An indie game set in Indonesia that deals with depression and anxiety, where the protagonist can dive into the consciousness of others, the description alone for A Space for the Unbound is immediately intriguing. It’s a game that I’ve followed for a fair amount of time, and while watching a game through its development can often end in disappointment, this isn’t one of those times.
A Space for the Unbound has been in development by Mojiken Studio for seven years. Seven years of passionate work, I’d assume, because the game shines in almost every area. The Makoto Shinkai influenced visuals, while sometimes a little simple in the cutscenes, are always charming and suffused with realism; buildings have discoloured tiles, tree branches cast shadows over the pavement, and paint gives way to expose the bricks underneath on an arcade wall. The clouds above are gorgeous, whether dark against the sunset or bright against a teal sky. The soundtrack, by Masdito “ittou” Bachtiar, reinforces this enchanting feel, with tracks that are full of character, bouncy, but also melancholic at other times.
You play as a boy named Atma, helping people around town with your odd power of being able to see into their minds, and all the while there is a vital mystery that involves a girl named Raya. It’s hard to say much more without spoiling things, but the story can be surprisingly intense.
While Makoto Shinkai is a name that has popped up in connection to the game’s approach, the Japanese animation director I find myself thinking of is actually Mamoru Hosoda, in the way the game melds slice-of-life youth with the violent and fantastical. Sometimes you can be playing with a football, talking to your fellow students at school, or enjoying the scenery on a pleasant walk around town, but you’ll also be going through a harrowing psychological journey full of pain and bitterness and loss. Bullying is quite a big theme, as is toxic masculinity, domestic abuse and Neon Genesis Evangelion style inner turmoil. The game warns you up front that it deals with disturbing subject matter in regard to mental illness.
Despite dealing with such serious material, it’s worth noting that there are also some rather funny moments, too. There is one particular scene that references a famous gaming moment in a hilarious way, certainly one of the funniest moments I’ve ever come across in a game, and there is even a nifty little tribute to The Karate Kid (a film that also dealt with bullying).
I’ve unfortunately never been to Indonesia, nor am I Indonesian myself, but there were a few things that even I recognised from my own South Asian background: this has to be the first time I have seen the word ‘masjid’ (a mosque) appear in a game, for example, a term that I heard a lot when I was a child and around my family members. An unusual detail like that assists the sense of realism.
The gameplay has some surprises to offer too, including a sort of Street Fighter combat system where you need to input specific buttons in order before a timer runs out. The majority of the gameplay, though, is speaking to other characters and solving various puzzles. These puzzles are initially simple but can, on the odd occasion, be a little frustrating and require patience and thought. None of them are downright unfair or extreme in difficulty, though. One of them even involved algebra, but seeing as even I was able to solve it – I’m appalling at anything related to maths – it shouldn’t cause players any real trouble.
The game’s script is fairly long, and works very well for the most part. There are a handful of small errors in the English version, but none that damage the experience in any significant way. The tone of the story is earnest and sentimental, perhaps a bit too much for some, but I found it genuinely emotional and touching. You can feel that the writers may have poured something deeply personal into this, and it works.