Nameless protagonists are one thing, but robbing you of a moniker is one of the ways SELF keeps you off balance.
Without a name to cling to, you’re cast adrift in a world where everyone except you seems to know what’s going on. This distinctive visual novel is, ostensibly, about finding your father, who has been forgotten by everyone but you.
But it slowly turns into a very different game, one where you’re wholly unsure of your footing in the world. Pretty soon you’re clinging to your quest because you have no other means of validating your own existence.
Framed as an 8-bit video game, complete with screen warping and a limited use of colour, SELF tasks you with the decisions that may, or may not, lead you to uncover the truth of your questionable reality. A clever touch is the way that SELF makes you fight your character’s fear: conquer a mini-game and you get to push on; fail it and you follow a different path.
There are multiple, replayable, branching paths through the game and while you’d think the ending at the ‘top’ of the tree carries more weight, that’s not necessarily the case. Ambiguity is SELF‘s stock-in-trade, so don’t expect a neat ending; there are a lot of pieces to put together, but dwelling on the game’s revelations is half the fun.
Choosing whether or not to follow through on the mini-games is equally entertaining; you’ll be itching to win, but there are times when backing off, rather than facing your fear, leads to a ‘better’ outcome. You’ve won the right to open that hospital door, but is it really a good idea to go poking around in a hospital where laughter is mandatory?
SELF never goes full hellscape; instead what makes its situations so engaging is the way they’re slightly warped, in a way that no-one else seems to acknowledge.
It’s like having a shopkeeper hand you a pulsating slice of jerky instead of a ten pound note, then turning around to see people happily paying for their purchases using the same distressing currency. You ask your friend if they remember paper money but they look at you oddly and you pretend you were just joking.
In the same way, SELF‘s world shifts around you; shifts which are strengthened by its use of description. SELF‘s sound effects, while present, are largely incidental because the moment the game described a class of oddly identical, white-clad children, that disturbing metal image kicked in the door to your mind’s eye and refused to leave. Then SELF underlines this disturbing scenario by having you dodge row upon row of school desks, just in case you needed an additional reminder.
You could argue ’til the nightmare cows come home about the fractured nature of SELF‘s narrative. The lack of a clear conclusion might be off-putting to some, and there are a couple of points where the translation or spelling is off. But SELF is a joyously unsettling experience, entertaining and mind-bending in equal measure and one that will stay with you long after you’re done.
SELF is available on PC and Nintendo Switch. We reviewed the PC version.