Indie game developer Angela He’s missed messages sets you up to fail, and that’s a good thing.
Developed for the Ludum Dare game jam, this gorgeous, atmospheric visual novel plays on user expectations to answer the theme “your life is currency.” From the game title to the initial setting, you’re led to believe that this will be another meditation on the surreality of digital relationships. Dropped in front of a laptop in the middle of your character’s college dorm room, the most crucial choice seems to be school work vs AirDrop flirtations with “goth gf’s iPhone.”
From a quick scan of reviews and comments online, everybody falls for it. On the first playthrough, nobody ever catches on, and the game doesn’t end the way it conditions us to expect.
The real question here, it turns out, is what we choose to pay attention to. Too late, most of us realise that the main character’s roommate, May, is suicidal — and the real challenge was spotting the subtle hints that might have helped her stay alive.
Like D.M. Moore writes in The Verge’s review, though, I don’t think the game means to penalise you for missing things the first time around. I’d even go so far as to say the game wants you to fail first, and that it wouldn’t have as big an impact if you didn’t.
See, the beauty of missed messages is that it gives you a safe space to experience this failure and learn from it. Various reviewers have discussed how He’s game feels less like a game than a journey, and that strikes me as a great way to highlight one of the reasons I love indie games like this. Indie games don’t face the same pressures to impress or earn as, say, mammoth franchises or flagship titles. This means games like missed messages have more room to focus on quiet moments, explore complicated themes, and take offbeat approaches.
In this case, I think highlighting the difficulty — and the importance — of “paying attention to the ‘bigger picture'” is just one part of it. Most reviews of the game have already pointed out how difficult it can be to spot subtle cries for help. What stood out to me more, though, was how hard it was to do enough — to even know if you’d done enough — even after you’d seen the signs.
What I mean by this is, I knew May wasn’t in a safe headspace on my first playthrough. She thanked me for being her friend, for crying out loud. I asked her if she was okay; I offered to talk to her about it; she admitted things were kind of rough but said she would be fine. All throughout, I knew something was wrong and thought I was picking the best of the dialogue options offered.
But in the end, I still went off to meet AirDrop person. Perhaps worse than most players, I went off thinking I’d done enough — or at least that I’d spotted the crisis, and had done enough to give me time to come back and help more later, if needed. Only, like most players, I didn’t get a “later.” My first run of the game still ended with a couple of missed messages and a note taped to May’s door telling me to call the police.
Considering the gravity of its chosen subject, missed messages deserves a special shout-out for never being preachy or melodramatic. The script feels natural, even intimate — which is great, since this game runs mostly on dialogue and internal narration. I’ve been May and the main character both, at various points in my life, and it’s a testament to the writing that most lines felt so specific and familiar.
The game blurb asks players, “How will you spend your time?” For the experience of playing through a well-crafted story, as well as the artful exploration of how we choose to care for others, missed messages strikes me as a good answer.