A Series of Unfortunate Events
In Viewing the Timeline of Humanity, one can be forgiven as viewing it as a sequence of Traumas. Those affected by them die out, fading from memory only to re-emerge in a new form, again and again. When Stepping back and looking at this unfortunate series of events that composes the human experience, what conclusions can be reached? The late anthropologist David Graeber gave us one lens for this; a large amount of these traumas have stemmed from the use of Power against others, and the resulting reactions to those projections, namely, intolerance, misunderstanding, and scarcity.
Though they manifest in unique ways over a myriad of cultures and time periods, a commonality remains over the years of societal and moral development, taking the form of structures and systems designed to support whatever those in the past intended, binding us to their will. As time marches on and progress has been made what happened to these structures? The House in Fata Morgana suggests this takes the form of accepted norms and circumstances and obligations that are accepted unexamined, resulting in acceptance of the horrible realities that they bring. Generating trauma and tragedy, and forcing them to perpetuate damaging structures that ultimately forge who they are, and passing on the evil that they do to future generations.
The House In Fata Morgana asks a lot in the beginning, and in the end it rewards those who stick with it with one of the more thoughtful and nuanced meditations on Power and Trauma I have yet to see. In finishing this tragic tale of circumstance, one may begin to examine some of the contrivances that ensnare their own actions, and in doing so, make this not only a game of Big Ideas, but Important Ones, as well.
How I arrived at this Mansion
Before we delve any further, It;s well worth stopping to reflect on how it is that I ended up in the mansion to begin with. Anyone familiar with my gaming tastes over the years will no doubt do a double-take that this is the first Switch game I have chosen to examine. I am not known for my love of storytelling in games, as I typically see the unique strength of games as being a format that allows YOU to tell your own story, the game merely being a canvas to do so. Naturally this would make Fata Morgana and other Visual Novels near the end of any consideration for playtime in an already impossibly clogged backlog.
A few stars aligned that made it possible. For a long time I have heard people discuss this game as being a must-play experience, but with no physical edition available the game was not in existence as far as I was concerned. Then one day, Limited Run Games announced a physical edition of the game, and as a lover of both horror and physical media in conjunction with the game’s artwork, suffice to say…. I couldn’t pass it up. I purchased the game for around 35 dollars and forgot about it until it arrived in my mailbox, the game box placed on the shelf, the cartridge placed in my binder, and the idea of the game fading into my memory.
Then came a series of articles from NintendoLife by Kate Gray that highlighted that this game had an almost perfect Metascore. While I typically pay little attention to such things, I admit I bristled at this news. THIS was comparable to the likes of Breath of the Wild?!? Really?!? My curiosity was piqued, yet still I did not bite. The final piece fell into place in the midst of a hellacious and stressful work life that left me drained for anything other than a Netflix Binge post-workday. The House in Fata Morgana drifted into the periphery of my consciousness, calling to me, promising a more laid back experience.
I took the plunge, and Entered the Mansion
Memories of the past
At it’s heart, The House in Fata Morgana can best be summed up as a horror mystery. You awaken in a rocking chair in front of a warm fireplace, with a maid standing nearby beckoning you to rediscover who you are. This sets up a journey through a series of doors, each taking you to a different era and giving you a glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of the mansion during these various epochs. The first few hours of Fata Morgana can charitably be described as slow. Very slow. You are treated to a series of unlikeable and despicable people without being given the context to care about any of them. I would be lying if I said it was a difficult experience to get invested in up front.
I mention this because it is a common parlance of media such as television that a three episode grace period be given; That if a story has not hooked you in the first three episodes there is no reason to stick with it. People approaching Fata Morgana with this ethos will be doing themselves no favors. This is a game that demands your full attention through to the end. If you stop in the first three acts, you will think this is one of the weakest “stories” you have ever been tortured with. So don’t to that. Commit UP FRONT to suffering through three stories of unlikeable people with no real context for their actions and no real hook as to how they are connected with your identity or the house itself. Trust that this is a deliberate choice by the author and that things will get clearer as you delve deeper into the mansion’s mysteries. Take the Maids advice, never let go of her hand, because like the in-game protagonist, if you do, you will be forever lost in the dark with no resolution in sight.
As these stories play out you will begin to notice some anchors to each experience. The Maid is always present, the mansion is always the setting, and there is always a White-Haired Girl central to every narrative. Each of these anchors is pivotal to unraveling the games plot, and once you are through the first three stories the pieces will begin to fall into place. Context will be introduced, details will be highlighted, motivations will be revealed, and information withheld will come to light. It is in these “AHA!” moments that the game begins to truly tell it’s story and elaborate on it’s darker themes. And while there are plenty of grisly scenes and surface horror that will certainly entertain your typical scary movie fan, it is the themes beneath the game’s murky surface that provide the most unsettling observations on how we have chosen to construct our relationships and societies.
