I adjusted my pandemic facemask as I walked up to the psychiatric clinic. I was in a city that I didn’t know, seeking help at a mental health facility that was as foreign to me as the Midwest was in general. As much as my brain attempted to persuade me otherwise, I knew, deep down, that I had to pull the handle and talk to someone beyond the door.
After nervously scanning the building through my fog-covered glasses, my eyes locked on the visibly heavy steel door that was guarded behind an unsophisticated buzzer and lock. As my arm elevated towards the door, my index finger half extended, I pressed the transparent, neon blue button.
There was no turning back. The speaker sprang to life, “Psychiatric Urgent Care.” My throat was hoarse from the stress, the crying, the anxiety–the mental breakdown I was going through. My vocal cords, falling in and out of sync with my brain, somehow managed to push air from my deflated lungs, escaping my throat, jittering past the ivory gate of my teeth, “I need help.”
My own beautiful story
The above story isn’t fiction. This happened just a little less than two months ago. I’ve dealt with mental health for most of my life. And, as I look back on my adolescent years, the signs of my mental illness were present all along the way, like beacons in the dark. It was there all along. Maybe for the creator of My Paper Smile, too.
From my own experience, every day is spent dealing with this pervasive, unwanted guest who’s taking up real estate in my mind. I found a lot of those feelings starting to form just minutes into My Beautiful Paper Smile. I found myself walking among the Joyous, only realizing these were children subjected to this kind of robotic treatment.
Paper, ink, and tone
My Beautiful Paper Smile is an episodic adventure with point-and-click elements from solo developer, Gavin Eisenbeisz (Two Star Games). As I started to experience the facility through Eisenbeisz’s eyes, I started to recognize and attempt to decipher the symbolism around every sketch and scribble.
The world within the game looks as though it was torn directly from the pages of an art student’s daily sketchbook. Faces and features are rough, yet detailed. You might also be surprised to find that the game is running on Unreal Engine 4. The game features 2D character models in a 3D space, something akin to the Paper Mario franchise of games. However, where the two depart is in the darker tones of My Beautiful Paper Smile. That includes the soundtrack that mirrors the pulses of panic as you’re chased down hallways by an enemy you cannot defeat, or caught by guards on panning security cameras.
Chapter and verse
My Beautiful Escape is the first chapter in the story of My Beautiful Paper Smile. The second episode, A Place of Sorrow, will also arrive on launch day. However, the initial leg of the journey is enough to keep me plugging at the roughly hour-long experience, ready to continue the journey outside the walls of the mental health facility. Will I be caught, sent back? Who is this mysterious helper child? And, above all, where’s my friend?
While much of your journey is fairly straight forward (or can be), your character does have an inventory. And, if you explore more of the cavernous facility, you’ll start to find tickets, items to interact with and trinkets to fill those empty slots. The game is designed in a way that you can go back and replay to discover more. Plus, there’s much less panic the second time around when you know what to expect.
Nerves that peel
During my entire playthrough — as my title might’ve eluded to — I felt a sense of uneasiness as I played through the first chapter of My Beautiful Paper Smile. It’s as much psychological horror title as it is a peek into someone’s mind who has had some first-hand experience with the gravity of mental unwellness at its peak. And, in this case, children forcibly made to become perfect through institutional treatment.
My Beautiful Paper Smile tells the story of the facility through many layers of symbolism. The guards are depicted as demonic entities, masking their true identities and intentions. The medication, forcing smiles on faces so that they are acceptable, perfect, and Joyous.
I began to internalize all these things before really embracing them. After all, this was someone’s interpretation I was relating to from my own experience. Even though I was able to recognize these thoughts, I was overcome by this feeling each time I sat down to play. But, in a way, I too was confronting that uneasiness to see what else the journey had in store.
As I wrapped My Beautiful Paper Smile: Chapter 1 – My Beautiful Escape, I couldn’t help but feel relieved. Not only did I make it out of that wretched facility, but, the scenery of the game really starts to open up. There are distant buildings with lights littering the gray skyline. There is a sense of depth to it all despite being bereft of color.
My Beautiful Paper Smile manages to take hold in its first chapter, readying me for the trek ahead. For anyone, its a peek into the world of a child’s mind, unwell and attempting to process the world around them. And, as for the next chapter, my body and mind are ready.
My Beautiful Paper Smile: Chapters 1 & 2 are now on Steam. The game is currently in Early Access and already has plans to conclude the story in the remaining chapters.