Forget clowns, spiders, snakes or heights: I think I have a new number-one phobia. It’s people whispering sounds – not words – directly into my ear. Thank you, A Day Without Me, for giving me this wonderful new thing to hate.
To be fair to A Day Without Me, it’s the intent. The whispery section, roughly halfway through, is deliberate, and it’s a fantastically effective moment. Full credit to Indonesian developers Gamecom Team for making me shudder in my own skin and want to crawl across the floor and escape into the kitchen.
What’s fascinating about A Day Without Me is that we’d hesitate to call it a horror game. We’d struggle to label it in any way at all, in fact. It confounds attempts to be categorised, and that slippery sense of genre is its greatest trump card. You genuinely don’t know what it’s going to do next.
You start in your bedroom, in a suburban, white-picket-fence kind of neighbourhood. You are an unnamed child, and your first job is to get downstairs. But things are a bit skew-whiff, as all your doors are locked and keys are tucked on the top of bookcases. Once you’ve unlocked the doors, a bell rings through the house, so your next objective is to find its source. It turns out to be a laptop, cluttered with thousands of ‘deleted item’ notifications, as if someone was trying to erase data, fast. Then a ritual circle appears on the floor, demons circle you, and things spiral downward from there.
There’s the faint outline of Costume Quest to A Day Without Me. It’s the quaint neighbourhood, the child hero, the control mapping and zoomed out perspective. But it’s distorted through a Cronenbergian lens. You are wandering through a suburban (post-?)apocalypse, with garbage lorries and vans overturned and no-one to be seen. The title is something of a misnomer: if anything, this is a world without anyone else. You’re the only one, and things feel incredibly lonely.
It’s hard to describe what you actually do. More often than not, you keep walking until something happens. The world distorts around you, weird glitches in the matrix threaten you, and – boom – you’re being chased and it’s time to run away. Some minor-league puzzles offer obstruction, but they don’t take more than a few grey cells to overcome.
And that’s it: this is a disturbing, surrealist caper through suburbia, and you’ll step off the rollercoaster after an hour or so with 1000G tucked into your boots. And if you’re like us, you’ll emerge with two prevailing opinions.
The first, and most positive, is that when A Day Without Me gets it right – oh boy – it gets it right. When the tone lurches into something like horror, A Day Without Me creates moments that will stay with you for a long while. A sequence that references, of all things, Katamari Damacy, is utterly horrible. It was made worse/better by dying multiple times, and knowing that I’d have to suffer it one more time. We mean this entirely positively. It gave us chills. A Day Without Me is speckled with these heightened moments, and they may be worth the entry fee alone.
The second, prevailing opinion was how clumsy and homebrewed A Day Without Me can feel. For all of the fantastically staged moments, A Day Without Me can have the hallmarks of a university game-jam project.
It’s in the clumsy level design. It’s not always clear where you need to go, and often the answer is somewhere you’ve previously been with no logical reason for why. A map fails to show where you are, where blocked paths are, and doesn’t update as you complete objectives. You can walk over things that look like obstacles, and you can be blocked by thin air. There are few landmarks and lots of repeated models, so you will get turned around by the sheer repetition of the environment.
The story, which could be better described as ‘things that happen’, fails to coalesce into a larger story, plan or point. You hope, as you play, that there’s a common thread pulling this all together, but the scenes turn out to be skits without any narrative relevance, and that’s a shame. You get the sense that they were cool ideas that fell out of a hat.
The collectibles, too, have that disregard for the greater whole. They’re real-world memes and references to older games from the Gamecom Team. When you’re feeling a sense of oppressive dread and come across a laughing Yao Ming meme, well, you can almost hear the fourth wall shattering.
A Day Without Me feels most like a game of Madlibs. Someone comes up with a shocking sequence, jots it down, folds it over, then passes it to the next person who does the same. Each moment, considered alone, can reach great heights. One in particular is burrowing into our subconscious right now, to emerge as a future nightmare – we’re sure of it.
But Madlibs rarely come together to create something that works in its entirety. That’s the case with A Day Without Me. By the end, there’s no emotional wallop or moment of realisation: it’s just the last of a series of moments. With more to say and a grander vision, A Day Without Me could have risen above its more ramshackle elements. Instead, we emerged with some disconnected but memorable moments of horror, and little else.
You can buy A Day Without Me for £4.19 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S