SELF: Where’s my father bills itself as a text adventure but it’s not really. Sure, you’ll spend most of your time reading, but it’s got a bag of visual tricks that it pulls from, plus it stops short of a key characteristic of a text adventure: manually typing in your decisions. Anyone who’s experienced a text adventure will get a shudder of anxiety at the mere mention of the term. Instead, SELF: Where’s My Father is a visual novel that’s low on visuals; a Choose Your Own Adventure book in video game form. That’s no bad thing, and better suits the game controller anyway.
SELF: Where’s my father starts with you waking up in your bed, and your mum calling you down for breakfast. You can choose to lie in (triggering the first of the game’s endings and achievements – note that down for the monthly Gamerscore guide), or you can get up and get the narrative rolling. Your mum natters away, but your dad is nowhere to be seen, and – curiouser and curiouser – she has no recollection of your dad existing. This panics you – as it would anyone – and she leaves you in the house alone. A phone rings (do you answer it?), a doorbell rings (do you open the door?) and your friend arrives (do you go out to play with them?) and, while the plot remains foggy, you start to understand what SELF: Where’s my father wants from you: it’s a game of divergent paths and endings, and your task is to find them all.
Each major choice that you make sends you down a different path, and you’ll occasionally get to see those paths visualised. They’re shown as cracks in a window pane, which is an effective little touch (your world-view is fracturing, so it fits well into the themes of ‘self’). Pivotal moments where you can switch from one crack to another are displayed as open eyes, and these eyes are nodes that can be reverted back to at any point. It’s a swift and generous way of exploring every path, which is clearly what SELF wants you to do. By unlocking various endings, you can piece together the larger mystery of where your father might be.
As you barrel through the story, the choices you make come in different forms. There are simple text choices, like ‘do you take a balloon from the clown?’, which is a hard-no in any social situation, and the text choices can lead you along various cracks in the glass pane. Occasionally, you’re presented with a visual interaction that we hesitate to call a puzzle – the most involved one has you flipping a ‘fast-forward’ switch to make it a rewind switch – while, more commonly, there are minigames.
These minigames crop up when your character is at their most anxious. The screen will wobble, white noise and static will kick in, and you’ll be presented with options to ‘Face It’ or ‘Avoid It’. Except, it’s not really a choice: you can spam one option or the other all you like – you’ll be tossed into the minigame regardless. What you get is something similar to the Undertale combat games: you are a small square in a bigger square, and objects will bounce around you. These objects are representative of the story – the clown confrontation spawns in balloons and hellish clown faces, for example – and they will be in red and green forms. Hit a red one and the game area contracts, giving you less and less room to move, eventually squashing you into nothingness. Hit a green one, and the game area expands, giving you a breather. Survive for long enough, and you will have ‘faced’ the confrontation head on; get squished, and you will have ‘avoided’ it.
Gameplay-wise they work well, and – as with Undertale – they do a superb job of conveying the panic and neuroses that the main character is experiencing. They also happen to liven up the avalanche of words. They do have an issue at their core, though: they’re presented as games that you win or lose, but – for the best endings – you actually have to fail some of them. That’s cognitive dissonance for you: video games have taught us that we should avoid losing. But it takes a couple of playthroughs before you realise that SELF: Where’s my father wants or expects you to deliberately lose at them. We couldn’t help but feel that separating the minigame from the choice (“hey, you won the game, so you get to choose whether you face or avoid the situation”) would have been a better approach.
The choices take you to odd places. A reasonably simple and robust narrative of ‘hunting for your dad’ starts to come apart at the seams halfway through, and turns into a series of Kafka-esque skits. A section in a no-laughter hospital, where patients and doctors wear masks to stay somber is a highlight, as is a sequence where you wade through flooded streets, eating food that’s tasteless and holding babies that pee pure water. As surrealist scenes go, they’re effective, and the main character’s bewilderment matches your own.
Other scenes are too dislocated for their own good, though. They don’t refer back to the larger mystery, they have no relevance by the end, and they needed an extra sprinkling of surrealism and weirdness to make them effective. A school sequence just floats there, and the hospital has a sequence that creates an infinite narrative loop that’s either a bug or weird logic. As with most shows or games that are based on disconnected skits, there are hits and there are misses.
The mark of a good mystery box, though, is how satisfied you are by the end of it, and SELF: Where’s my father isn’t very satisfying. The answers you receive are never earned by the main character (who is never properly named), for a start. You’ll reach an ending, and the scene will shift to some policeman, reporter or other character who simply unveils a piece of the mystery. It’s bizarre, like the killer in an Agatha Christie novel being revealed in an advert break. It doesn’t give the main characters any resolution as a result, so the puzzle piece just floats there, unearned and offering no real satisfaction.
The mystery, too, could have filled a single post-it note: there’s really not much to it. It makes a certain kind of sense and doesn’t exactly feel inappropriate (particularly as you can see the echoes of it in the scenes you’ve waltzed through), but there’s not enough substance for it to carry an entire game’s narrative. Not that SELF is long – all endings will take you a couple of hours – but the lack of character resolution and that one, single punchline can’t help but make you feel empty afterwards.
But while the destination ultimately doesn’t feel worth it, there are moments in the journey that are memorable. SELF has a fine knack for showing, rather than telling. At one point, SELF conveys the main character’s lucidity by putting lots of words into a sink and then letting you pull the plug, watching them swirl and then disappear. There’s also a neat analogue feel to everything, as you play on a CRT TV with deliberate chromatic aberration, and the screen has a habit of jumping, skipping and turning to static. SELF is wonderfully tactile in this way. It’s a game that is clearly capable of producing inventive moments, but they all hang off a structure that doesn’t quite hold together.
Not quite the text adventure that SELF: Where’s my father on Xbox pitches itself as, it’s instead a surreal and stripped-back visual novel that beckons you to reveal its mystery by finding all of its endings. But while it has some wonderful moments on the way, it succumbs to the problems of many poorly structured mysteries: once you’ve peeled away the layers of the onion, you’re often left with nothing but a sense of dissatisfaction… and a tiny onion.