“My humanity was for sale…”
With this opening line DISTRAINT begins, and thus unfolds the surreal and bizarre story of Price. A mysterious opening line can awaken curiousity. Which is a good thing since, on my initial glance all I saw was pixelated and antiquated retro graphics. Simple and basic keyboard controls. Short and simple text boxes to breeze through. What I did not expect was the twisted dark ride into a story that’s part Aesop fable moral story, part Franz Kafka. You are in developer Jesse Makkonen’s (creator of the equally dark Silence of the Sleep) carnival-style haunted house. Once inside it’s hard not to be swept into the madness.
Haunting winds whisper in your ear. Film grain peppers the pixelated hallway. Moths dance around the only visible light before you. Push left, and Price’s giant head and wobbly body rumbles forward. You are looking for someone named Mrs. Goodwin. Your job is to evict her from her home. After she tries to deny that she is actually Mrs. Goodwin, she reluctantly opens the door. Inside she offers you tea. Take a moment to look around. There are pictures of her late husband on the counter. The mood changes quickly, eerie sounds and disturbing visual evidence denotes something evil is happening. Blood is streaking down the walls. What’s going on? What the…
Everything snaps back into reality as Mrs. Goodwin returns to inform you she has no more tea. She doesn’t have much, and no one in the world she can stay with. Price does not waver from his task of forcing Mrs. Goodwin out of her home. He politely gives her a deadline and she accepts. Price turns to exit, Mrs. Goodwin leans over and begins sobbing.
Price may mention a pang of remorse for Mrs. Goodwin on occasion but, his focus always deviates back to his job: he returns to task at hand. She should have paid her bills on time, she would still have a home, right? As you try to head home, you are prevented from taking the elevator as there is no power to it. A shrill horrifying noise focuses your attention on an apartment door that falls forward exposing the dark apartment within. Go inside and investigate?
At this moment we are then introduced to some of the game’s uncomplicated mechanics. Save locations are also introduced. The game offers controller support or keyboard commands, either is adequate for this low intensity story game. Price has three inventory slots. Leaving a free inventory slot selected, Price can manipulate items freely; say open a door, or turn on a light. If you have an item selected, he will instead apply that item on what you are clicking (key on door, lighter on wood, etc). An exclamation mark over Price’s head signals if that background object can be affected, or if it’s someone you can speak to. Inside the dark apartment, you will need to find a key to escape through the only locked door. Think of it as unusual tutorial of sorts. There’s a dead man sitting on a couch, his dismembered bloody head glows in the white noise from the television that inexplicably turns on. Eerie laughter mocks your next moves. Welcome to DISTRAINT.
Getting out is easy, getting the images out of your mind may not be. Now I am not someone who gets scared easily. I am not going to pad my desk chair in cut up Depends and newspapers to catch the release of my cooped up body fluids as the game’s horrors take over. No, I’m not built that way. DISTRAINT isn’t an ear shattering scream fest of terror either. It’s simple presentation and easy gameplay do keep your senses glued to the strange and illogical pieces being wheeled onto the stage, and then whisked off again. I found the increasing parade of bizarre imagery, as Price’s humanity is lost with each eviction, delightful and hair raising in its own right.
After each soul you leave homeless, the singing trio of McDade, Bruton, & Moore soon appear. Their cheerful vaudeville melody and bags of money behind them belie their sinister and heartless nature. They are offering you a partnership with them (a quartet of course): the price is to evict a couple of other penniless people. The people you meet are portrayed in caricature- they are odd and disturbing as the surreal giant sketched paper elephants (yes, elephants), bloody hallways, dismembered animals, and ghostly images of your past that keep appearing.
Getting someone out of their home becomes longer and more difficult as the game progresses. What is real and what isn’t becomes harder to distinguish. Price’s guilt interrupts you constantly jolting you from solving one puzzle into another sequence. Yet despite the distractions, it iss difficult to become lost in this game’s levels. Remembering which door was which room, is not tasking in the slightest. Neither are the puzzles you are required to solve, they are laid out in logical fashion, and do not require extensive memorization to get past. Instead the game maintains a diligent focus on the next nightmarish “WUT?!?!” moment. You will be compelled to play this to its conclusion. The story, without a doubt, is the highest quality element in DISTRAINT.
It’s cliché, but don’t judge a game by its cover. Small file size, simple graphics, lack of game control complexity are not what makes DISTRAINT a great indie game. It’s surreal story and constant foreboding of the darkness closing around Price that makes this game such a thrilling entry into the STEAM marketplace today. Many developers will advertise their game as surreal, psychedelic, and nightmarish; few exhibit the atmospheric prowess and deliberate pacing to deliver on those statements. DISTRAINT falls in with the few, Jesse Makkonen has proved himself as an accomplished creator of chilling and thrilling game pieces.