Yikes. There’s going to be some swearing in this one.
I can forgive games that have an unlikable protagonist. I can forgive games that don’t have seamless graphics. I can forgive games that don’t have much in terms of narrative structure. I can forgive games that are, quite frankly, boring, and What Happened is definitely all of those things.
What I can’t forgive, however, is a game that portrays mental illness in such a problematic way.
What Happened is billed as a survival horror game which explores the dark recesses of the mind of a depressed, anxiety-ridden teenager named Stiles with suicidal ideation who self-medicates with acid. Sounds interesting, right? I thought so too, but the game’s failures are in its execution. For one thing, it is not survival horror by any stretch of the imagination. For another, without getting too deep into my personal history, I feel it’s pertinent to know that I too was once a depressed, anxiety-ridden teenager with suicidal ideation who self-medicated with acid.
I went into the game thinking that the story would largely be driven by Stiles’ struggle with his deteriorating mental wellbeing, and that its purpose would be to address that deterioration. What I got instead was a self-indulgent narrator with a troubling external locus of control that attempts to completely absolve Stiles of any wrongdoing or accountability and places the blame for his issues squarely on the shoulders of the people around him.
He was bullied. His girlfriend left him for his best friend. His father died. His mother is dating a new man. Yes, yes, it’s all very dramatic. The game is determined to try and make you empathize with Stiles but it just…..doesn’t work, or at least it didn’t in our case. While I know firsthand how depression and anxiety can explain your behaviour, what the game fails to recognize is that they don’t EXCUSE your behaviour.
Maya, Stiles’ ex-girlfriend, is one of the focal points of the storyline. Despite the fact that Stiles is a drug addict, despite the fact that he pushes her away every time she tries to help, despite the fact that he is an asshole to her in every single flashback scene, the game purports her betrayal as unconscionable. How could she do this!?! How could she possibly not understand how much Stiles loves her!?!? There is one particular scene where Stiles says of Maya “I loved you. You were my only hope”, and another near the end of the game where Stiles is standing on a chair with a noose around his neck, and Maya kicks the chair out from under him.
Those of us who have escaped emotionally abusive relationships with people who hold us responsible for their welfare know just how fucked up that is.
Stiles is also very angry that his mother is dating a new man after his father’s passing. He goes on at length about how unfair and unacceptable it is that she could possibly move on and find some modicum of happiness while he’s still struggling with accepting his father’s death. The only other woman in the story is the mysterious Rose, who is hinted at as being the one positive thing in Stiles’ life. The game beats you over the head with metaphors implying Rose is Stiles’ only path to safety and happiness.
What Happened is honestly rife with this type of misogynistic bullshit that insinuates that the women in Stiles’ life exist solely for the purpose of nurturing him, and that those who dare have wants or needs outside of his wellbeing are to blame for his lack thereof.
I’m not going to lie, I was livid playing this game.
As I noted in the beginning, I’ve been in Stiles’ shoes, BUT I have also been in Maya’s and I know exactly how mentally damaging it is to be treated that way by a partner. Despite the fact that you know next to nothing about Maya, and despite the fact that the game attempts to paint her as an irredeemable villain for cheating on Stiles, I found her to be a much more sympathetic character than him.
What Happened also offers next to nothing in terms of gameplay. The acid trip sequences are drawn out unnecessarily long (actually, so is the entire game) and made me physically ill. The visuals blur and sway and fluctuate so dramatically, I felt motion sick within about 20 minutes of starting to game. Luckily, by about the halfway point I had acclimated and was able to continue playing without feeling like I was going to throw up, but by that point I didn’t want to.
When reviewing, I try to find the best in what I’ve sat down to. Development isn’t easy and developers put their hearts, their souls, loads of time and depending on the case, loads of money to make it happen. Even while something isn’t top of classes there’s almost always a shining light of some sort… Yet for What Happened? I have to ask, what happened?
It’s honestly a mess. Basic gameplay mechanics that have you push and pull objects like a normal human being? Nice. Having that superimposed overlay that lets you know that it’s a prompt for you and not part of the game world? Very nice. But that’s it. The story is ill paced, it keeps going on for what seems like forever and honestly? As someone who was both bullied in primary and high school, as well as someone who has mental health issues like high anxiety that once it’s running rampant all I want to do is hide until it’s over and can rationally think again? It missed the mark. Even if I get what some scenes reached for? I have a hard time justifying the seven hours Isa and I sat through.
