One of the most refreshing shifts in contemporary gaming is the increasing number of games dealing with real issues and what could loosely be labelled as more personal concerns. Whilst many of these fall within the ‘walking simulator’ genre (a term which has yet to really shake off its negative associations) developers are also combining more traditionally ‘gamey’ games and discussions of mental and emotional issues. Recently we’ve seen Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice take on and examine ideas of psychological disorders within what looks and feels like a typical AAA title, and with Figment: A Musical Adventure an old-school isometric adventure is married to a mature and moving treatment of loss, despair, and depression.
As the game opens, we find ourselves introduced to Dusty, a somewhat reluctant and cynical character whose initial motivation is purely selfish. Needing to fix his ice maker in order to cool his favourite mind-numbing beverage, he sets out to explore the world of Figment. It soon becomes apparent that this world is a beautifully realised depiction of the internal workings of the mind. Similar in tone (and to some degree aesthethics) to Pixar’s Inside Out, Figment shares that movie’s representation of the ways in which thoughts and feelings can seem to remap and affect the brain.
Dusty is a manifestation of the mind’s courage and must rediscover his former self in order to drive out the fears and anxieties that have taken up residence in the brain. Joined by the perky Piper, a hummingbird companion with a Navi-like tendency to comment on the action, our curmudgeonly hero must first find his sword in order to literally take arms against a sea of troubles. These nods to Zelda show how immersed in gaming tradition Figment is and it’s from this base that its innovations develop.
Graphically, Figment is truly beautiful. Its distinctive hand-drawn artstyle creates a world that succeeds in feeling coherent and yet also allows for each area of the mind to be distinct. The backgrounds are full of surreal detail and characters are all well designed and realised. The animation is also of a high quality throughout. There were a few moments towards the end of the game where Dusty got stuck on parts of moving puzzles but these generally resolved themselves and a reload was only required once when I managed to get him marooned on the wrong end of a rotating platform.
As hinted at by the subtitle, Figment is a musical adventure. This is true both in that it relies on music and rhythm for some of its puzzles and, more generally, in that songs play a major role in the narrative. Each of the boss fears in the game have their own theme song; with repeated refrains accompanying them as they taunt Dusty and pre-empting the full-length renditions that score the eventual boss-fights. These songs are suitably characteristic, with the Fear of Loss’s emo-rock being a particular stand-out. My only complaint is that there are not more of these but, equally, the game arguably benefits from being a more focused affair.
Gameplay itself consists of a mix of hack and slash combat and item manipulation puzzles. The bulk of the latter involves moving ‘synapse batteries’ to power various surreal machines or to move platforms and open up new paths. The main game is fairly linear but there is room for added challenge and replayability in the form of hidden memories which reveal major moments in the mind’s owner’s life. The combat reminded me of indie darling Bastion although here it is used sparingly. Rudimentary RPG elements are included through XP orbs being dropped by enemies but these purely increase your maximum health.
All of the above makes for an enjoyable and distinctive indie adventure but it’s the sensitive balance struck between the game and its themes that really elevates it. The quirky aesthetic and musical atmosphere also work brilliantly with the focus on insecurity and fear as manifested within the disturbed workings of the mind. I don’t want to spoil anything so will avoid discussing the particulars but in general terms it reminded me of Gone Home’s build up of dread and skilful manipulation of player expectations. I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I teared up a little at the ending, with the conclusion echoing and resonating with my own personal experiences of mental health concerns. That such a treatment of difficult issues comes wrapped up in such a beautiful package only serves to emphasise the power of its central message.
I wasn’t expecting Figment to resonate so strongly with me. I was looking forward to seeing how its beautiful artstyle would work in the game and my interest was certainly piqued by the idea of enemies having song and dance routines. However, I went into the game thinking that it would be a fun diversion and was not prepared for it to get its hooks into me quite so much. The music certainly helps – I have found myself humming the tunes since finishing the game a few days ago, and the well-realised characters certainly don’t hurt either. But what really stands out with Figment is the way that it deals with loss and despair whilst managing to be optimistic and uplifting.
It would be possible to criticise this approach as overly positive and naïve – after all, the idea of fighting off despair is not far removed from the clichéd and insensitive advice often given to people suffering with depression – but the theme is so well realised within the world of Figment that it escapes any feeling of trivialising the issues. Not to mention that the ending will stay with me for some time. If interesting and intelligent indie games are your thing, then get yourself a piece of Figment.
Version Tested: PC