Experimental gaming is becoming more and more popular these days, especially when it comes to playing with our perception of the world. The likes of Gone Home and Dear Esther offered linear narratives which have more recently given way to more grotesque offerings, particularly in the point-and-click genre. While Fran Bow presented a horrific fairytale, Masochisia takes you down a more personal, and far more disturbing path, channelling elements of Sanitarium as you seek to explore the mind of a madman.
You take control of Hamilton, a disturbed individual who lives in a suitably creepy house with his abusive parents and a brother who has been confined to his room in a straitjacket and mask and has a penchant for eating his own face. Hamilton suffers from psychotic breaks, which require him to take pills when he’s been faced with a particularly stressful situation. Later on in the game, tablets aren't enough and Hamilton may need to inflict pain on himself with needles in order to ease his mental state. Whilst the end goal is not immediately clear from the outset, the story is split into chapters depicting specific events within Hamilton’s life as he struggles with his demons and wonders if he is in fact destined to become the monster his subconscious is goading him to be.
The gameplay itself is similar to that of Year Walk, in that locations are navigated horizontally and available hotspots are highlighted for either collecting items or moving on to further areas. The number of locations is fairly limited which means you’ll spend a good amount of time backtracking over previously trodden ground, and while the backdrops are functional, they’re also bland and repetitive - so much so that when you do need to pay attention to the background for the sake of a puzzle, you may struggle to work out what you’re missing.
Indeed, puzzles are thin on the ground in Masochisia. This isn't necessarily an issue if the narrative is engaging enough. Gone Home managed to portray an effectively creepy environment with very little head-scratching, but the puzzles here feel a little half-hearted, as if they were required to give the player some sort of agency other than hopping between one disturbing character after another. A throwaway line from one person holds the key to navigating a forest, but if you weren't paying attention you may well end up frustrated as you try to work out how to get through the similar tree-filled screens, since you cannot go back to that person and get them to repeat the line. There is no hint system, and the rest of the interactions can’t really be called puzzles as such, since they usually consist of going to a location, finding an object sat in plain view, then bringing it back to a character to progress.
What is lacking in gameplay is redeemed somewhat by the atmosphere and writing. Hamilton is a genuinely disturbed individual, and the dialogue choices you make become progressively more sinister as his mental deterioration unfolds. The vast majority of choices themselves are superficial and have very little bearing on the overall arc but, typos aside, they work to weave an increasingly chilling tale of child abuse, murder, cannibalism and sickening sadomasochism. This is absolutely not a game for children, nor is it one for gamers expecting a Telltale-style adventure.
Nice touches permeate throughout, adding to the sense of psychosis. Letters appear on your desktop from Hamilton as you progress, code is scattered within the game for you to decrypt if you choose, and the epilogue offers a nice technical twist on the standard denouement. The music is resolutely creepy and although the selection is limited in the locations it is deployed, it never becomes irritating. The character models need mentioning too, since they are by equal measure horrific and hilarious. Hamilton’s family in particular stand out as people you wouldn't want to spend any length of time with, whilst conversely the demons he projects feel cartoonish and out of place.
If Masochisia could be considered a psychological horror, then the horror comes mainly from the events you’re forced to partake in. Saying any more would spoil the awful surprises in the game’s short running time, but suffice to say the sound effects work well enough for you not to require any explicit imagery - your head will do the rest. There are a few jump scares throughout involving things rushing at the screen which work well enough the first time, but lose their power almost immediately on subsequent occurrences. It’s a common mechanic deployed in other media, especially identikit film franchises like Paranormal Activity, and while initially effective they prove to be cheap. A little more innovation in this area to build up the tension and more reliance on the power of words would have made a huge difference - especially given how much you’ll be reading on your playthrough. It’s a shame that not more was done with the game overall as it’s less something you play and more something you experience, which makes the occasional puzzle elements even more jarring. The needles and pills you use are mere gimmicks which serve only to embellish the atmosphere rather than offer any tangible agency. There is little here to warrant a second visit.
The most incredible part of this story is that the majority of it is based on the true events surrounding a late nineteenth century serial killer. It’s more like a point-and-click visual novel than a true adventure, and whilst mining the past for interesting (or disturbing) nuggets is something that the literary and film worlds have been doing for years, with the odd exception gaming has mainly focused on the fictional. There is potential here for plenty of similarly themed games exploring the murky depths of humanity’s history, but whether there is a market for them is another matter entirely.
For those with a strong countenance or perverse curiosity seeking a mature story to fill an evening, Masochisia may scratch that itch. It would be advisable not to look into the history of Hamilton’s life too much until you complete the two hours of gameplay based on it, but when you realise that many of the events portrayed in Masochisia actually happened, the more uncomfortable you’ll become. Art imitating life may prove a little too much for some to stomach.