For most of its history, the video game industry has struggled with storytelling, embracing instead a gameplay-first mentality where narrative plays second fiddle to game mechanics. Going against the grain, a number of smaller developers have sought to remedy this by creating visual novels, one of gaming’s smaller, less publicized genres. Usually identified by a profusion of text and static or sparsely animated images, visual novels often bear a closer resemblance to graphic novels than other mainstream video games. Though I’ve played video games for most of my conscious life, I’ve only gotten into visual novels in the last couple of years. I was always aware of their restrictive interfaces, which usually amount to little more than clicking on text boxes. That’s why “If Found…” has struck me as such an important advance for the genre; it’s as interesting to move through as it is to read.
Set at the end of 1993, on the Irish island of Achill, it tells the story of Kasio, a twenty-three-year-old who recently completed her Master’s degree in Dublin and has returned home for the winter holiday to her perplexed family who look askance at her new identity. After falling out with her mother she leaves home to crash with her friend Colum, his boyfriend Jack and their friend Shans at a dilapidated old house — a place that once belonged to some of the well-to-do-members of Anglo-Irish gentry, but now belongs to the Church. Though the ostensible purpose of their squat is to serve as a practice space for Colum, Jack and Shans’s recently formed band, it also serves as a refuge from the conservative outside world that would prefer for Column and his boyfriend keep their amorous relationship on the down low.
Besides tracking the ups and downs of life in the house, “If Found…” interweaves a tale about an astronaut investigating an anomaly near Jupiter. The story of Doctor Cassiopeia’s survey of a black hole serves as a fanciful counterweight to the game’s exploration of Kasio’s everyday life. Given Kasio’s passion for astrophysics, it isn’t hard to parse the rationale for the sci-fi twist.
In addition to its quality storytelling and mesmerizing soundtrack, what elevates “If Found…” to the status of a masterpiece is its interface and art design. For much of the game, the cursor on your mouse serves as an eraser which you use to scrub away scenes and text to uncover fresh examples of both. Seeing how one scene dissolves into another makes for a captivating experience. For example, one can wipe away a sketch of a character to reveal that person framed behind a window, or scrub away a picture of the house where Kasio is staying to disclose other takes on the same place at different times of day. This technique, used by Impressionist painter Claude Monet, conveys how things acquire other resonances when viewed under contrasting conditions.
The eraser also acts as a sort of brush, allowing players to feel like sketch artists digging deeper into the visual material to uncover new layers of expression. Furthermore, it serves as a powerful metaphor for Kasio’s rejection of her old gender identity — highlighting the distance between the person she was in 1993 and the individual looking back on her life more than two decades later.
“If Found…” is one of the more refreshing games to come along this year. I deeply appreciated how it made me connect with someone whose experience runs outside of usual video game archetypes. It represents a path forward both for visual novels and for the industry’s expanding inclusivity.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.