Who is in control?
A mushroom smiles an over-wide grin. Then? Green and black. Nothing. Everything. Compulsory creative time dovetails into another freak out. It’s riveting and confrontational and thought-provoking, even before I can’t type my own words anymore, and the game stops in protest.
I hope you’re paying attention because [I] Doesn’t Exist — A Modern Text Adventure deserves attention. I’m only an hour and a half in and I’m already having trouble processing everything that’s happened. All I know for sure is I need to dig down to the bottom of the code and help lighten the mental burdens of the character that takes my commands.
I’m a sucker for a sneakily silly loading screen, and that’s the first thing to greet me — long before things begin to tumble over the edge. It’s so mundane, most people don’t even bother to read the accompanying messages. So, it might be easy to miss the game’s increasingly ridiculous hurdles, like downloading a whole brain. But this is a clue for how the rest of the game will go: Drawing my attention to often overlooked spaces.
The narrator enters to guide me — with such a sickly-sweet attitude it feels like condescension — through the tutorial. As an ode to text adventures, I type commands like “walk left” or “grab the key” — which provokes a particularly passionate burst of accolades from my instructor — in order to interact with the game.
The pixels are minimal and chunky, just like I like ’em. And my headset buzzes with the humming of old-school computing. Wrapped in a warm, nostalgic blanket, I fail to notice right away that I’m not actually giving the commands. Sure, I’m typing them. But everything I write is basically copied word-for-word from the narrators suggestions. I don’t go anywhere or experience anything it doesn’t want me to. It’s subtle, but the observation pricks at me.
Leaving the tutorial, the narrator describes a scene that’s fantasy roleplaying AF. Trading in the sounds of a typewriter and whirring machine parts for trickling water and rhythmic drums, I learn I’m in a small cave. The stone floor is cold to the touch and a safe lies embedded into the solid wall.
Everything is dark until I give the command to look around. The world springs to view complete with grey cove walls, forests crowned in autumn colors, and a shadowy, humanoid figure — all of which are brought to life by slightly more sophisticated, but still lovely, pixel art.
The sound I took for drums now radiates from a beating heart carved out of the cave’s facade. But while I can direct the main character to look at the safe, walk toward the trees, or read a note left lying around, the game doesn’t even acknowledge the heart’s existence. The gulf between what I know is there and what the game refuses to see is intriguing.
The next section runs me through a series of clever, point-and-click-like puzzles. One object helps to unlock another object which I can pour onto another thing to help me eventually wind up with the key to a locked door. Ignoring the strangeness of finding a working shower in the middle of the woods, asking a friendly mushroom for hints, or accepting that a compass just grew out of a tree, this early section could be a laudable portion of any similar game.
At this point, you have to remember my intro because it is not a game like most others. The main character, the one whose every move I’d been dictating up until this point breaks down, and with it goes all the pretty pixels shielding me from all the chaotic code running just under the surface.
I earnestly try to talk the main character off the metaphorical ledge but the narrator is appalled. The two elements of the game appear to struggle for control while I’m left perfectly uncomfortable. My role as player means I, supposedly, have all the power to influence the world by typing. So, I have to decide how to use that privilage until I confront the idea that that might all be an illusion as I hurtle through increasingly wild scenes.
Again, I’m still early on in [I] Doesn’t Exist — A Modern Text Adventure, and I have no idea where it goes from here or if it sticks the landing on this fascinating journey. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in my favorite games of the year when the dust settles.