Mental health has been a huge topic of discussion as of late, and for good reason. For people living with mental health issues and those around them, more awareness and education is tremendously beneficial. Video games have also taken aim at the lack of advocacy, and What Happened is one such game. It’s a straightforward horror-adventure that showcases the struggle of those suffering from major depression and anxiety. However, it tries its damnedest to leave no stone unturned, stretching itself out too thin as a result.
Following the sudden death of this father, Stiles’ life is on a downward trajectory. School days are especially rough, being constant reminders of times past. He’s lost his best friend, his girlfriend, his father, his extracurriculars, and his relationship with his mother — the whole nine yards. He instead spends his days cooped up in a bathroom stall with his endless supply of acid. Escaping into the recesses of his mind, he wrestles with his own thoughts for control over his life.
“Wrestling” is perhaps an overstatement. The gameplay of What Happened is as mundane as it gets. You run down an endless stream of corridors, spurred on by Stiles’ intrusive thoughts. When you’re not running, you’re opening drawers and checking corners for whatever key items you need to advance. The game’s horror-tinged adventuring is hopelessly generic, and isn’t conducive to the narrative at hand. Objective after objective, but there’s no indication as to why you do anything you do.
Puzzles are equally simple — their difficulty a result of What Happened’s vague directions. Prompts that fail to appear and no way to highlight interactables amplified my frustration. Every puzzle is a lull in the experience that has you trialing dozens of door knobs in hopes that one will put you back on track. The attempt is admirable, but the execution is lacking. The gameplay and Stiles’ internal struggle are almost always at odds. And when its horror steps up to the plate, awkward enemy encounters and drab level design ruin what could’ve been powerful story beats.
Where What Happened shines is in its cinematography; its gameplay is just a vehicle to get to the next cutscene or visual-focused set piece. There’s special attention put on the mise en scène. Every prop is placed with purpose, and contributes to overall tone of the game. It’s a shame that What Happens shines brightest when the gameplay itself plays second fiddle to the visuals. The lighting itself is occasionally an enemy of the gameplay, choosing to spotlight scene centerpieces over important objectives.
Progress in What Happened is a mystery as confounding as the game’s permanent mouse smoothing. You just meander your way through set piece after set piece. All this while Stiles’ incessant thought vomit clogs up your hearing holes. It’s never clear whether there’s an hour left, or 10. Like a hamster on a wheel, you’re just running with no goal in mind, and no end in sight. Just when you think Stiles’ story is close to its end, What Happened gets its second wind, then its third.
It has me conflicted. There seems to be no middle ground between mesmerizing storytelling and faux-artistic nonsense. On the one hand, I want more of the game’s environments and genuinely impressive cinematography — for the sense pleasure, if anything. On the other, with every new set piece, the game continues to water itself down. The game could have wrapped up so many times, but instead, What Happened continues to dilute its story. So much padding just to add on a few razor-thin layers of depth. Things that have already been strongly implied or adequately explored, continue being dug up.
A picture is worth a thousand words
What Happened isn’t even a particular lengthy game; it is, at most, a six-hour trek. Beyond an already frustrating puzzling experience, there is no respite from the mountain of dialogue that fill in every single virtual crack in this game. English is not developer Genius Slackers’ primary language, but, with that in mind, What Happened’s writing is fairly strong. There are moments where it’s (overly) flowery language contribute greatly to certain narrative beats. However, the game has a tendency to not let its pithy punchlines breathe. Rather than let its visuals do the heavy lifting, the heaps of unnecessary dialogue are more annoying than insightful.
There’s an ever-increasing dissonance between player and character. The borderline pretentious writing, with enough angst to make even the edgiest teenager tap out, reaches laughable levels. This has adverse effects on the experience — this subject is no laughing matter. Everything evaporates from your mind the second after it happens. It’s a trippy ride devoid of any meaning. In an effort to drive home how deep and thoughtful What Happens is, it pushes too far and sullies its message. The lukewarm voice acting compounds the problem, with Stiles’ tone missing the mark at almost every turn. Again, for English as a second language, it is still serviceable.
Odds and ends
The cherry on top of What Happened’s odd design is the decision to make the options menu inaccessible during gameplay. Key spots in the environment hog all the light sources, and I found myself in dire need of the brightness slider. Unfortunately, to access anything, you need to in the main menu for reasons unknown. To add insult to injury, the game features no FOV slider nor an option to disable motion blur. With the constant barrage of colors and imagery assaulting the player’s eyes, it’s certainly an oversight. And, that permanent mouse smoothing — another strange touch.
Mental health awareness is a worthy cause, and What Happened tries its best to represent a very real, very difficult battle. In its quest for depth and detail, it forgets about brevity. The game is two hours too long, repeating familiar narrative beats like a broken record. Its horror-infused puzzle solving seldom captures Stiles’ internal conflict — its diverse visuals being far more potent. More often than not, What Happened is a better sight-seeing trip than it is an exploration of anxiety and depression.