to Miss Sakura gains power with each step forward. Yet, even as dark thoughts and terrifying images invade Hal’s visions, we must keep moving forward. Whether it’s a dreadful reality or a beautiful dream, the truth must be discovered.
Within Unreal Life, there’s not a particularly steep learning curve, at least not if you’re simply focused on playing the game. Hal is able to walk around on a side-scrolling map, and you are almost always making forward motion: anytime you need to go back to a previous area, a fast travel option (like a dimensional doorway you discover early on) will make the journey quick. Hal will only be able to interact with some objects, not all, and the choices of examining, touching or sometimes picking them up will be made available as they’re needed.
The touch will only show a specific snapshot of time, so there isn’t a lot of fine tuning needed to figure out the importance of the object’s memory. Once you figure out the minor puzzle that the memory explains (like which door Miss Sakura disappeared into), there’s a good chance you’ll never think about it again. Some items that you obtain might be used multiple times, but there’s no risk involved, as the fail states are excessively minimal. In fact, you can play almost to the end of the game with no worries about being able to progress, if that makes sense.
Where Unreal Life takes off is the nuance that comes from Hal’s self-reflection, and it’s complex building as the game progresses. Unit 195 helps Hal understand how to treat their brains like a careful index, and, soon, you begin cataloguing almost everything, from the touch memories you have to the conversations you participate in with the various denizens of this world. Hal is so worried about forgetting or being forgotten that they purposely create a meticulous index of all thoughts that come with the interactions, allowing you to go back and relive the game bit by bit as you move forward.
There are instances where remembering the words or touches of some objects will clarify the next move to make, but a vast majority of the saved ideas are simply that: previous snapshots that you want to preserve. In essence, you begin to experience a meta game in which you’re living Hal’s life as Hal would want to live it, and you, in turn, decide the inherent value of these memories. Will you hear everything Hal has to say about that last conversation with the alley dog, Bern, or Mos, the rock-life chef? Or will you simply trust your own memories as you continue to drive forward to an ending unknown?
Visually, Unreal Life is a stunning pixel art piece that blends beautifully rough edges with minute detail that shouldn’t exist within this classic style, but yet it does. The way the pixels shift as Hal’s breathing moves in time with your targeting reticule. The minor sparkle of objects in the back alley. The gorgeous look of the closeup artwork that you encounter in the hotel lobby. The creators, hako life, have put together a display that’s on par with creators like Pixel (of Kero Blaster) and miwashiba (LiEat, 1bitheart).
The choice of pixel art does a three hit combo in the realm of success. First, it runs like a dream on anything, especially the Switch. The sequence where Hal just quietly cries as she eats a sandwich is incredibly touching. Second, it allows for some leeway: good looking things look GREAT, rougher things (like the boring apartment complex) are forgiven because of the medium. Lastly, it pulls you into the otherworldly idea of Unreal Life, keeping you in the mindset where rabbits can be night guards, or actual worker ants work at a factory.
At this point, I suppose it’s important to address the game itself, not just how it plays, but what it ultimately turns out to be. Unreal Life faces some very difficult issues throughout, hinting at the fate of Hal and Miss Sakura until a final, succinct conclusion that, though there are a couple of different story endings, really only end in one place. Before reaching the destination, the way through is deeply engrossing, allowing you to try your hand at different sorts of puzzles, ideas and conversations that are both enchanting and thoughtful.
I adored being able to talk to everything that would speak to me, because there wasn’t anything lost in the localization of Unreal Life from Japanese to English. Hal’s constant flashes back to a time that wasn’t here gives you ideas about what it could be, and there are tones throughout – ones of loss, anger, loneliness and displacement – that lead you to the final conclusion. It’s heart-wrenching once it all makes sense, but it’s such a travel that it’s hard to believe that it all took place in less than seven hours of game time, according to my Switch.
As hako life has more exposure for Unreal Life as a mobile game than a Switch game, there are optional touch screen controls to let you really play this game handheld, and I suggest portable versus docked. The pixel graphics work best tightly clumped together, and it just didn’t have that same enchantment on the big screen. Sometimes it’s nicer to hold the experience close, to have it in your face to give you the same impact that the developers intended. Also, I think I might need to pick this game up again when it launches on iOS in February. The soundtrack is a banger (very melancholy shot through with menace) and could be perfect for when I’m on my way to work and just need to really lower my expectations.
I like to walk away from games with something to take away, something to remember my playing by. Unreal Life has left me thoroughly disquieted, filled with ideas about what it means to connect, to be a part of someone’s life. How much our own illusions can protect us from what might seek to harm our livelihood, and how fragile a person can be, even if we feel the change is minor. There’s so much of a parallel to Alice in Wonderland here, but with even darker notes that fill the void. Unreal Life is short, and it’s not for everyone, but it has a story to tell, and it’s one that I found both complete, satisfying and deeply troubling. Come along, everyone. It’s time to go home. Our train is nearly here.
Stunning pixel art captures both the dreamlike quality and stark reality of Hal’s world.
Simplistic with no risk. As a result, the charm of the interactions can get repetitive after a while.
A beautiful soundtrack that’s both assuring and haunting in the same chords.
I was compelled to play it, I will play it again, but I can’t right now. Not for a while, no.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Unreal Life is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Unreal Life was provided by the publisher.