So I’m going to talk about this one and lather up the spoilers into a nice froth. Before we enter spoiler foam, I’ll let you know the essential facts if you want to go play it first.
- Play time can last between thirty minutes and an hour, depending on whether you get stuck anywhere.
- It looks like a simple JRPG. It sounds like a simple JRPG. It even tastes like a simple JRPG. But it’s got David Lynch DNA.
- If you play it once, then by God play it twice.
If you’re game, go download and play. Come back when you’re done.
The rest of you, come through the spoiler foam with me.
Wither is the quintessential rough diamond. It snaps up graphics and audio from other properties and shapes them into the game the author wants to make. You don’t come here for the graphical power or the soundwork, you come to hear the garage band play in their garage and take that experience away with you.
Wither joins the long list of games that use what I call the game aesthetic counterpoint. A counterpoint is a dramatic structure where two elements that clash in tone are deliberately played together, the intention being to intensify emotional poignancy through contrast. It’s a popular device – just think of Face/Off where a fierce John Woo gun battle takes place against Over The Rainbow.
Games of the indie variety have been doing this for some time as well, using their “happy game aesthetic” to sharpen the disconnect between the underlying narrative and gameplay, thus driving the emotional response of the player. Calunio’s Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer casts stalking as a dating sim. Braid abuses the Mario-saving-the-princess motif to tell a darker tale. Wither draws up a story of redemption in the wake of a fatal car crash to look like a flower hunt JRPG on the Game Boy.
I’m running ahead of myself here. The storytelling in Wither is conservative and restrained. You start in a graveyard and your job is to unravel this ball of string all by yourself. The best thing? The more you unravel, the more unsure you become.
A woman is hurt when she learns the flowers you carry around aren’t for her, and she tells you she still can’t forgive you. A car outside her house implodes as soon as you go near it. Nightmares project you into a landscape of bones, and those you meet there are surprised by your early arrival. And all you seem to be interested in is collecting twelve flowers.
There’s no imagery or narrative trickery here that’s particularly new, but it’s great to see a game that, at first glance, appears upfront and obvious yet is far from the case. The story isn’t clear. And maybe none of what you witness is real. But searching for flowers pushes the player through story; it reminds me of Planescape: Torment where the player was rewarded with XP for making it through certain conversations. Only by exploring both space and narrative will you uncover every flower.
There’s also a few hidden notes in the game that you’ll only find if you’re being incredibly thorough in your explorations. I played three times, literally putting the anal into analysis. There are two notes in the forest which are not signposted; it’s also possible to try to leave town, although your conscience will prevent you from doing so.
So what does it all mean?
Here’s my personal stab but it’s certainly not the only interpretation. The protagonist was responsible for a car crash which he survived, but his brother did not. It’s hinted that he was drunk and behind a hit-and-run (the victim survived) that occurred prior to the accident. His wife or girlfriend throws him out of the house which they shared and, pushed to the brink, hangs himself in a local hotel. But suicide is insufficient to purge the guilt and he is forced to relive the experience in Purgatory through characters that embody the experience and guilt of what he has done. Thus begins a seemingly superfluous quest for twelve flowers. Once he is done, he can move on and join his brother up ahead.
Please let me know what you think in the comments. There’s much to talk about.