Serena (Review)

For God knows how long, a husband’s life was turned upside down when the love of his life Serena disappeared. But in a disconcerting fashion, he realizes that everything is hazy and there are many questions unanswered. Reeling from the disappearance of Serena, he sets out to find clues and meanings in the cabin to find her. What lies ahead is a somberness of secrets in the cabin, as he searches for answers about the only woman he ever loved. Will the truth be too ghastly to handle?

When I decided to give Serena a go, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It was free on Steam, and I didn’t see why there was no reason for me not to play a horror adventure. First impressions, it wasn’t too shabby. From the very start, I am in a cabin that reeks of the absence of hope. In a first-person perspective, my feet are tied down by the fixed background screens and a point-and-click interface.

Gameplay and Mechanics

The game is simply designed with basic controls. Keep in mind you are not actually playing as Serena (as the title states) but more so, her husband. Confined in a cabin, all I had to do was aim my mouse on various objects that are within my vicinity. Clicking on the objects pushes the husband to narrate his various thoughts and memories of Serena. Sometimes, he imagines the difficult conversations that he would never have with her, cursing his own lack of nerve. He’s rather loquacious and every little thing I clicked seemed to strike a nerve in him as I was nearing the truth. With the right sequence and objects clicked to trigger his key memories, things in the cabin changed subtly, thereby revealing new awareness towards the end of uncovering the mystery of it all.

// The objects that trigger the memories

The story isn’t overly long or complicated, and it is well-developed through the course of the object interactions. I found Josh Mandel’s voice as the husband to be disturbingly good in the game (God, that man sure can lament) — one that starts out optimistic and reminiscent, and then gradually degenerates into anger, hatred, bitterness and revolt. In true minimalistic fashion, as I clicked on the same object for multiple times until the lines started to repeat itself, it tells me that the game did extensively well in portraying the dynamics and emotions of the protagonist’s former relationship with his wife like so.

Design and Visuals

The game visuals filled me with foreboding. I think the visuals were splendid for an indie game and encapsulated the eeriness of a dilapidated cabin. When I was walking closer to something, my heavy footsteps on a long abandoned cabin where the miserable rusty windows were my only source of light to illuminate the path onwards, it was a natural instinct for me to freeze when I heard a clock chiming out of nowhere. The visuals take a huge understanding in the colour psychology where its colours are unsaturated. The brown tones of the game go in darker tones when things get more disturbing.

// Faint lighting in the bedroom
// View of the bedroom from the kitchen and dining area

Final Thoughts

There is not much for me to say without risking spoilers. Ostensibly, mixing pathos with psychological horror was the highlight of this game for me. It was refreshing to play a horror game without the cliché jump-scares and mindless screaming, something I berate a lot when it comes to horror. As much as I enjoyed the story of Serena, it may be difficult for me to convince others to play what seems to be a dying art in the industry.  While it is also tough to contend on such game style due to subjectivity, and even though this point-and-click adventure genre has its nostalgic charms – even that warm glow is frequently cut off by a reminder of how often these games ended up being an exasperating exercise in aimlessly clicking on random objects, all in the vain hope that it might trigger the next bit of plot. I will cherish such games memories, but maybe clicking on objects without the ability to move around on my feet just isn’t enough anymore.

Despite the game’s clunky mechanics, and the inability to save the game, I can forgive it and appreciate that Serena is supposed to be a sort of homage to old-school adventure games. I only wished the game developers had thought of placing a settings page for me to save the game. Because really, the game just takes over your screen and if your first instinct for any game is to configure the keys, you might just find yourself out of the game when you hit the “Esc” button like I did. You literally get booted out without any progress saved. Not exactly fun.

