SELF – An Ambitious and Surreal Text Adventure

SELF Key Image

“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” – Franz Kafka

Developer: doBell
Released: 16th January 2020
Price: £5.69 (Switch) £3.99 (PC)

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Switch
Available on: Steam, itch.io, Nintendo
Engine: Unity

Overview

SELF is a Kafkaesque text-based adventure that unfolds on an interactive CRT screen. The game claims to draw inspiration from titles such as Undertale and Just Shapes & Beats, striving to combine text-based narrative and choices with a variety of gameplay mechanics.

SELF Screenshot - Arcade
The Arcade – one of the game’s various settings

Narrative and Styling

The game has retro style pixel graphics and is largely text-based and has minimal artwork. It presents a simple black and white aesthetic with elements of green, red and cyan that have mechanical as well as visual significance. The game’s music is also minimal but the sound effects throughout the various scenarios, such as arcade noises, siren, and background chatter, add to the experience and significantly increase the immersion levels of the text sections.

The narrative is delivered in non-linear sections depending on the choices that the player makes and in which order. However, the story is obscure, surreal and sometimes outright trippy and no single ending will provide a satisfying or logical conclusion. SELF does not have multiple endings in a conventional way, there are different final scenarios that unlock AV files which can be pieced together to form a more complete ending that is still vague and very much open to interpretation.

SELF Screenshot - Ending 3 I Love You
Choices cause the player’s path to branch across a cracked mirror

SELF is well written and creates intrigue early on in the experience and providing a relatively gripping narrative overall. However, text and dialogue often had very little or no variation following non-critical choices and so felt like pseudo-options; additionally, dialogue between multiple characters sometimes got confusing due to a lack of indication as to the speaker.

Gameplay

SELF does indeed contain a variety of gameplay mechanics, including simple puzzles and simulations. The game also cleverly utilises bullet hell mechanics and turns this into the way in which players make crucial choices. Most of these involve avoiding or facing a particular something, avoid is represented by red objects and face by green. The player must collect or avoid items of the relevant colour for a length of time according to the action they wish to take. However, these sections do not have the level of difficulty one might expect from the game’s description and it remains a largely narrative-based game.

SELF Screenshot - So-Called Bullet Hell
The rigid patterns and rhythm of the ‘bullet-hell’ sections mean they lack difficulty

Summary

SELF is a decent interactive fiction that will provide around two hours of gameplay. It has an interesting albeit confusing storyline that successfully captures the player’s attention. However, it oversells itself with exaggerated claims of puzzles and bullet hell sections, which although fun, are not overly challenging and often feel like a side note that would be better marketed as a unique take on decision making in games. I would recommend the game as a narrative experience, particularly to fans of text-based adventures, but would ward off anyone looking for more action-packed or high octane gameplay.

If you enjoy text-based games you might want to take a look at Kyle is Famous, or for an alternative bullet-hell experience check out our Lumiette review!

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