Country of the woods and repose

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It’s not every day you flip open a game’s manual and find that before it gets on with dispensing all the usual information on controller configurations and memory cards it makes a point of showing you a simple timeline, beginning when the story does – at 10am on Christmas Day – and ending a week later on New Year’s Eve with a simple note: “Either Emma’s corpse is found or she is rescued” before casually moving on to such diverse topics as ordering cheeseburgers and shooting bears – but it’s not every day you play a game set in the small Midwestern town of Raccoon City Mizzurna Fallsand this disturbing nugget of apparently spoilerific information actually turns out to be the single most significant and game-changing thing you will ever need to know in this wintry mystery.

Between Mizzurna Falls free-roaming small town setting, the ever-advancing clock, and the smattering of local people busy going about their private lives on individual schedules there’s really only one game to compare it to – Yu Suzuki’s kitten-tending sim Shenmue. However as logical as that leap may first appear it’s an unfair one: Human’s Mizzurna Falls (you may know them as the developer behind the excellent Taekwon-do, Clock Tower, and many other beautifully unusual titles) actually came out first – beating Shenmue to store shelves by a little over an entire year – and as convenient as drawing a line between this and the Dreamcast’s much-loved albatross may be there’s a real danger of such pigeonholing undermining just how impressive and ambitious this PlayStation title is, all of the Mizzurna Fall’s technical efforts (as bug-prone as some aspects of it may be) and bold creative vision reduced to nothing more than “A rougher version of that more popular game” – even though said other game had the not insignificant advantages of only getting released after an unusually lengthy period of development, being made by a larger team backed up by what was at the time the largest videogame budget ever, and also designed to run on far more powerful hardware. I only make this slightly grumpy swipe at Shenmue today to emphasise how incredible Mizzurna Falls achievements are in their own right: The game did all of this alone on hardware ill-suited to the expansive task asked of it and without any readily-available examples to crib pre-made solutions to difficult design problems from; it’s important to keep in mind that even though most of us are coming to this decades late and after many hours enjoyably spent running around Yokosuka Mizzurna Falls is not “inspired by” Suzuki’s classic nor is it in its artistic debt.

But that’s all a lot of mildly unpleasant talk about what Mizzurna Falls isn’t. What Mizzurna Falls is is far more interesting, coming across as a classic adventure game – asking you to investigate here, collect something important over there, talk to the right person to hear a new clue – and to do it all in an ever-changing location before time runs out for Emma, playable protagonist Matthew’s friend. For all the driving around a consistently 1:1 scale full 3D town in a beautiful not-VW Beetle that goes on and the potential to engage in bar room brawls and petty theft, the game is unwaveringly focused on the deadly plot above any concerns about realism or town-based immersion, and this is part of the reason why (technical limitations also obviously contribute to a certain extent) you’re not able to walk around inside absolutely every home or examine every single object regardless of its relevance to the story – some details, including more than a few doors, are pixel-thin paintings on flat polygons, like the background in a school play. The only thing you can do, the only thing you want to do, is solve this potentially fatal mystery before the dawn of the new year.

And it’s clear right from the playable prologue that things are not quite what they seem in Mizzurna Falls as Kathy, another previously missing teenage girl, is found unconscious and taken to the town’s small hospital. While there Matthew overhears the doctor tending to her saying she’s effectively brain dead after her unknown ordeal and unlikely to recover… so then why does she scream out loud when her adoptive father and the hospital psychiatrist enter the room, and why does she say “S..st…op…” before she dies? Why do all five people in that room, including the sheriff, simply state that she’s died and leave it at that? What’s the connection to Emma’s sudden disappearance? What’s really going on here? That morbid little tidbit in the manual – knowing Emma is going to die within a week if you don’t do something about it – can’t help but come to mind as all of this plays out and that very deliberate morsel of foreknowledge goes on to colour every conversation and scene you encounter afterwards, giving even those “empty” moments as the starry night seamlessly melts away into snowy day a fuzzy sort of tension without any specific party to direct your worries or attention towards, every passed minute one step closer to…

The instruction book thankfully does more than add to your personal anxiety levels: There are a few helpful starting-off hints in there (including the location of the mind-bogglingly useful map which I absolutely wouldn’t have found without some external help, tucked away as it is in a strange spot in side room of the sheriff’s office) and it also takes great pains to make it perfectly clear that you are not expected to solve the mystery on your first or even your second run through, but slowly build up layers of awareness through multiple failures.

Now usually this sort of “Get it wrong until you get it right” design is exactly the sort of thing that’ll make me turn a game off and leave it forever – I just don’t have the time or the patience to try and guess a distant developer’s thought processes these days – but I found here even when I knew I wasn’t spending my in-game time as productively as I could be I never felt punished for it or that I’d entered some walking fail state, more that time was naturally moving on and of course there was nothing I could do about that. A lot of that feeling can probably be attributed to the flexibility in Mizzurna Falls internal timetable: Not every event is limited to one place or date, so even when you’re playing “wrong” you can still discover important things naturally – like spotting a friend trudging through the snow along the side of the road and getting out to talk to her, events snowballing naturally from there into her telling you where she’s going (to Emma’s house) and me – me me, not game-me – deciding that I may as well go there too, soon finding myself not only talking to both parents but also examining Emma’s room – and becoming highly suspicious of the sheriff when he did the same after I did, claiming he found nothing, and then Emma’s mother noticing Emma’s desk had just been tampered with and her diary taken…

