“The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories” is part of a larger pattern.
Since “Braid” came out in 2008 (and likely even before that), “arty” platformers, sometimes done in the same vein as Ico, have been the go-to genre for indies to prove their narrative mettle and make pretensions to their games advancing the medium in some form. “Journey,” “Limbo,” “Inside,” “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”; the list goes on forever. Rarely, if ever, are these games all that profound. They’re usually maligned as over-praised and self-satisfied, which is an apt description more often than not. Yet every now and then, the genre is used to actually say something — and the strange mind behind the janky tonal rollercoasters that are the “Deadly Premonition” games is the last person I expected to do it.
“The MISSING” takes large cues from the gameplay of “Limbo” (there are similar chase sequences, physics puzzles, and basic narrative concepts behind them), but adds a twist that gives it a unique sense of tragic despair: JJ, the protagonist, can infinitely regenerate from injuries, and must regularly harm herself to progress.
JJ can stop gears by throwing her severed arm into them, set herself ablaze to burn down barriers, break her bones to inexplicably flip the world upside-down, or reduce herself to a decapitated head to roll into small spaces. This horrific system of self-destruction allowed me to empathize with JJ like no other game protagonist, but I began to feel immense guilt and dread when areas started demanding that I move through several painstaking actions in sequence to advance. The music in “The MISSING” is limited to specific scenes, and JJ is placed in silhouette when injured, so watching her mangled shadow shamble along while hearing its sobs of anguish cut through the ambiance was tragic enough to make gameplay itself a disturbing exercise. The use of the central mechanics to feed a running visual theme of bodily damage and repair also fits well within multiple contexts given by the game’s story.
The plotline starts out opaque and melancholic, but runs the gamut in terms of mood by the time the heart-goring ending rolls around and reveals what’s truly going on. Most of the in-game dialogue takes place in optional phone conversations the player can read that detail JJ’s interactions with her mother and acquaintances, which are gradually unlocked (along with concept art and funny costumes) by finding floating pink donuts in the environment.
Leave it to SWERY to find the one way to make an incredibly dark and psychological game both laughably silly and even more morbid: asking the player to collect all 271 out-of-place floating pink donuts, often at risk of maiming JJ far more than is necessary, to see the bigger narrative picture. In addition to this, there are several oddly-placed references to “Deadly Premonition,” which are all incredibly jarring and distracting, and conversations with FK, JJ’s sentient stuffed animal, which are likewise uncharacteristically upbeat.
The player can also make JJ call out for Emily (an important character and the game’s resident kidnapee) and say a couple different lines, which more or less serves no purpose at all. In my personal opinion, this inconsistency of tone actually helps the impact the game has, since it simulates real life’s lack of one constant perspective or feeling. The phone conversations are also rather intriguing, as they build up to the grand finale quite nicely.
“The MISSING” is one of those rare games that actually got a powerful reaction out of me, and its statement is meaningful and relevant, going to places few other games dare. There are so many aspects of it I want to talk about but can’t mention without spoiling the experience, and I doubt I’ll ever feel like this review dove deep enough into what lies beneath its surface.
While it’s hard to recommend during these dark times and a bit too grisly for some, I’d say it’s well worth the $30 and a cult classic in the making. Just make sure not to look anything up about it before you play it.
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.
If You Play
Platform – Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One
Price – $30
Internet Usage (accounts for download size) – 4.4 GB
ESRB Rating – M
Release Date – 8/11/18
Genre (if applicable) – Puzzle-platformer
Developer – White Owls, Inc.
Challenge – Low
Novelty – Moderate
Polish – Moderate