A Day Without Me: There’s a fine line between mystery and confusion
Waking up and leaving the house is just the beginning of the nightmare the player goes through in A Day Without Me, the debut of Indonesian Gamecom Team. You get out of bed and must find out about your existence in an empty, chaotic neighborhood. Following a vibrating noise through the doors of your house and after finally switching it off, you’ll find yourself in front of a demonic ritual circle. The other doors are locked, protected by devils’ faces on the door plate. What the heck is going on…?
All these events in the first minutes of the game are puzzle pieces in this semi-open world game. The world as well as the puzzles are filled with mysteries to bed the player into this kind-of limbo between heaven and hell. So far, the borders between reality and mystery dissolve.
Having said that, the approach to establish a mystery clearly stands out in the game. Neither the intro nor the exploration of your house or the surroundings explains to you what happened. There is no snippet, no letter, or any kind of information where to search for answers. In total, the guidance of the player through the game is very limited. Given a menu and HUD in several languages (e.g. English, German, French, Javanese), the game only guides you with its quest log on the top left. And that’s it – no mini-map, no short video sequence with the place you’re searching for, nothing. On one hand, that forces the player to explore the neighborhood freely just by roaming around. Further, it fits completely to the aim of the game: building up a mystery that you have to solve. This approach is creative and focuses on the exploration or even analysis of the environment. But, on the other hand, it also frustrates you because of the lack of communication. According to the minimalistic quests, there is no explanation given in the story that could help you search for something special. For example, some riddles are not explained or hinted at in any way, so I got stuck and needed to look for a walkthrough. Instead of a spoiler, just a hint: Try activating a group of items in a certain order again and again; hopefully, you’ll find the right one by accident.
Keeping that in mind, it has to be pointed out that there is a thin ridge between mystery and the state of not knowing. Mystery tends between fascination and fantasy based on only small bits of information. The mystery can grow if the level of information grows or extends the assumed borders of the mystery. According to that, the immersion can grow because the world unfolds in the mind of the player. For example, the world could be seen in a totally different way after just one bit of information – and could be twisted again with another. Then again, the state of not knowing consists of a lack of these bits. From the introduction to the storyline and world to the ending, there is (almost) no explanation. But the line between both sides begins to blur when the state of not knowing is used as a feature to reset you mentally like the character in the game and building up the immersion. The latter happens when the player and the character explore the game together. Still, the bits of information feed the storyline and give the player an agenda.
Sadly, A Day Without Me tends to skip building up an agenda – even if the quest log advises on what to do next. The later parts of the game use that kind of communication a bit better. However, a richer kind of storytelling would have helped a lot with guiding the player through the game as well as intensifying the mystery. The events during the game don’t explain much but this might not motivate you enough to continue playing. You get lost or frustrated easily while searching around for that special place you have to visit next. The existing bugs in the game strengthen aren’t helping with this. Nonetheless, the creative ideas in the game as well as the search for information in this mysterious world can be gripping. In total, the game can only be recommended with a grain of salt.
A Day Without Me is available for PC on Steam. This review is based on a review copy kindly provided by the developers.