What Happened video game review: An innovative take on teenage depression, hampered by two-dimensional characters

At the start of “What Happened,” Stiles drops a tab of acid in the bathroom. He then sees a projection of himself — which will haunt him for most of the game — chastising him for the action. “Back to square one,” his “mind” tells him. An instant later he is submerged in water gasping for air as if drowning or, more accurately, in the throes of a panic attack. Soon after the water disappears, he finds himself in the banal confines of the boy’s bathroom at his high school. Emerging from the stall, he has little time to collect himself before a bully bursts into the bathroom and assaults him, dunking his head in a sink.

After the bully leaves things don’t get much better. Stiles emerges from the bathroom into a faceless world where invisible students walk past him — their only identifying markers are the backpacks, ear buds, or other objects they carry. The invisible people around him speak to how detached he feels from his environment. More examples quickly pile up. The things that once gave Stiles comfort, such as friendship and baseball, have lost their luster. The world around Stiles is hazy, not only because he is tripping, but as a consequence of his thoughts irrigating everything in sight. Because Stiles is a prisoner to his own negative emotions, he is prey to misperceptions which are amplified by the LSD.

Notwithstanding his grief for his deceased father and the anger he nurses toward his mother for her starting to date again, Stiles is tormented over a recent breakup with a girl tellingly named Maya. (The word “Maya” is sometimes used to describe worldly illusions in Indian philosophy.) Through flashbacks we see that Maya broke up with Stiles on account of his aloofness, his refusal to see a therapist and his untempered use of LSD. Making matters worse, Stiles believes that his ex has hooked up with his erstwhile best friend Ben.

“Time can turn good memories bitter,” his mind tells him at one point while at another point it counsels him that “you’re not getting anything by rewinding these thoughts.” Although the external personification of his mind can be a source of sound advice, generally it is full of reproach and derision. Tonally, “What Happened” nails the persistent, hectoring voice that can accompany rampant depression. It also makes ingenious use of transitions between scenes that illustrate the effects of acid. At various points we see a sprawling tunnel of lockers, a forest that erupts inside the high school, a theatrical backdrop where Stiles moves around like a stick figure, hellish scenes of hung bodies and the like. These visual hallucinations, however, are all-encompassing in a way that is more than a little preposterous considering that Stiles is shown to have taken no more than a tab of acid. For that matter, Stiles’s mental state appears more in keeping with outright psychosis than with an LSD experience. So, if you’re coming to “What Happened” after reading, say, Michel Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” you may be underwhelmed by the liberties taken here.

In addition to the credibility issues, the characters in “What Happened” are fairly two-dimensional. Seeing that Maya and Ben probably aren’t the coldhearted people Stiles thinks they are doesn’t make them particularly interesting, nor does it give the story’s reversals any real force. Moreover, although I enjoyed seeing how one scene folded into another, I can’t say I was enthralled by many of the actual game mechanics which mainly come down to searching for objects to advance the story. Wandering through a black-and- white forest looking for lightbulbs that can be placed into sockets to clear one’s path of obstructing tree branches did nothing to make me feel more invested in the game’s world. If anything, I wished “What Happened” consisted more of simply walking from point A to B and experiencing the story without the roadblocks of its so-so gameplay elements.

For those with a distinct taste for the experimental side of gaming, “What Happened’s” artful transitions between scenes recommend themselves even if other aspects fall short. At any rate, I look forward to seeing what the game’s developers might do next since they clearly have an aptitude for stepping outside of the usual video game safe spaces.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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