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‘Who are you?’

For the longest time, I’ve struggled to answer this seemingly simple question. I don’t mean circumstantial identities like my sex, age, nationality, and profession. These characteristics are merely coincidental and pretty arbitrary and don’t necessarily define who I am. I’d still be me even if I ignored those happenstances. What makes you, you, runs much deeper than that: the set of core values you live your life by, your priorities, your personality & temperament, your goals and aspirations, etc.

It’s important to have a good idea of who you are because it’s easy to lose track and convince yourself you’re someone you’re not, influenced by the perception others (your parents, your peers, or society in general) have of you. Making decisions and behaving in a manner that’s not in harmony with who you really are, leads to massive internal conflict, consciously or subconsciously, which in turn leads to not a very happy state of mind.

What happens when the perception others have of you fundamentally, at the very base level, doesn’t align with who you really are? What happens when they refuse to even try to understand and insist on trying to fit you in pre-defined boxes they do understand that they deem ‘normal’, labeling anyone who doesn’t fit as ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’? And what happens when this ‘they’ I’ve been referring to are your own family? That’s what If Found… aims to explore and I’m happy to say, mostly succeeds in doing so.

if found

If Found… is a visual novel game by developer DREAMFEEL, published by Annapurna Interactive. I’m not familiar with Dreamfeel’s previous games, some of which have won multiple awards, but having played a few other Annapurna-published games, I was definitely excited to play something appropriately interesting and innovative. I was not let down.

Story & Narrative

If Found… tells a coming-of-age story about 23-year-old Kasio as she returns home to Achill Island after finishing her college education in Dublin. 

The story is primarily told through Kasio’s journal. As you flip through the pages, erasing them as you go, you get the essence of Kasio’s personality, her mental state, and her struggles. Through her doodles, illustrations, and diary entries you get the sense that she is, like most people in their late teens and early twenties, stumbling through life trying to figure out who she is and where she’s headed. That alone is heavy enough subject matter to deal with, but you soon discover that Kasio has it even worse than your typical angsty teen. You see, she wasn’t always a ‘she’. She’s a trans woman and judging from her interactions with her mother, she hasn’t yet talked to her family about her transformation.

if found

As you can imagine, this leads to conflicts and interactions that are, to put it mildly, not comfortable to witness. Certain things happen and Kasio ends up leaving home, taking refuge in an abandoned house where her childhood friend Colum, his partner Jack, and their bandmate Shans live illegally. For a while at least, she finds peace and happiness here and feels accepted and welcome in their company.

if found

You see, completing her education in Dublin, being away from her family for so long, Kasio has been able to successfully hide away and has avoided confronting her family. Even from her doodles and diary entries, it’s clear that she hides in her fascination with astronomy and takes comfort in the fact that everything, all her problems included, is finite, none of it really matters in the cosmic scope of the world. And now she suddenly has to face them.

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This theme of self-identity leading to alienation is strong throughout the narrative, in the four main characters. While Kasio feels alienated from her family and refuses to confront them about her identity, Colum and Jack have – despite being alienated by everyone else in Achill – successfully made a loving home for themselves in the abandoned house (no matter how rundown and uninhabitable it may be). 

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I also loved the inclusion of Shans, who does not belong to a gender minority, because it underlines the fact that this feeling of alienation isn’t only felt by the LGBTQ community but by pretty much anyone. Being an Indian (his real name is Ishaan) living in Ireland, he’s lost touch with his origins. He’s neither the person the people of Achill see, nor the Ishaan the rest of his family perceives. He’s someone else, someone he doesn’t even know yet.

Kasio’s fascination with the stars also serves as a bridge to the B-story of astronaut Cassiopea and her mission to save Earth from an incoming black hole. It’s never made clear but it’s not a stretch to interpret this side-story as the day-dreams of Kasio, a fantasy designed to escape how helpless and scared she feels in reality.