It’s rare that I’ll chime in on reviews even if I sat through most of the gameplay. This was the case when I was in a relationship with Breanna years ago, when Richard or Louis were my roommates (we were friends prior and still are!) and was just as true until now with Izzy covering What Happened. It literally started the first night that the first scene starts. You’re treated to a well designed hallway that acts as your options menus to Exit the game, adjust the gameplay options or to either start a new game or continue the previously started on. Seeing her character sitting on a toilet bowl and neither of us being able to do anything, we restarted to see if it was a bug and it wasn’t. We finally realized that oh, we had to look at the scribbles on the walls and then the adventure was off in more ways than one.
I’ve been playing games for over thirty years at this point and reviewing for over six. In either case, there’s a clear point when something has overstayed its welcome and it just needs to finish. This isn’t just indie games as The Last of Us Part 2? I spent half the game before even the split thinking it overstayed its welcome and that it suffered from poor story pacing and construction. Anything that could have had a true impact was wasted and that’s the same case here. Suicide, drug abuse and emotional trauma through bullying? What Happened has it all but does next to nothing with it other than a few sparse scenes where the protagonist whines that no one loves him as he pushes everyone away.
Full disclosure. I’ve mostly been in this kids’ shoes. Bullied back in high school? Check. Thinking no one cared? Check. Losing my father and being unable to cope with the new reality that I found myself in? Check. Check. Check.
It’s been six years and you know what? It still fucking sucks. Yes, fucking, sucks. I miss him everyday. I know I pushed friends away because I didn’t even know how to deal with myself much less anyone else. That said, I got therapy. I went to talk to someone who specialized in helping with this kind of trauma and I’ll give What Happened that it does mention it.
Then the protagonist, Stiles, yells at his “now ex” to basically fuck off and he doesn’t need a shrink, what does she think he’s crazy or something? Sorry kiddo, but the answer is yes and we aren’t even talking about the drugs yet.
So that’s the high point of the adventure. In between all of these scenes such as the one above, you’re treated to walk directionlessly around a school in various states of being trying to figure out what to do. Is it going to be a scene of hands coming out of lockers that you have to push or pull away or be treated to non fulfilling puzzles? Is it a scene of being hit with a bat or a fist for the hundredth time? It’s part of the bullying sure but it never adds depth. You chase after this person a few times but you never actually find out what happens. Actually everything said and done, you NEVER find out what happens.
Stiles is left by his ex. Stile’s best friend Ben starts to date his ex. Or so we are lead to believe. Stiles gets mad. Stiles pushes everyone away. Stiles is already hurting and then loses his father. Yes I lost mine later, and suddenly, so I get the emotions that fly through however there is never a single moment over the course of the seven hours that ever make him feel relatable. Maybe it’s an age difference? I am getting up there to forty however Stiles just comes across as that little shit that you want to do nothing more than slap behind the head and tell him to stop being such a shithead. I sympathize more with his friends and Stiles’ “evil” thoughts of his friends as they called him worthless because of his attitude towards them that to him, was totally justified.
And any amount of this story requires you to run around and do next to nothing in an environment that offers you nothing. There are no collectibles. There’s only ever small things like pieces of paper to push forward the adventure or light bulbs to screw out of some sockets to screw into others in order to turn the light off and back on in another part of “reality”. It’s not only long winded, it’s just boring. Add in the acid trip that this kid is on and then you get weird spinny halls, motion sickness and then an hour running away from a great white shark that I almost wished had ended it once and for all. Just when you think THAT is over, then it’s through a forest. Then back through the school. And it just keeps going on and on and on and on.
Honestly? What Happened would have been a much better cinematic experience clocking around the 1 or 2 hour mark and it would have made for a better experience. There’s so much wasted time doing nothing or running through voids of space doing nothing. It feels pointless and when something does happen? You’re groaning because Stiles is just awful to listen to. Evil Stiles, known as Mind, isn’t as bad as there’s at least some genuine emotion behind his words, but still.
This is definitely not something that I can recommend.
Finally, the worst of anything is that you never actually find out, What Happened. *spoilers* Stiles does commit suicide but you never find out how. You never find out what really happened with his ex, his ex best friend, a mystery woman or the bully who would come by and hit him with his fists or a baseball bat. So many unanswered questions. *end spoilers*
The developers used this to push their message through though. The most you get out of this entire experience is that the devs say that you’re at fault for what happened to Stiles. So often we never find out what happened and that’s their message. It should not have taken seven hours to get that point across on two messages that showcase white text on a black screen before being offered all of the suicide hotlines that are offered globally.
To top this off? You unlock the middle finger gesture which sounds like something may be different the second time through but I’m sorry, we barely made it through once, there will be no second playthrough.
** End Pierre-Yves / Back to Izzy **