// Something’s not right

The first twist of the game was fairly predictable but I must say… that ending caught me off guard. I think one thing anyone can relate from Serena is the idea that inside every person you know, there is a person you don’t know.  The whole thing was so surreal, it was as if it had been a ghoulish nightmare. But an unmistakable dread rose within me, confirming that I was in the game for an hour, leaving me to wonder what it all meant. It’s the uncanny feeling, I decided. Two lonely people, who once had dreams, and one had been caught up with the long hours of work.. and everything just came crashing down.

Still, I could not shake my sense of unease after the game. There had been other horror games, but this had been different. It was as if a tiny crack, a fissure in the protective armor I had spent years putting up around myself, had been opened, leaving me feeling exposed. In the meantime, I will continue this game with a few more runs for a thorough analysis. You can never fully know the life of another. You only have fragments, bits, scraps of their words and others’ perceptions of them. But sometimes, you would wish you never knew anything about them in the first place.

All Things in Consideration

Now if you have read this until the end and you are considering playing Serena, know that there are areas of the game where you can be unsure on how to progress and can frustrate you. But please understand that I do not wish to spoil anything for you and since the game is story-driven, it is crucial for you to immerse yourself in it. So here are some useful tips that will come in handy for you:

  • RIGHT MOUSE BUTTON – Change control scheme
    • This locks the camera and prevents it from following the mouse. To look around, move the mouse towards the edges of the screen.
  • SPACEBAR – Toggle hotspots
    • Pressing the spacebar highlights all of the clickable spots with a blue dot.
  • ESCAPE – Escape
    • There are no settings in this game. This just means quit.

I also noticed some people get stuck at the bookcase where they are unable to exit the scene. If your game has no visible words on the screen when there is a narration going on right from the start, just edit the CONFIG.LUA file present in the game folder. Go ahead and change “fullscreen = false” to make it work. You can open the .LUA file with the notepad software.

Good luck.

What Remains Of Edith Finch (Review)

“If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things. But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.” —Edith Finch.

Curses. Not everyone lives and dies by them, but at some point in life, we have all heard stories about curses from storybooks, folklores or someone’s personal experience. Just like that, I was drawn into the world of the Finches. A world made of seemingly unfortunate souls and twisted fates, yet, who is the mastermind in making up that kind of world?

Video games in recent years have seen a trend toward greater depth in story development. This holds true for What Remains Of Edith Finch. Centering on you, a member of the Finch Family, you are Edith Finch, and you hold a desire to know the truth behind the Finch’s deaths afflicted by a perceived curse. The story slowly unfolds as you walk into an eerily familiar territory; your house, where it is known that every (or most) of the Finches there, died. An ordeal like that doesn’t change the fact that you are determined to uncover the secrets of the house to know what caused each family member’s untimely death.

// Grandma Edie’s room of secrets

Walking to the house with dreary, sullen footsteps, the game combines walking and first-person exploration to reveal the story of what happened to the Finches. Unlike point-and-click games, the game guides you in piecing the story bits in one area before it proceeds to the next. In no part of the game was I ever lost, I had narrated words that guided me essentially. While the whole story may not be structurally sophisticated at first glance, it managed to put the bits of everything to form a coherent picture.

// Barbara’s room of stardom, and narration on the curtains

As I learned about the individual Finches who have lived in the house in the past, I start to inhabit their experiences. I took control of their body, in flashbacks, and experienced what they went through. In many cases, the rendering changes radically and with it the style of gameplay. I must commend that the transition from one frame to the other was flawless. Mechanically, it was an environmental storytelling mechanic as you step into the shoes of each deceased Finch member. Some keys were obvious to figure out, but some took me a bit longer than I may have liked. This however, isn’t negative, as it is justified in its storytelling. I only wished the mechanics were explained better in Walter’s case where I had to spend 5 minutes to open a peach can. Or maybe, I am just slow.

