Mental health has become an increasingly large issue in today’s society. With large swathes of millennials and gen z-ers struggling with anxiety, depression, and other disorders, measures and outlets to address mental health are more important than ever. Video games have begun to tackle this difficult subject with titles such as Celeste, Night in the Woods, Hellblade, and now What Happened. Coming to us from developer Genius Slackers, What Happened is set in a small high school and focuses primarily on a young man’s compromised mental state. But just how well does What Happened capture the myriad of complex issues surrounding mental health?
Our protagonist is Stiles, a high school boy who lost his father some time ago and is struggling to cope with feeling abandoned and rejected by the world around him. The game does quite a bit to obscure reality from Stiles’ own skewed perceptions, so all I can really say for certain is that he’s very disillusioned with the students around him and on a heavy dose of acid. The game is primarily set within Stiles’ mind, which is generally depicted by us controlling an imaginary version of him traversing an increasingly warped imaginary version of his school, and examining various items that generally represent his past in some way.
The story is primarily told through those items and the flashbacks/hallucinations that occur from examining them. The player is in charge of taking the story information revealed by examining things inside Stiles’ head and piecing together the story of the tragic events that unfolded to bring him to this point. There’s quite a bit of graphic material on display, primarily focusing on self harm, and it’s certainly easy to tell that the devs care about the subject of mental health and wanted to tell a provocative story about it.
Unfortunately, while there are quite a few interesting ideas thrown around, they never really quite manage to come together into a greater whole. You progress through the game, see Stiles’ broken mind, piece together his backstory, get jumpscared a few times, and make a couple of choices. In a way, the simplicity of the design feels like it undermines the seriousness of the subject matter. There are a few different endings, depending on the aforementioned choices you make, which largely revolve around how empathetic you are towards other characters, and that’s the sole factor that decides whether Stiles’ story ends happily or tragically. I’m not an expert on the matter by any means, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more that goes into solving mental health problems than convincing people suffering from them to show empathy on a couple of occasions.
This is only half of the “psychological horror” that What Happened sells itself on, and unfortunately the horror part is handled just as clumsily. Occasionally, while investigating one of the many rooms within Stiles’s head, something “creepy” will happen. The lights will flicker, some object in the room will fall down seemingly without being pushed, spooky writing will appear on the wall, etc. While it certainly made me jump from time to time, I never got the sense that the “horror” had much of a purpose other than to let the game sell itself as a horror title. At one point a giant shark comes out of nowhere and harasses you for about half an hour, and as far as I can tell this has absolutely no relation to the actual narrative of the game at all. We just take a break from a serious story about Stiles’ past to play a chase sequence for a bit. This kind of stuff doesn’t fit in with the straight face tone of the mental health side of the story, and might even be derogatory to it. It’s hard to go from the sillier nature of some of the horror-esque setpieces back to the more serious nature of Stiles’ struggles.
But some questionably handled narrative themes are by no means a dealbreaker. What is a dealbreaker is that this “game” has basically no gameplay to it. There’s nothing that engages or challenges on an interactive level at all. If I had to nail down the core gameplay mechanic, it would probably be walking up to things and pressing a button to look at them. Occasionally What Happened will provide a very shallow segment with something that at least vaguely resembles actual gameplay, such as when you have to control a replica version of Stiles in an imaginary play gathering vegetables, solving some very simplistic puzzles, or running away from the aforementioned shark. But even these are all so easy and so infrequent that they are hardly worth mentioning.
For a topic as serious as mental health, I understand if the developers want to keep the gameplay simple and have us focus on our surroundings and the themes of the story. But there needs to be at least something to get the player invested; provide some sort of mechanic that gives this title a reason to be an interactive experience rather than just a purely passive one. There’s hardly anything in this product that justifies it being a video game. The player’s role is reduced to essentially that of a driver operating a tour bus; pressing a button to advance Stiles from one plot relevant thing to look at to the next. And at some points you don’t even get that much; the game will occasionally just lock you in a room and force you to bum around for a while until it advances the plot itself.
The best comparison I can draw is to 2017’s Walden, a Game, another title with a few interesting narrative themes but absolutely no gameplay challenge or engagement at all. Like Walden, What Happened very much feels like an experience where the devs had an idea for the story material they wanted to tackle first and could never quite figure out how to make it into a game. I’d just as soon recommend people watch a friend play it as play it themselves, because there’s nothing of substance here at all.
Technically, the game is... acceptable. The framerate is pretty constant. The character models look like something out of a PS2 game, but given that it’s indie horror perhaps that’s to be expected, and it’s mostly functional except when the game zooms in up close on faces. Most of the environments look fine, although given that the game relies primarily on small rooms there aren’t a lot of interesting or varied spaces to impress. Music is essentially non-existent, while the voice acting is all competent. All in all, there’s nothing that really impresses or makes me actively dislike the technical aspects of the game.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to assign a rating to this game, because there’s just barely anything to actually rate. The psychological themes are the only aspect with any degree of substance, and while they're interesting at points, the game ultimately fails to really capture the subject matter it’s addressing or make any significant points about mental health. The horror is flat and uninteresting, and gameplay is virtually absent from the experience. There’s nothing that’s handled especially poorly, but that’s because so much of the game is just a blank void.
Perhaps the most reasonable way to rate something like this would be to pose the question of who I would recommend it to and, unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone at all. Those looking for an engaging or challenging gameplay experience will be left completely disappointed, and those who had their interest piqued by the horror part of psychological horror will find a title that’s more interested in having the player stare at various items than making them scared. I can’t even really recommend it to those interested in the psychological themes, as without any meaningful gameplay mechanic you’re left with a mostly passive experience, and there’s a myriad of films, books, and even other games that handle the subject matter much better. And without any unique selling point that it handles at least competently, What Happened is ultimately hard to qualify as anything more than awful.
This review is based on a digital copy of What Happened for the PC, provided by the publisher.
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