Shut In Review

2020 The Game

There’s an unwritten rule here at TheSixthAxis that unnecessary mentions of the whole pandemic situation will be mercilessly cut from reviews by our erstwhile editor. With Shut In, however, the experience of playing is so inextricably tied up with whole notion of lockdown that I hope to get a free pass for this article. [I’ll allow it – Ed.]

Shut In has a more internalised focus than a government’s imposition of lockdown, as it is mainly concerned with the effect of serious mental health conditions on your character’s ability to actually leave his house. The game’s release is a billed as a deliberate imaginative attempt to engage with Covid-19 which offers the potential for a huge potential audience. The bleak and dark nature of the game’s humour, however, perhaps means that it will remain a more niche title.

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This is a totally lo-fi experience. The graphics are deliberately simplistic and pixel-based. The sharp edges and relative lack of refinement and clarity work well to represent the way in which your character views the world. Everything looks normal enough, but the visuals are indistinct enough to give your surroundings a necessary sense of unease and claustrophobia. This makes Shut In a rare case where the aesthetics are key to the gameplay rather than a display of faux nostalgia.

The game is essentially an old school point and click adventure, albeit with a controller friendly approach. Finding items and using them in the correct room allows you to progress, but there are a huge number of tricks and traps that will swiftly show you the Game Over screen. Even horrible death isn’t an escape, though, as you always wake up the next day to try and probably fail again. This seemingly unending cycle of entrapment and failure speaks both to the lockdown experience and more specifically to the nature of depression and anxiety. As a sufferer of these conditions myself, I recognised the symptoms being played with, although they are taken to their logical extremes here.

Your opening tasks are eerily reminiscent of the way that these conditions can make you feel. Simply getting dressed, washing, and cleaning your teeth are things that should be practically automatic, but when your brain chemicals are misfiring they can become the equivalent of gaming achievements – chores that occupy your whole being and genuinely feel like they are too much to cope with. In Shut In these simple tasks are made difficult by the surreal behaviour of your house, a location which feels like an antagonist at times, and the immediacy of horrible death. When the game asks you if you want to just stay in bed, it really can feel like the best option.

As is usually the case for this kind of adventure game, a large proportion of the puzzles are relatively trial and error in nature as they rely on you scouring the screen for interactive objects and areas before then working out which item to use. Getting a puzzle wrong usually results in a witty line of dialogue in this genre, but with this game any mistake is fatal – what constitutes a mistake may not always be that obvious.

Many of the puzzles depend on the game blurring reality and hallucination. Doors disappear or are replaced with chalk outlines, everyday objects become deathtraps, and even kitchen cupboards can become portals to alternative versions of your home. The oppressive and claustrophobic effect of this is hugely effective, whilst also suiting the small size of the game’s environment. This intense location is surprisingly packed with things to do, with many interactions being missable in a successful playthrough. This offers some welcome replayability, but the resonance of the themes with my own conditions mean that I have not ventured back.

Where the game becomes more of a tough sell, though, is through the level of dark humour it uses. This mostly takes the form of the narrative text delighting in tormenting your character or relishing your failure. I accept that this works as a metaphor for the interior voice that so often manifests as one’s struggles with mental health issues, but it does come awfully close to outright ridicule at times. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you come to the game expecting a sympathetic treatment. I think the idea is to make day to day activities feel like a challenge – living with mental illness is the Dark Souls of lives – but at times the separation between the narrative voice and the game was unclear.

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Summary
Shut In is a short experience with a price to match and it's one that I mostly enjoyed. That said, I do have a particularly dark sense of humour and was able to separate the game from my own mental health struggles. The tone here is so mocking that it won’t be for everyone and I’m still in two minds as to whether it is hoping to raise awareness or simply using mental suffering for entertainment. I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, but your mileage may vary. Unlike our current situation, this is one period of isolation that isn’t mandatory.
Good
  • Horrifyingly timely
  • Worthy subject matter of mental health
  • Some clever puzzles
Bad
  • The tone is a bit questionable
  • Very short
6
Written by
Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.