Even the most disinterested adventurer flitting around the town at random will frequently find themselves brushing up against strands of the game’s carefully interwoven plot: I only knew the time of Kathy’s funeral because I drove up to the church out of curiosity and Father Barton, her guilty-as-all-heck dad, volunteered the information. On another day at the bar James, the psychiatrist I previously met at the hospital who definitely knows at least something about Kathy’s suspect cause of death, calls me over to his table – now why does he want to talk to me? At the same time I go over to hopefully get some answers Winona, the snow-walking friend from the other day, calls and wants to meet at the park. The choice here is entirely coincidental and mine alone to make – I decided to drive to the park, talk to Winona, and then drive her home… and when I finally got back to the bar James had gone. These almosts are utterly enthralling, moments where you can feel the answers almost take form and then silently slip back into the fog, like trying to recall a hazy dream. What did I miss by going? What later events might I have missed by staying? Where should I really be? Knowing I didn’t know what was going on, and having that countdown-to-death always ticking away in the corner, I found myself growing suspicious of everyone, even going so far as taking note of individual vehicles (while – as in real life – not all of the models used are unique, everyone has their own assigned car that only they use) and noticing who was travelling where and when, and even following people around just to see if I could catch them doing something they shouldn’t have been – that crumpled note mentioning the motel, that empty lodge across the lake… someone’s got to slip up before the end of the week, surely? I didn’t find anything out this way because Mizzurna Falls isn’t an old episode of Scooby-Doo but I’d say it’s proof of how believably mesmerising this web of intrigue is – the chance meetings in offices and diners, the phone calls out of the blue late at night – that I actually went and did it.

To know what you know – that Emma will definitely die in a week’s time if you can’t figure this out – does at times make your lead’s passive law-abiding line of mystery solving feel incredibly frustrating. To remain the polite protagonist when you know people are lying, you know there’s more going on, you know someone’s life is on the line… it’s more unsettling than almost any straightforward horror game I’ve ever played to see everyone, including guilty parties, carry on as if nothing’s happened. To know Emma’s out there and you have no special abilities, knowledge, or authority to stop the worst scenario from playing out. To know she’s missing and all anyone really hopes you do is sit around and wait until she dies. Nobody has to talk to you about it, nobody has to leave you any clues, and you can’t threaten anyone with anything. In a traditional sense these uncooperative NPCs, your helplessness, and the constant timer come together to create an unfair game: Important things can and will happen without you knowing they ever existed and several key events must be triggered properly on the first day to enable the rest of the game to move towards its best conclusion – the same day you’re wrestling with the controls, the same day you don’t know where anything is or how any of this works. And while there’s no secret Silent Hill-like Otherworld lurking behind the quaint surface of this snowy town it definitely gets a bit Twin Peaks-y as you start to dig deeper… not that you’re guaranteed to see much – if any – of that on your first time through (I recommend taking a look at this guide if you’d like to play through the full story for yourself). But it’s only by having the courage to actually let you miss things – for the town’s dark secrets to remain hidden from view, for crimes to go unpunished, for whole gameplay systems to never come to light – that your own decisions and the passing of day into night have any meaning or consequences.

As you may have guessed by the week’s end I was watching the bad ending, but I can’t honestly say I felt cheated by it. Not because the bad ending was a dramatic cutscene or revealed anything extraordinary: Matthew received a phone call from the police and that was it – Emma had finally stopped being missing because she had been found dead, just as the manual promised. That sad conclusion felt entirely appropriate for the story I’d found myself trapped inside – I hadn’t spent a week uncovering the grim underbelly of an isolated community, I was playing the role of a desperate teenager wildly chasing half-formed clues at the wrong time – I, and Emma, never had a chance.

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8 thoughts on “Country of the woods and repose

  1. So you did do more than just stare a priest down through church windows for 7 days, after all ;P

    To be honest, sometimes I think your blog is like 70% game I’ve heard about and was intrigued by a long time ago and now how dare you remind me of them I have too much else to play, and 30% games I’ve never heard about before but sound totally intriguing and how dare you I already have too much else to play xD

    I should go and check if the English fan translation of Mizzurna Falls was ever finished…

    Human Entertainment sure was an interesting developer. Always a bit clumsy and overshooting what the technical limitations and their own size could feasably achieve, but always with such intriguing results.

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    1. I did! Not that it helped… XD

      That’s why I love Human! You’re never sure what you might be getting, and it might not work properly, but at least it’ll be something different!

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  2. After all these years, games that have a world with their own timed schedule that persist regardless of what the player is doing still seem unique.

    One of my big issues with Shenmue was that there wasn’t really that much going on. Outside of the forklift job portion at the end, I feel like I spent most of the time wandering around waiting for an event to trigger, not bouncing from location to location wondering if I was missing something on the other side of town.

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  3. Not sure why, of all things, every character having their own vehicle you can keep an eye out for is so impressive but I don’t think I’ve seen that done in another game! Very cool. This is definitely one of those I’ve been wanting to see a proper translation of, great writeup!

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    1. I know it sounds a little daft but it made such a difference to be able to drive past someone’s house, look at their drive, and think “Guess they’re out” just because I knew the car/pickup they drove :O

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