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Review: SELF Nightmarishly Grapples with Our Vanishing Sense of Self

SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games.

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SELF
Photo: indienova

Developer doBell’s SELF employs a storytelling mode that defies easy categorization. For one, you must play the game and see multiple endings in order to truly understand the nature of a young boy’s search for his missing dad in a world that scarcely comprehends him. The text-based narrative is, for no immediately apparent reason, presented as subtitles on a monitor that will often be overwhelmed by static at certain points. The game’s terse writing places your playable character in a dream of sorts, where the people closest to him avoid answering his questions and where everyone in the city he calls home can disappear in the blink of an eye. The effect is nothing short of nerve-wracking.

By repeatedly showing an image of cracked glass, where the diverging lines of the crack are explicitly characterized by the narrative as different pathways and destinations in the story, SELF encourages the player to restart the game after arriving at one of many endings. The proceedings concern a child named John who wakes up from sleep only to enter an obfuscating nightmare of an existence in which he cannot find his father. The fractured narrative is consistently fascinating to put together as a puzzle, even if does occasionally lead to tedium. Even though a helpful checkpoint system allows the player to skip parts of the story, you may still have to retread sections of SELF’s narrative that you recently finished reading, depending on which ending you’re trying to discover on a subsequent playthrough.

A bigger drawback of SELF, though, is its occasional reliance on the “bullet avoidance” of Toby Fox’s acclaimed indie Undertale. This type of gameplay is one-dimensional by design, as the player simply controls a powerless icon within a box and attempts to avoid contact with objects that move into the space. The largely mindless routine of moving a bland avatar—a heart in Undertale, a crudely drawn face within a square in SELF—away from easy-to-dodge projectiles becomes stale, and the action is even more unsatisfying in SELF, as objects entering the box have even more predictable trajectories than those in Undertale.

Luckily, everything else about SELF largely works and adds up to an unsettling and revelatory experience. John’s mother absurdly evades the child’s questions about the new status quo. Eventually, he’s able to leave the house for answers, but visits to an arcade, school, hospital, and bus bring more confusion before the player is able to discern exactly what has happened to John’s family. And along the way, any sense of calm in the story is challenged by a variety of sharp sound effects, from balloons popping to the high-pitched dinging of bells.

The game goes in different directions based on whether John wishes to “face” the truth during crucial moments in the story, and the various endings often transpire out of nowhere and vary in their emotional impact. In an unexpectedly comic turn, one ending brilliantly comments on the tale’s general sense of fatalism: At the very start of SELF, the player can choose to keep going back to sleep rather than get out of bed—one of gaming’s oldest clichés—and this decision brings you to “The Happiest Ending,” in which John never has to wake up to the disturbing dreamscape that awaits him otherwise.

Other choices reveal curious reversals of seemingly established facts. If you’re able to trigger particular memories within the dreamlike narrative, the text will sometimes read as if it’s written more from the perspective of John’s father. And deeper into SELF, the script implies that perhaps you’re actually playing as the father who imagines himself as the son.

Although the story certainly suggests that dreams contain hard-to-define approximations of reality, the ultimate theme of SELF is that you are whom you love. In a mind-blowing twist on the game’s primary visual conceit of a monitor displaying text, SELF redefines the screen as a mirror with nails in its corners. If you remove the nails and then the mirror, another mirror appears with a silhouette of a kid. From there, one by one, mirrors can be pulled away to reveal a larger shadow of a person. The tragedy of life, as SELF sees it, is the older we get, the more we grow, but this growth is offset by a loss of self via the deaths of loved ones. Far from an orthodox release, SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games that audiences so casually, unassumingly embrace.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by indienova.

Developer: doBell Publisher: indienova Platform: Switch Release Date: January 16, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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