“There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Developer: Cael O’Sullivan
Released: 30th October 2020
Platforms: Windows, Mac
Available on: Steam
SHUT IN is a short, dark comedy and psychological horror game made by solo developer Cael O’Sullivan and published by Hidden Track, creators of How to Win. It attempts to explore themes of depression, agoraphobia and isolation by trapping the player within a twisted version of their own house whilst being unhelpfully berated by a sarcastic, disembodied narrator.
The game opens in a relatively normal-looking bedroom and begins with the player getting out of bed, either before or after snoozing for an undefined period of time. There are several objects to potentially interact with but the first key task is getting changed; this along with most other actions will be accompanied by narration in the form of belittling insults.
Upon leaving the room, however, things start to get strange and more than a little dangerous; everything is unfamiliar, a dilapidated, rotten maze with threats in the most unlikely of places! While some dangers are obvious or can be deduced with a little common sense, often even seemingly innocuous interactions can instigate one of a vast array of Final Destination style deaths!
As it is such a key part of the experience, SHUT IN doesn’t punish the player too much for dying, usually just returning to the beginning of the area where the death occurred, with any items already collected still in the inventory. Amongst all the dying, the end goal is for the player to get outside for some fresh air, with other tasks, such as washing or brushing their teeth, along the way; all these things are appropriately challenging given the themes of the game.
As the game has no controller or mouse support it can only be played with a keyboard and the input keys cannot be changed which may pose accessibility issues for some. The controls themselves are minimal and explained at the start of the game, while not always intuitive (0 on num pad for Inventory), they are straight forward and easy to familiarise oneself with.
Narrative and Themes
SHUT IN addresses the difficult subjects of depression and isolation during a time when, as part of the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are more pertinent than ever. However, the game is tactful and self-aware, having been made in consultation with Anoushka Bonwick, who has developed and delivered training programs on mental health support and worked with companies including MIND and Student Minds.
The game’s developer, Cael O’Sullivan, who has their own experience of depression and agoraphobia, talked about their intentions with the game and the process of creating it, saying:
“A lot of the advice around depression can be infuriatingly cheery. It’s all ‘Get some exercise! Eat healthy! Be positive!’ which can just be really frustrating if you’re struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Or the afternoon. The great thing about horror is you can properly indulge and explore those negative emotions. I don’t want to make a game about what you should be doing instead of being depressed. I want to try and capture how it actually feels when you’re in it, and show how hard simple things can become. But also make it a fun and funny experience. …yeah, it’s a tough balance to perfect.“
SHUT IN does an excellent job of illustrating, in a tangible way, some of the everyday struggles often faced by those with mental health problems. For example, when given the choice to make the bed, regardless of what the player chooses, or how many times they might try to make the bed, they cannot, creating a stark but accurate representation of how depression can diminish or even seem to steal a person’s autonomy. Similarly, deciding to have ‘just one try’ at beating their high score on Battle Kitten IV: Super Force will result in 9 hours being lost to the game, without success!
There are a number of disturbing aspects to the gameplay itself, such as inexplicable horrors, things lurking in the dark and a labyrinth of rooms that shouldn’t exist, all of which are used to emphasise the struggle of the seemingly simple task of leaving the house. Likewise, the disdainful and nagging nature of the narration, whilst undeniably humorous in execution, is a clear manifestation of a constant, negative internal voice. All these elements combine to make an entertaining, yet sensitive and relatable depiction of the aforementioned mental health problems that doesn’t come across as insular or pandering.
SHUT IN, created with RPGMaker, features a range of assets and environments, depicted with simple but effective pixel art. The colour palettes and lighting are suitably dark and moody, emphasising and complimenting the horror aspects of the gameplay. Despite the low res style of the graphics all the items are clear and recognisable and the the text is very comfortable to read.
Music and sound effects, whilst somewhat minimal, are implemented well, adding to the overall atmosphere of the game and adding a little oomph to the scarier moments. There is no voice acting in the game but writing, in particular the unrelating insults from the deadpan narrator, speaks for itself. This brings an often surprising, but entirely apt, element of comedy throughout adding a lightness to what could otherwise be a pretty bleak (depressing?) game.
SHUT IN is a short game, easily played in around an hour but does have some replayability in the form of missable objects and different deaths to discover. It is a fun and humorous experience that tackles challenging subjects in a thought-provoking and poignant way that avoids the patronising tones of the in-game narrator! The difficult themes, constant heckling and the sinister and surreal atmosphere work together making this a well rounded and original psychological horror that is the ideal game for a Halloween in lockdown!
For more reviews of games addressing mental health issues, take a look at:
Three Free from Angela He – How Kind is Kind Words (lo-fi chill beats to write to)? – Five Free Games that Attempt to Tackle Mental Health Issues