// Walter and his can of peaches

More on mechanics, I would like to stress that overall,  the mechanics built around the story contributed in making the experience more intimate. Every single one of them made me look at it from a much deeper emotional perspective than I had imagined. In What Remains Of Edith Finch, I had experienced the emotions of everyone. Possibly, the most cruel form of mechanics where I was complicit in  all the Finch’s death, but the mechanics pushed me to do it (and even celebrated me doing it). Ultimately, the story of Lewis Finch alone makes the entire game worth the money but that’s another story.

// Lewis’s room of psychedelic wonders

The presentation as a whole felt natural like it was meant to be. I found the game visuals to be inspiring and nostalgic, one where I would find myself to be enchanted at every corner of a room even when fear and uncertainty loomed around it. One room after the other, each held its own personality and disturbing past. The truth too, seemed more grim than it appeared to be as each Finch’s room looked like they came out of a fairy-tale. What’s more impressive is how the interior of the house at the very beginning of the game and the house at the very end of the game were very much on the edge of photorealistic. Every room in the Finch house is meticulously detailed and warranted a pause for me to take it all in.

// The Finch twins’ room

To add on, Jeff Russo’s soundtrack for What Remains Of Edith Finch caught my attention instantly. Throughout the game, hearing my own footsteps and the music, I realized just how incredibly lonely it was to be Edith. It wasn’t long before I was feeling a sense of emptiness when I was introduced into the Finch’s lives. It also gave an eerie vibe to the game because it all feels relatively grounded and real so when you hear it, you just feel vulnerable.  The entire soundtrack was an emotional journey of contained memories. From the eerie hushed piano to delicate woodwind, much of it expressed the deaths of an entire family across multiple generations. On observing their memorials and reading into their stories, my soul was crushed and the death concept reflected in the music. Thus began a series of heartache from which I tried to move on from. The introduction of a new character, who I know has died, only served to intensify the pain directed towards me. 

The ending of the game may have left me with a lot more questions than answers, but that may well be in the game’s nebulous nature. Without stepping into spoiler territory, I think the question of whether the Finch family was actually cursed or not is left open for your own interpretation.  Whatever happens to us – whatever loss and hardships we encounter – we’re all responsible for our own actions and for how we live our lives. Perhaps in the case of What Remains Of Edith Finch, it was easy to blame on a curse, but everyone had a choice about what they did, just as I had a choice to play this game. 

// Edith’s journal where it all began

I have gone through the game four times now and I can assuredly state that What Remains Of Edith Finch isn’t something you would play, complete in one go, and then delete. It is a disservice to do so, not just to the game, but to one’s self. The game covers a plethora of themes, hidden meanings, and more sinister skeletons in the closet, and to how those things can be associated with your own experience or families. It truly delivers in connecting with any person behind a device at a very basic human level.

Though I am satisfied, and in my humblest opinion, found the game to be comprehensive, there will be doubts among people who are not fond or unfamiliar of walking simulators. The same can be said for those who strive for a longer game runtime or more public achievements. I can understand one for being hesitant to get Edith Finch due to its short runtime, and it’s only much worse for people used to speed in games. The mechanics of Edith Finch doesn’t give you the liberty to run (which is completely understandable when you get the whole picture) but that’s really it. If anyone is expecting some big plot twist or bombastic to happen, I don’t think they are necessarily going to find that in What Remains Of Edith Finch, but what you do get is a depth of poignancy. With that respect, it is more suitable for someone who seeks for something deeper than the superficial levels of a typical first-person game.

My final thoughts for What Remains Of Edith Finch is undisputedly nothing but awe towards Giant Sparrow. If anyone needed proof of video games having the same stature as movies, What Remains Of Edith Finch provided it. A family that summons misfortune after misfortune, after experiencing something like that, it’s impossible not to feel any ounce of sadness. As in life, the past can often reveal the future. Sometimes more about that future than we may be comfortable with. In this, Edith’s heartbreaking yet profoundly moving journal, it has undeniably proven that our damaging self-fulfilling prophecies are our own enemies and makes us revisit death. More than that, it also taught me to cherish living. It is truly a story best experienced on your own.