The ‘dadification’ of games has been clear to see over the past decade, as ageing game designers seek to feed their personal challenges and parental anxieties into their work. They’ve ranged from big budget hits like The Last of Us and God of War giving players the power fantasy of a father fighting against the odds to save their offspring (real or metaphorical), to Blair Witch and Someday You’ll Return focussing on the regret and trauma of failed parenting.
Those Who Remain seeks to stand alongside these games, grappling with complex psychological themes.
Initial impressions of Those Who Remain are not great, with graphics and environments that are largely functional and bland. This is partly by design, as the game world is intended to be shrouded in darkness, but there’s a lack of character to the world and you’ll find yourself in several almost identical houses as you progress.
The mental state of your character, Edward, is quickly established by a nicely generic opening cinematic complete with bottle of whiskey and gun. You appear to be having an affair and immediately get in your car after downing your drink after getting a booty call. It’s an effective, if unsubtle, way of establishing that you are a man who has made some bad choices. Unfortunately, as I progressed I found Edward continued to be thoroughly unlikeable, undermining the central messages of redemption. The narrative does, however, provide some welcome nuance and ambiguity so, despite the first person view, you can still find some separation from Edward whilst playing.
Whilst Those Who Remain is principally a walking simulator it does have a lot more peril and death than that genre generally contains. Aside from some chase and stealth sequences, the entire gameworld is filled with the shadowy threat of the titular Remainers (no, not that kind). Any unlit area is an instant deathtrap with shadowy outlines and menacing eyes betraying the presence of your tormentors.
This means that the bulk of the gameplay revolves around environmental puzzles to shine light and clear a path for you. These are mostly relatively simple and involve finding fuses, switches, and so on, but there is a lack of clarity about how far you can push into the darkness, which, when combined with some slightly ropey controls, means that I died a few times in hugely frustrating fashion. The oddly spaced checkpoints only served to deepen this frustration.
Puzzles aren’t just restricted to simply finding light sources, and there are several more involved examples that will tax your brain as well as you reflexes. Generally the clues for these are well placed around the area, but I did find a couple that seemed entirely trial and error based.
The puzzles are broken up by the typical walk and talk exposition and the aforementioned chase and stealth sequences. The chase parts are generally linked to a particular supernatural enemy that remains largely effective throughout their several appearances – one sequence where the furniture tries to stop your escape led to some frantic chair throwing – but they remain infrequent enough not to become too annoying. The stealth parts, on the other hand, are a real weakness of the game, as the clunky controls, combined with being unable to crouch or lean can make these devolve into a run and hope exercise.
Generally, Those Who Remain is lacking in polish and execution, but something about the game kept me interested enough to play through for all three endings. Whilst never really enjoying the process of playing the game, I was interested enough in the central narrative of guilt and redemption to want to see the different ways it was resolved. Fortunately, once you know your way through you can rattle through what is already a short game in next to no time.
Some of the choices Edward has to make as to whether to redeem or condemn the various characters successfully manage to capture that ambiguous sense that there is no ‘right’ answer, although the ending requirements mean that you must stick to one approach throughout if you want to see each one. This was a shame as it seems to actively work against the narrative’s openness and ambiguity. Of course, a single playthrough can be approached with more freedom.
The most interesting idea in Those Who Remain is the inclusion of a dreamlike reality into which you often venture. Actions you take here affect the real world, so opening doors and bypassing obstacles allow you to progress where your path was blocked in the real world. This is a nice take on a well-established game mechanic and one that feeds into the overall atmosphere, but the way its used in an incredibly linear fashion never really comes into its own.