I’ve died a million times in video games. Every death happens differently, but every death is still the same. The character dies, sometimes in genuinely horrific ways, but they always come back. Death is one of the constants of games, and yet it’s rare for games to actually explore the concept of death in a meaningful way. The questions of where we go when we die or, perhaps more realistically, what happens to us when we die are generally avoided by a medium that exploits death, or our fear of it, as a primary motivation.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, the most recent game from auteur developer Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, fully immerses itself in death, both as a theme and a mechanical innovation. Sure, your character can still die and respawn like in any game, but there are barriers to dying and, besides, death is a constant state. Your character, J.J., is already dead, so what does dying actually mean anyway?
Swery is famously inspired by Twin Peaks, most obviously in his open-world action-adventure-horror cult classic Deadly Premonition, which tasks an FBI agent hiding a mysterious past with solving a murder in a small, close-knit, northwestern town. But if Deadly Premonition pays homage to the combination of irreverent humor and archetypal horror of Twin Peaks’ first two seasons, then The Missing is Swery’s take on the first several episodes of Twin Peaks’ recent third season, in its hero’s psychedelic journey through one possible version of the afterlife as a never-ending dream.
You play as J.J., a young college student who’s on an island camping trip with her best friend Emily. While J.J. is sleeping, a haunting creature that resembles the girl from The Ring mixed with Freddie Kreuger kidnaps Emily. The weird thing is that J.J. also stumbles upon her own dead body and starts exhibiting a strange resilience against dismemberment and other forms of mortal injury. J.J. sets off across the island to rescue Emily and discover what’s actually happening.
Mimicking the formula of a 2D platformer-puzzle game, The Missing’s central mechanic is a clever play on the genre’s tropes. In the same way that enemies and obstacles can slowly chip away at Raccoon Mario, dismantling him step by step until he’s regular Mario, J.J. can also take a few hits before dying and reverting back to a checkpoint. The difference is that when J.J. runs into a spike trap or a rotating saw blade, she loses an entire limb. Fortunately, that’s supposed to happen, as most of the game’s puzzles involve dismembering J.J. in some way and using pieces of her body to either knock loose an obstacle or balance a physics-based puzzle. At other times, you’re setting J.J. on fire to destroy flammable vegetation that’s blocking your path, or you’re breaking her neck to flip the world upside down and reach new areas of the level. At some points, you’ll even need to reduce J.J. to a severed head and roll her into hard-to-reach places. Thankfully, you don’t have to fully see this abuse, as developer White Owls basically shadows out the details of J.J. character model after she’s experienced an injury.
I’m pretty immune when it comes to video game violence, but it took me a while to become numb to J.J.’s constant, disturbing injuries. Even after beating the game and going back to scoop up some of the collectible donuts I missed, I still wince when I have to break her neck or reduce her to a head. J.J. will scream and drop to the ground when set on fire or realistically hobble and lurch with a broken neck, and seeing her crawl on the ground with her entrails spilling out when she loses both her legs is next-level body horror. Some might read Swery’s treatment of his main character as sadistic, but the fact that it even elicits that kind of a response from me—a person who regularly cracks up when his Gears of War character is reduced to a pile of meat pebbles—makes me think that the main mechanic is meant to be upsetting. That’s the point.
It’s partly because J.J. is so fully realized a character that cutting off her arms and legs can be so distressing. J.J. might be dead, or so we think, but it’s 2018, so she still has her phone, and most of the game’s story is told through text messages between her and her friends and family. Each conversation is believable and realistic with a rich subtext of history, and anyone who’s lived through college will be able to empathize with J.J.’s problems and anxieties. I could clearly see myself as a college freshman, alone in my dorm room, trying to navigate the different challenges and needs that every new relationship brought with it. The texts between J.J. and her mother, in particular, resonated so strongly that I suspected Swery had hacked my phone. These phone messages from the past are a stark reminder that every person will leave a legacy, and that legacy is in how we treat the people in our lives.
The Missing is easily Swery’s most personal and emotionally wrenching game. Throughout the five hours it took to play through the first time, I was completely entranced and finished it in one sitting. I wanted to find out what happened to J.J. because I cared about her, and I wanted to see what haunting new area I would encounter next. The game’s final moments, though vaguely foreshadowed in some of the text messages, contain a twist that adds a new dimension to J.J.’s struggles, and though it’s open to interpretation, the game’s opening statement that “nobody is wrong for being what they are” grounds its more ethereal and philosophical moments into the current politics of gender identity and mental health. Some might read Swery’s intentions with the ending as preachy, but the raw, emotional experience evoked in the hours spent playing through the game back it up and enrich the message.
Of course, The Missing is still a Swery game, and so there’s going to be some technical and mechanical looseness. You’ll experience some frame drops and stutters, possibly even during climactic narrative moments, and character movement and actual platforming feels a little more sluggish than it does even in comparable games like Limbo or Inside. The visuals might not be the most technically impressive, but the sometimes courageously outrageous visual design is dreamlike and otherworldly. Anyone who’s played Deadly Premonition or D4 will know to expect some jank going into The Missing, but those faults are easily forgiven when the experience as a whole leaves such a lasting and powerful impression.
The Missing might be Swery’s least ambitious game yet, but that’s a good thing. It benefits from having a tighter gameplay focus and a clearer, more emotional message. It’s still weird and meta in all the right ways, but underneath the cleverness is clarity and purpose. When’s the last time that a video game reminded you that death is permanent when everything about death in video games is temporary? It’s rare that I feel like a game is actually reaching out and trying to make a personal connection, and The Missing resonated with me like few games do.
|Publisher: Arc System Works • Developer: White Owls, Inc. • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.11.18|
The Missing’s clever innovations on the platforming genre are more than just gimmicks. They underline the game’s deeply emotional core and create a uniquely affecting experience. Like any Swery game, you might run into some technical difficulties, but those are easy to overlook when the experience as a whole is so fully realized. The Missing is like a dream in every sense, but it’s one that you won’t forget after you wake up.
|The Good||The game’s central mechanic is innovative, disturbing, and wholly satisfying to execute.|
|The Bad||You’ll experience a few frame hiccups, and the controls can feel a little sluggish.|
|The Ugly||Breaking J.J.’s neck or dismembering her never really gets any easier.|
|The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC. Review based on Xbox One version. Review code was provided by Arc System Works for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.