Masochisia is a gaunt, troubling point and click horror game from one-man studio Jon Oldblood – and it pulls no punches. You play a young boy named Hamilton as he negotiates a hereditary mental illness, an abusive family, and the results of those two things coming together. An evil melancholy rests deep on the narrative, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted (or squeamish).
The game’s key draw is foreshadowed by the disclaimers you get before even starting your play-through. Players are warned:
“Masochisia is an experimental take on psychological horror games as a narrative. Individuals struggling with depression, abuse or mental illness may be uncomfortable with some of the themes. The experience is intended for mature audiences.”
Whether you feel this is a PR-inflected move to drum up interest or not, the game is a dark exploration of some very adult themes, particularly physical and emotional abuse, paranoid schizophrenia, masochism, and probably more mental illnesses that I’m not qualified to spot. It explores these themes with metronomic brutality and found a fair amount of success in unnerving me (more on how later).
All this said, I found myself wanting more after these disclaimer. After all, warning against the subject matter of a game like this (one called Masochisia no less) in such a manner is like warning someone with a chronic fear of flying that Flight Simulator includes gameplay involving planes. The underlying promise of any disclaimer (and the beauty of any interactive experience) is that it will to some extent emulate the feelings and experiences being portrayed – be that of flying a Boeing 747 or, in this case, suffering from serious debilitating mental illness.
The ethical questions that surround simulating mental illness are potentially endless, putting them aside though, I must say from this perspective the game falls short. I wasn’t immersed by a sense of paranoia and confusion – those elements are thrust on the player instead. At no point was there a genuine struggle to unravel the facts of the game, what was being asked of Hamilton, and by who.
The main feeling that comes from the game is one of being on rails. There is very little cause for introspection as you are ushered through a story that for all it’s darkness is simple in its narrative. There are two puzzles that do not require much thought, and even the side scrolling 2D perspective feeds into the sense that this is more a hyper-adult fairground ghost train than an immersive interactive story. For good or ill, the player isn’t invited to explore the themes in their own time enough – the game relying on reflection outside of the narrative and outside the gameplay.
The main cause of this – is that the game is very light in terms of gameplay. Most of your time in game is spent travelling from location to location. Instead, Masochisia is unapologetically interested in the dialogue with Hamilton’s various hollow-eyed acquaintances. Despite the simple a/b dialogue trees, the dialogue always seems to be a way to drive the plot forward rather than a way of affecting the plot or influencing your experience.
Where the narrative takes a life of its own is in the exchanges with Hamilton’s mother. She constantly switches between doting mum to terrible harridan, often between sentences. Inconsistency of tone when talking to someone (especially children) is a key factor in emotional abuse, and each exchange with your mother leaves you slightly more disoriented and at greater unease than before. For my money, she is the most interesting/horrific antagonist in the game, and I was equally relieved and disappointed that she didn’t appear in the later acts to build up the tension.
This may come across as a very damning review, perhaps it is, but there are definitely some interesting elements to the game that colour my disappointment slightly. The hand-drawn art style is close to perfect, each character seems unique, carrying their own visual menace that helps carry the tone. Even small touches like figures in portraits having dark shadows with bright eyes over their shoulders help reinforce that Hamilton’s family is being haunted by mental illness throughout generations. The audio (both background music and incidental SFX) certainly adds to the dread throughout the game, whilst the decision to keep text dialogue rather than voice-acting helps the voices of characters blur together – playing off the themes of paranoia and insecurity of who is who.
The parts that spooked me most were not the cheap jump scares, but characters within the game address the player in very non-subtle ways during the dialogue. A couple of innovative means of breaking the fourth wall stand out as highlights. The first is when, throughout your playthrough, text files will begin to appear in your desktop as you progress – helping your game experience bleed out into “real life”. The other notable time is even more intrusive and happens with the endgame – it was so fresh and unexpected it had me squealing with glee.
To sum it up, Masochisia has a brutal story and the presentation is on-point. When these elements combine in the unexpected ways of communicating to the player this is an interesting experiment from an innovative studio with clear potential. Unfortunately Masochisia is let down by the limited gameplay features and a lack of immersion too much for me to recommend it to anyone not interested in the story itself. I will certainly keep an eye on Oldblood though – if there is more emerging from that dark chasm of a studio, which I hope there is, it’ll be no less interesting that their debut effort.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 5/10 Format: Steam/Linux Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Masochisia by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of four days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.