Continuing the recent trend of games tackling sensitive mental health issues, What Happened promises to take you inside the troubled mind of a teenage boy in an American High School. Dealing with a complex range of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, you have to help Stiles navigate the darkness within his own mind to steer him towards a more positive future, a future that is subject to the decisions you make throughout the game. This is a challenging and ambitious project, and one that is rife with possible pitfalls, not least accusations of trivialising truly important issues by gamifying them. Raising awareness is vital but it has to be balanced with sensitivity; how does What Happened fare?
The first thing that hits you when booting up What Happens is the clear gap between the developer’s ambitions and their resources. Genius Slackers have opted for a realistic approach to character design but the facial design and animation don’t live up to this ideal. This is a shame as it offers a possible hurdle to being taken seriously. This first impression is compounded by some awful voice acting and sloppy subtitle proof reading. The acting in particular is all over the place with accents and intonation veering wildly between and within each character’s depiction. The setting seems to be an International High School which might explain the accents but doesn’t excuse the limitations in delivery. It isn’t an insurmountable issue but it certainly detracts from the seriousness of the issues being portrayed.
What Happens at least isn’t a disaster graphically; in fact the design and visual effects are effective and impressive as the game progresses. Whilst you essentially navigate one location – the aforementioned high school – this takes on various forms from normal to overgrown to Hellspace in order to reflect Stiles’ mental state. This works well as you become familiar with the space when it comes to navigating it – particularly useful as there is no in-game map – but visually it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Visual effects are well chosen, such as the floating backpacks to signify the invisibility of Stiles to his peers and the positively psychedelic twists – this isn’t a game for anybody who has issues with flashing images.
Interacting with the world, both real and imagined, involves a nicely tactile approach to items. Grabbing drawers, doors, notes, and light switches with the left mouse button allows you to move the mouse to manoeuver them. This could be gimmicky but instead helps to put you in Stiles’ shoes and works well with the first person perspective. The downside to this approach is that you do find yourself opening a lot of drawers for little reward, with keys and notes being hidden in rooms with a dozen or more possible locations. The alternative to this would be a more linear approach but one that might ensured the flow of the game wasn’t lost as you pause to open multiple cupboard doors.
Stiles controls pretty well, with a familiar WASD first-person layout, although the running was often constrained by the whims of the game; I was willing to accept that given the game’s central conceit of a boy fighting against his own mind. The right button activates a quick 180 turn, a vital control during the occasional chase sequence, the details of which I’m not going to spoil here. I spent the first few hours thinking it would be hugely effective as a VR title, although that might take the immersiveness a step too far given the subject matter.
The treatment of Stiles’ mental state is mostly well judged and steers clear of gratuitous aspects. There are some excellent visual signifiers of his increased anxiety, from paranoid hallucinations to externalised manifestations of threats and the various graphical effects successfully convey a feeling of disorientation to the player. The decks are stacked against Stiles with bereavement, drug use, and a failed relationship all contributing to his mental problems. The drug use isn’t really dealt with and feels a little unnecessary as is the ability to raise Stiles’ middle finger at the world upon first finishing the game. This might be intended to show his teenage rebellion but actually undermines much of the good work done in treating the issues seriously elsewhere.
As might be expected in a game with this subject matter, player discretion is necessary. I’ve always been open about my own issues with anxiety and depression – indeed they are a large part of why this kind of game interests me – but What Happened gets very close to extreme depictions of self-harm and suicide. The former fitted with the narrative thrust but was a particularly striking scene that could have the potential to trigger sufferers. The suicide aspect is ever present with some moments where it becomes especially explicit.
There are various possible endings to unlock and my playthrough resulted in a bad one so it is possible that alternative routes are less disturbing. That being said, I’m not sure quite what decisions I made to get the bad ending so this could perhaps be made clearer. Given it is a relatively short title – 4 or 5 hours at most – the potential for replaying is welcome but there does need to be more guidance as to where different choices could be made. Everything felt quite linear in my playthrough with few obvious branching points.