I don’t watch soap operas. It’s not out of any misplaced sense of superiority or matter of taste, but mainly because I cannot commit the time and energy to keep up with one. But upon beginning Mutazione – a game that is best described as a narrative adventure soap opera – I began to think that there are a surprising number of similarities between soap operas and games.
The commitment to characters, the need for a constant escalation of events to keep viewers/players interested, and the reliance on cliffhangers and shocks to leave you wanting more. Mutazione contains all these elements, whilst also skilfully combining them with a cast of charming mutated characters and a central narrative that offers a touching meditation on matters of loss and acceptance.
You play as Kai, a teenage girl spending her summer looking after her sick grandfather rather than going to swimming training. That’s not as easy as it sounds; Kai must sail to the mysterious island community each day, where her grandfather has been in self-imposed exile for a number of years. The island is remote, mostly cut off from the world and inhabited by a weird assortment of mutated characters, all the result of an event that is never fully explained. These mutations mean that the residents of Mutazione are a far more diverse and original cast than your average soap opera, with each having physical characteristics that reveal both their inner identities and their troubled pasts.
If you’re after action or traditional game mechanics, then Mutazione isn’t for you. This is strictly a narrative adventure game along the lines of Night in the Woods. Talking to the residents of Mutazione is the central mechanic and each has a past to reveal and trauma to overcome, whether it’s a lost family member or an unrequited love. As Kai, you must explore the island, befriend the locals and unravel the various mysteries before the summer ends.
Whilst this synopsis suggests a degree of time pressure and peril, it’s mostly illusory as you have control over the passage of days. This means that you are free to explore and continue conversations as fast or slow as you like, but does detract from Mutazione feeling like a living and breathing place. Something closer to the dynamic world of Majora’s Mask would perhaps have added an extra sense of urgency.
There is also an essential secondary mechanic in the form of gardening. As you move around the town and the surrounding island you will come across a wide variety of plants, many of which can be harvested and then replanted in the numerous gardening spots that are scattered across the land. Planting these gardens is the key to progressing the story, as each one is connected to the emotions and moods of the related resident, helping them overcome whatever they’re facing. When prompted by the story, you can select from the collected seeds to cultivate a garden made up of a particular type of flora.
As your relationships with the assorted mutants grow you will also learn magical tunes that are related to the emotions. Selecting the correct one to match the right plants will make them grow rapidly and provide a crop to harvest that will directly affect the storyline. This provides a nice alternative to the walk and talk, but never really develops into much more than a distracting mini-game.
Given the largely narrative focus of Mutazione, a great deal depends on the quality of the writing. Fortunately, the various residents have well developed identities of their own and the complex interactions between them are excellently written and scripted. Yes, there is simple human drama of the kind you’d see in EastEnders or Coronation Street, but there is also a wonderfully melancholic sense of loss that permeates everything. Despite the simplicity of the game mechanics, it is impossible not to feel moved by the narrative’s treatment of separation and loss.