‘My humanity was for sale, and I sold it’
A short, abstruse phrase appears in a speech box. For now, this sentence is vague but (hopefully) grasps your attention. The darkness wanes and there you are, standing in a dimly lit hallway. You play as Price, an ambitious, albeit gauche young man, trying to gain the favours of a prestigious (and somewhat shady) company at the expense of some inhabitants of this derelict world. Your job consists of making people leave their homes in order to seize their property. Your first victim is Mrs. Goldwin, an old, kind-hearted lady, and one of the few genuinely lovable characters in this cruel tale. Price’s actions will have tremendous consequences, and thus you follow the main character as he hopelessly tumbles towards insanity.
DISTRAINT is a psychological horror game by Jesse Makkonen, the man behind Silence of The Sleep, another eldritch and unsettling title. The first element that enticed my interest was the art style and the level design of the game. The world presented to the player is obscure and ruthless, yet its inhabitants are charming characters with oversized heads (they look absolutely lovely). The experience is relatively short (your journey lasts approximately two hours), but it tackles various themes such as greed, compassion and depression in a compelling and unique fashion. The length and the aesthetics of the game encourage the player to sit through Price’s madness until its unexpected conclusion.
There is little to say about the gameplay. The controls are basic and only revolve around 7 keys (W, A, S, D, E, F and your space bar). There are no intricate mechanics and the gradual increase of difficulty as you progress is negligible. This is a particularly pleasant trait in story-driven games, especially if its aim is to convey a message to the player. No need to worry about dying either: the worst that could happen to you is lingering on a puzzle.
Speaking of puzzles, you will notice that they are relatively simple, yet clever. Some entail a considerable amount of walking back and forth, scouring the decrepit rooms and dusty hallways. Some segments also introduce innovative ways to progress further into Price’s living nightmare. One area in particular as an example, requires you to be in a severe state of inebriation in order to unveil hidden paths and open otherwise sealed doors. The virtual darkness of the various levels emphasizes the sense of trepidation. This feeling sticks with you until the very end, where the uneasiness you feel throughout the game reaches its zenith.
The element of surprise seems to be the pith of DISTRAINT. You are constantly exposed to dubious situations and you will come across the most oddly compelling folks. Every time you successfully fulfill your task and seize someone’s property you are greeted by McDade, Bruton, & Moore, a mysterious musical trio that seems to know a whole lot more about you than they ought to. Price’s parents also confront him from beyond the grave, lamenting their son’s lack of compassion. Hell, you will even be chased by a zombified elephant at some point! The game offers you no time to take a deep breath and process the vast array of ostensibly illogical (and slightly macabre) occurrences.
Despite being predominantly gloomy and distressing, DISTRAINT is not deprived of humour. It begins with the winsome character design, which is obviously contrasting with the somber and grave world in which the story unravels. The dichotomy between the adorable and the macabre is particularly striking and successfully captivates the player’s attention. Price’s observations and repartees can be humorous at times, and usually come like a waft of fresh air when the atmosphere gets too oppressive.
The music is of paramount importance in DISTRAINT. A substantial part of the soundtrack is atmospheric ‘noise’, occasionally interrupted by distant wails or ear-shattering static (which, again, strongly reminded me of Silent Hill 2). An agreeable and melancholic neo-classical track can be heard in the opening screen, which conveys a stark sense of gravitas and immediately sets you in the right mood to begin to appreciate the game.
However, despite being an overall enjoyable experience, DISTRAINT is not faultless from a technical point of view. I ran into some minor glitches while playing through game, such as being able to walk through the walls of Price’s bedroom. Another mildly frustrating point is that you are only given the possibility to interact with some objects if you are standing in one specific angle. Furthermore, some items and characters were not responsive at all and required several attempts of walking past them while furiously mashing the E key until the option of interaction-usually indicated by a big exclamation mark floating over Price’s head-was proposed. This, however, does not spoil the experience and only comprises an infinitesimal inconvenience.
DISTRAINT could simply be construed as the story of a young man going through an existential crisis while occasionally being subjected to some gruesome hallucinations. However, it remains a remarkable concoction. It is the unmistakable eerie atmosphere of Silent Hill 2 espousing the deep-rooted uneasiness and anguish prevalent in Franz Kafka’s novels. You will witness how Price, the pixellated Gregor Samsa of our time, finds himself submerged by nostalgia and melancholy, until eventually drowning in his own mistakes.