Some of my favorite games and stories are the ones that subvert my initial expectations. The ones I go into expecting one thing, only for the game to pull back the curtain and reveal its true self. I’m not just talking about games including plot twists (although I do enjoy a good twist every once in a while), but rather ones that have hidden depths that are not made obvious to the audience at first glance. The kind of story where, once you’ve completed it, you can go back and restart it to see the opening hours in a brand new light.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of my go-to examples. I went in expecting a decent shooter with what I heard was a good story, and I came out absolutely blown away by the places the game took its plot. To this day, this is still a game I recommend to nearly everyone interested in the kind of stories a game can pull off – whether or not they are fans of the game’s base genre.
So we have here a game by Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro, one that was mentioned in passing when we interviewed him at PAX West a few months ago: The Missing. The game had only been recently revealed at the time, with its initial trailer showing off all the ways the main character can be brutally injured. As such, I immediately assumed that this would be a horror game.
Needless to say, by the end of the game, it had become much more than that. Despite the brutality of the game’s first impressions, The Missing also manages to weave a powerful and affecting tale of human relationships and sexual identity. It’s the last thing I expected from my initial introduction to the game, but its story and way it contextualizes the gameplay has left me stunned for days since finishing it.
Developed by While Owls Inc and published by Arc System Works, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories was released on October 11th, 2018, for PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC via Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.
The Missing follows the eponymous J.J. Macfield, a young American woman attending college in Maine. The game opens with her embarking on a camping trip to a nearby island with her girlfriend, Emily. After spending an evening together, J.J. awakes in the middle of the night to find Emily missing.
When she sets out to try and find where Emily went, J.J. is struck by lightning, killing her. Or so we think, as moments later, she stands back up none the worse for wear. There seems to be something strange about this island, as no matter how injured J.J. gets, it just won’t seem to let her die. Thus begins her own personal hell, as J.J. struggles across the island to try and find the missing Emily.
Outside of the opening and ending sequences, very little of the story is actually told in the game itself. Most of The Missing‘s plot is found in J.J.’s cell phone. Much of her phone’s history appears to have been wiped in the lightning strike, but as you progress through the game, you eventually begin receiving old text conversations between J.J. and either Emily or her own mother. You can also unlock conversations between J.J. and her friends and professors by collecting doughnuts (J.J.’s favorite food, as evidenced by her doughnut-themed phone wallpaper and texting stickers) spread throughout the game.
While the game forces you to read the absolutely story-vital conversations, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring the optional ones. The conversations with Emily and J.J.’s mother go a long way to understanding the game’s central premise, and the doughnut-unlockable threads provide some excellent characterization for J.J. herself.
As I mentioned at the beginning, The Missing starts with its basic horror-esque premise, but as the game continues, it slowly begins drawing back the curtains to reveal its depths, and the pace it does so is excellent. Many of the end-game revelations are foreshadowed wonderfully through J.J.’s text conversations, another reason why you shouldn’t ignore them.
At its core, The Missing carries themes of relationships and sexual identity, and it makes no effort to mask them. The very first screen, after the Unity splash screen, is simple text stating, “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.” What’s more impressive is the places the game’s plot goes in its exploration of these themes. Unfortunately, to say much more would be spoiling the game’s excellent story. What I can say, though, is the game handles these topics surprisingly well, crafting a tale that’s been stuck in my head since I finished up the game a few days ago.
One last note I’d like to make on the story is its attachment to such brutal gameplay. Attaching such an affecting story about sensitive topics to a game that involves dismembering your main character definitely sounds dissonant at best and repulsive at worst. I’m sure many will initially chalk it up to SWERY being SWERY. Without spoiling things again, the violent gameplay is contextualized well within the game’s story…you just have to make it to the end and see the full story to understand why.
Torn to Pieces
The Missing is a puzzle platformer at its core, with the gimmick of injuring J.J. to solve puzzles. These run the gamut from throwing your own severed limbs to knock down boxes to lighting yourself on fire to burn down an obstacle. Compared to the writing of the game, the gameplay itself is rather simple and straightforward.
The puzzles themselves are a bit on the easier side, mostly based around navigating the environment or having J.J. be in a certain place with a certain injury. It was very rare that one of the puzzles would frustrate me, although one late-game area, a bowling alley, offered up some challenges that felt a bit too obtuse.
Really the only thing that provided much challenge was the occasional fight against the game’s controls. While they work well most of the time, there’s just enough jank to them to cause some irritation. The first issue I came across was being forced to navigate a 2D game using an analog stick. I typically play side-scrollers with a controller so I can have access to a D-Pad, but The Missing did not allow remapping of movement away from the left analog stick. Luckily the game isn’t very fast-paced, but doing small or fine movements for some of the puzzles was occasionally annoying.
Another major frustration I came across was picking up and throwing items. When pressing a button to pick up an item, J.J. will typically orient herself toward the item before picking it up. When I came to a puzzle that required throwing multiple items into one area within a time limit, I quickly became irked as this auto-orientation would often face J.J. away from where I was throwing these items. As you can’t change the way you’re looking after you’ve started aiming a throw, I’d have to waste precious time stopping the throw aim, re-orienting myself, and then restarting the throw aim.
The game’s saving and checkpoint system can also be a bit too stingy. The game never actually indicates when it saves, but often, it’s only at the beginning of a new puzzle or when entering a new environment. If you happen to die in the middle of a long puzzle, it’s very likely you’ll be brought back to the very beginning of it. To be fair, it’s pretty difficult to actually die in this game, although there are a couple of times you’re put in a one-hit-kill scenario. Getting near completion of one of these moments, only to die and have to do it all over, can quickly become maddening.
Despite these occasional issues, the main gameplay is perfectly serviceable, although honestly, it really isn’t the highlight of the game. The gameplay is here to carry the story, and while some of the mechanics do end up pertaining to the plot, most of my time playing was spent looking forward to the next set of texts from J.J.’s mom, or the next reveal about her relationship with Emily.
The visual presentation of The Missing is fairly attractive, often making strong use of a subdued color palette with an occasional splash of color to punctuate certain moments. Running through the scenery of a northeastern coastal island provides plenty of striking moments. On the other hand, the game does spend a bit too much time in run-down saw mills and the like.
When it comes to the characters themselves, despite the brutality of the premise, the game doesn’t actually show much gore. Once J.J. is injured, her character model turns into a silhouette, and any blood is colored white. However, the game doesn’t shy away from expressing the torture J.J. is going through, as we’re given plenty of audio cues to her suffering through screams and gurgled gasps.
The game is light on music, mostly opting for ambient noise. The voice acting, though…its extremely hit or miss. J.J.’s actress doesn’t sound like she was directed well, with most of her lines coming out with unusual inflection. Other characters use a backmask style of speaking that can be legitimately creepy.
You’re Not Alone
While speaking with SWERY during our PAX West interview, we asked him about the dark tone of The Missing, as well as the tone of his work in general. “I’ve always tried to have kind of an ambivalence between the light and the dark. I feel it’s important for you to address both of those things,” he told us in response.
After actually playing through the game now, I understand better SWERY’s outlook on the tone of his games. Despite my initial dark impression of the game, The Missing also tells a surprisingly powerful and hopeful story. The macabre gameplay is worked into the story well, although the gameplay itself really isn’t the highlight here.
The game is rather short, lasting around five hours if you’re not trying to find all the collectibles, which may make its asking price of $30 at the time of writing seem rather steep. However, I would still highly recommend checking out this game. Even with the occasionally rough gameplay, the story and aesthetic here make The Missing something that absolutely should be experienced.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Arc System Works for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.