Design through Erasure: If Found…

This game has a gentle atmosphere overall, but it deals with some emotionally challenging subject matter, involving difficult conversations with family. I discovered the game after it was mentioned by fellow blogger Kel in their recent blog post.

Photograph by Karolina Grabowska

If Found… is a game by Dublin-based studio dreamfeel. I won’t discuss the plot or characters in any detail, but I will discuss its mechanics and some contextual elements regarding its historical and geographical setting. The game isn’t that long and I found the story really engaging, so I don’t want to overexplain it.

Jim Sterling, a game critic and industry pundit I greatly admire, once reviewed a game in a manner more closely resembling a piece of personal writing. The game was itself a deeply personal work about its creator’s relationship to game development and Jim’s essay reflected that. Though I haven’t taken the personal route, I have chosen to emulate the concept of a piece of game criticism that avoids specifics. I invoke Jim specifically because they recently began to use they/them pronouns publicly and have shared some details about their journey to that point. If Found… takes place over just twenty-eight days but nevertheless relates a journey involving gender identity. I felt it was worth paying tribute to someone whose body of work has always helped me understand the nuances of how we express gender and sexuality.

The game has a simple interface, comprising only the mouse. Players control a cursor in the shape of an eraser and click and drag to- well, erase things, from journal entries and sketches to outer space and the night sky. It’s a continuous, dreamy game, with each image layered beneath the previous. I was not prepared for the experience the game provides, not least because I was borrowing a roller-ball mouse. There’s a naturally tactile wonder to erasing. It begs to be played with the wild sweeps of a conventional mouse, using the arm’s full range of motion rather than the single thumb to which I was limited. Most of the game involves erasing specific parts of the screen (e.g. sections of text crossed out with scribbles), which means that the intermittent returns to more dramatic, full-screen erasure are moments of heightened emotion.

The game is set on the Irish island of Achill, where the Irish language survives. The game includes a glossary, sections of which appear as optional footnotes, opened by clicking an icon which appears in the lower left-hand corner of the screen as required. I’ve lived in this silly country since the day I was born, but I clicked on the icon whenever it appeared, just to see. The text is full of Irish iconography, idioms and references, including portions of the Irish language. I recognised all the Irish words, but since I learned Irish in a classroom setting rather than using it in daily life, I wasn’t always clear on what the phrases meant in their particular context. Achill is off the coast of the west of Ireland, and I went to school in the southern province of mainland Ireland, where we speak a different dialect of Irish to the one the characters use. Pronunciations and usage differ, so I was glad of the assistance.

The game takes place in December 1993, the year the laws banning sodomy in Irelandwere finally repealed. This is an Ireland just starting to coming to terms with the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, more than twenty years before we voted to allow marriage without distinction as to sex. Given the hostility that existed towards gay people even after decriminalisation, the concept that everyone has a socially-constructed gender identity would not have been tolerated. This is the context in which the game’s story unfolds.

The game will likely frustrate those committed to a more conventional style. There’s no fail state, nor any real difficulty curve in terms of gameplay. Every time an unconventional game achieves a certain level of prominence, many players dispute that it can even be called a game. I don’t believe the definition of the word needs to be protected and have yet to be shown a term which better serves the same categorisational function. Games that explore different modes of interaction and how those modes can provide unique avenues of storytelling certainly pose a challenge to more common schools of game design.

By telling the story as a game, the developers involve the player in the narrative more closely than if it were told in comic form, for example. We may not have input into the details of the story but through the childlike tactility of the eraser, we influence its pace. The act of erasing goes beyond its literal function and takes on symbolic significance. Journals contain the imprint of the past and by erasing them, we alter that imprint. Erasing is destructive, certainly, but it also allows for life to be reconstituted in a new form. Beneath the old writing and drawing we erase, there is blank space, waiting to be filled with new material. Erasers themselves wear down over time. In other words, the instrument of erasure gradually erases iself. There is hope in that, I think, that the forces that erase and suppress people’s identities are bound to burn themselves out.

I loved the music too. It helps to establish the atmosphere and includes mostly spacey soundscapes, with the occasional guitar piece and even a song in Irish. More impressive than the music is the sound design itself. The soundtrack reacts to the pace of the player’s inputs, so it must be designed so that each piece can fade seamlessly into others without being jarring. I don’t recall any points where the music just cut without reason. My knowledge of the details of game design is limited at best, but I know nothing about how sound design actually works. Still, I feel like the reactivity required must make certain demands at a production and compositional level. The result is an emotive, evocative score that enhances the visuals, which speak for themselves. I haven’t described them in detail because my words just couldn’t do them justice. dreamfeel has stills available on their website and also on the game’s Steam page.

The game took me no more than two or three hours to play through and cost me just €10.79. In those terms, it makes no great demands on its players. On an emotional level, it’s a beautiful and melancholic story, with sound and visuals to match. I’m glad I played it. I’ve been playing games most of my life, so I was delighted to experience one made in Ireland, so interwoven with the quirks of Irish speech. I think it allows for empathy with its characters in a way unique to an interactive experience. Its cost is low in time and money, but its valuable is uncountable.

The soundtrack is available on Spotify, or for purchase on Steam.

Here’s an interview with the developers

2 thoughts on “Design through Erasure: If Found…

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