On the Nature of Chains
When I said that Fata Morgana is a game of Big Ideas, I meant it. It it’s in this second act that we get to examine the the Enslaving nature of Obligation and Power, and the tragedy that arises from being chained to these contrivances. In one instance a village that has been living under the radar of the local lord. You get to see the villages work together in peace and harmony with little infighting prior to the lord discovering the existence of the community and demanding tribute, including back taxes. Very quickly the forced scarcity emanating from this projection of power shatters this close-knit community, turning neighbors on one another and causing outsiders to be demonized.
In another instance, a lord describes the exhaustion that sets in with the day-to-day running of a kingdom, lamenting his constant need to focus on keeping his power, unable to do the things he envisioned himself doing once achieving this end, and ultimately illustrating that Power is also damaging to the one wields it, and that they are as much a slave to it as the people he victimizes. The game goes to great lengths to show that no one seems to be happy with the way these obligations play out, whether it be to a kingdom, a family member, or an ideal. They only serve to trap these characters in their own personal hell.
It’s not all so dark. There are also moments of genuine happiness, that however fleeting, are the moments that these people remember foremost in spite all their suffering. These moments, often presented as a result of going against the norms taken for granted as “the way things are”, help to buoy them even in their darkest hours. We are also shown what happens when these moments are not enough, when the trauma overrides the good memories so severely that it reverberates through generations, impacting the future. I am limited in what I can say regarding these, as the less you know going in the better it is. But the hope and horror go hand in hand and are executed intelligently and with purpose.
Art with Purpose
A hand-drawn Gothic art style accentuates the themes well. Note that this is not a game that shies away from all sorts of imagery, both in the graphical style as well as the words that are painted onto the imagination of your mental canvas. Even more impressive is the soundtrack, ranging from haunting melodies to jazzy upbeat numbers to a few tracks that would be at home in a Silent Hill Game. Vocals in the songs are impressive and are in languages appropriate to the time and places, I recall Latin, French , and Italian off the top of my head. The same attention to details that are present in the story are also present in the soundtrack, with some of my favorites like Close My World, Dammi Una Sigaretta, and Hex going into regular rotation on my work Jams.
Technically the game doesn’t seem to have any hiccups, which is to be expected as this is a visual novel, and that would honestly be unacceptable. Menus work as intended, no stutter was detected during gameplay, and it has the standard logs, autoplay, fast forward, and save options. I also never really had any trouble navigating the rare choices that pop up in the narrative. It’s an overall smooth experience, as the game does it’s job well enough that I was never taken out of the yarn it was spinning. Nothing else to really to say here.
Feature-wise you are getting a pretty epic package here. You get Fata Morgana, the fully voiced sequel Reincarnations, and various side stories. There is also an option to unlock all content right away, though why anyone would do such a thing is beyond me as you would be utterly LOST, but you do you. for 35 dollars it’s a steal, though the current physical price as of this writing is hovering around $70 dollars. At that price you better be a fan of this style of gameplay, an avid horror fan, or both in order to justify that.
Suffering and Salvation
The House in Fata Morgana is a demanding experience. It will demand your attention, your emotional energy, and an honest examination of who we are and why we do things the way we do them. It is an examination of the way that events impact future generations, and how those generations response impacts further futures. It doesn’t give a solution, in fact my takeaway is that there may not be one. It does a splendid job of showcasing human nature in all it’s glory and hardship, and in asking you if those precious moments snapshotted in time are worth all the suffering it takes to get to them. Each person will have to answer that themselves, but when I stepped out of that mansion, I can certainly say that my perspective has been altered if not changed entirely, I am still uncertain if this genre as a whole is for me, but I will certainly be more open minded in the future in regards to how a game can tell a narrative.
Art is the practice of using the world around us to illicit an emotional response, and in my case, The House in Fata Morgana was a resounding success. It takes me back to a time when I was so certain of my lens on reality, so sure that I knew that way the world worked. l met people who told me that I have it wrong, or at least that I lacked the whole picture. I heard them, but I didn’t listen. People rarely do. Trapped in autopilot, we rely on what has worked before. But worked for who? And did it ever really work at all? I honestly don’t know. As look back at my time with this game, I remember the many spirited discussions I had with someone brave enough to tell me I was lacking context. I heard but I never really considered. And I think he was right. If that doesn’t sell you on this being an experience worth having, then it’s truly not for you.