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The black hole serves as an apt metaphor to Kasio’s deteriorating mental state as well, and an acknowledgment that only she (or her alter-ego Cassiopeia) can deal with it. Though I appreciated this metaphor and it did help make some moments more effective, overall this side story felt unnecessary to the main narrative and was confusing at times. It’s a cool idea on paper, but in execution, it felt shallow and of little bearing to the main story.

I won’t reveal any more of the story, this game is best played blind, but suffice to say that Kasio’s struggle with being accepted by family and society in general, is beautifully portrayed. 

The main theme, however, is not identity/alienation but in fact about moving on from the past. At many points, the game states that names, genders, and stories are our own to create, not necessarily defined by our past. Your past doesn’t define you, you do. Kasio’s journey to being comfortable in her own shoes, learning to acknowledge but not dwell in the past, instead of focusing on her future, is effectively implemented in the gameplay as well, however minimal it may be.

Gameplay & Mechanics

The gameplay is, as with most visual novels, extremely minimal. 90% of the game consists of erasing the contents of Kasio’s journal – literally, your cursor is an eraser. However, this simple mechanic ties in brilliantly with the narrative: of acknowledging then erasing your past in order to move forward. I mean, you literally have to erase the page in order to access the next page of the journal, how much more literal and in-line with the narrative can you get?

Rubber shavings scatter across the pages as you erase, and the eraser itself becomes smaller and smaller over the course of the game. While largely inconsequential, I did enjoy the charming attention to detail. However, I do wish you could undo your last erasure with the right-click or something, as I accidentally erased stuff before reading a couple of times in my playthrough.

The story, for the most part, is set in stone and there’s no way to alter it in any way, you’re only erasing a pre-written journal after all. However, spoiler alert, during the last bit of the game, when you’re done erasing the old journal and switch to writing in a new one, the eraser is replaced by a pencil, and you’re allowed to doodle and choose what to write about on the page. Other than being narratively and thematically consistent, this also allows the player to in a way, choose the ending of the story, or rather, which aspect of the ending to emphasize. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before, and I was pleasantly surprised. 

It’s a cool way to deliver a pre-written story but since different people can find value in different aspects of the story (maybe the mom-daughter relationship resonated with you, or maybe it was Shans’ story, or Colum and Jack), this allows the player to choose what to focus on in the ending and makes it so that every player is reasonably satisfied with the ending.

Visuals and Sound

The hand-drawn art is, without a doubt, the most mesmerizing part of If Found. It is simply beautiful. I wish I knew enough about art and drawing and color schemes to do justice to the incredible art on display here, but I don’t. Revealing the next frame by erasing is truly exciting because I couldn’t wait to not only continue the story but to see what the artist had in store for me next. The use of strong vibrant light colors, as well as muted, dark ones very effectively establish the tone of what’s going on in the story at that moment. 

Of course, the music doesn’t hurt either. The art and music in tandem completely nail the tone and really immerse the player in the narrative. Again, I’m not super well-versed in this genre of music, which I can only describe as progressive, experimental rock, but parts of it reminded me of the works of Low Roar, one of my favorite artists ever, so you could definitely say I enjoyed the music. The full soundtrack is on Spotify as well, which I recommend you check out, even if you don’t play the game. 

Lastly, I’d like to talk a little bit about the setting: 90’s West Ireland. The sense of place is strongly portrayed here, thanks to Kasio’s illustrations and the Gaelic slang on display. I’ve never been exposed to Irish media before, with the exception of a couple of movies like Sing Street (a really good one by the way), and I’m always happy to discover different cultures. The game handles this wonderfully, providing a glossary of Irish terms or slang the average uninitiated player would be ignorant of. It’s a great way of maintaining Irish authenticity while making it accessible to everyone else. So not only does the game portray the LGBTQ community well, but it provides Irish representation along the way as well. 

VERDICT

If Found…is a  huge step above your typical visual novel in terms of gameplay. Its beautiful, evocative art and music, serve to tell a moving, ultimately uplifting story of the conflict between self-identity and social perception, and the cold alienation that results from it. If Found… showcases an interesting, innovative new form of story-telling. Though not without flaws, it’s unique, memorable, and above everything, a real work of art. 

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