Anamorphine's stated intent is a worthy one - to explore difficult aspects of life such as depression, substance abuse and self harm. A splash screen welcomes players with a warning and guidance toward help if subject matter leaves one troubled. Topics such as these are tricky to touch upon, with personal experience colouring the thoughts of many when they consider such things. The potential to offend or dismiss is high and tonal missteps can sour otherwise touching moments. So how does this game approach the task and how do the developers, Artifact 5, approach such tough subjects so that a player's agency has value and the emotional thrust of the story is felt, even in spite of personal opinion?
Unfortunately, as becomes clear after a few moments with Anamorphine, there's no game to play, per se. It's a first person narrative experience, aka a walking simulator. You take control of a viewpoint and travel from location to location, witnessing scenes play out before moving on to the next place for another round of narrative. This style of game hinges entirely on it's execution, with no agency available to you beyond "walk forward and progress" or "don't progress". Either the story has to be gripping or the visuals have to present spectacle strong enough to drive interest over hours of play. Ideally, a great walking simulator has both. Unfortunately, Anamorphine struggles to hit either mark.
After control is given over and the walk begins, you'll be in the shoes of a man moving into a home with his partner. Music punctuates the scene as you pass through it, but there's no conversation to further inform things. You walk through their apartment over and over, passing through thresholds and finding yourself back where you started, the room changing a little each time. Each pass through the room denotes a period of time passing. Boxes marked "Elena" and "Tyler" are unpacked, rooms are organized, music is played on a cello by Elena, transporting Tyler to an alien world and seemingly allowing him to escape reality for a time with her.
As the story progresses you'll move beyond the room, riding a bike with Elena before being met with tragedy and an accident. Trips to the hospital follow, alongside a hinted decline in Elena's mental state as she struggles to play her music and falls into prescription pill abuse. Tyler in turn begins to drink and when he does, he rides his bike into seemingly endless wilderness as towering versions of his lover loom large on the horizon. The story continues to a tragic conclusion as the couple fail each other and ultimately arrive at the end of their time together with a crashing halt. In text these moments might well pique interest, being the kind of marriage between visuals and thematic intent that truly elevate a story when done well. In execution though, pacing and technical issues undermine any potential emotional impact that Anamorphine might have been able to muster.
Visually, Anamorphine is dated and rough around the edges. Relying on it's looks as much as it does, it's a shame that the models, lighting and effects are so underwhelming. Every human aside from Elena is a featureless, static, grey mannequin, bloom effects in the couple's room are bright to the point of washing out the scene, objects pop into frame, the huge swaths of desert you're forced to cycle around use the same handful of models and textures and even seams where textures don't connect are visible on the horizon at times. At every turn there's something to distract from the story at hand. Given Anamorphine is a VR title, I can't help but think that those looking even closer and will find more to pick fault with, though I'll count blessings that I didn't have to immerse myself quite that much. Throw on technical issues with movement slowing to a crawl when traversing unusual angles on paths, frame rate stuttering when transitioning between levels, flickering textures and the game's look inversion settings changing every time you ride Tyler's bike and it's far from a fun time.
On the narrative front, moving through the same few places over and over paired with a lack of character animation and dialogue make for a gradually increasing sense of tedium. It seems, given the placement of some moments, that this is an intended thematic choice. Scenes in the hospital after Elena's accident force you to pace in circles, moving around a pillar as Portal style warping takes you back to where you began over and over again. Eventually you'll have paced enough, glanced through a nearby doorway at Elena's frozen character model enough times to note her shift from endlessly falling to finally meeting the ground and will be allowed to move on.
I assume the intent was to show off the emotional state of Tyler, of only being able to pace the halls as he watches his partner fall apart, but in execution it was walking around in a circle for a minute before a character model shifts location and you're allowed to move on. My mind wandered to another, better, walking simulator as I played this bit..."Stanley was sad that his girlfriend had fallen over and that he couldn't do anything about it, but wasn't quite sure why she hadn't hit the floor yet so he decided to walk around in a circle until something happened".
When all is said and done, Tyler and Elena as characters are almost non-existent. Through the implicit story telling we learn that Elena makes music and Tyler rides his bike and likes to drink, but beyond that there are no defining traits for the player to empathize with or otherwise take interest in. There's no context for their lives to inform a viewer on whether they're likable, what brought them together, their social status, their location - there's nothing but the notion that they live together and care for each other. Watching Elena's frozen expression as you pass by doesn't inform any sense of humanity and by the time I was watching her fall apart in freeze frame later in the story I honestly didn't care at all for how shallow she seemed to be. With the scenes offered up and a lack of context to inform exactly what is happening, it's easy to see a story about a pair of people whose lack of communication meant they failed each other in moments of need and their lack of ability to change and adapt meant they gave up on life in turn. Any intent to specifically highlight the capacity for drugs to change a person and leave them closed off was lost behind that kind of personal reading, much as I could see hints that it was the intended take away. The plot is ultimately too broad to make it's point and at the same time the behaviour of the characters is too specific to provoke anything but questions that aren't addressed.
A lack of agency to change anything or at least better understand Elena's struggle and Tyler's choice to drink in response left me with a distinct feeling like an hour and a half of my time had been sucked away so that I could be told a very loose and unnecessarily elongated story with "drugs are bad m'kay" as the moral. More time spent informing each character's background, bringing their humanity to the fore and giving context to their lives would have been very welcome indeed, but in the end Anamorphine feels hollow and I'm doubtful that it could helpfully inform those seeking to understand depression, substance abuse or self harm nor could it give insight to those coping with it.