The career of Japanese video game director and writer Hidetaka Suehiro, better known as SWERY or Swery65, is a bright spot in an often depressingly predictable industry. Propelled to cult fame on the back of 2010’s survival horror game Deadly Premonition, he works on rough-edged games that mingle dark subject matter with an eccentricity that never feels self-consciously quirky. Even more pronounced than these elements, though, is SWERY’s tangible affection for his characters, a warmth that pierces what would be, in the hands of a less earnest storyteller, an oppressive darkness.
These qualities are on prominent display throughout SWERY’s latest game, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories. The title character is a young woman working through her first year of college, and who travels to an island off the coast of Maine with her best friend, Emily. But their vacation soon takes an unfortunate turn, as J.J. finds herself in search of Emily and in possession of strange regenerative powers. Her limbs can be hacked off, and her body will remain broken well past the point of recovery, and yet she can piece herself back together to press forward. J.J. isn’t immortal, but she can take a profound amount of punishment. Good thing, too, because in addition to the incongruous remains of windmills and diners and strip malls, the island holds a variety of clever, albeit stiffly controlled, puzzle-platforming challenges that make gruesome use of her new abilities.
The Missing‘s self-harm mechanic is deliberately uncomfortable and inscrutable, as the disturbing process clashes with its bizarre, often humorous results. J.J. can toss her severed arm to knock down objects like crates and collectible floating donuts or roll her decapitated head into tight spaces like, say, a bowling lane. She can flip the entire world upside down and walk on the ceiling when a broken neck makes her dizzy. Even with frequent use, however, the self-harm is never trivialized. The sound effects—screams paired with sickening squishes and crunches as J.J.‘s body breaks—are graphic enough to still unsettle throughout The Missing‘s entire short length.
The game conveys J.J.‘s pain as well as the weight of her actions without going into sadistic detail, since any damage she incurs turns her into a black silhouette with glowing white blood. Most of all, though, the self-harm is made just as inconvenient as it is helpful to her progression through the game. J.J. climbs slower with one arm, and though she can briefly pogo on one leg, she’ll inevitably crumple and fall, forced to crawl forward. Her voice grows hoarse, her pace slackens. Recovery animations are long since bones must be reset, while any force of impact tends to send her flying. The pain isn’t to be suffered lightly, but it must be suffered all the same.
The backstory that contextualizes this journey is conveyed mostly through J.J.‘s phone, which doubles as the pause menu. Collecting donuts will unlock text conversations between J.J. and people from college, an extra touch that hides some truly delightful writing. Though they’re little more than a collection of short text bubbles, odd profile pictures, and outrageous stickers, the side characters of The Missing are shockingly well-defined and simply a lot of fun to read, from a punk rocker whose forwardness J.J. admires, to a stuffy professor who nerds out over Star Wars, to an insensitive guy who wants J.J. to watch his video review of protein powder. Crucially, these interactions—as well as the non-optional ones you gradually unlock with Emily and J.J.‘s conservative mother—help color in who J.J. Macfield is, lending a dimension to her character that informs her inner turmoil about identity and sexuality.
The Missing opens with the text “this game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are,” and its self-harm mechanic ties in with story themes about intolerance and discomfort in one’s own skin. The way it tackles those themes is sensitive and heartfelt, never shying away from the pain involved while refusing to define its characters solely by their struggles. It’s a tricky tonal balance that SWERY somehow accomplishes. There are heavy, sometimes violent topics mixed with comedy mixed with surreal imagery like a moose-headed doctor with a backmasked voice who keeps saying “major hemorrhage” or a big hair monster with a box cutter. The game should feel wrong or disjointed with the conflicting elements it includes, but it all creates a strange, poignant, and often beautiful whole.