What Happened isn’t only the name of the game; it’s something you’ll find yourself asking over and over as you make your way through this nightmarish journey into a teenage boy’s subconscious.
In What Happened, you play as Stiles, a high school student who’s been having a very hard time lately. His dad died, he’s being bullied, and his girlfriend broke up with him to start dating his best friend. He’s spiralled into a dark depression and, over the course of the game, you’ll journey with him into the furthest reaches of his innermost thoughts.
From the get-go, What Happened is a surrealist tour de force. You’re whisked from one bizarre sequence to another, initially at breakneck speeds; just as you’re coming to terms with your surroundings, you’ll find yourself somewhere else completely. But that’s how our thoughts work; we can be imagining one place one second, and the next, it’s something completely different. Stiles’ thoughts, however, are clouded with a darkness and a lack of clarity. Spurred on by the voice of his own mind – which takes on a character all of its own – he’ll find himself in some very dark places indeed.
“From the get-go, What Happened is a surrealist tour de force”
Nobody cares for you, Stiles’ mind constantly tells him. He’s led to believe that’s he’s nothing; everyone wants rid of him, and they’d all be better off without him. It’s a thought pattern that many of us will be familiar with, from our lowest, most desperate moments. Suicidal ideation is something that features strongly throughout What Happened, so it’s perhaps not a suitable game to play for those struggling with believing their own self worth.
From a school corridor milling with invisible students to a ramshackle hut filled with butterflies, What Happened wastes no time in taking you on a visual journey. There are snippets of real life; conversations that Stiles has had with his friends, or photographs taken of them together, but for the most part it’s obvious that what you’re experiencing is only occurring in Stiles’ mind. It doesn’t take too long for things to get even more bizarre: Stiles finds himself being chased by a shark through the school hallways, for instance, or the school gets overtaken by a forest.
There’s some incredible imagery throughout the game; developer Genius Slackers has done a fantastic job in creating a game that’s constantly visually gripping. There’s a mixture of visual styles and ideas at play, but flicking between them never feels jarring. It helps, too, that for the most part, What Happened is an excellent-looking game. It’s let down a little by sub-par character models, but thankfully there aren’t too many of them. The environments, though, are beautifully realised, and manipulated in endlessly interesting ways.
“A tighter, more curated experience could have had a more effective narrative impact”
Despite only taking four or five hours to complete though, What Happened could have benefited from being about half that length. As it is, it often feels like you’re being hit over the head repeatedly with Stiles’ troubles. Within the first fifteen minutes or so of the game we’re aware that his girlfriend has left him and his dad’s died. We don’t need to experience another dozen or so scenes that all show us the same thing. A tighter, more curated experience could have had a more effective narrative impact.
Some of the scenes drag on a little too much, too, with mechanics that don’t always pay off. More than once you’ll find yourself moving through corridors while grotesque, bony arms reach out to grab you. The voice of your mind will tell you which direction to move in to escape when you’re inevitably grabbed, but upon freeing yourself you’ll often end up stuck in a loop, being passed from one creepy hand to another. Sometimes you’ll find yourself chased, too, with your mind directing you where to go to escape just a little too late.
“Travelling through Stiles’ mind is a gripping journey. It’s at times emotional, other times horrifying”
And while the pacing of some areas of the game is excellent, whirlwinding you from one surreal scene to the next, there are times where you’ll find yourself wandering around, wondering what to do. Sometimes What Happened is excellent at signposting where to go; other times you’re completely left to your own devices. It can mean wandering from room to room until you happen to look in the right direction for long enough for an event to be triggered.
For the most part though, travelling through Stiles’ mind is a gripping journey. It’s at times emotional, other times horrifying; there’s no shortage of disturbing imagery, from hellish landscapes ripped straight from Dante’s Inferno to a short scene in which Stiles munches his way through a bowl of severed fingers. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you’ve got the guts to sit through it, your time with What Happened never feels wasted. A more succinct journey would have been more effective, and some gameplay elements don’t quite pay off, but to say it’s been created by a small team, What Happened deserves to be praised.